Vostok 3 & 4: A hand of space poker

Pavel Popovich demonstrates weightlessness during Vostok 4, which, 60 years ago, flew a tandem flight with Vostok 3.


Two days?  Three days?  More?

The debate had been going on since plans were first developed for the “group flight” of Vostoks 3 and 4.  How long should Cosmonaut Andrian Nikolayev fly Vostok 3?  The debate between space officials such as Sergei Korolyov (only known as the mysterious “Chief Designer” in the West) and the State Commission overseeing the flight surged back and forth.  

Two days?  Three days?  More?

The State Commission approved a three-day flight for Vostok 3 and two days for Vostok 4 with Cosmonaut Pavel Popovich, launching a day later.  The cosmonauts would be brought down simultaneously, minutes apart.

Three days, that’s where plans remained as the launches took place on time on August 11 and 12.  All proceeding to plan, the spaceships made their close approach of about three miles soon after Popovich’s launch. With each orbit, the gap between the two increased, with Vostok 4 trailing, yet they maintained radio contact throughout the dual mission.  

The two cosmonauts worked on the identical schedules of meals and sleep.  Their main experiments centered on photography, Nikolayev concentration on ground photography and Popovich that of the horizon.

Nikolayev was extensively wired to monitor his physical reactions to weightlessness.  He reported none of the nausea that had struck Gherman Titov on Vostok 2.  Popovich experienced some mild symptoms, but both reported excellent health.  Why not extend the flights?

Both spaceships were functioning well, although on its 29th orbit, Vostok’s 3 interior temperature abruptly dropped from 27 degrees C. (80.6 degrees F.) to 13 degrees C. (55.4 degrees F.), but stabilized there.  Late on August 13, the State Commission debated extending Vostok 3 to four days, with Vostok 4 coming down at the same time after three days.  Yet it wasn’t until early on the morning of the 14th, hours before the originally scheduled return, the space officials agreed to extend the missions.

With that decided, some officials pushed to have Vostok 4 fly four days, with a landing on the 16th.  But temperatures in Popovich’s  cabin now were falling.  Despite his cabin temperature reached 10 degrees C. (50 degrees F.), the redline, he still reported he was in excellent shape 

Because of concerns of Western monitoring of communications, a code had been arranged between the cosmonauts and the ground.  “I am feeling excellent” meant that the mission should continue.  “I am feeling well” meant that the mission should be ended.  An “I am observing thunderstorms” indicated that the cosmonaut was experiencing severe space sickness and should be brought down immediately.

Just as the State Commission was deciding the fate of an extra day for Popovich, he radioed, “Observing a thunderstorm.”  That firmed up the decision to bring him home, with retro time for both Vostoks at hand.

In fact, Popovich was looking at an actual thunderstorm.  Realizing his error, he radioed, “I’m feeling excellent.  I observed a meteorological thunderstorm and lightning.”

Too late — he was ordered home, firing his retrorocket six minutes after Nikolayev fired his.  The two came down in tandem on the morning of August 15, 1962, landing six minutes and 193 km. (120 mi.) apart.  As was standard, both ejected from their capsules, Nikolayev touching down at 9:55 a.m. Moscow time after 64 orbits and 94 hrs. 10 min., and Popovich at 10:01 a.m. after 48 orbits and in 70 hrs. 44 min.

At that time, the United States, hoping for just a six orbit Mercury flight in the autumn, appeared several moves behind the Soviet Union.  The Russians were known as master chess players.  How soon would they make their next move?

What the world failed to realize, the game wasn’t chess but poker.  And the Russians were adept at bluffing.  

Some game, poker.

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