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Previous chapter: Aftermath of Sputnik-2 launch with Laika

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On May 15, 1958, the USSR launched its Third Artificial Satellite. While two previous Soviet orbiters were propelled into space by mostly political considerations, Sputnik-3, as it became known in the West, was designed to be a true scientific laboratory. According to original plans, it was supposed to be the first Soviet satellite, but, as it transpired decades later, it became the fourth, after its sibling crashed in a botched launch less than three weeks earlier.

Final design of Object-D

After a controversial triumph of Laika on the world's political stage, Korolev and his team turned their attention back to a long-delayed project of a truly scientific satellite code-named Object D (or Article D). While engineers were still mostly pre-occupied with difficult tests of the R-7 ballistic missile and particularly its troublesome warhead, two space firsts of 1957 had already ensured the political support of the Kremlin for further space shots.

By the beginning of 1958, a launch vehicle designated 8A91, as well as two copies of Object D were approaching completion. The actual spacecraft was modified in comparison to its preliminary design completed a year and a half earlier. The satellite gained an extra telemetry system, experimental sensors for solar orientation and a Mayak (Beacon) transmitter, which was flight-proven in two previous space shots. However this time, it was to be powered from solar panels and a chemical battery serving only as a backup power source.

Two additional instruments featuring their own memory storage were installed to register cosmic rays. Deployable reflectors and angular velocity sensors were dropped from the payload.

A payload fairing covering the front section of the satellite was redesigned to feature three spring-loaded components. They would be dropped immediately after the separation from the launch vehicle.

The chosen flight altitude would enable the satellite to make from 13.5 to 15 orbits a day, with six or seven data-transmissions sessions planned during the first three days. (84)

A total of 12 scientific instruments would be carried onboard for measuring the pressure and composition of the ionosphere, positive ion concentration, electrical charge, electric and magnetic field, solar radiation and meteorites.

On January 15, 1958, top rocket industry officials reported to the Kremlin that the launch of the Object D satellite was scheduled in April, following three ICBM tests with a new warhead protection system at the end of January, February and March. The plan received official blessing just two days later. (509)

Still, in February it was decided to replace the RTS-8 telemetry transmission system onboard the satellite with the Tral hardware previously used on ballistic missiles. It included the TBZ memory storage, featuring a thin steel wire. (537) In the same month, five Kvarts computers for the calculation of the satellite trajectory in real time went through factory testing and were ready for delivery to five ground stations. The devices would be tested for the first time during the launch of the R-7 ICBM on March 29. (644)

First time is not charm

Trains with strap-on boosters and the core stage of the B1-2 rocket for the launch of Object D arrived to Tyuratam on April 5 and 10, respectively. (537) The launch was originally planned for April 20 to mark birthday of Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the USSR, but later postponed. (645)

By April 22, everything was finally ready for launch, including a draft of the official statement to be released to the world two or three hours after the satellite would successfully reach orbit.

A 8A91 rocket with the Object D No. 1 satellite lifted off from Site 1 in Tyuratam on April 27, 1958, at 10:01 Moscow Time. (509) The vehicle was climbing normally for about a minute and a half, then suddenly disintegrated into multiple flaming fragments and plunged to the ground.


At the calculation center of the NIIP-5 test range in Tyuratam, radar data tracking was flowing into the Kvarts computer, which was estimating the trajectory of the flight. Engineers manning the machine noticed as the trajectory angles turned negative, followed by a "no data" command. After deciphering the last data packet, engineers calculated that the rocket flew for only 227 kilometers. They reported this data to Moscow by telephone. Few minutes later, security officers burst into the room and confiscated all the recordings. Engineers did learn that the launch had failed and the vehicle exploded. (644)

Naturally, the accident would remain secret for decades, however ironically, on that very day, the Pravda newspaper carried an article on the scientific results of the first and second satellites. (199)

Next day, Korolev and his team sent a classified telegram to Khrushchev reporting that vibrations onboard the rocket had started 90 seconds after the liftoff and its disintegration had taken place 97 seconds in flight. According to the telegram, the vehicle crashed between 69 and 225 kilometers downrange from the launch site and a search aircraft had located the impact site. The telegram also noted that a decision had already been made to proceed with preparations for the launch of the second Object D between May 15 and 18, while specialists were continuing their investigation into the causes of vibrations. (509)

At the time, specialists apparently ruled the vibration phenomenon to be accidental and preparations for the second mission were allowed to proceed immediately. However it was decided to throttle down engines slightly beginning at the 85th second of flight, just before fatal vibrations started in the previous launch. (51)

The lack of vibration diagnostics onboard the rocket apparently prevented the true understanding of the resonance effects taking place during the emptying of propellant tanks at the end of the first stage burn. As a result, the problem would crop up again during early lunar campaign, when the same type of vehicle would have to additionally carry a third stage. (537)

Following the accident, a search team discovered that the satellite had crashed separately from the rocket and had suffered relatively little damage. It was transported back to the assembly building at Site 2. However, when technicians removed the aft bulkhead, the spacecraft caught fire from a short circuit in its damaged wiring. As a result, three or four fire extinguishers were emptied into its interior. (248)

Despite this fiasco, Korolev remained upbeat and even told his engineers that they would be paid bonuses, as long as they agree to stay at the launch site for an urgent processing of the second Object-D and its rocket. (62)

Finally a success

A 8A91 rocket No. B1-1 with the second copy of Object D lifted off on the morning of May 15, 1958. This time, the ride to orbit went without a hitch. (473) A total of four objects were detected by Western radars after the launch: the satellite itself, the core stage of the R-7 rocket and two halves of a payload fairing, while the front tip of the fairing was probably too small to be registered.

The personnel at Tyuratam received the news about the successful launch with a huge relief. Naturally, a big celebration with vodka had followed. However, the first post-launch analysis quickly showed that the vibration problem that doomed the previous mission, had surfaced again, coming close to destroying the launcher. The chief of testing at OKB-1 Arkady Ostashev was ordered to explain the situation very next morning to a State Commission chaired by the fearsome commander of Strategic Rocket Forces, Mitrofan Nedelin. By his own admission, Ostashev stumbled around delivering bad news to high-ranking officials, while being still heavy headed from the previous night of drinking. "Yeah, you are not Levitan," Nedelin noted light-heartedly, referring to a legendary Soviet radio presenter.

In the meantime, Soviet press run another triumphant report about the new space first. Four days later, the Izvestiya daily published line art revealing the overall design of the satellite and even illustrating its process of separation from the launch vehicle. Obviously, no details on the rocket were provided.

On May 29, a press-release dedicated to the mission revealed general dimensions of the satellite and boasted that the third Soviet spacecraft was 2.5 times heavier than the second satellite and 16 times heavier than the first. (199)

As it transpired decades later, most systems onboard the third satellite functioned for more than two weeks, even though its data recorder failed earlier. The onboard system for orbit tracking was misbehaving in the first days of the mission.

During a month and half after the launch, five Kvarts computers at Tyuratam and other ground stations conducted several daily computations of the trajectory parameters of the third satellite and transmitted it to a Ministry of Defense calculation center in Moscow. Resulting orbital parameters were then published in daily TASS reports.

However, the computer No. 5 installed at the ground station in the Kamchatka Peninsula consistently produced errors and its data had to be discarded.

Due to lack of proper housing in Tyuratam, the engineering team manning the Kvarts computer was housed in dugouts at Site 2, not far from the main calculation center. During the night, engineers had to keep a watch against scorpions, which became especially active in spring. As June came, the temperatures at the launch site reached 42 degrees C. As a result, in 10-12 minutes of operation of the Kvarts computer, the temperature inside the building that housed the machine would climb to 50 degrees -- a highest acceptable limit. To avoid overheating, the computer would be booted up just before the satellite pass. Still one of the engineers had a heat stroke, after which team members for the exception of their boss and few military officers was allowed to work in their underwear! (644)

The Sputnik-3 remained in orbit for 692 days, or twice the predicted duration. It reentered on April 6, 1960, as the Soviet manned space flight project was well underway.

In August 1958, key personnel involved in the Object-D project met at ground control facility in Moscow to review the results of the mission. Sergei Korolev told the team that preparations to launch first probes to the Moon and orbit a manned spacecraft were underway.

Next chapter: Russia's science satellites

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Object-D No. 1 failed launch at a glance (51) :

Launch date
1958 April 27, 12:01
Vehicle disintegration time
T+96.5 seconds
Spacecraft designation
Object D-1 No. 1
Launch vehicle
8A91 B1-2 (later known as Sputnik)


Sputnik-3 mission at a glance:

Launch date
1958 May 15, 10:00:35.5
End of operation
1958 June 3
Reentry date
1960 April 6 (537)
Flight duration
692 days
Number of orbits
10,037 (2)
Spacecraft mass
1,327 kilograms (2)
Payload mass
968 kilograms (2)
226 by 1,881 kilometer, inclination 65.2 degrees; orbital period 105.95 minutes (537)
Projected radio transmission period
40-45 days (509)


Sputnik-3 chronology:

1956 July: OKB-1 completes a preliminary design of Object D. (84)

1958 April 5: Strap-on boosters for the 8A91 rocket No. B1-2 (intended for the Object D mission) arrive to Tyuratam. (537)

1958 April 10: A core stage for the 8A91 rocket No. B1-2 (intended for the Object D mission) arrive to Tyuratam. (537)

1958 April 27, 12:01: The 8A91 B1-2 launch vehicle lifts off carrying the Object D No. 1 satellite. The rocket disintegrates 96.5 seconds after liftoff and crashes 225-227 kilometers downrange.

1958 May 15, 10:00:35.5: Launch of the 8A91 No. B1-1 rocket, carrying a second version of the Object D satellite. After a successful orbital insertion, it was announced by the USSR as the Third Artificial Satellite and became known in the West as Sputnik-3. (51)


Page author: Anatoly Zak

Last update: January 18, 2017

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Keldysh and Korolev

Mstislav Keldysh (left) and Sergei Korolev were key figures behind Object-D. While Korolev led the "rocket" part of the project, Keldysh mobilized the Soviet scientific community to provide instruments and experimental program of the satellite.


Ground processing hardware for Object D. Credit: KBOM



A pre-launch processing of Object-D. Credit: RKK Energia




The ill-fated launch of Object-D in April 1958. Credit: RKK Energia


Soviet poster commemorating the launch of Sputnik-3 on May 15, 1958.


A Soviet poster dedicated to the Third Artificial Satellite. Anatoly Zak's collection.





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