A ‘SPACE RACE’ between the world’s two post-war superpowers – the USA and USSR – took its latest turn 50 years ago today, with the first ever docking of two spacecraft in orbit around the Earth.
The honours this time went to the Soviet Union, which also notched up another first, transferring crew members from one spacecraft to the other. As well as being the first, it remains the only time a crew transfer was made through a ‘spacewalk’ – the Soviet cosmonauts travelling outside the two docked capsules protected only by their spacesuits.
The mission involved two ‘Soyuz’ spacecraft, numbered 4 and 5. Soyuz 4 was launched first, on January 14th, manned by a single cosmonaut, Vladimir Shatalov, on his first flight into space. Twenty-four hours later, Soyuz 5 was launched from the same Baikonur launch site carrying three cosmonauts, Commander Boris Volynov and two crew members, Aleksei Yeliseyev and Yevgeny Khrunov. Its mission was to intercept and dock with Soyuz 4 in a Low Earth orbit.
That happened 50 years ago today, on January 16th, 1969, creating a world first, or rather, an off-world first. The two Soyuz craft had only a primitive docking mechanism to lock them together in orbit. A connecting tunnel, enabling a relatively simple transfer of crew members between the docked craft, had not yet been developed. Instead the two cosmonauts would need to exit Soyuz 5 in their spacesuits and carry out a ‘spacewalk’ across to Soyuz 4, exiting and entering through ‘airlocks’ which could be pressurised and depressurised.
On board Soyuz 5, Commander Volynov helped his two crewmen into their spacesuits and checked their life-support and communications systems. He then sealed them in the airlock before depressurising it so they could open the outer door and step out into space. They then painstakingly made their way across to the Soyuz 4 module, opening the outer door to its airlock, which had been depressurised from inside by its pilot, Shatalov.
Once inside, they sealed the outer door behind them, enabling Shatalov to repressurise the airlock and open the inner door to greet them. The whole process took about an hour and went fairly smoothly, apart from one of the crewmen, Khrunov, having some problems with tangled lines.
With the transfer successfully completed, Soyuz 4 and 5 separated after four hours and 35 minutes docked together. First to return to Earth was Soyuz 4, which re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and landed safely in the Republic of Kazakhstan shortly before 7am on January 17th, carrying two more crew members than it had set out with three days previously.
All that remained was for Soyuz 5, now carrying only Commander Volynov, to make it safely back to Earth… but that would prove more problematic. The Soyuz craft comprised a descent capsule and a service module, with the two elements designed to separate before re-entry. However, the service model failed to detach, which meant Soyuz 5 re-entered the atmosphere nose-first, with only its light metal entry hatch to protect it against the intense heat generated by ‘aerobraking’ as it plummeted towards earth.
The bottom side of the descent capsule had a thick heatshield designed to withstand this aerobraking, but the failure to jettison the service module meant the capsule was falling upside down. It left Commander Volynov pulled painfully outwards against his harness rather than pushed back into his padded seat, and fearing for his life when the capsule began to fill with dangerous fumes from the burning gaskets which kept the door sealed.
Mercifully, the heat also burned away the struts connecting the service module, which finally broke free. The descent module then righted itself, with the heatshield now taking the brunt of the aerobraking, but the bumpy ride wasn’t over for Volynov. In the final stages of descent, the capsule’s parachutes, designed to slow its landing, were deployed, but their cables were partially tangled, limiting their effectiveness. On top of that, the unorthodox descent had damaged the capsule’s soft-landing rockets, which failed.
It meant that rather than ‘touching down’, the capsule hit the ground with the force of a heavy car crash, violently jolting the already battered cosmonaut and breaking some of his teeth. Even then his ordeal wasn’t over. The capsule’s erratic descent had thrown it off course, landing in the Ural Mountains, hundreds of miles short of its intended landing site in Kazakhstan. The temperature in the mountains was -38°C and Volynov realised it would be several hours before rescue teams could reach him.
Gambling with his life, he abandoned the capsule and trekked for several kilometres before finding shelter at the house of an astonished local peasant. It would be seven years until he went into space again, but his survival meant the mission was a success and gave the USSR cause to celebrate.
Two months later, in March 1969, the Americans regained the initiative in the space race when their Apollo 9 mission included the first ever internal crew transfer between two docked modules, as well as the first test spaceflight of the ‘lunar module’ which would ultimately enable two Apollo 11 astronauts – Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin – to make the first moon landing on July 20th, 1969.