On October 12, 1964, the Soviets launched the first-ever multi-passenger space vehicle into orbit. The three cosmonauts — well, one cosmonaut and two ride-alongs — were stuffed into a capsule originally designed for one. It had been gutted of much of its gear, including safety equipment, to fit them in. You could say they were flying by the seat of their pants, except they weren’t exactly wearing pants.
A year earlier, Nikita Khrushchev had been upset by NASA’s announcement that its new Gemini program would put a two-man capsule in orbit by late 1964 or early 1965. This would be a first — in space race terms, NASA’s first first. Since the launch of Sputnik in 1957, Khrushchev had loved razzing the Americans about the inferiority and tardiness of their space program. The first satellite, first animals in space, first man in space, first woman in space, first orbital flight, first spacecraft to orbit the Moon, first spacecraft to land (or crash-land) on the Moon — all Soviet victories. When Khrushchev crowed that “Socialism is the best launchpad for flights to outer space,” even John F. Kennedy had to agree. As a presidential candidate in 1960 he wrote: “We are in a strategic space race with the Russians, and we have been losing… If a man orbits earth this year his name will be Ivan.” His name was in fact Yuri, and he flew a few months later.
So when Khrushchev heard about Gemini, he summoned Sergei Korolev, the head of the Soviet space program, to his office. If the Americans were going to put two people in space by the end of 1964, Khrushchev said, then he wanted to launch three people, and do it before the American launch — by the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, celebrated on November 7, would do nicely.
Korolev tried to explain in technical detail why the current Soviet rocket, basically a souped-up version of the Nazis’ V-2, was not powerful enough to vault a three-man vehicle into space. Khrushchev, characterized as a “semi-illiterate petty tyrant” by the defector science writer Leonid Vladimirov, was a peasant’s son who confessed his grasp of engineering was not good. In his memoirs Khrushchev recalls the time Korolev gave a Politburo group a tour of a launchpad and rocket. “[W]e gawked at what he had to show us, as if we were a bunch of sheep seeing a new gate for the first time… We were like peasants in a marketplace, walking around the rocket, touching it, tapping it to see if it was sturdy enough.”
When Korolev now told Khrushchev that what he wanted couldn’t be done, Khrushchev in effect replied, “Do it anyway.” Korolev did not argue further. He had spent years as a gulag prisoner during Stalin’s mad purges of his nation’s top intelligentsia in the late 1930s, and had only been officially exonerated in 1957 with the success of Sputnik. Khrushchev may not have been a genocidal maniac like Stalin, but as First Secretary of the Communist Party he was not above shortening your life by sending you to Siberia. Korolev had survived Siberia once already.
Korolev trudged glumly back to the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the Soviet Cape Canaveral, and explained Comrade Khrushchev's desires to his team of scientists and engineers. After unanimously declaring the task impossible, they all got down to work. None of them wanted to be sent to Siberia either. The bleak Kazakhstan wilderness where the Cosmodrome was located was bad enough.
“…Three small men might fit if they did not wear spacesuits. Which meant that if the cabin depressurized, they’d die quick but agonizing deaths. When Korolev asked who’d be insane enough to do that, Feoktistov volunteered.”
There was no time to develop a new three-person vehicle or a rocket big enough to launch it. They could only try to convert the one-man Vostok (“East”) capsule they’d been using since Yuri Gagarin’s historic flight in 1961. The Vostok was like a large BB pellet, an aluminum alloy sphere roughly eight feet wide. It had a seat for a single cosmonaut and some rudimentary dials and controls, though mostly it was remotely operated by technicians on the ground. Korolev’s team stripped it nearly clean, but there was still no way to stuff three cosmonauts into it.
According to Vladimirov, one of Korolev’s leading engineers, Konstantin Feoktistov, then suggested that three small men might fit if they did not wear spacesuits. Which meant that if the cabin depressurized, they’d die quick but agonizing deaths. When Korolev asked who’d be insane enough to do that, Feoktistov volunteered. A trained cosmonaut, Air Force Colonel Vladimir Komarov, was designated the pilot; like all cosmonauts, he was relatively short and light (as were American astronauts). Dr. Boris Yegorov, a physician on the team who monitored in-flight health telemetry, was the third crew member. Officially this was so that he could check the others’ health during the flight, but really it was because he was also petite.
Wearing woolen outfits something like long underwear — call them Soviet union suits — the trio still couldn’t be squeezed into the capsule, so another sacrifice was ordered. The capsule’s cosmonaut-ejecting apparatus had to go. They would be the first Soviet spacemen to land inside their capsule.
Why Yuri Gagarin and the other early cosmonauts did not land inside their Vostoks is mostly a matter of geography. Mercury astronauts enjoyed the luxury of splashing down softly in the ocean, because the U.S. was surrounded by temperate waters and had a very large navy for retrievals. Thus Cape Canaveral. The Soviets, with their mania for secrecy, put their Cosmodrome out in the middle of nowhere, where activities and especially failures were far from prying eyes. (Except for U-2 flyovers. Khrushchev hated U-2 flyovers, and could not contain his glee when Gary Powers was shot down in 1960.) The Cosmodrome was surrounded by vast tracts of steppe and forest, so that’s where Vostok capsules came down. They were hard landings that could kill any cosmonaut inside, and eventually did.
So Vostok missions relied on ejector seats. When atmospheric pressure sensors in the descending vehicle registered an altitude of seven kilometers, they automatically triggered explosive bolts that blew the hatch cover above the cosmonaut’s head. Then more explosive bolts under the cosmonaut’s butt fired the ejector seat through the opening. As it shot clear of the capsule the ejection seat’s parachute canopy opened. At four kilometers, the seat and its parachutes fell away, the cosmonaut’s smaller parachute opened, and he or she drifted to the ground, as though they’d jumped from a passing plane instead of bursting out of a plummeting spacecraft. Parachute practice was an essential component of cosmonaut training. Valentina Tereshkova, who became the first woman in space in 1963, was chosen largely because she was an experienced parachutist. The next time you feel inclined to go on about what space cowboys America’s early astronauts were, picture their Soviet counterparts, male and female, being fired out of their hurtling BBs at high altitude.
If the ejection failed to work automatically, the cosmonaut could manually blow the hatch cover and eject out of the ball. On Gagarin’s descent his capsule pitched wildly, and there was speculation, as there would be later that year with Gus Grissom, that he panicked and ejected prematurely.
There was no room for ejector seats in the three-man Voskod 1 (“Sunrise 1”), as the scooped-out Vostok was named. Instead, a new and supposedly improved type of parachute was tested, with three monkeys sitting in for the humans. The landing killed them. While more testing ensued and retro rockets were added to the parachute system, members of Korolev’s team took to calling Voskod 1 the “space-grave.” Meanwhile, it was determined that even in their union suits the cosmonauts weighed too much. They were put on a strict diet.
On October 12, 1964, three small, half-starved Soviet men in long underwear crammed themselves into an oversize BB and were shot off into space. Everything about the mission was wrong, and yet, as they often did at this stage in their space program’s history, the Soviets somehow pulled it off. As the crew completed 16 orbits around Earth, they spoke to Comrade Khrushchev by radiophone. On October 13 they banged down to the ground in northern Kazakhstan. The new braking measures worked, and they climbed out of the capsule shaken up but unharmed.
They were scheduled to make a triumphal trip to Moscow to meet Khrushchev on October 15. But a funny thing happened on their way to the Kremlin: the Central Committee of the Communist Party removed Khrushchev from office on October 14. His radiophone talk with the spacemen turned out to be his last public address as leader of the Soviet Union.
Feoktistov and Yegorov never flew into space again. In 1969, Feoktistov toured the U.S. on a goodwill mission. Accompanied by American astronauts, he visited Disneyland and rode the Trip to the Moon ride. He joked that though he never made it to the actual Moon, at least he saw the Magic Kingdom. Yegorov conducted medical research until he died in his Moscow apartment of a heart attack in 1994, at the age of only 57.
Komarov’s end was sadder, shockingly so. On April 23, 1967, he was launched into orbit in the new Soyuz 1 (“Union” 1) spacecraft. Soyuz 2 was supposed to launch the next day. They would rendezvous and a cosmonaut would go extravehicular between the spacecraft, a daring plan. But Soyuz 1 was plagued with so many problems that the Soyuz 2 launch was scrubbed. Komarov managed to coax his ailing craft back into the atmosphere, but his parachutes failed. Soyuz 1 crashed to earth and caught fire. Komarov was smashed and burned until his corpse was unrecognizable as anything human. There is an astonishing, appalling photo of fellow officers gazing down at his open casket. An open casket viewing for a hero of the people who looks like a large, charred wad of chewing gum.
John Strausbaugh’s books of history and cultural commentary include City of Sedition, about New York during the Civil War; The Village, a history of Greenwich Village; Black Like You, a study of blackface in American culture; and Rock ’Til You Drop: The Decline from Rebellion to Nostalgia. He is a former editor of the weekly New York Press, and has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the National Review, the Wilson Quarterly, and other venues.