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Soviet Manned Spaceflight 1961 Through 1976

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


Overview of Manned Space Activities: 1957-83

Since their first manned space launch in 1961, the Soviets have doggedly pursued their goals in manned flight. Despite setbacks in their Earth orbital program—from docking failures to space tragedies which have taken the lives of four cosmonauts—their enthusiasm has not waned, and even though they have not succeeded in putting cosmonauts on the Moon, they talk about sending people to Mars in the not too distant future. They have extended the duration of manned space flight to 211 days, enabling Soviet physicians to conclude that although there are medical problems with long duration spaceflight, none will prohibit flights of even greater length.

This report is volume II of the most recent of a series of 5-year reports prepared for the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee (1) by the Congressional Research Service, and provides information on manned space activities, including the space life sciences. Volume I, published earlier, discusses launch vehicles, launch and tracking sites, international cooperation, organization for Soviet space activities, and how much the Soviets spend on their space activities. Volume III will address unmanned programs (space science, space applications, and military).

Chapters 3 and 4 provide comprehensive details on manned space flight programs and the space life sciences through December 31, 1980. Chapter 2 has been provided to highlight activities in 1981 through 1983, the time during which the report was written This chapter serves as an overview of the manned programs of both the Soviet Union and the United States. Readers interested in more detail on the Soviet flights will find information in the remaining chapters of this volume. Detailed information on U.S. manned space activities is contained in U.S. Civilian Space Programs 1958-1978, prepared by the Congressional Research Service for, and published by, the House Committee on Science and Technology in 1981.


On April 12, 1961, the Soviet Union scored a space spectacular that was to shape the first decade of manned spaceflight. On that day, Yuriy Gagarin became the first man to orbit the Earth in his Vostok 1 spacecraft. Three weeks later, on May 5, the United ' Until 1976, the Aeronautical and Space Sciences Committee.

States succeeded in placing Alan Shepard in space. Although his was only a suborbital flight, it was enough to give a new President, John F. Kennedy, the confidence he needed to call upon the Nation to "commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth." This challenge was made on May 25, only 3 weeks after Shepard's flight, but Congress and the American people agreed. The Moon race was on.

The time-line in table 1 shows the course of events since then. The Soviets made six flights in the Vostok series which were similar in purpose to the six U.S. Mercury flights: Establishing the basic parameters of human reaction to spaceflight. On the last Vostok flight, the Soviets achieved another first—Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space.

After the six Vostok flights, the Soviets made two more launches of the same spacecraft, but renamed Voskhod. These two flights are often considered to have been more oriented toward public relations than scientific goals, but they did score two more space firsts: The first multiple crew (three men on Voskhod 1), and the first extravehicular activity (Aleksey Leonov on Voskhod 2).

As table 1 shows, the Voskhod flights were followed by a period of inactivity by the Soviets while the United States raced ahead with its Gemini program to acquire experience with rendezvous and docking in space, extend the duration of manned spaceflight, and perform extravehicular activity (EVA). Although the Soviets had achieved recognition for the first spacewalk, the United States quickly followed with its own on Gemini 4, and perfected the techniques required for EVA on subsequent Gemini flights in 1965 and 1966. (The Soviets, conversely, did not use EVA again until the 1969 Soyuz 4/5 flight.) Having declared itself in a "Moon race" with the Soviets, the United States discovered that visibly, at least, the competition had temporarily disappeared. Questions began to surface about whether or not there really was a Moon race, but statements by prominent Soviet politicians, scientists, and cosmonauts left no doubt in the minds of U.S. space planners and the Apollo program proceeded.

The first Apollo flight was to have taken place early in 1967, but on January 27, its three-man crew was killed during a prelaunch test when fire erupted in the command module. Three months later, when the Soviets resumed their manned flights, the result also was tragedy. On April 24, 1967, Vladimir Komarov was killed upon impact with the Earth when the parachute lines of his Soyuz 1 spacecraft tangled during descent. Both manned programs were set back for a year and a half, but the development of the large launch vehicles needed for a Moon landing continued. In the United States, the Saturn V was tested several times in 1967 and 1968. As noted in volume I, there is some evidence that the Soviets were in the process of developing the "G" booster during this period, although there were no known flight tests.

When the manned flights began again in October 1968, it was clear who was ahead in the Moon race. The first U.S. flight was Apollo 7, which tested the Apollo command module in Earth orbit. The first Soviet flight, on the other hand, was a simple rendezvous of a manned and an unmanned spacecraft in orbit. The next U.S. flight, Apollo 8 in December, placed astronauts in lunar orbit and 7 months later, on July 20, 1969, two Americans made the first Moonwalk.

The Soviet Union meanwhile was continuing its manned Earth orbital flights, but there were several unmanned flights associated with development of a lunar landing spacecraft from 1968 to 1971. These were made in the Zond and Kosmos series (Zond was a modified Soyuz space craft). Thus, even after the United States had won the Moon. race, the Soviets were obviously interested in landing crews there. The "G" vehicle never appeared, however, and cosmonauts have yet to make it to the Moon.


The Soviets turned their attention to Earth orbit, and in 1971 launched the first space station, Salyut 1. The first crew to this space station, Soyuz 10, docked but could not enter. The second attempt, with the three-man Soyuz 11 crew, was successful, and the

crew occupied the space station for 3 weeks. Tragically, though, the crew died during reentry when an improperly sealed hatch allowed the spacecraft atmosphere to vent into space. The crew was not wearing spacesuits and the men were asphyxiated. As a result, the Soviets returned to two-man crews in the Soyuz so there would be sufficient room for the cosmonauts to wear spacesuits. Nearly 10 years elapsed before they were able to redesign the interior of the Soyuz and the spacesuits so that three people could be accommodated again.

During this time, the United States was continuing its lunar landing program. Although the 1971 Apollo 13 flight almost resulted in tragedy when an oxygen tank explosion severely damaged the Apollo spacecraft enroute to the Moon, the mission came to a happy end when the astronauts were able to use the Lunar Module as a life raft and they returned home unharmed. The United States placed a total of six crews on the Moon, with the last landing in December 1972 (Apollo 17).

Public support for the Moon program had waned after the first landing, however, and three Apollo missions (18, 19, and 20) were cancelled. The once ambitious Apollo Applications Programs for Earth orbital operations was scaled back to a single space station to which three crews were sent. This station, Skylab, was launched in 1973 and although badly damage during launch, was able to function for almost a year following repair work by the crews which occupied it in 1973 and early 1974. The last of the three Skylab crews set a new duration record of 84 days in space. Skylab had approximately three times the interior volume of the Soviet space stations.

While Skylab was in orbit, the Soviets began encountering difficulties in their space station program. Not only were they recovering from the Soyuz 11 tragedy, but the two space stations they launched in 1973 failed as soon as they reached orbit. The first of

these was Salyut 2, while the second failed so early in its mission that it was not even given a Salyut designation, but rather was named Kosmos 557. (The Soviets do not readily admit to failures, so often use the catch-all category Kosmos to designate failures, as well as other missions they do not wish to disclose.)

In 1974, the Soviets finally succeeded in placing another space station in orbit—Salyut 3, which is considered in the West to have been the first military space station. This categorization is based on the fact that the crews sent to the station were all military, rather than mixed military/civil as they had been on Salyut 1; the orbit was lower, presumably to expedite reconnaissance photography; and the crew switched to military telemetry once they entered the station. The Soyuz 14 crew stayed on board Salyut 3 for 2 weeks, but the Soyuz 15 crew was not able to dock.

At the end of 1974, the Soviets also launched another civilian space station, Salyut 4, to which two crews were successfully launched (Soyuz 17 and 18) in 1975. One crew which intended to fly up to the Salyut had to abort the mission because of the failure of the third stage of the launch vehicle, and landed 320 kilometers north of the Chinese border. Since this was a failure, the Soviets did not give it a Soyuz designation, and it is referred to as the April 5 Anomaly, having occurred on April 5, 1975.

At this time, it appeared that the Soviets were alternating military and civilian space stations. With hindsight, it is possible to conclude that had they been successful, Salyut 2 and Kosmos 557 would have been a military and a civilian space station, respectively.


From 1972 to 1975, both countries were involved in preparations for the first joint manned mission—the Apollo-Soyuz test project (ASTP). Launched in July 1975, ASPT involved the docking of a three-man Apollo with a two-man Soyuz. The preparations included visits by crews and support personnel to each other's launch, mission control, and training facilities. Although there had been great concern expressed in the United States that it would be giving away advanced technology to the Soviets, there is no evidence that this was the case, although it is interesting to note the Soviets have reconfigured the physical appearance of their mission control center to almost duplicate the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) mission control in Houston. Details of the Soyuz 11 accident and the April 5 Anomaly were provided at the insistence of American mission planners who wanted to ensure that the safety of U.S. astronauts would not be endangered. A special docking adapter was designed in the United States and was heralded as insurance that either country could launch a rescue flight to help the other if the need arose, but since this was the last flight of the U.S. Apollo spacecraft, it would never be used again.

As the time-line shows, ASTP was the last flight for the United States for 6 years while the space shuttle was being developed. The Soviet Union, conversely, moved out strongly in its space station program.

Another military space station, Salyut 5, was launched in 1976 to which three crews were launched (one of which was unable to dock). A free-flying Soyuz mission was also launched that year to test an East German multi-spectral camera, MKF-6, which has subsequently been installed on two space stations.



1. Until 1976, the Aeronautical and Space Science Committee.

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