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Mission of Kosmos-57

Before the Voskhod-2 spacecraft could be launched, its creators had to fly at least one pilotless test mission. For that purpose, the 3KD No. 1 spacecraft was launched on Feb. 22, 1965. It was publicly announced as Kosmos-57. The mission started successfully but concluded with a bang.


Specialists load a mannequin aboard the pilotless version of the Voskhod spacecraft.

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Around February 10, 1965, Korolev arrived to snow-covered Tyuratam for a test launch of Voskhod-2. Preparations in the assembly building and on the pad were taking place in temperatures ranging between minus 20 and 28 degrees. (18) Apparently, until very late in preparation, engineers were struggling with the Tral telemetry system for the rocket. The launch was apparently planned around February 15, however, three days earlier, a second set of the Tral telemetry system failed, which required taking apart the Voskhod and postponing the launch for seven or eight days to February 22 or 23, 1965. As a result, the manned launch was pushed from the end of February to March. On February 12, an aircraft delivered a new set of Tral instruments from Lvov in Ukraine. (742)

By February 16, tests inside the TBK-60 vacuum chamber revealed the possibility of pressure loss through the hatch in the airlock after its inflation. The same tests also showed that due to the small diameter of the pressure drop valve, it would take 33 minutes to reduce the pressure in the airlock to no less than 0.256 atmosphere -- still too high for the commander to open the hatch of the airlock in time and pull in his spacewalking pilot.

In addition, engineers had to tackle the problem of sending commands to the Voskhod from the IP-7 Klychi and IP-6 Yelizovo ground stations to open and close the airlock hatch. Due to overlap between the two stations, they apparently had an interference problem. At the same time, Korolev demanded that both stations be able to back each other up. In 1964, General Kamanin, who oversaw cosmonaut training apparently contemplated sending a pilot onboard the first Voskhod without conducting an EVA, but according to Korolev, it was politically impossible, because such a mission would not produce any spectacular firsts.

The final tests of the Voskhod were finally completed late at night on February 16. The integration of the spacecraft with the launch vehicle and the rollout to the launch pad was scheduled for February 20, with the launch expected on February 21 or 22.

Around the same time, planners considered postponing the piloted launch of Voskhod until the end of March, because of a schedule conflict with the 20-day pre-launch processing of a lunar probe scheduled for liftoff around March 13, 1965. Nevertheless, on February 19, the State Commission overseeing the Voskhod project, confirmed the original schedule, culminating with the piloted launch of Voskhod on March 4 or 5, given the successful performance of the preceding automated vehicle. (742)

On February 20, the rollout of the rocket with the test spacecraft had to be postponed, because the integration of the launch vehicle and its payload required more time. Instead, the rollout took place at 08:00 Moscow time on February 21, at minus 22 degrees outside. (742)

On February 22, at 08:00, the State Commission gave its green light to the fueling of the spacecraft and approved the liftoff at 12:30 local time (10:30 Moscow Time). (742)

Kosmos-57 lifts off

The test version of the 3KD No. 1 Voskhod-2 spacecraft with two mannequins onboard lifted off on February 22, 1965, at 10:30 Moscow Time. The weather in Tyuratam was cold but clear for launch, however at the landing site in Kustanai, in Kazakhstan, there were low clouds, snowfall and winds which threatened to complicate search and recovery operations. (742)

The spacecraft reached orbit without a hitch and was publicly announced as Kosmos-57. Mission officials immediately focused on airlock tests: inflation of the airlock, opening and closing of the hatch, leak tests. All operations apparently went successfully. At the end of the first orbit, ground stations in Moscow and Simpheropol were receiving live images from the spacecraft. The visuals also appeared at the Tyuratam ground station, showing the front two thirds of the deployed airlock. They confirmed that the airlock was in a good condition. (742)

However at the beginning of the third revolution, as the spacecraft was flying over the USSR, all communications with the vehicle suddenly stopped. There was no telemetry or any other signals from the ship during its planned fourth and all following revolutions.

After two or three hours of analysis of final available telemetry, it became clear that the deorbiting sequence had been activated onboard the spacecraft and the braking engine had fired. However, it only changed the orbit of the mission, instead of sending the ship back to Earth. Some 29 minutes after the completion of the engine firing, the self-destruct mechanism blew up the spacecraft. Now engineers had to determine the root cause of the failure before clearing the piloted mission for launch. In case the ship's onboard systems were the culprit, the spacewalking mission would have to be delayed.

Fortunately, by February 23, it became clear that (742) NIP-6 and -7 stations in Kluchi and Elizovo on the Kamchatka Peninsula had interfered with each other while sending commands to the spacecraft to open and close the airlock during checks of the pressurization telemetry.

The post-flight investigation was complicated by a bad weather, preventing the delivery of telemetry tapes from the Far-Eastern ground stations to the Tyuratam launch site. On February 24, Kamanin ordered the postponement of the cosmonauts' arrival at Tyuratam for the subsequent piloted launch. As a result, Tyulin made the decision to give the green light for the launch of the Luna probe on March 12, pushing the piloted mission to the end of March.

The telemetry film finally reached Tyuratam on February 25 and by 16:00, at the gathering of the State Commission, experts were able to finally confirm the exact sequence of events during the automated test launch of the Voskhod spacecraft.

As a result of interference between the two ground stations, the two commands for onboard tests were morphed into a "descent" command and the spacecraft fired its braking engine. However, the airlock was still attached to the spacecraft, shifting its center of gravity relative to the normal braking configuration. As a result, the ship started tumbling during the braking maneuver and entered an unplanned descent trajectory, triggering the self-destruct mechanism. The spacecraft exploded somewhere over Yeniseisk in Siberia. This scenario fully rehabilitated all spacecraft systems.

The test mission also proved that the airlock had functioned as planned, however its safe jettisoning had not been tested and the reentry of the descent module with a newly added interface ring for the airlock had not been performed either. It was partially compensated for by drop tests of the capsule from an altitude of 10,000 meters near Feodosiya in Crimea. Soviet space officials had the choice of using the available vehicle for the piloted mission for another automated test flight, but it would also mean delaying the actual spacewalk mission until the end of 1965 and most likely ceding this space first to the Americans during the planned Gemini-4 mission, which, indeed, took place in June 1965.

Korolev called Pilyugin and Ryazansky to the launch site to discuss the situation and plan the course of action. They decided to conduct additional tests of the spacecraft and its airlock in a big vacuum chamber which was accomplished at the end of February and beginning of March 1965. Korolev wanted to perform the spacewalking Voskhod mission ahead of the planned launch of NASA's first Gemini spacecraft with the crew onboard planned in the second half of March 1965. Although Korolev knew that no spacewalk was planned during that flight, he wanted to have some lead time anyway. (18) (Gemini-3 flew successfully on March 23 and the mission did not involve spacewalk.)



The article by Anatoly Zak; Last update: March 25, 2021

Page editor: Alain Chabot; Last edit: March 18, 2020

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A frame of film footage apparently showing the Kosmos-57 spacecraft moments before liftoff. Notable is the protruding airlock visible on the right side of the payload fairing. Credit: RKK Energia


A view transmitted by a TV camera from the interior of the Voskhod spacecraft. Credit: Roskosmos