There Was No Escape from the Sketchiest, Most Cramped Soviet Spaceflight

The Soviet Voskhod spacecraft was a hollowed out Vostok with almost no safety provisions. And it worked.

|
Oct 13 2012, 8:19pm

One of the sketchier missions in spaceflight's history launched on Oct. 12, 1964. Voskhod 1 was the first multi-manned spaceflight, carrying three cosmonauts into orbit, but it wasn't a new vehicle to accommodate a larger crew. It was a hollowed out version of the single-seat Vostok spacecraft.

Voskhod 1 interior, by Mark Wade

Vostok, history's first orbital spacecraft and the one that took Yuri Gagarin aloft on April 12, 1961, was simplistic. It had two modules — a spherical descent module that doubled as the cosmonauts' primary living quarters in orbit and an equipment module that contained all the contained environmental control materials and batteries to run the systems throughout the mission — that separated before atmospheric reentry. It wasn't a large spacecraft. Even with only one cosmonaut outfitted in a pressure suit sitting in an ejection seat — as the capsule was designed for — there quite literally wasn't much wiggle room.

The ejection seat and pressure suit were safety measures. If the Korabl rocket exploded during launch — which rockets were wont to do in the earliest days of space exploration — the ejection seat would shoot the cosmonaut clear of the burning mess to safety. The pressure suit protected him from a loss of cabin pressure in orbit or during descent. Though the Vostok was designed to be airtight throughout the mission, there was always the off chance for a leak. Even a single valve failure could cause the capsule to lose pressure, killing the cosmonaut instantly.

But like NASA's Mercury capsule, Vostok was limited. It couldn't change its orbit and running on batteries put a limit on mission duration. The Soviets' original plan called for up to ten Vostok missions, the latter four pushing the duration of multi-day flights. But the program was cancelled after Vostok 6 flew in 1963, right around the time word of NASA's two-man Gemini spacecraft reached the Soviet Union.

The impending multi-manned flights a new battle ground in the space race, and the Soviets hoped to beat the Americans to the punch. With the Soyuz spacecraft still a long way from completion, an alternative was to modify the single-seat Vostok; in February of 1964, the Soviet chief designer Sergei Korolev received orders to modify a Vostok for a three-man crew. It would, on the surface, best the American two-man spacecraft.

And so the Voskhod program was born, by orders from the Kremlin, with the singular goal of launching a three-man crew.

The crew of Voskhod 1

The immediate problem with the spacecraft conversion was its size. The Vostok's internal volume was set, and it just couldn't hold three ejection seats and three men in full pressure suits. But it could hold three men in regular seats without pressure suits. It was a quandary to say the least. On the one hand eliminating the ejection seats and pressure suits would save space and a lot of weight, something rocket engineers always love.

On the other hand it took away vital safety measures. Without ejection seats, the cosmonauts couldn't get away from an explosion on the launch pad. All the Vostok missions had ended with cosmonauts ejecting and landing by personal parachutes. The Voskhod cosmonauts wouldn't have that option without ejection seats; they'd have to land inside the spacecraft. And flying without pressure suits took away a vital life-saving layer between the men and death in the void.

The argument between engineers and flight surgeons raged until finally the doctors conceded. The only way to fly three men aboard Voskhod was to send them in shirtsleeves without ejection seats. And hope nothing went wrong.

But there were more problems than just the suit/ejection seats versus no suits/ejection seats question. Vostok was designed to keep one man alive for ten days at which point the spacecraft's orbit would decay naturally – it was a failsafe way to recover the cosmonaut if his retrorockets failed. Modifying the capsule would mean drawing out the extended capability for power and life support to keep three men alive. The most designers could get out of the spacecraft was a 24 hours mission, and there would be no backup recovery method of letting the spacecraft naturally return to Earth.

With all these concessions, Voskhod 1 was a risky mission. But, amazingly, it worked. Commander Vladimir Komarov, physician Boris Yegorov, and scientist Konstatin Feoktisov launched on October 12, 1964. After 24 hours, Komarov asked for an extension to the mission since the crew hadn't seen anything interesting, but the request was denied. The crew returned to Earth by a series of parachutes and retrorockets designed to slow the spacecraft's touchdown on Earth on Oct. 13.

Once on the ground, Komarov opened the hatch. The three cosmonauts climbed out of the spacecraft into light snow. When he heard that the crew had landed and left the spacecraft on their own, Korolev was astounded that the mission worked and that none of the cosmonauts came home with so much as a scratch.