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Soviet Crewed Flight The Early Years

By Marcia S. Smith, Formerly with the, Science Policy Research Division of the Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service


Soviet Manned Space Programs: 1957-80

From 1976 to 1980, the Soviets launched a total of 19 crews. All but one of these were intended to dock with a Salyut space station; three were unable to dock. Two space stations were launched, the second of which (Salyut 6) introduced the second generation of stations with two docking ports. A new variant of Soyuz optimized for cargo-carrying and refueling functions was introduced and called Progress. Eleven of these unmanned spacecraft were launched to resupply Salyut 6 through the end of 1980. In 1979, the Soviets introduced the Soyuz-T spacecraft, an upgraded manned version of the Soyuz, and announced that Soyuz would no longer be used after Soyuz 40 in 1981.

There were also several flights whose missions are not completely understood, but which may be related to development of new manned vehicles. Included in this category are three pairs of spacecraft (Kosmos 881-882, 997-998, and 1100-1101) and a single flight (Kosmos 929). In addition, there were several flights assumed or known to be related to the development of the Progress and Soyuz-T variants of the Soyuz spacecraft.

The following chapter includes information on all known or suspected man and man-related flights, with the exception of biosatellites which are treated in chapter 4. The discussion of flights prior to 1976 is excerpted from earlier editions of this study; for more detailed discussions, the 1971-75 edition should be consulted.



Throughout the 1950's, the Soviet Union launched a series of vertical probe (sounding) rockets from Kapustin Yar using a variety of specially adapted military rockets ranging from modified version of the German V-2 to medium range surface-to-surface missiles which are designated the SS-3 (Shyster) in the West. This vehicle was the immediate forerunner of the SS-4 (Sandal) booster used for launching small payloads from Kapustin Yar and Plesetsk.

While the United States made tests with monkeys and apes, the Soviets concentrated on dogs and occasionally sent smaller animals. By 1952, the Soviet Union claimed to have sent 12 animals up in 18 flights to an altitude of 96 km. The effort improved to the point that in the spring of 1957, a single rocket with a payload of 2,195 kg carried five dogs. That June, the Soviets announced that dogs would participate in the Soviet part of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) program.1 The use of sounding rockets continued even after satellites were introduced.

On August 27, 1958, the dogs Belyanka and Pestraya were flown to 452 km as part of a 1,690 kg payload. On July 2, 1959, as part of a 2,000 kg payload, Otvazhnaya and another dog were flown to 241 km. On July 10, 1959, Otvazhnaya and several other dogs were flown to 211 km; the payload weight was 2,200 kg. Otvazhnaya made yet another flight on June 15, 1960, this time accompanied by another dog and a rabbit. This rocket had a payload of 2,100 kg and was flown to 221 km. These and other repetitive flights provided opportunities for testing a variety of life support component systems and for linking the behavior of animals, even if briefly, to the hazards of rocket accelerations, radiation, micrometeorites, weightlessness, and recovery. They are summarized in table 3.


Date Launch Vehicle Payload (kg) Remarks

Altitude (km)


1946-52........................... 96, 18 flights carried 12 animals.

May 16,.1957..... SS-2................. 2,196 211 5 dogs on a single flight.

Aug. 27, 1958... .SS-3................. 1,690 452 Dogs Belyanka, Pestraya.

Sept. 19, 1958.... SS-3................. 1,515 473

Oct. 31, 1958......SS-3................. 1,515 473

July 2, 1959........ SS-2................. 2,000 241 Dogs Otvazhnaya, Snezhinka; rabbit


July 10, 1959.......SS-2................. 2,200 211 Dogs Otvazhnaya, and (unnamed).

June 15, 1960...... SS-2................. 2,100 221 Dogs Otvazhnaya, and (unnamed),

and rabbit.

June 24, 1960........SS-2................. 2,100 212

Sept. 16, 1960...... SS-2................. 2,100 210

Sept. 22, 1960.......SS-2................. 2,100 210

1. The list of flights is incomplete, but includes those announced by Tass or reported in available scientific reviews, including those flights in a longer list which were specifically labeled as related to biology. Most of the other flights not included in the table earned geophysical experiments.

Sources: Tass bulletins. See also Wukelic, George. Handbook of Soviet Space Science Research. New York, Gordon and Breach, 1968.


The Soviets launched the first satellite, Sputnik 1, on October 4, 1957. Only 1 month later, they launched Sputnik 2, which carried the first animal into space. This was followed by five flights in the Korabi Sputnik series, which were precursors to the manned Vostok flight. These carried television cameras to permit real-time observations of the reaction of dogs to spaceflight. These flights are summarized in table 4.


The first spacecraft to carry an animal—the dog Layka—into space was Sputnik 2, launched on November 3, 1957. The payload itself weighed 508.3 kg, but it remained attached to a much larger spent rocket casing so that the total weight was probably on the

order of 6.5 metric tons.

Layka was kept in a cylindrical cabin, hermetically sealed with a regenerating system for air, a thermal regulation system, and food. She had trained over a period of time in preparation for the flight, including exposure to vibration, and spending periods up to several weeks in a sealed cabin of small dimensions. Layka was placed in a "spacesuit" which permitted scientists to connect her to sensors which sent back data for 1 week on her pulse, respiration, blood pressure, and electrocardiograms to show her reaction to weightlessness, launch conditions, radiation, and temperature changes.

Layka withstood the launch and flight environment successfully, and a considerable amount of useful data was returned. The ship was powered only by chemical batteries and was not designed for recovery, however, so after 1 week, she was killed by an injection of poison.


By adapting the A-l vehicle, used earlier for direct ascent flights to the Moon, the Soviets were able to create an Earth orbital system capable of carrying up to 4,700 kg to low Earth orbit. This was first used successfully on May 15, 1960 with the launch of Korabi Sputnik 1 which was described as weighing 4,540 kg. This included 1,477 kg of instruments and equipment plus a self-sustaining biological cabin weighing 2,500 kg. The cabin contained a dummy of a man, designed to check the operation of the life support system and stresses of flight. The ship sent back both extensive telemetry and prerecorded voice communications. The Soviets some years later related that they wanted to avoid Western claims that they had flown a man on this mission and lost him, so rather

than taping a pilot's voice sending typical flight data, they installed the tape of a singing Russian choral group.

After 4 days of flight, the reentry cabin was separated from its service module and retrorockets were fired. Unfortunately, the orientation was incorrect, and the cabin moved to a higher orbit instead. It did not decay for 5 years.


On August 19, 1960, the Soviets launched Korabi Sputnik 2, carrying the dogs Strelka and Belka. This time, the flight duration was reduced to 1 day to minimize the risks of equipment malfunction, and recovery was successfully accomplished, for the first time in history. The two dogs became national heroes and were put on display, obviously healthy despite their experience.


The next in this series of spacecraft was launched on December 1, 1960, and apparently was a repeat of the previous flight except that the perigee was lowered to insure automatic decay within the reserve capacity of the life support system. After 1 day, retrofire was ordered, but the angle may have been too steep, for the cabin burned beyond successful recovery. The dogs Pchelka and Mushka became the first important casualties of orbital flight.


Launched on March 9, 1961, Korabi Sputnik 4 carried both a dummy cosmonaut and the dog Chernushka. Successful recovery was made after a single orbit.


On March 24, 1961, the fifth and last time in this series of flights was launched, again carrying a dummy and a dog, Zvezdochka. As with the previous mission, recovery was made after one orbit.


By 1961, the Soviets had a considerable amount of data from the short sounding rocket flights, Sputnik 2, and five actual manned precursor flights, three of which were recovered, including four of the six dogs used. A ship in excess of 4,500 kg was both fairly commodious and provided a fair amount of redundancy. The dogs not only provided telemetered data and usually were available for post flight tests, but all the Korabi Sputniks had provided live television coverage from orbit, permitting further examination of their state during flight. Rumors were strong that manned flights were about to begin.

The Vostok spacecraft that appeared was designed to make maximum use of automatic devices, with manual override to be used only in emergencies or experimentally. This feature prevailed throughout later Soviet manned programs as well, and all new manned spacecraft have been fully tested in an unmanned mode before committing crews to the new hardware. Vostok also became the basis for military recoverable payloads in the Kosmos series. Observations by Alan Pilkington, formerly of Scarborough Planetarium in England, revealed that Vostok and the Kosmos photographic recoverable spacecraft were of the same dimensions and brightness. (Similarly, Soyuz became the basis of a new generation of military recoverable payloads later in the decade.)


On April 12, 1961, Maj. Yuriy Alekseyevich Gagarin became the first man to orbit Earth. His ship, Vostok 1 (code name Kedr) made a single orbit from Tyuratum and was recovered in Kazakhstan. The electrifying news produced the same kind of shock waves in the world as Sputnik 1 had, despite the advance notice which should have been gleaned from the Korabi flights.

Vostok 1 (see figs. 6 and 7) was launched by an A-l rocket, and the spacecraft consisted of a near-spherical cabin covered with ablative material, with three small portholes for vision, and external radio antennas. The capsule contained a life support system, radios, instrumentation, and an ejection seat both for escape on the launch pad and as a part of the optional recovery system. The manned cabin was attached to a service module resembling two truncated cones base to base, with a ring of gas pressure bottles on the upper cone close to the cabin. This module carried a considerable weight of chemical batteries, orientation rockets and the main retro system, plus added support equipment for the total system.

On launch, all five engines of the booster rocket fired, and then the four outer sets of tankage and engines fell away, leaving the central sustainer engine still burning. This stage also was abandoned sub-orbitally, and the upper stage then fired to place itself and the payload in orbit. After burnout, this stage was separated from the payload, and continued in its own orbit, a derelict, to decay after a few days.

The payload was allowed to tumble slowly to even out heat loads, but could be stabilized on command for observation of the Earth, signal transmission, and most importantly for correct retrofire on reentry. As on the precursor flights, television was transmitted from the ship.

• SOYUZ 6,850kg, A-2 BOOSTER

• VOSKHOD 5,682kg, A-2 BOOSTER

• VOSTOK 4,725 kg, A-1 BOOSTER


Maj. German Titov became the second man to reach orbit on August 6, 1961, remaining up for a day to complete 17 orbits. In most respects the flight was like that of Vostok 1. There is some inconsistency in Soviet accounts with regard to the final phase of recovery in the Vostok program. The implication, although contradicted by other reports, is that Gagarin rode in his ship all the way to the surface of the Earth. But it seems clear that from Titov on through the rest of the Vostok program the cosmonaut fired open the hatch at 7,000 meters and then used the ejection seat to come down separately from the main cabin. The cabin, after being slowed by air pressure and protected by ablative material, apparently still struck ground hard enough that even a cosmonaut in a contoured couch would not enjoy the landing. Like the dogs which preceded them, most of the cosmonauts were fired out free from the main ship on their seat, which was mounted on rails pointed toward an escape hatch. After coming well clear, the cosmonaut would then free himself from his seat and come down on a personal parachute.


Maj. Andriyan Nikolayev was launched on August 11, 1962, for a flight which lasted 4 days. It can be noted that a flight of similar duration had already been made by a Kosmos military observation satellite using essentially the same hardware, but without a life support system; and Korabi Sputnik 1 with the complete Vostok equipment had flown for 4 days when retrofire occurred. All the Vostoks flew in orbits which would experience natural decay in less than 10 days. From the outset every flight carried air, water, food, and electricity to last for 10 days, even though no flight lasted that long.


Lt. Col. Pavel Popovich was launched August 12, just a day after Vostok 3, into a close coorbit so that the two ships approached within 6.5 km of each other in clear visible range. This was impressive both in terms of the ground support at the launch site in readying the facilities for so quick a turnaround (unless two pads were used), and also for the accuracy in timing the launch and controlling the flight parameters to guide the second ship to the same location as the first. This group flight was heralded as a portent of future dockings.


On June 14, 1963, Lt. Col. Valeriy Bykovskiy was launched into orbit for 5 days of flight, matching the time of a predecessor Kosmos military observation satellite. This set a Soviet manned duration record of 119 hours, 6 minutes—not exceeded until Soyuz 9.


It is possible that this launch was a day late, because it went up on June 16, 1963, and on an orbit which would not permit a sustained rendezvous with Vostok 5. The orbit did, however, permit a brief pass at a distance of only 5 km. The pilot was Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to fly in space, and she remained in orbit for 3 days. In contrast to the other cosmonauts who were experienced military test pilots, Ms. Tereshkova had worked in a textile factory, took up sports parachuting, and then was trained for her flight. Although she did not have the background or experience common to her Russian and American counterparts, she gained more orbital experience in flight time than all the U.S. Mercury astronauts combined.



1. The IGY is discussed in more detail in the space science chapter in volume III. Essentially, it was an international effort from July 1, 1957 to December 31, 1958 to study the Earth and its environment and served as a focal point for the launch of the first satellites. Both the first Soviet and the first U.S. satellites were launched as part of the IGY effort.

Page last modified: 10-04-2016 22:14:54 ZULU