August 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the first joint space flight carried out by Vostok-3 and Vostok-4. The importance of that mission consists in the fact that it was the first step towards solving the problem of rendezvous and docking of spacecraft in orbit.

The tasks of that mission were to provide simultaneous control of two spacecraft and to study the specifics of crew life and work under the conditions of a fairly long-duration space mission.

Considering the importance of such missions Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) began registering such missions since March 1963.

US astronauts managed to repeat such a flight on spacecraft Gemini 7 and Gemini 6A only in December 1965.

The first joint mission began with the launch from Baikonur launch site on August 11, 1962, of spacecraft Vostok-3 piloted by cosmonaut A.G. Nikolaev (call sign “Sokol” (Russian for "Falkon”)). Vostok-4 piloted by Pavel Romanovich Popovich (call sign “Berkut” (Russian for “Golden Eagle”)) was launched into orbit a day later.


grup_polet_3m At the moment when the shortest distance between them was 6.5 kilometers, the flight altitude was 180 km for Vostok-3, and 184.5 km for Vostok-4, the two Soviet manned spacecraft began the world’s first joint (group) spaceflight. Pavel Popovich described his impressions of the first minutes of the flight in the following words: “As soon as I was in orbit I saw his spacecraft. The distance between us was about four kilometers. Andrei started to call: “Berkut, Berkut, I'm Sokol. Can you hear me?” I called him back: “Hi,  Andrei! I can not only hear you, I can see you! You're flying to the right of me, and you look like a small moon”. - «Careful, Berkut, - said Andrei, - they’ll give us a scolding» (for speaking in the clear without call signs) Me: “Don’t sweat it! Let them try and get to us to give us a scolding”.


During their joint flight A.G. Nikolaev and P.R. Popovich have conducted research and experiments addressing various biomedical, scientific and technological problems. These included: a study of effects of long-duration (at the time) spaceflight and, especially, of zero-gravity on the main physiological functions of the human body (including, food intake, sleeping), evaluation of the psychological condition and performance of two different people at different mission phases, evaluation of cosmonaut selection and training methods efficiency, a test of feasibility of coordinated action of two crews in flight and of the efficiency of operation of all the structural elements of spacecraft, especially, the life support systems. Also tested were the operation of all the onboard systems of the spacecraft, the spacecraft attitude control using manual control systems, still and motion pictures were taken.

There were lots of “firsts” during this mission:

- it was the first time when unstrapped themselves and floated away from their seats in zero gravity: Andrian Nikolaev in four sessions totaling 3.5 hours, and Pavel Popovich in three sessions totaling about 3 hours;
- it was for the first time that the Soviet people and the people of most countries in Europe, through Soviet TV channels and the Intervision system saw the cosmonauts float around their capsules, saw both cosmonauts carry out observations, maintain radio communications with the ground, as well as perform various operations;
- it was for the first time that a radio link was established between two spacecraft and with ground stations, the ground was listening in on their communications.

Andrian Nikolaev reminisced about his experiences in zero gravity:
“Then came the moment, when, according to the program, I was to leave my seat. I unstrapped myself and … floated to the ceiling. I barely pushed my finger against a cabin wall and bounced off as ball towards the other wall. It felt as if a I were in a fairy tale…  I became lighter than a feather! For about an hour I worked unstrapped. Turned around above the seat, pushed with a finger against the cabin ceiling and found myself again in the seat".

It was clear to everyone that pilots cannot stay strapped in their seats all the time, they needed to unstrap. But at the time it seemed that such floating around involved a great deal of risk. Had the cosmonaut been able to return into his seat, he would not have been able to eject during descent, and would have had to land inside his capsule. At the time the soft landing system was not yet available, and the cosmonaut would have run a very serious risk during ground impact. Even nowadays, lacking secure strapping into a special custom-built couch may result in serious injuries. But that experiment ended successfully.

The spacecraft altitudes and orbital periods were different and over the next three days the spacecraft were drifting apart.
It should be noted here that originally the mission of A. Nikolaev was supposed to last three days, however, the State Commission made a decision to extend his stay in orbit by one more day, and the cosmonaut’s consent was obtained.

On August 15, 1962, at 9 hours 40 minutes at the altitude of 7 thousand meters pilot-cosmonaut A.G. Nikolayev ejected from Vostok-3 and 12 minutes later landed by parachute in Kazakhstan to the south of the town of Karaganda, not far from his capsule (which had landed a little earlier). The flight of A.G. Nikolaev onboard Vostok-3 lasted 94 hours 10 minutes – almost four days.

P.R. Popovich landed at 9 hours 59 min. not far from the village of Atasu in Karaganda region. His mission lasted 70 hours 44 minutes.

This raises the question of why the mission of Berkut turned out to be shorter. Actually, as late as at 7AM on August 15, the State Commission was considering extending P.Popovich’s mission as well. However, some complications arose: the temperature inside the Vostok-4 cabin dropped down to the minimal acceptable level of 10°C. Humidity also went down. Fears of hypoxia were voiced. Little time remained for making a decision, the 48th orbit was ending (the planned landing was to take place during the 49th orbit). It was at that moment that Pavel popovich sent a message from orbit: “Observing thunderstorms”. This caused a great commotion, because it was a code word meaning that the cosmonaut’s motion sickness reached the level where it was causing vomiting. The commotion was such, that any talk about extending the mission  for one more day was forgotten. Soon Popovich set everybody’s mind at rest – he reported that he was feeling well, and that he was “observing meteorological thunderstorm and lightning”, but the time for making the decision about extending the mission was lost.

The duration of the world’s first joint spaceflight of two Soviet pilots-cosmonauts A.G. Nikolaev and P.R. Popovich onboard spacecraft Vostok-3 and Vostok-4 was 70 hours 23 minutes 38 seconds, and the length of that flight was 1 975 200 km. Thus, the cosmonauts established first world records for duration and length of joint space flight in the class of orbital flights.

This mission was recognized as an outstanding achievement in space exploration. Fédération Aéronautique Internationale awarded A.G. Nikolaev and P.R. Popovich the Gold medal Cosmos.

The successful completion of the first joint flight mission enabled the Soviet scientists, designers and cosmonauts to solve the issues involved in further extension of space mission duration, in preparing operations for spacecraft rendezvous and docking.

grup_polet_1m     grup_polet_2m

                                  P.R. Popovich                                                                                        A.G. Nikolaev

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