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Planning the triple Soyuz mission
Active preparations for the group launch of three Soyuz spacecraft began immediately after the successful completion of the Soyuz-4 and Soyuz-5 flights in January 1969. The triple mission was originally scheduled for as early as August 1969 and the crew training started at the end of February, but the crew assignments to the missions had major changes throughout the year.
Group photo of the crew members for the Soyuz-6, Soyuz-7 and Soyuz-8 missions (left to right): Georgy Shonin, Vladislav Volkov, Anatoly Filipchenko, Valery Kubasov, Viktor Gorbatko, Vladimir Shatalov and Aleksei Yeliseev.
In February 1969, or within a month after the successful return of Soyuz-4 and Soyuz-5, officials from the TsKBEM design bureau and the Air Force's Cosmonaut Training Center, TsPK, worked out the preliminary scenario for the flights of three 7K-OK spacecraft for the remainder of the year.
According to that plan, Vehicle No. 14, with a crew of two, would be launched in April of May 1969, and would orbit the Earth for a week, setting the Soviet flight-duration record. (At that time, the world's flight duration record, achieved in 1965 during the Gemini program, stood at 14 days.)
Next, Vehicles No. 15 and No. 16 would be launched in August or September 1969 to link up and remain in a docked position for around three days. In total, the pair of ships would orbit the Earth for a total of seven days each.
However, the Secretary of the Central Committee Dmitry Ustinov, who oversaw the Soviet space program for the Kremlin, found the proposed flight program not ambitious enough. Apparently, seeking more spectacular achievements to counterbalance the advances of the Apollo program, Ustinov sent the flight manifest back to the industry with the comment "a bit shallow, something juicier would help." In search of a more ambitious plan, officials dusted off a circa-1961 concept for a simultaneous flight of three Vostok spacecraft (which was eventually downgraded to a dual flight). In the Soyuz version of a triple mission, it was proposed for the "active" Vehicle No. 16 to rendezvous with the passive Vehicle No. 15, while Vehicle No. 14 would approach the pair to a distance from 300 to 50 meters and document spectacular scenes of docking and undocking.
The transfer of crew members from one spacecraft to another during this mission was deemed unnecessary and, instead, the flight program was packed with various experiments and tests, including the first attempt at welding in orbit using the Vulkan (volcano) hardware developed at the Electric Welding Institute in Kiev under leadership of Boris Paton. The automated Vulkan welding machine was designed to fit inside the Habitation Module of the Soyuz spacecraft. The bulky experiment was accommodated inside Vehicle No. 14 (future Soyuz-6), which could carry some extra payload thanks to the absence of a docking port onboard.
The entire program of experiments for the triple Soyuz mission was sub-divided into three categories: Group A included engineering tasks, Group B consisted of scientific experiments and Group V was dedicated to studies for the benefit of the military. Kamanin cited some of the details of the planned experiments:
In addition, the crews were scheduled to conduct TV broadcasts from orbit.
The flight duration of each individual mission was limited to a period between four and five days, but Vehicles No. 15 and No. 16 (Soyuz-7 and -8) were expected to remain docked for two or three days.
The complex mission was initially expected to take place in August 1969.
There was also apparently a push from General Nikolai Kamanin, the head of cosmonaut training, to conduct one test flight of the Soyuz spacecraft without crew to certify upgrades in the wake of the nearly fatal landing of the Soyuz-5 spacecraft on January 18, 1969. However, the TsKBEM design bureau, which developed Soyuz, issued a brief stating that a series of ground tests, combined with the successful flight of the Zond-7 spacecraft in August 1969, negated the need for the test launch. (820)
According to notes made by the Head of TsKBEM Vasily Mishin in February 1969, the crews for the upcoming Soyuz missions would include the following cosmonauts:
Their backups according to Mishin were, Yevgeny Khrunov, Georgy Grechko and Petr Kolodin. (774)
The hastily formed crews began training for the joint triple mission at the end of February 1969 with hope of launching as early as August 1969. They included the following crew members:
Because the cosmonaut training center had only one Soyuz simulator, it was deemed impractical to attempt parallel training of dedicated backup crews for all three missions. Instead a single backup crew was formed for the three primary crews. As a result, the backup cosmonauts had to be prepared to fly all three flight programs.This difficult task was given to Anatoly Kuklin, Georgy Grechko and Petr Kolodin.
Preparations continued as planned until the first days of July 1969, when less than a month before the conclusion of training, doctors discovered that Anatoly Kuklin had suffered a heart blockage due to a breakage in a small artery after a trial on the centrifuge. Kuklin was urgently sent to the hospital and had to leave cosmonaut training. He was initially replaced by Yevgeny Khrunov, the veteran of the Soyuz-5 mission, but after three weeks on the job, Khrunov got into a car accident, and apparently committed some other indiscretions, which led to his dismissal from the project. (820) The program managers then turned to another veteran Vladimir Shatalov, who, citing little time left for training, asked to bring in Aleksei Yeliseev, his crewmate from a previous mission. As a result, the new backup crew formed in early August 1969 included Shatalov, Yeliseev and Kolodin. The trio began training on August 9, but Georgy Grechko, from the original backup crew, also continued training as a reserve crew member.
In the meantime, the primary crews began undergoing integrated training tests at the end of July. While Shonin and Filipchenko came out from the trials with flying colors, Nikolaev and Sevastyanov got only a "three" out of "five" score, or the equivalent of a satisfactory grade. They were assigned eight additional training sessions, but the pair continued making serious mistakes, which were seen as serious enough to jeopardize the docking and even the safety of the flight.
Kamanin also cited Mishin as saying that Sevastyanov was inadequately prepared for the flight and vowed to block his assignment to the crew. (820) As a result, on August 20, officials ordered Shatalov and Yeliseev to begin active training alongside Nikolaev and Sevastyanov for launch aboard Vehicle No. 16. At the same time, Kolodin and Grechko continued training as backups for all three crews.
On August 26, the State Commission met and postponed the launch of the triple mission until the beginning of October 1969, to give Shatalov and Yeliseev some extra time to catch up with the training and replace the original primary crew of the Soyuz-8 spacecraft.
Obviously, the situation did not sit well with Nikolaev, the high-profile hero of the Vostok-3 mission, who apparently intended to use his connections to fight what was essentially his dismissal from the crew. On September 11, Kamanin met with Nikolaev and warned him not make attempts to reverse the decisions of the training center. The next day, Nikolaev's wife Valentina Tereshkova, who also had considerable connections within the Soviet establishment after her mission aboard Vostok-6, also paid a visit to Kamanin. She told him of her intentions to go further up the chain of command, to Ustinov and beyond, if her husband was not restored to the Soyuz crew. Kamanin remembered hardly being able to convince Tereshkova to drop the idea and instead try to reason with Nikolaev. Nikolaev was ultimately accepted his fate but was reported to be depressed for weeks afterwards.
The training of the final cosmonaut team for the triple Soyuz mission was officially completed on September 17 and Shatalov's crew was officially declared to be better prepared for the mission than Nikolaev's crew. The decision to swap the crew members was sealed at the meeting of the Military Industrial Commission in the Oval Hall of the Kremlin on September 18. Moreover, Shatalov was named commander of the entire seven-member team and commander of the "orbital station" to be formed by the docking of Soyuz-7 and Soyuz-8. (820, 231)
The triple mission was set to take place from October 5 to October 15, 1969. (820)
Crew of Soyuz-7 spacecraft during training (left to right): Viktor Gorbatko, Vladislav Volkov and Anatoly Filipchenko.
The Vulkan welding system which was installed aboard the Soyuz-6 spacecraft.