Vostok 3 & 4, sixty years ago: Is R for Rendezvous?

The August 24, 1962, cover of Life magazine depicts an imaginative impression of Vostoks 3 & 4 in close orbit. The actual appearance of the Vostok was not yet known in the West.


The news broke across America before dawn on August 12, 1962, in a wave of surprise — no, make that pure shock:  The Soviet Union at 4:02 a.m. on the East Coast of the U.S. (11:0 a.m. Moscow time) launched a second manned Vostok, the first having been placed in orbit 24 hours before.  Were the Soviets about to pull off the first rendezvous in space, years ahead of the Americans?

The day before, at nearly the same time in the morning, the Soviets had launched Vostok 3 with Cosmonaut Andrian Nikolayev, 32,  into an orbit of 114 by 156 mi.  “I am Sokol,” he called — establishing Sokol (Falcon) as his call sign.  He reported that he was feeling fine, could see the earth through the porthole.  All was proceeding normally.

On his fourth orbit, Soviet Premier Khrushchev spoke with him over.  Nikolayev radioed, “I feel fine.  All systems of the ship are functioning perfectly.”

Khrushchev replied, “I am glad you are feeling well.  I am proud of the courage you have displayed in making this flight.”

Nikolayev ate a meal, released his restraining straps and floated free, the first person in orbit to do so, giving the impression that the capsule was spacious (when in fact he could only float a few inches above his seat).  He slept.

Speculation in the West predicted the flight would last three days, the duration of the flight of an unmanned test in April.  Nothing indicated what was about to happen, the launch of Vostok 4, with 31-year-old Pavel Popovich aboard, using the code name, Berkut, (Golden Eagle).  He entered a nearly identical orbit as Nikolayev.  The launch time, 28 min. earlier in the day than Vostok 3’s launch, was synchronized to set up a close approach.   Within an hour, the two ships were in radio contact.  Nikolayev called, “Berkut!  Berkut!  This is Sokol!  Hear me?”

“Andryusha!  I’m here along side you!   You’re coming in fine.”

Nikolayev could see Vostok 4, looking like a star.  

Rumors and speculation spread rapidly.  The Soviets did not announce the weight of the spacecraft, as they had on previous Vostoks.  Did this indicated that these were improved Vostok spacecraft capable of maneuvering for rendezvous?  Were they launched by new, more powerful boosters.

The two spaceships passed close during Vostok 4’s initial orbits.  Four miles?  Three miles? Closer?   We’re they maneuvering to dock?  Had they docked?  Was one cosmonaut about to transfer to the other spaceship?

The official Soviet statement called the mission a “group flight” with the objective of placing “two spaceships on orbits close enough to obtain experimental data on the possibility of establishing contacts between the two spaceships, coordinating the actions of the pilot-cosmonauts  and to check the influence of identical conditions of space flight on human beings.”

Contact between spaceships? — did that mean radio contact or actual physical contact?  The private Sohio tracking site in Cleveland, Ohio, claimed that the two had docked with Popovich transferring to Vostok.  They based the claim because after an initial period, they only heard voices from Vostok 3.  Sir Bernard Lovell of the Jodrell Bank Observatory in England said he didn’t think there would be an actual attempt at rendezvous.   No one really knew what had occurred, and even days later, the industry trade publication, Aviation Week & Space Technology would claim the two ships had rendezvous and docked.

In any case, the demonstration of the precision launch of two spaceships was impressive, enough to spread gloom in Western space community:  These Russians — they don’t waste time and money on intermediate steps.  They set their plans, direct and uncomplicated.  They don’t have to beg the public for appropriations.  They’re sure to land on the moon first.  It’s inevitable.   

Predictions abounded that the Russians would demonstrate full rendezvous later in 1962, two years ahead of U.S. plans.  Kenneth Gatland, of the British Planetary Society predicted that Russia would attempt a manned landing on the moon in 1965 or 1966.  The August 24 issue of Life magazine, with an artist impression of the two spaceships flying formation on its cover, predicted that the Soviet Union would test their moon vehicles in Earth orbit in 1963-64, leading to a landing the next year, three years ahead of the United States.  

Far above the buzz of speculation, the two Vostoks continued to orbit, the distance between them growing with each orbit.  And with each orbit, Nikolayev set a new duration record. 

Could the U.S. ever catch them?  For now, President Kennedy only could issue a statement much the same as after previous Soviet space spectaculars, “I congratulate the Soviet Union on this exceptional technical feat and salute the courage of her two new astronauts.”

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