5. More Soviet "Firsts" in Space

Elements of Space History: (Right) the Vostok-6 Capsule, in which Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in Space; (Left) Vostok's successor, Voskhod-1. Though of similar basic design,  it carried a three-man crew - the first crew to fly in Space. 

Gherman Titov was the first man to film in Space when he flew on Vostok-2, and on display is the actual camera he used. We then come to one of the prize exhibits of Cosmonauts: the Vostok-6 capsule in which Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to fly in Space in June 1963. Tereshkova remains the only woman ever to fly solo in Space. The Soviet Union trumpeted Tereshkova’s flight as a sign of the equality of the sexes in their country; but it was to take another 18 years before the second Russian woman, Svetlana Savitskaya, was sent into Space. The USSR – and, indeed, post-Soviet Russia – remains a decidedly patriarchal society.

Vostok-5 capsule on display in the Space
Museum in Kaluga. Like Tereshkova's
Vostok-6, this carried a single Cosmonaut,
who had to parachute out to land. Note
how the outer skin on the bottom of the
spacecraft has burnt off on re-entry.
Vostok-6 is displayed behind glass, as part of its protective heat shield is made of asbestos, something which causes much more concern in the UK than it does in Russia. The capsule belongs to Energia, the makers of the Russian rockets, and is on display in their own private museum, which is not open to the general public. But it is also on open display in that museum. In order to bring the capsule to England, the Science Museum had to apply to HMRC for a special licence to import asbestos (available only for items of cultural interest which will be properly protected whist in situ and will be sent back after the agreed period of time); some of the Museum’s staff had to be trained how to deal with asbestos; and they had to wrap the capsule in three layers of industrial cling-film, while wearing full protective suits. Russian staff couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.

Picture of Tereshkova on one of the
Exhibition's souvenir tee-shirts.
Tereshkova opened the Exhibition
in September 2015
When they learnt that they would have to wrap the capsule in this way, the staff of the Museum decided that they had better practice first. Someone had the simple but effective idea of making a Google search for “big ball”; and this produced the information that Tesco sell a huge beach ball. The Museum duly bought one online. When it was delivered, staff inflated it and then practised wrapping it in cling film to perfect their technique for the real thing in Moscow.

The juxtaposition of two capsules means that a fascinating comparison can be made between Vostok-6, the last of the Vostok series, and Voskhod-1, the successor. The basic shape of the capsule as a large ball didn’t change. But Voskhod-1 has a cavity into which was fitted a parachute measuring 1,000sq.m, and retro-rockets on the opposite side. This meant that the returning capsule could be slowed down sufficiently for the Cosmonauts (now in the plural) to remain in the capsule to land. Korolev was keen to make the most of this, and suggested that three men could be put in the capsule. One of the engineers, Boris Yegorov, objected; until Korolev suggested that it would be a good idea if one of the crew were an engineer; Yegorov changed his mind and became the third crew member.

How Vostok and Voskhod capsules looked
when in Space. It was only "the ball" which
returned to Earth. (Cosmonautics
Museum, Kaluga).
Nevertheless, with three men in the capsule there was no spare room, and in order to save space Korolev said that the Cosmonauts could fly in lighter clothes, effectively track suits and bobble hats, and not wear spacesuits. This remains the only flight when people have gone into Space not wearing spacesuits – and with good reason. The hat worn by the Commander of the mission, Vladimir Komarov, is displayed next to the Voskhod-1 capsule, with the neutral explanation that “he presented this to Sergei Korolev after he landed”. The story of how he presented this to Korolev is rather more colourful. Komarov was furious that the crew had flown without spacesuits. He told Korolev in no uncertain terms that he was never to send people into Space again without the proper clothing and equipment, and threw the hat at him, telling him to keep it as a reminder of what he’d said.

There were only two Voskhod missions, but each of them has a special place in the history of Spaceflight. Voskhod-1 had the first crew and the first and only improperly dressed Cosmonauts; and it was from Voskhod-2, on 18 March 1965, that Alexei Leonov performed the first ever walk in Space. It was very nearly the last thing that Leonov ever did.

Symbolic depiction of a walk in Space outside the Exhibition. The reality was very different.
An animated Alexei Leonov speaking in the
Science Museum in December 2015.
The now 81-year old Leonov spoke in the Science Museum’s iMax cinema on 15 December 2015, the day that the British Astronaut, Tim Peake, set off on his mission to the International Space Station. Leonov’s presentation was the highlight of a number of events held that day in the Museum to celebrate Peake’s launch. Leonov told his audience that when training for the Spacewalk, the team had gone over 3,000 scenarios for what might go wrong. But they had not anticipated or prepared for the two things that did go wrong.

The Exhibition features the actual film of Leonov leaving the inflatable air-lock which took him from the Voskhod-2 capsule out into open Space. And the first thing to go wrong can be seen if you examine the film closely. When he first moves out, there is a crease in the sleeve of his spacesuit. But as he moves away from the air-lock, tethered to it by a cable, the crease disappears as the spacesuit inflates in a way it was not supposed to. This meant that Leonov could not move his hands, as his gloves were so swollen up that he could not bend his fingers. He can be seen on the film trying unsuccessfully to grab the cable.

Illustration showing how the air-lock came out of the
Voskhod-2 spacecraft, displayed in the Space Museum
in Kaluga
At this point, the second unexpected incident occurred. The inside of the visor on his helmet steamed up; so not only could he not move, he could not see anything. In the film he spins and turns as if he is enjoying the experience of being the first man to walk in Space. In reality, he was simply trying to regain some equilibrium and try to take hold of the cable to find his way back to the air-lock. As he explained in the Science Museum, the Russian spacesuits had a valve, and he was able to exert sufficient pressure on this gently to release enough air so that he could just move his fingers and be able to grab the cable. Had he released too much air, he would have suffocated. Had he released the air too quickly he would have de-pressurised and would have had the bends. Either way, he would have died.

Having found his way back to the air-lock, another shock was in store for Leonov: his spacesuit was still too inflated for him to fit through the hatch. He was meant to go feet first, so that he could close the hatch before returning into the capsule. He decided that with his air supply quickly running out he had no alternative but to turn around and go head first into the hatch, pulling himself with all his might through the confined area. Once inside, though, he realised that the diameter of the air-lock was 1.6m, whilst he in his spacesuit and helmet measured 1.8m. He says that to this day he does not know how he managed to turn himself around in order to close the hatch and finally drop back into the capsule to tell his fellow Cosmonaut, Pavel Belyayev, what had happened. The whole spacewalk had taken 12 minutes. It must have been the longest 12 minutes of Leonov’s life.

Leonov himself later painted this idealised picture of his spacewalk.
The drama was not over, though. When Leonov and Belyayev returned to Earth after a little over 24 hours in Space, a misfiring retro rocket meant that they missed the landing zone and ended up some 400km off course, in the middle of a snowy forest in Siberia. A helicopter tracked them, but was unable to land. The crew threw down their own clothing, including the pilot’s soft communication helmet, to ensure that the Cosmonauts could keep warm. Another helicopter then brought in and lowered a cauldron, so that the men could put snow inside it and melt it by burning wood underneath it and then bathe. A third helicopter brought men with axes and saws to chop down enough trees for a rescue helicopter to come in the next day and pick up Leonov and Belyayev. The short film ends with the two Cosmonauts being given a heroes’ welcome back in Moscow; but there can have been few riskier missions up until that point in the Soviet Space programme.

Opposite the film of the Voskhod-1 mission is written the tragic tale of what could happen when difficulties became too great to be overcome; and what can happen when politicians put political ambitions ahead of safety. Buoyed by the USSR’s successes in Spaceflight – the first satellite in Space; the first animal; the first man; the first woman; the first crew; the first spacewalk – the Politburo wanted to mark the fiftieth anniversary in 1967 of the Bolshevik Revolution with another first: the first link-up of two spacecraft in Space. It would be even better if this could coincide with the anniversary of Lenin’s birthday on 22 April, and the May Day Holiday. They chose to ignore the inconvenient fact that the new Soyuz spacecraft was not ready. Sadly, the father of the rocket programme, Sergei Korolev, was no longer around to stand up to them; he had died in January 1966 at the age of 59, following an operation for a tumour.

Statue in honour of all those who have died
in the quest for Space exploration.
Before the ill-fated flight of Soyuz-1, engineers had reported 203 design faults to their Party bosses, but these were brushed aside. Yury Gagarin tried to intervene. He was scheduled to be the back-up pilot to Vladimir Komarov, and he tried to have himself promoted to first place in the hope that if the Politburo knew he was due to fly their desire to protect this national treasure may have led to the postponement of the flight. Komarov, however, was also aware that there were serious risks involved and was determined not to allow Gagarin to be exposed to them.

In the end, at the Politburo’s insistence, Soyuz-1 was launched in the early hours of 23 April 1967 with just Komarov on board. In the original plan, he was to link up with Soyuz-2, and would have been joined for the return trip by one of the three Cosmonauts that mission was to be carrying. Problems began for Komarov almost immediately the craft entered orbit. A solar panel failed to unfold, leaving the spaceship short of power. As more and more defects showed up, it was decided to abandon the mission. Soyuz-2 had already been grounded by technical problems which prevented its launch. Incredibly, Komarov managed to cope with all of the difficulties he faced; until the final two.

Firstly, the descent parachute failed to open properly, which meant that when it should have been slowing down for landing the spacecraft continued hurtling to Earth at a speed of around 140km per hour. Perhaps because of this the retro-rockets failed to fire; presumably they had been programmed to fire at a certain time after the parachute opened. Not only did Soyuz-1 smash into the ground at this great speed, but after the impact which smashed the capsule and presumably immediately killed Komarov, the retro-rockets fired and burnt to a cinder much of what was left, including Komarov’s body. His charred remains are a ghastly sight.

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