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Vostok 1-6 Series

By Marcia S. Smith*



Although principal attention in this report will be given to man-related flights occurring between 1971 and 1975, it is useful to understanding the program in its entirety to review accomplishments prior to 1971. Thus a summary of the earlier period is included in this section.


Through the 1950's, the Soviet Union fired an increasingly ambitious series of vertical probe rockets from the Kapustin Yar launch site with adapted military rockets, apparently ranging from modified versions of the German V-2 on up through the medium range surface-to-surface missile which the Western powers call the SS-3 or Shyster. Shyster was the immediate forerunner of the SS-4 or Sandal, famous for its involvement in the Cuban missile crisis 'and for launching the small Kosmos payloads from Kapustin Yar and Plesetsk.

While the United States was making tests with monkeys and apes, the Russians concentrated on dogs, and occasionally sent smaller animals. By 1952, the Soviet Union claimed to have sent 12 animals up in 18 flights to altitudes of 96 km. The effort had improved to the point that in the spring of 1957, a single rocket with a payload of 2,195 kg had carried five dogs. That June the Russians announced that dogs would participate in the Soviet part of the IGY program. On August 27, 1958 , the dogs Belyanka and Pestraya were flown to 452 km in a payload of 1,690 kg. On July 2, 1959 , in a payload of 2,000 kg, Otvazhnaya and another dog were flown to 241 km. On July 10, 1959 , Otvazhnaya and several other dogs were flown to 211 km in a payload of 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 gave 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 acceleration, radiation, micrometeorites, weightlessness and recovery.

1. Sputniks

The first flight to carry an animal to orbit was described in Chapter Two (page 83). The cabin carrying Layka was cylindrical in shape, hermetically sealed with a regenerating system for the air, a. thermal regulation system, and was supplied with food. The dog was wired so as to radio back to Earth its pulse, respiration, blood pressure, and electrocardiograms. The cabin environmental parameters were also telemetered back to Earth. Automatic devices controlled the quality, component gases, temperature, and circulation of the air supply. The dog was trained over a period of time in preparation for the flight, including exposure to vibration, and periods up to weeks in a sealed cabin of small dimensions.

Layka withstood the launch and flight environment successfully, returning considerable useful data. However, because the ship was only powered by chemical batteries and was not designed for recovery, after one week, a prearranged system killed the dog and terminated that part of the experiment. Layka is believed to have dies with in hours of the launch.


1. Korabl Sputnik 1

By adapting the A-l vehicle, earlier used for direct ascent flights to the Moon, the Soviet Union was able to create an Earth orbital system which could carry at least 4,700 kg to low orbit. This found its first successful use on May 15, 1960 with the launch of Korabl Sputnik 1. It was described as weighing 4,540 kg consisting of 1,477 kg of instruments and equipment and a self-sustaining biological cabin of 2,500 kg. In the cabin was the dummy of a man with characteristics of body construction and function like a man, designed to check on the operation of the life support system and stresses of flight. The ship radioed both extensive telemetry and also prerecorded voice communications. The Russians some years later told how 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 in-stalled the tape of a Russian choral group singing.

After four days of flight, the reentry cabin was separated from its service module after retrorockets were fired. Unfortunately, the attitude was incorrect, for the cabin moved to a higher orbit, and it was five years before it finally decayed from orbit.

3. Korabl Sputnik 2

This launch came on August 19, 1960 and carried the dogs Strelka and Belka. This time the period of flight was reduced to one day to minimize the risks of equipment malfunction, and recovery was successfully accomplished, for the first time in history, with the two dogs becoming national heroes and put on display, obviously healthy despite their experience.

3. Korabl Sputnik 3

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

4- Korali Sputnik 4

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

5. Korabl Sputnik 5

On March 25, 1961 the fifth in this series of flights was launched, again carrying a dummy and a dog, Zvezdochka. As with Korabl Sputnik 4, recovery was made after one orbit.

This brought the Russians to the point where they had a large backlog of short vertical probe biological flights, with synoptic geophysical data, the Sputnik 2 data from a week of flight carrying a dog, and five actual manned-precursor flights, three of which were recovered, including four of the six dogs used. Not only was a ship in excess of 4,500 kg fairly commodious, but it provided a fair amount of redundancy. The dogs not only provided telemetered data and usually were available for post-flight tests, but all the Korabl 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.


1. Vostok 1

On April 12, 1961 , Major Yuriy Alekseyevich Gagarin became the first man to orbit Earth. His ship, Vostok 1 (code named Kedr) made a single orbit from Tyuratam 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 Korabl flights.

Vostok 1 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-orbit-ally, and the upper lunar 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.

2. Vostok 2

Major 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 is seems clear that from Titov on through the rest of the Vostok program at 7,000 meters the cosmonaut fired open the hatch and then 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 the 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.

3. Vostok 3

Major Andriyan Nikolayev was launched on August 11, 1962 into a flight which lasted four 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 four days when retrofire occurred. All the Vostok’s flew in orbits which would experience natural decay in less than ten days. >From the outset every flight carried life support of air, water, food, and electricity to last for ten days, even though no flight lasted that long.

4. Vostok 4

Lieutenant Colonel Pavel Popovich was launched August 12, 1962 just a day after Vostok 3, into a close co-orbit 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 docking's.

5. Vostok 5

On June 14, 1963 , Lieutenant Valeriy Bykovskiy was launched into orbit for five 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.

6. Vostok 6

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 only woman to fly in space to date, and she remained in orbit for three days. In contract 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 of experience common to her Russian and American counterparts, she gained more orbital experience in time than all the flights in the U.S. Mercury program combined. Her flight emphasized that the Vostok system was designed to maximize use of automatic devices, with manual override to be used only in emergencies or experimentally. This feature prevailed through later Soviet programs as well, as all systems have been tested through complete missions unmanned first. It also strengthens the supposition that the transition from Vostok flights to Kosmos military photographic recoverable flights made a minimum of redesign necessary. Measurements on the Kosmos flights by Alan Pilkington, formerly of the Scarborough Planetarium, in England have revealed they are of the same dimensions and brightness as the Vostok payloads.



•Ms. Smith Is an analyst in science and technology. Science Policy Research Division, Congressional Research Service, The Library of Congress.

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Page last modified: 10-04-2016 19:08:16 ZULU