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Voskhod-2 lands in the wild

The historic spacewalk on March 18, 1965, was only the beginning of an incredible adventure experienced by the crew of Voskhod-2. In the following 24 hours, a series of mishaps aboard the spacecraft led to a manual reentry and the landing of the descent module in the frozen taiga.


Leonov greets his rescuers at the Voskhod-2 landing site.

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After a day-long orbital mission “front-loaded” with a spacewalk, Voskhod-2 was scheduled to initiate a braking maneuver during its 17 revolution around the Earth. (742) At the time of the engine firing, the spacecraft was to be flying over the Madagascar, heading northeast. In anticipation of the critical event, mission officials, including Korolev, Keldysh, Tyulin and Gagarin gathered at the small control room on the second floor of the assembly building at Site 2 in Tyuratam.

That’s where they received a calm radio call from Belyaev saying that the automated activation of the TDU braking engine had not worked. After a short and tense discussion, officials decided to switch to manual control. Gagarin relayed the information to the crew. (18)

The failure of the automated braking system to fire apparently stemmed from a problem with the sun-based orientation system which was supposed to position the spacecraft tail first for the engine firing against the direction of the flight, in order to slow it down below orbital speed and to initiate the reentry into the atmosphere.

Aboard Voskhod-2, cosmonauts began preparations for the manual activation of the braking engine, scheduled during the following (18th) orbit of the mission, at 11:35:44 Moscow Time on March 19, 1965. (741) It would be the first Soviet attempt to deorbit the spacecraft manually. (742)

In case of problems, the Voskhod-2 still had backup opportunities for landing during the 18th, 22nd and 23rd orbits of the mission. (18) Because one of those descent trajectories was apparently passing over Moscow, Leonov jokingly asked Belyaev whether he wanted to try to land on the Red Square. (740)

However, from his seat in the cabin (which saw major re-arrangements during transition from Vostok to Voskhod), Belyaev found it difficult to perform re-orientation of the ship necessary for the firing of the braking engine. He had trouble seeing the Earth’s surface through the Vzor navigation window that could help him get a reference on the position of the ship. Belyaev unbuckled from his seat and moved closer to the window for a better view. Leonov also had to move to give his commander a better vantage point.

Both cosmonauts were apparently out of their seats by the time Belyaev pressed the ignition button of the braking engine. As a result, the carefully calculated maneuver was taking place with the capsule’s center of gravity shifted relative to its projected position. (18)

The engine burn apparently lasted as scheduled, but the “off-line” position of the spacecraft led to a shallower than predicted trajectory and a more than 800-kilometer overflight of the planned landing area. (84) Moreover, the instrument module failed to separate from the crew capsule according to the nominal sequence shortly after the braking maneuver and only did so on a secondary command from thermal sensors when they detected the heat of reentry.

In the wild

During the reentry of Voskhod-2 over the USSR, the Soviet “Krug” anti-aircraft radio system detected the descending capsule; however the accuracy of its tracking was between 50 and 70 kilometers. In the meantime, more accurate UHF radios aboard search and rescue aircraft did not hear from Voskhod-2, because the planes were between 600 and 800 kilometers away from the actual descent trajectory. One short-wave radio station in Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan, did receive multiple “VN” (“everything normal”) signals, but it gave little re-assurance to mission officials.

Fortunately, ground controllers also picked the signals from the landed capsule, allowing them to triangulate its exact location on the ground. (466)

The Voskhod-2 flight ended on March 19, 1965, at 12:06 Moscow Time, 180 kilometers north of the city of Perm in Northern Russia. The mission lasted one day, two hours, two minutes and 17 seconds. (2)

The touchdown area was later narrowed down to a point located between 25 and 30 kilometers southwest of the Berezniki settlement between the villages of Shuchino and Sorokovaya.

Four hours after the landing, helicopter pilots finally spotted the red parachute, the capsule and the two cosmonauts apparently having a snack, surrounded by a chest-deep snow in the middle of the taiga. (18) The forest was far too dense in the area for a helicopter to land anywhere near the landing site.

General Kamanin, who led cosmonaut training, confirmed in his diary that he and other officials only learned about the successful landing four hours after the fact. (742)

Helicopter crews could probably pull the cosmonauts aboard in a rescue basket or with a rope ladder, but Air Force boss Rudenko, apparently on the instructions from the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, strictly prohibited using those methods for recovering the cosmonauts. Rudenko first ordered two available heavy trucks with soldiers from a local anti-aircraft unit to reach the site, but the absurdity of this order became apparent very early in the attempt. Instead, the rescuers resorted to cutting trees in the area near the landing site so a helicopter could land. (742)

For the time being, the best search teams could do was to drop supplies from helicopters and guide the effort of search teams on the ground to cut their way to the landing site.

According to Leonov’s recollections, soon after landing, he activated an available radio station and began transmitting coded signals which were reportedly picked up by a radio station in West Germany several hours later. (740)

The cosmonauts’ bulky spacesuits were wet, but the crew’s survival kit included shark repellent and no winter clothes. Haphazard attempts by the helicopter crews to drop jackets, pants and containers with hot coffee resulted in pieces of clothing hanging high on the trees and with spectacular explosions of coffee containers after hitting tree branches. However, one “naked” bottle of cognac did survive the fall in the deep snow, and, as Leonov later joked, it never made to the Star City museum.

The cosmonauts were able to make a fire, but when Belyaev, against Leonov’s advice, decided to warm up a tube with chocolate, it exploded and rocketed into the snow around 50 meters away. (18)

Leonov also remembered seeing a pack of wolves lurking nearby, while a little pistol the crew had onboard provided little comfort for the coming night in the wild. As darkness descended on the taiga, the cosmonauts crawled back into their capsule and blanketed themselves with the parachutes. Fortunately, this gave them enough warmth during the entire night, when temperatures plunged to minus 25 degrees.

Back at the nerve center of the mission, Korolev and Tyulin were on the phone with K.I. Galanshin, the first secretary of the local Communist Party in the city of Perm, where he had set up an improvised search and rescue headquarters. A brigade of spacecraft technicians, who were also experienced skiers, was flown from Tyuratam to Perm. (18)

According to Kamanin, a helicopter landed around five kilometers away from the capsule and dispatched a group of rescuers during the night of March 19 to 20, but they had to return. Fortunately, the temperature at the landing site rose to minus five degrees. (742)

March 20

On the morning of March 20, helicopter crews reported that the cosmonauts had been cutting logs and burning a small fire at their landing site.

At 7:30 in the morning of March 20, an Air Force colonel Sibiryakov, accompanied by a doctor and a technician jumped from a helicopter around 1.5 kilometers from Voskhod-2. At 8:30, they started trekking toward the crew on skis.

The helicopters also dropped several people to clear a landing pad for a helicopter not far from the capsule.

Siberyakov’s team made it to the capsule at 11:35 in the morning on March 20, after covering three kilometers in three hours. Around the same time, helicopters dropped more warm clothes and boots. A helicopter also dropped a water container, which cosmonauts filled with snow, started a small fire beneath it and could now take a bath. (740)

Also, in the course of the day, an Il-14 aircraft established a UHF radio-contact with the crew and maintained it till the evening. Both, the cosmonauts and rescuers reported that they were all in good health. (742)

By the evening of March 20, a total of 22 people was at the landing site. Among them was a group of bearded tree-loggers. They looked at the small capsule with some suspicion. When Leonov gave his signed picture to one of the loggers, he returned it without much emotion saying that he had no place to hang it.

Still, the cosmonauts had to spend another night (from March 20 to March 21) in the woods.

March 21

A team of specialists from Tyuratam finally got to the crew after a nine-kilometer trek with snow up to their chest from the original staging site where a helicopter was able to land.

According to Leonov, the cosmonauts then skied back with their rescuers for nine kilometers to the helicopter landing site. (740)

The crew then flew to Perm’s airport and finally reached Tyuratam on March 21. (18)

In a telephone conference with Brezhnev, Korolev discussed the text of a public announcement about the landing. He reportedly proposed to disclose the facts about the failure of the Voskhod-2’s braking system, because it would otherwise be impossible to explain the circumstances and the location of the landing. When Brezhnev refused, Korolev reportedly said something to the effect that “it is your problem how to explain away landing in the Perm Region” and unceremoniously hung up a special government phone.

The failure of the automated attitude control and braking system led to an extensive investigation into its root cause. According to official records, as late as July 8, 1965, Korolev chaired a meeting on the issue, where Boris Raushenbakh and G. N. Dyaktirenko presented their findings. (84)

 



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