Chelomei's LK spacecraft



Kosmos-133: Soyuz lifts off!

On November 28, 1966, the USSR launched the first test mission of the new-generation Soyuz spacecraft under the cover name of Kosmos-133. The unmanned vehicle was expected to play the role of the "active" ship during rendezvous maneuvers with a "passive" spacecraft scheduled for launch 24 hours later. However things did not go according to plan...


Artist rendering of the Soyuz 7K-OK spacecraft in orbit.



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Kosmos-133 mission at a glance:

Spacecraft designation Soyuz, 7K-OK 11F615 No. 02A ("active")
Spacecraft mass 6,386 kilograms
Descent module mass 2,287 kilograms
SKDU propulsion module mass (fueled) 1,084 kilograms
Rendezvous, attitude control and descent system mass (fueled) 389.4 kilograms
Power supply system, SEP, mass 395.5 kilograms
Communications system and antennas, BK, AFU, mass 525 kilograms
Spacecraft structure mass 1,544 kilograms
Thermal control covering 598 kilograms
Launch vehicle Soyuz (11A511 No. U-15000-02)
Launch site Baikonur, Site 31
Crew Unmanned
Launch date and time 1966 Nov. 28, 14:00:00.02 local time (537)
Planned orbit 200 by 220 kilometers, inclination 51 degrees 51 minutes
Docking with Kosmos-134 1966 Nov. 29 (planned, did not take place)
Landing 1966 Nov. 30 (destroyed on reentry)

By the end of 1966, the Soviet space program faced mounting technical hurdles and the increasing time pressure of the Moon Race. At the time, the management at the TsKBEM design bureau, including Vasily Mishin and his deputy for flight control systems Boris Chertok oversaw launch preparations for at least three pairs of Soyuz 7K-OK spacecraft, several 7K-L1 lunar fly-by vehicles and the development work on the N1/L3 program, along with a plethora of other projects.

On July 22, 1966, Mishin penciled launches the first three pairs of Soyuz spacecraft at the beginning of October, before November 7, 1966, and before Jan. 1, 1967, respectively. As of August 18, 1966, the delivery of the first two Soyuz spacecraft to Tyuratam was expected in September, followed by the second pair in October and the third in December 1966.

Final preparations for flight of the first Soyuz at the launch site

The first spacecraft (No. 1) arrived at Tyuratam on September 9, followed by the second vehicle (No. 2) on October 5, 1966. There, the Soyuz spacecraft was expected to be a part of the exhibit for high-ranking officials from the countries of the Soviet block, who toured the secret Soviet site from Oct. 19 to Oct. 21, 1966.

In the final stretch of the pre-launch marathon, mission managers tried to set up a three-shift operation at the launch site, but a lack of qualified personnel hampered the effort. In November, Mishin still listed vacancies for an extra 96 test officers at the launch site and mentioned the need to complete the outfitting of the spacecraft processing building. (774) At the time, the original launch facility for the Soyuz rocket at Site 1 in Tyuratam had to be refurbished after a hectic period of launches. As a result, all manned operations were moved to a bare-bone backup facility at Site 31.

In the middle of November 1966, preparations for the dual Soyuz launch had finally entered their final phase, however technical problems still dogged engineers and test officers at the launch site. By November 19, less than 10 days before the liftoff, a total of 79 technical issues were documented on Vehicle No. 1 and 115 issues on Vehicle No. 2. The flight program for the mission was yet to be finalized and the fueling station for the spacecraft remained unfinished due to a lack of insulation materials, Mishin wrote.

The final pre-launch processing with the "active" vehicle No. 2 was to begin on November 20, followed by the "close-out" of the "passive" ship No. 1 a day later.

Military personnel also raced against the clock trying to get the launch pad at Site 31 ready to receive its first Soyuz rocket (11A511) by the end of the day on November 24. This pad had previously been used only for the launches of the Vostok and Molniya rockets, and therefore, its personnel needed some extra time for fit checks. As late as November 23, officers responsible for the launch complex were still assuring Mishin that they would meet the deadline.

On November 21, Mishin attended a meeting of the State Commission on the status of the second pair of Soyuz spacecraft. Vehicle No. 3 was apparently expected to be shipped to the launch site between Nov. 22 and 24, followed by Vehicle No. 4 rolling out on Nov. 28 or 30th. Their rockets were to be delivered on November 28 and December 5, 1966, respectively. The pair would then be launched on Dec. 26 and 27, 1966, with crews onboard for a docking mission.

As usual, the commission was pre-occupied with cutting corners in order to save time. For example, it was proposed to eliminate a "back-up" day on the launch pad reserved for solving unforeseen problems. Fit checks of the payload fairing and joint tests of the spacecraft were also dropped.

Mishin also planned to allocate 10,000 rubles for bonuses to engineers and 20,000 rubles for military personnel to incentivize people to work more efficiently. Military officials apparently disputed Mishin's numbers for the required military personnel, but promised to re-distribute the existing staff at the range within two days to meet the deadlines.

To give some respite to his overworked personnel, Mishin also planned to push back the launch of the Zenit-4 military reconnaissance satellite from Site 31, which was manifested for December, right between the two Soyuz launch campaigns.

Overall, Mishin hoped to cut pre-launch processing time for Vehicle No. 4 to 26 days, from around 40 days spent on its predecessors.

Mission control

On November 26, mission controllers planned a joint rehearsal of all ground stations across the USSR and tracking ships at sea supporting the upcoming flight. The main command center for the mission was set up at Site 2 in Tyuratam linked by phone and by telegraph with the IP-16 ground station in Crimea, the home of the newly built long-range communications antennas. A team of experts responsible for the analysis of telemetry data was deployed at Site 2, supported by data processing specialists at the main calculation center of Tyuratam at Site 10.

Reaching the launch pad

Right after the State Commission meeting on November 21, the final assembly of the launch vehicle and the spacecraft had began, but the scheduled launch on November 27 had to be ruled out because the rocket could not arrive at the launch pad in the second half of the day on November 25.

By that time, the rollout of the launch vehicle to the launch pad was set for 9:00 on November 26, followed by the on-pad processing lasting from 10 to 12 hours. November 27 was still reserved for the resolution of unforeseen problems.

The five-minute liftoff window was set for 14:00 local time on November 28, 1966, after a six-hour countdown process. The final meeting of the State Commission clearing the mission for launch was scheduled for 10:00 Moscow Time on the day of the launch.

Flight program


First mission of the Soyuz spacecraft hidden under name Kosmos-133 called for an automated rendezvous and docking of the "active" spacecraft with a similar "passive" vehicle scheduled for launch a day later.

The ambitious dual flight program for the first Soyuz mission called for the initial launch of the "active" spacecraft 7K-OK No. 2. During its fifth orbit, the ship would conduct an orbit correction to ensure it flew directly over the launch site 24 hours later.

If everything went as planned aboard the first spacecraft, the "passive" vehicle (7K-OK No. 1) would be launched a day after the first, aiming to enter orbit within just 20 kilometers from the "active" vehicle. The "active" ship would immediately begin automated rendezvous and docking with the "passive" vehicle during the first orbit of its second day in space.

An attempt to spin the joint vehicles relative to the Sun was apparently discussed by Mishin and Chertok as late as 10 days before the launch, but this flight mode appeared to have been rejected due to concerns over the structural integrity of the interface between the two spacecraft.

After making one revolution around the Earth jointly, the two ships would undock and the active vehicle would use its star-tracking system to make an orbit correction during the second orbit on its third day in space. This maneuver should ensure that the ship could remain in safe orbit for at least five days.

During its second orbit in the second day in space, the "passive" ship would make test orbit correction using star-tracking system. (774)

During the first orbit on its fifth day of the flight, the "active" spacecraft would deorbit and land.

During the first orbit on its fourth day in space, the "passive" spacecraft would deorbit and land.

During unpowered phases of the flight both vehicles would be put into a spin around their -Y axis, which would be pointed at the Sun. Such a position would ensure that despite their rotation, the "working" lower side of solar panels remains constantly exposed to the sunlight.

If the first two spacecraft worked as planned, the next pair of Soyuz vehicles could be cleared for a docking mission with cosmonauts onboard in early 1967.

First Soyuz finally lifts off

The first unmanned Soyuz spacecraft (Vehicle No. 02A) lifted off from Site 31 in Tyuratam on Nov. 28, 1966, at 14:00:00.02 Moscow Time. (774)

The ascent apparently went as planned and key officials who monitored the launch from the underground bunker at Site 31 got the word that the spacecraft had entered orbit, deployed its solar panels and all its antennas. However by the time engineers got to the command center at Site 2, telemetry experts already saw that after the separation from the third stage of the launch vehicle and until it left the range of Soviet ground stations in the Far East, the Soyuz was still rolling instead of entering a stable flight.

The trajectory measurements also indicated that the ship's orbital parameters were somewhat out of specifications:

Orbital parameter
Planned orbit
Actual orbit
Orbital period
88.53 minutes
88.4 minutes
Inclination toward the Equator
51.89 degrees
51.85 degrees
Perigee (lowest point)
204.8 kilometers
180 kilometers
Apogee (lowest point)
220.4 kilometers
232 kilometers

When the Soyuz re-appeared over the USSR, ground controllers reported that the spacecraft had established contact, downlinking good data. However, the telemetry was coming from the new BR-9 system, rather than the previously used Tral system.

In the meantime, Tyuratam officers pressed mission officials for a decision whether to roll out Vehicle No. 1 to the launch pad. The very first telemetry deciphered at the command post at Site 2 gave very alarming indications that all the propellant was drained from the rendezvous and attitude control system, DPO. (466) According to Mishin's records, the main tank of the backup attitude-control thruster system, DO, was also empty, while its second tank remained full. The fatal drainage had started immediately after the separation of the spacecraft from the third stage. (774) Moreover, the spacecraft was making two rotations per minute instead of maintaining a stable flight. Playback of the recorded data onboard the spacecraft revealed that DPO engines were firing extensively and unexpectedly along the roll axis.

It became clear that normal flight, let alone a rendezvous with another spacecraft was no longer possible, and by 2 a.m. in Tyuratam on November 29, the team preparing the second launch was ordered to stand down and secure Vehicle No. 1 and its rocket.

At the political level, a decision was made to announce the troubled mission as Kosmos-133, even though according to Chertok's recollections, there were plans to disclose the launch as Soyuz, had the mission gone according to plan.

Trying to land

Despite all the problems after launch, flight controllers were able to downlink a wealth of data from the Soyuz maiden launch and they immediately turned to devising plans for further actions, and first of all, how to return the spacecraft back to Earth. To the consolation of ground controllers, the telemetry from the marooned Soyuz confirmed that most other onboard systems were working fine.

However, the ballistic team quickly predicted that without additional maneuvers, the mission's orbit would decay after 39 orbits. (466) It was now important to take the spacecraft under control as soon as possible.

Two methods for stabilizing the Soyuz were still available: using the ion orientation, IO, or solar orientation, ASO.

However, the drainage of propellant from the DPO system also meant that it was no longer possible to maintain stable orientation of the spacecraft during the 100-second firing of the main SKDU propulsion system for the deorbiting maneuver.

All hopes for a controlled deorbiting of the Soyuz now rested on the backup DKD engine, which had its own stabilization nozzles relying on exhaust gas from the engine's turbopump. However, during the test firing of the DKD, the spacecraft suddenly turned into the opposite direction and upside down relative to its required orientation.

Mission control soon realized that attitude control nozzles of the DKD system responsible for the pitch and yaw of the vehicle had been set to a wrong polarity during the pre-launch processing. Propulsion engineers from Aleksei Isaev's team quickly admitted that they had misread the term "clockwise" and "counterclockwise" used in the guidelines for the installation of the engines.

A similar misunderstanding in the polarity of DPO thrusters was discovered to be a route cause of the failure that disabled the DPO system. (466)

Finally the reentry

Undeterred, Chertok and one of his colleagues then devised an attempt to return the spacecraft back to Earth using short firings of the main engine, SKDU. During those multiple maneuvers, the ship would be stabilized by the still operational orientation engines, DO, whose low thrust would be enough to keep the vehicle on track for 10 or 15 seconds. The main problem with that method was a high probability of errors, making the exact time of reentry very hard to predict.

There was a proposal to attempt landing using solar orientation during the 17th orbit and, if that failed, switch to ion orientation for another attempt during Orbit 18. The deorbiting burn would be preceded by an attempt to stabilize the vehicle using ion orientation during the 13th and 14th orbits.

However during the 17th orbit, the deorbiting maneuver was aborted for an unknown reason, another attempt with the ion orientation on the 18th orbit also failed due to wrong commands and a third attempt, by the same method, failed again during the 19th orbit due to loss of stabilization. To make matters worse, the Rubin radio-command exchange system also failed during the 15th orbit. (774)

Deorbiting attempts continued during most of November 29 and into November 30.

The Soyuz apparently came close to deorbiting during the 33rd orbit on November 30 at 12:40:17 Moscow Time, but again, the engine burn was apparently cut short before completing the braking.

Finally, the spacecraft plunged into the atmosphere during the 34th orbit of the mission. The Soyuz entered the range of the IP-16 ground station in Crimea at 14:25 Moscow Time and the separation between the descent module, habitation module and instrument module was recorded at 14:30 Moscow Time over the town of Guriev in Southern Russia.

Soviet radar near Krasnodar, Guriev and Aktyubinsk tracked the descending capsule, however it disappeared after a final sighting, while still flying at an altitude of between 70 and 100 kilometers over the city of Orsk in Southern Russia.

Mission officials suspected that the self-destruct system blew the vehicle up after it had concluded that its landing was falling outside of the Soviet territory. No remnants of the capsule has ever been found.


Despite all its tribulations, the first Soyuz mission was not a total failure, because it brought a plenty of test data, first of all on the operation of the flight control system and on the performance of the ion orientation system. Mission control also gained its first experience with the multiple firings of the propulsion system on the manned spacecraft and confirmed the capability to deorbit the vehicle with a malfunctioning attitude control system. (231)

Interestingly, Mishin concluded that had a cosmonaut been onboard the spacecraft, a successful return to Earth would have been accomplished.

Based on the investigation of the failure, developers introduced additional measures to ensure the correct installation of the engines and the testing of their valves during ground processing. (52)

Out of the shadows

The official Soviet press announced the launch as Kosmos-133, reporting the spacecraft in a 181 by 233-kilometer orbit, but provided no details on the mission, let alone disclose the introduction of a new manned vehicle. However Western observers quickly suspected that an attempt to recover the ship had likely indicated its association with the human space flight effort. (50)

An amateur satellite tracking group at Kettering School in England led by Geoffrey Perry was apparently the first to publicly link Kosmos-133 with the inaugural flight of the Soyuz spacecraft.

In the USSR, the true mission of Kosmos-133 remained secret until the publication of the Encyclopedia of Cosmonautics in 1985, which identified Kosmos satellites flown within the Soyuz testing program, but provided no other details on their missions. (2)

Chronology of Kosmos-133 mission:

1966 Sept. 9: Soyuz 7K-OK No. 1 arrives at Tyuratam. (774)

1966 Oct. 5: Soyuz 7K-OK No. 2 arrives at Tyuratam. (774)

1966 Oct. 27: Mishin discusses the status of the 7K-OK project at a meeting with Dmitry Ustimov. (774)

1966 Nov. 11: Mishin chairs a technical meeting on the readiness of first four 7K-OK spacecraft. (774)

1966 Nov. 14: Mishin chairs the Chief Designers Council on the 7K-OK system. (774)

1966 Nov. 28: Soyuz 7K-OK No. 2 lifts off.

1966 Nov. 30: Soyuz 7K-OK No. 2 reenters the atmosphere, self-destructs.


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The article and illustrations by Anatoly Zak; Last update: December 15, 2016

Page editor: Alain Chabot; Last edit: November 27, 2016

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An early Soyuz 7K-OK spacecraft is being prepared for flight inside the rudimentary processing complex at Site 31 in Tyuratam. archive