John Glenn inspired the Soviets to push harder

Credit: NASA

John Glenn’s three orbits around the globe on February 20, 1962 in Friendship 7 were exactly what the nation needed. The flight was a spectacular success in leveling the playing field between the Soviet and American space programs, and it gave the public a new hero to celebrate. Glenn’s flight evoked a similarly strong reaction in the Soviet Union, though there prompted the Soviets to reignite their manned missions after nearly six months of silence.

At the time, the Soviet space program was marked by two dominant features: an unwritten rule that no mission could be repeated, and the recognition by political leaders that spaceflight was a powerful propaganda tool.

The Soviet Space Model

That no mission was worth repeating was a rule straight from Sergei Korolev (pictured above), the chief designer and driving force behind the Soviet space program. He would have considered the twin suborbital flights of Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom to be a waste of resources. Korolev enacted his rule from Russia's many triumphs with its Sputnik satellites. Unwilling to launch a second beeping orb after Sputnik 1, he hastily modified Sputnik 2 to hold a canine passenger, Laika, and launched the craft less than a month later.

Spaceflight’s role in the Soviet propaganda machine was born from Korolev’s relentless forward momentum. No political leaders were excited at the prospect of launching a satellite in 1957, but when they saw the effect Sputnik had around the world they changed gears. It was Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev who wanted to build on Sputnik’s momentum with a second satellite so close on its heels.

Korolev’s drive and the support from Soviet leaders culminated in the successful Vostok 1 flight wherein Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the Earth on April 12, 1961. Once the mission was over, the Soviet space program ran into a slight roadblock. The Vostok program never had a goal beyond putting a cosmonaut in orbit; the only real guidance was Korolev’s rule of never repeating a mission. But getting out of the space game altogether was never an option. The month after Gagarin’s flight, the heads of the Soviet space program ordered 18 Vostok spacecraft be built and decided half would go to followup manned missions and half would be used on unmanned reconnaissance flights. The goals, in both cases, would be determined as the need arose.

The next manned flight after Gagarin’s came four months later. Gherman Titov in his Vostok 2 spacecraft launched on August 6. He spent 25 hours and 18 minutes in orbit, landing on August 7.

A Lull in Manned Missions

Then the manned space program slowed. In the fall of 1961, NASA was still months away from its orbital flight and the Soviet lead went uncontested.

Russia's Korolev couldn’t stop planning. He envisioned a multi-manned mission involving perfectly orchestrated flights where multiple cosmonauts in their own spacecraft would meet in orbit. He first pitched the idea a month after Titov’s Vostok 2 flight. He wanted a three-spacecraft flight, where a trio of Vostoks launched on successive days could spend at least one day in orbit at the same time. It would be a coup for the Soviets, it was something the Americans couldn’t do, and it was within Korolev’s talents to pull it off. The Chief Designer’s excitement didn’t convince everyone. The Soviet Air Force and the cosmonauts' physicians pointed to the acute space sickness Titov had experience during his flight as a deterrent for multi-manned missions. More practically, the Soviet Union’s minimal tracking network couldn’t support three spacecraft simultaneously. Korolev relented; he pared his grand idea down to a joint mission involving two Vostok spacecraft instead.

This modified plan was an easier sell to the Soviet leaders. In October, six cosmonauts started a continuous training regime for the joint mission; they were expected to be ready to fly within a month’s notice. But the same month, Soviet leaders took up a stronger interest in the unmanned satellite missions under the Zenit program.

Unfortunately for Korolev, the Zenit flights used the same hardware and launch sites as the Vostok missions. A flaw found in a Zenit spacecraft affected the Vostoks, and delays similarly passed from the unmanned to the manned program. And there were plenty. Failure dogged the Zenit program in December of 1961, and in January of 1962 the first launch was scrubbed. Problems were found with the Vostoks, too, with both the parachute and life support systems. Fixing the issues took time, delaying launches and keeping the cosmonauts in limbo.

While Soviet progress stalled, NASA made steady progress in its quest to send John Glenn into orbit. And it did so publicly. The Soviets followed NASA’s progress, and Korolev gradually won support to launch his dual Vostok mission sooner rather than later.

Rekindling The Fire

Soviet leaders watched as Glenn’s launch slipped from January into mid February.  The media frenzy surrounding the scrubbed launches built anticipation in both countries, and in the Soviet Union this led to a growing desire to undercut its adversary's accomplishments. Just as suddenly as the emphasis had shifted to favour unmanned reconnaissance missions, manned missions were back in the forefront. On February 17, Korolev was ordered to get two Vostok spacecraft ready and manned for a launch in mid-March. The flight wouldn't beat Glenn, but flying so close on the heels of Friendship 7 would take some of the steam out of the American triumph. The next day saw the intensity increase in the cosmonauts' training. When Glenn launched and splashed down successfully two days later, the Soviet will to regain the high ground got stronger.

But Korolev's mid-March launch date wasn’t feasible; he simply didn’t have time to ready the spacecraft. Resources were tied up with the Zenit program, and there were two unmanned launches standing between Korolev and his dual mission.

The first Zenit launched on April 26. The second followed on June 1 with abysmal results: the rocket landed less than 1,000 feet from the launch pad, and one of the strap-on boosters failed to leave the launch site entirely. The badly damaged pad took months to repair forcing, another delay in the joint Vostok launch — the Zenits used the same launch site as the Vostoks.

The Soviets finally mounted their response to Glenn’s flight in August. Cosmonaut Andrian Nikolayev launched in Vostok 3 on August 11 and his colleague Pavel Popovich followed in Vostok 4 exactly 23 hours and 32 minutes later from the same launch pad. By virtue of their perfectly timed launches, the cosmonauts came within four miles of each other during their first shared day in space.

Though they gradually drifted apart, Nikolayev and Popovich coordinated their activities for the remainder of the mission. They ate the same food at the same time, toasting the mission before digging in. They exercised simultaneously by jamming their bodies against their instruments and hardware in the cockpit. Both men unstrapped themselves from their seats and explored microgravity as they floated around their small capsules. They compared notes on stellar observations and observations of the moon. The two cosmonauts landed 295 miles apart in Karaganda, Kazakhstan, on August 15.

It was the landmark mission Korolev and the Soviet leaders had hoped for, and it enabled the Soviet Union to again take the lead in space. And it was a mission that might not have flown had John Glenn’s Friendship 7 flight not been such a stunning success.

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