The USSR orbits its first space station
On April 19, 1971, at 04:40:00 Moscow Time, a three-stage UR-500K (Proton) rocket lifted off from the "Right" pad at Site 81 in Tyuratam, carrying the first 17K space station (No. 12101) for the DOS-7K complex. According to General Nikolai Kamanin, the head of cosmonaut training, who witnessed the liftoff from Site 95, the rocket disappeared in the morning clouds around 40 seconds after the liftoff, as the rain was drizzling at the launch site.
Immediately after the station entered orbit, ground control was able to confirm that its antennas and solar panels had deployed, but at the end of the first revolution around the planet, as the spacecraft reentered communications range of Soviet ground stations, data showed that a protective cover on the science section had failed to come off, leaving some of the station’s payloads in the dark.
In any case, a custom-built science laboratory designed for visiting crews was now functioning in orbit. The USSR announced the newly launched station as Salyut. Unknown to the world, the name Zarya (sunrise) had been painted on its body. There are still conflicting accounts as to why this name change took place at the eleventh hour. According to some, “Zarya” was the call sign of a major ground control station in Crimea and Soviet officials decided that it would be wise to rename the station to avoid confusion during communications.
Others claim that shortly before launch, Soviet officials discovered that the name of the first Chinese satellite, which was put into orbit just a year earlier, could also mean “sunrise.” Interestingly, at the time, Chinese satellites were publicly known under name “China,” even though there were reports that the first of them broadcast a song called “The East is Red,” which could probably be interpreted as “sunrise” by the Soviet intelligence. In the meantime, the name Salyut or “fireworks” meant to mark the 10th anniversary of Gagarin’s pioneering flight, which was celebrated just a week earlier.
In early February 1970, Kamanin approved primary and backup crews for two three-member expeditions to the DOS station and the active training started in May of the same year.
The first crew was originally led by the Soyuz-6 veteran, Georgy Shonin, while Aleksei Yeliseev, with two Soyuz missions under his belt, and a rookie, Nikolai Rukavishnikov, were serving as flight engineers. However on February 5, 1971, Shonin failed to show up at the TsKBEM design bureau, for a critical training session on a modified Soyuz spacecraft. Furious General Kamanin, the head of the cosmonaut corps, launched an investigation, which quickly uncovered more instances of Shonin’s “misbehavior” and resulted in his expulsion from the crew. A domino effect of reassignments rippled through three crews, with Vladimir Shatalov, previously from the third expedition to the station, taking command of the first station crew.
By the end of March 1971, Soviet space officials approved the flight duration for the first two expeditions to the Salyut: beteween 25 and 30 days for the first crew and between 30 and 45 days for the second crew, with a 25-day break in between. If successful, both expeditions would break flight-duration record in human space flight.
Rollout of the Proton rocket with the first Salyut space station to launch pad in Tyuratam. Credit: Roskosmos
Proton rocket with the first Salyut space station arrives at launch pad in Tyuratam. Credit: Roskosmos
A Proton rocket with the Salyut space station on the launch pad at Site 200. Credit: Roskosmos
Salyut-1 lifts off.