The Soviets' First Space 'Rendezvous'
On Aug. 15, 1962, Cosmonauts Andrian Nikolayev and Pavel Popovich landed 295 miles from one another in Karaganda, Kazakhstan. The pair had just returned from a landmark mission that secured a new record for the Soviet Union in space: they were the first two cosmonauts to fly together and meet in orbit.
The idea came from Sergei Korolev’s, the Soviet Chief Designer and mastermind behind the program’s early successes. He designed missions to follow an unwritten rule that every flight had to be better than the last — longer, do more science, or achieve some goal that would advance the Soviet space program overall. That’s why after Yuri Gagarin made a single orbit on April 12, 1961, Gherman Titov followed with a full day in space on August 6.
It wasn’t until John Glenn orbited the Earth in Friendship 7 on Feb. 20, 1962 that the Soviets began to feel their lead in space was threatened. The nation’s leadership asked Korolev to launch the next mission as quickly as possible and make it a good one.
The Chief Designer had had the idea of launching a group flight the previous fall after Titov’s flight. The idea was to send three Vostoks into orbit at the same time and have them meet. It was a first and something NASA was capable of with the Mercury program.
The idea resurfaced and was pared down to two Vostoks each with a single pilot passing one another during a four-day orbital mission. After settling on the next mission, Korolev was so eager that he wanted to launch in just 10 days time. His enthusiasm was overruled by the simple fact that nothing was ready.
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But the capsules and cosmonauts were ready in August. Nikolayev in Vostok 3 was the first to go, launching at 11:30 Moscow time the morning of Aug. 11, 1962. His launch and subsequent 88.5-minute orbit was closely tracked by stations on the ground. Popovich followed in Vostok 4 exactly 23 hours and 32 minutes later from the same launch pad. The cosmonauts established radio contact with each other, became visible on one another’s horizons, and eventually came within just four miles of each other.
For the remainder of the flight Nikolayev and Popovich coordinated their activities. They ate the same thing at the same time — toasting the mission before digging in — to provide comparable data about the ability to eat in space.
They exercised by jamming their bodies against their instruments and hardware in the cockpit; they knew they would need their strength, particular abdominal strength, to survive landing unscathed. Both men unstrapped themselves and floated around their small capsules, learning how little force was required to move around in microgravity. They also filled their time with stellar observations and observations of the moon.
On Aug.15, Vostok 3 deorbited at 9:24 in the morning Moscow time; Vostok 4 followed six minutes later. Avid parachutists, both cosmonauts ejected during descent and landed separate from their capsule by personal parachute, a secret landing method the USSR wouldn’t reveal until the 1970s.
The mission was a success. Nikolayev completed 64 Earth orbits and Popovich completed 48. It was a record, dwarfing the United States’ six total orbits from Glenn’s and Scott Carpenter’s flights.
The US media picked up on the Soviets’ feat. Headlines like “Soviet Space Feat Hints Midas Threat” and “Did Reds Rendezvous in Space” surfaced after landing. Reports that the rendezvous was a significant step and that a manned mission was surely the next step. People seemed under the impression that the cosmonauts were toasting one another before meals in the same spacecraft, that they had actually joined capsules in orbit.
They hadn’t. They hadn’t even really rendezvoused. Their meeting was the product of two perfectly timed launches that put both capsules into orbits that would have them pass close to one another at one point. After their meeting, every successive orbit took them further and further apart. The Vostok capsules didn’t have the maneuverability for a rendezvous, nor did they have the mechanisms required for a docking. Once in orbit, neither Vostok changed its orbit until the retrofire burn.
Nevertheless, the mission achieved the goal of looking impressive to the outside. It also set a spectacular duration record, one that would remain unbroken until Gemini 5 stayed eight days in orbit in 1965.
Photo: Cosmonaut Andrian Nikolayev before entering Vostok 3. Credit: RKK Energia