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[21.0] Setbacks

v1.1.1 / chapter 21 of 26 / 01 apr 13 / greg goebel / public domain

* While both the East and West conducted a wide range of space activities, the Moon effort remained the central focus. The Americans continued to work on the Apollo capsule, while the Soviets struggled to get their new Soyuz capsule operational. Both the American and Soviet programs suffered major setbacks at almost the same time. In early 1967, three astronauts were killed by fire in an Apollo capsule during a training session, and a few months later the first manned flight of the Soyuz capsule resulted in the death of the cosmonaut pilot.

N-1 booster


[21.1] THE APOLLO FIRE
[21.2] SOYUZ EMERGES / THE N-1 MOON BOOSTER
[21.3] INITIAL SOYUZ FLIGHTS / DEATH OF KOMAROV / MORE ZOND SHOTS

[21.1] THE APOLLO FIRE

* After the end of the Gemini missions in mid-November 1966, Apollo moved ahead. Several short-hop test launches of prototype Apollo command modules had been performed at White Sands on the solid-fuel "Little Joe II" booster in 1964 and 1965. Two suborbital launches of Apollo CSM hardware prototypes were conducted with a Saturn IB in 1966, with the first shot in February and the second in August.

A fifth batch of astronauts, 19 this time, had been brought into the space program in 1966, bringing the total after attrition to 46. The new recruits named themselves the "Original Nineteen", apparently as an oblique gag on the "Original Seven". With such a relatively large astronaut corps, there was intense competition to get on the Apollo launch roster.

Seniority counted, however. Gus Grissom, from the Original Seven, along with Ed White and Roger Chaffee from the Nine were scheduled to fly the first Apollo flight in February 1967, performing an Earth-orbit mission in a CSM launched by a Saturn IB booster. On 27 January 1967, the three astronauts were performing a "dress rehearsal" for launch, sitting in the "Apollo 204" capsule on top of an unfueled Saturn IB at Cape Canaveral.

They were inside a trap that was about to snap shut on them. Apollo used a pure oxygen atmosphere. The majority of the Earth's atmosphere is inert nitrogen, but trying to maintain a mixed nitrogen-oxygen environment in a space capsule was tricky. If too much nitrogen was mixed in, the astronauts could suffocate without even knowing they were being overcome. In space, the capsule's oxygen would be kept at a pressure of about a fifth of an atmosphere. Since this level of pressure would cause the capsule to implode back on Earth, during the ground test it would be kept at over an atmosphere. At such high pressures, anything that caught on fire would burn almost explosively.

Little or nothing was known in the West about the ghastly death of cosmonaut Valentin Bondarenko in an oxygen chamber in 1961, but that wasn't saying everyone working on Apollo thought a pure oxygen atmosphere was safe. In 1962, in the course of spaceflight simulations using human subjects, there had been two cases of fires breaking out, with nobody killed but with a few nasty injuries. North American's Apollo design team knew of the fire hazard and had objected to the use of a pure oxygen atmosphere, but NASA had overruled them. Both Gemini and Mercury had used a pure oxygen atmosphere and there was precedent to believe that the risks were acceptable.

Another element of the trap was the fact that after the sinking of Gus Grissom's LIBERTY BELL 7 Mercury capsule when the explosive bolts blew the hatch off, NASA decided to abandon an explosive-release hatch. This decision was heavily driven by Grissom himself, who had originally lobbied for the explosive-release hatch just as earnestly. Furthermore, to prevent an accidental hatch release that might cause explosive decompression, Apollo's hatch opened inward.

* At first, the only problem with the exercise was that communications between the Apollo and the command center were spotty. Grissom complained: "How are we gonna get to the Moon if we can't talk between two buildings?!" There was fuss and delay while technicians worked to clean up the communications. Then, at about 6:31 PM Chaffee reported, almost casually: "Fire -- I smell fire." A moment later, White reported, more excitedly: "We've got a fire in the cockpit!"

"We've got a bad fire ... get us out! We're burning up!" The final communication was a scream. Panic swelled rapidly through the control-room staff and the techs. North American's crew chief, Donald O. Babbitt, was supervising matters on the gantry and shouted at his people: "GET 'EM OUT OF THERE!" They couldn't. The fire had caused the air pressure inside the cabin to zoom up to several times outside atmospheric pressure, and the hatch could not be budged. The pressure was enough to rupture the command module. The techs weren't able to get inside for almost six minutes after the accident began.

By that time, the three astronauts were dead. Although they were badly burned, they had actually suffocated when the fires burned through their oxygen lines and filled them with carbon monoxide. Even retrieving their bodies was a difficult and wretched task, since their spacesuits were fused to the seats by melted plastic.

* The accident was a shock that rippled through NASA. Bob Gilruth, always concerned for the safety of his astronauts, broke down and wept when he got the news and the ugly details. Caught flat-footed, NASA officials didn't know what to tell the press right away, and basically fell back on the "everything is under control" message, the default statement for crisis management to restrain panic. Of course, absolutely nothing was under control, and as the facts came out the agency was bitterly attacked by the press. NASA immediately set up an internal board of inquiry in hopes that prompt action would prevent Congress or the White House from taking charge and derailing NASA's efforts. The board was headed by the director of the NASA Langley Research Center, Floyd L. Thompson, and included Max Faget, astronaut Frank Borman, and other personnel from NASA, the Air Force, and North American.

The astronauts themselves reacted a little more emotionally. According to Borman: "We went out one night and got bombed. I'm not proud to say it. I don't drink any more. But we got bombed that night. We ended up throwing glasses, like a scene out of an old World War I movie."

Webb found himself grilled in front of Congress, with one congressman raking him over the coals: "The level of incompetence and carelessness we've seen here is just unimaginable." What made the inquisition very bad for Webb was that General Sam Phillips, the Apollo program manager, had been strongly criticizing North American's work for some time, but Webb knew nothing about it; his associate administrator, Bob Seamans, hadn't bothered to forward the reports upstairs. Webb lost a great deal of face, which was all the more painful because he was basically a political operator at heart, and Seamans ended up looking for another job.

In fact, the entire management structure for the Apollo development program had been shaky from the start. Some NASA officials believed North American had been milking the Apollo contracts, throwing lavish parties to impress visiting dignitaries while being less than diligent in getting things done. The relationship between the company and NASA had started out as extremely quarrelsome, leading to the rolling of a few heads. Some improvements followed, but the effort was characterized by factionalism, not merely between NASA and the contractors, but between different branches of NASA.

The biggest problem, however, was that the work schedule was just too aggressive. Deke Slayton called it "insane" and put it simply: "We got in too much of a goddamned hurry." A lot of poor, hasty work was being put into the Moon project, and the margins for failure were painfully small.

Thompson's committee outlined many of the failings in their huge report, issued in April 1967. Pure oxygen would no longer be used in ground tests. Defective electrical wiring was blamed as the cause of the problem. The investigation led to a hundred design changes, including wiring to a higher specification, rearrangement of flammable velcro patches, and a hatch that hinged outward and which could be opened quickly.

Joe Shea, the Apollo program office manager at the Houston MSC, ended up being shelved into a job at NASA headquarters and soon quit. Shea wasn't really seen as responsible for the accident, it was just that in response to the disaster he became obsessive, so Gilruth and Mueller decided to get him out of the pressure cooker before he blew a fuse. He was replaced by George Low.

North American was the real target of much of the fury. Company officials decided that publicly fighting NASA over the matter would not be in their interests. Harrison Storms was pulled off the program as a public gesture and demoted to a vice-presidential position; William Bergen became North American's manager for Apollo. The families of the dead astronauts sued the company as well, and won an award of $650,000 USD out of court in 1972.

NASA's prompt reaction to the accident forestalled any major intervention by the politicians. Frank Borman got up in front of Congress and told them: "Let's stop the witch hunt and get on with it."

They did. The accident focused the agency on the job, and later Chris Kraft would say that the Moon landings probably wouldn't have happened in the 1960s if the accident hadn't happened when it did. Given the helter-skelter environment before the accident, there would have been a disaster sooner or later, and if a crew had been lost on the way to the Moon it might have killed the program entirely. The Apollo 204 capsule was renamed "Apollo 1" at the request of Gus Grissom's widow. It was a way granting some dignity to what was otherwise just a senseless tragedy, turning it into the first Apollo mission.

White, Grissom, & Chaffee

* While the investigation was under way, many of the astronauts found themselves, for the first time since they had signed up, with time on their hands. The war in Southeast Asia was approaching its crescendo at the time, and the idea that they were playing heroes in the space race at home while their pilot buddies were getting shot at over North Vietnam, with some taken prisoner and some killed, didn't sit well with them.

A group of about a half dozen decided to float the idea of taking a combat tour. It seems a half-baked idea in hindsight, but at the outset of the manned space program a stint as an astronaut was thought of as a temporary duty assignment, with the astronauts returning to formal military service after three years. Of course, astronaut training turned out to be very exhaustive and it wouldn't have been practical to cycle people around at such a rate, and in fact a tradition was established early in the Gemini program that an astronaut got a promotion after his first flight, to ensure that the astronaut corps wasn't a career sidetrack.

Deke Slayton was understanding over the proposal, though he said he wouldn't guarantee them a job when their combat tour was over. However, Lyndon Johnson and his people were bureaucratically micromanaging the air war and the pilots flying combat missions were increasingly wondering exactly what they were accomplishing. One astronaut was told: "You don't want to be here. It's a bad idea." Then the armed services blasted the idea completely out of the sky: if the astronauts came back to operational service, there was no way they would be sent on combat missions, since if they were shot down and taken prisoner, the North Vietnamese would play up the capture of an astronaut for all it was worth.

The whole exercise might have been a muddle, but it did resolve things to a degree. The astronauts had made their choice when they signed up, and now it was plain it was irreversible. That took the pressure off from that angle, and Gene Cernan later said that "driving a Corvette and being a Genuine American Hero at home was a hell of a lot better than getting their asses shot off over Hanoi."

It wasn't like they were at a safe desk job by any means, as the Apollo 1 fire had proven, and in fact fate seemed determine to show that they weren't safe anywhere. On 6 June they lost Ed Givens, from the fifth astronaut selection batch, in a car accident of all the stupid things. On 5 October, they lost C.C. Williams, from the second batch, who died in a crash in Florida on 5 October. He was flying a shiny brand-new T-38 and his controls locked up while he was flying near Talahassee, sending the aircraft into a rolling dive. He stayed with the aircraft too long and his parachute didn't open properly; the T-38 cratered into the Florida earth at almost Mach 1. There wasn't enough left of the aircraft to guess as to what had caused the problem, but the general assumption was that there had been a production defect of some sort.

Williams was a laid-back Alabama boy who, it was said, refused to accept that anybody wasn't a friend, and his death hit everyone hard. All in all, 1967 was a miserable year for the astronaut corps.

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[21.2] SOYUZ EMERGES / THE N-1 MOON BOOSTER

* The Apollo 1 accident was discouraging because there was a sense that the Soviets were right behind the US, or even still ahead. American spy satellites had been observing construction of Soviet N-1 booster facilities for several years, and in March 1967, the CIA stated in a secret report that "depending on their view of the Apollo timetable, the Soviets may feel that there is some prospect of their getting to the Moon first, and they may press their program in hopes of being able to do so." In fact, the Soviets were working hard on their Soyuz capsule and other elements of their Moon program at the time, and were still feeling some optimism themselves about making it to the Moon ahead of the US.

Soyuz space capsule

The Soyuz capsule was a centerpiece of the program and would be its greatest legacy. The baseline Soyuz 7K-OK Earth orbiting spacecraft, sometimes called the "original Soyuz", would establish the pattern for a long line of spacecraft. It was a three-part spacecraft, including from top to bottom an "instrument module", a "reentry module", and an "orbital module":

The Soyuz was launched by the "Soyuz SL-4" booster, basically an improved Voskhod booster with a modernized second stage. The modernized second stage would also be refitted to the Molniya booster and mated with one of three possible final stages to form the improved "Molniya M" booster for unmanned spacecraft launches.

Soyuz booster

The Soyuz capsule was hidden in a payload shroud, capped by a rocket-boosted escape tower. The Soviets saw the escape tower as a good enough idea to copy from the Americans, once again contradicting the notion that they were indifferent to the safety of their cosmonauts. Max Faget later jokingly complained about never being paid royalties for it. In an emergency, the escape tower would blast off, taking the upper shroud assembly and the enclosed descent and orbital modules with it. Once clear, the escape tower and shroud would break free, the descent module would discard the orbital module, and deploy its parachute to float to the ground.

Soyuz capsule in launch shroud

The advantage of the modular design of the Soyuz was that the reentry module would only be used to carry the cosmonauts to orbit and bring them back down to Earth again; it had no other major function. If it had included living and work space, it would have had to have been much larger, and that would have meant more heat shielding, a larger retrorocket system, bigger parachutes, and so on.

The shrewdness of the concept becomes apparent when Soyuz is compared to the US Apollo capsule. The Apollo capsule itself weighed 5,000 kilograms (11,025 pounds) and provided six cubic meters (7.85 cubic yards) of living space for three astronauts; the service module added another 1,800 kilograms (3,970 pounds). A complete Soyuz weighed as much as the Apollo capsule without the service module, but had nine cubic meters (11.8 cubic yards) of living space for three cosmonauts. In addition, the modularity of the Soyuz made it flexible: modules could be eliminated or swapped out to modify the spacecraft for different missions. Partisans of the Soyuz believe with valid reasons that its design was superior to that of the Apollo capsule, and the fact that the Soyuz would still be alive and well in the 21st century lends weight to that idea.

Ironically, General Electric had submitted a losing design for Apollo that used basically the same design approach as Soyuz, basing the spacecraft on a modular scheme built around a minimal reentry module. The GE concept was published in the aerospace press and the ideas were in circulation while the Soviets were defining Soyuz, and some have claimed that the Soviets "stole" the concept for Soyuz from the US. The issue seems like fuss over nothing: in patent law, an invention has to be "non-obvious" to receive protection, and the idea of a separate reentry capsule was something that an engineer scribbling ideas on the back of an envelope was liable to doodle as a possible solution. American ideas might have had some influence, but wherever the insights came from, the Soviets were the ones who ran with the concept and did all the heavy lifting with it.

* The Soyuz 7K-L1 Moon orbiter was basically a stripped-down Soyuz 7K-OK. with the orbital module removed and space navigation systems added. It had an enhanced escape system to allow it to escape from the more powerful Proton booster. However, the reserve parachute was deleted to make room for a hatch in the reentry module. The Soyuz 7K-L1 was capable of unmanned or manned operation, accommodating two cosmonauts in relatively austere conditions. It could only be used for a looping shot around the Moon, since it didn't have an engine system that could put it into lunar orbit and, more importantly, get it out again.

Once the N-1 booster was operational, the Soviets would then launch a Soyuz variant, the "Soyuz 7K-L1S" that would be capable of going into lunar orbit. It was really just an enhanced Soyuz 7K-L1, with a propulsion module attached to the forward section.

Soviet LK Moon lander

After the Soviets mastered lunar orbit operations, the next variant would be the "Soyuz 7K-LOK", an enhanced Soyuz 7K-OK, which could be used for lunar orbiting missions or, when launched with an LK landing module, Moon landings. The LK had a general resemblance to the US Apollo LEM, though it was distinctly smaller; it could support a single cosmonaut on the Moon for up to 24 hours. As mentioned earlier, the Soviet Moon landing envisioned a flight with two cosmonauts, with only one landing on the lunar surface. The cosmonaut would have to perform an EVA to get between the orbital and lander modules.

Spacesuits were of course required to support the mission, with the suit for the Moon landing being a particular challenge. The main line of work to that end was based on the experimental "SKV" suit -- that being a Russian acronym for "EVA suit" -- an experimental suit that had been under development for the last few years. It was a "semirigid" suit, being built around a "hard upper torso (HUT)" made of fiberglass to which soft pants, arms, and a helmet were attached. The cosmonaut clambered into the suit through a door in the back of the HUT.

Formal work on a derivative Moon suit, named "Krechet (Gyrfalcon)", was initiated in 1966, with the HUT being made of lighter aluminum alloy, leading to the "Krechet-94" production version. Parallel work was done on a "soft" Moon suit, the "Oriol (Eagle)" -- as well as an "Orlan (Osprey)" semirigid suit for the mission commander, who wouldn't land on the Moon. The Moon suits demanded 10 hours of operation; better thermal protection; better cooling, dictating a water-cooled liner; and provisions for water and sanitation. The Krechet suit was much preferred to the Oriol soft suit, which was only being developed as a backup; the Oriol effectively ended up being a prototype for advanced high-altitude / rescue suits.

* The full-specification N-1 booster would be a monster, a four-stage vehicle with a height of 105.2 meters (354 feet) and a weight of 2,683 tonnes (2,951 tons), almost as big as NASA's Saturn V. However, the NK-15 engine provided only 1,510 kN (154,000 kgp / 340,000 lbf) thrust, less than a quarter the thrust of the Saturn V's big F-1. As a result, the first stage of the N-1 was fitted with thirty NK-15 engines. This in principle provided the Soviet super-booster with a third more liftoff thrust than the Saturn V. Unfortunately, the Soviets had no facility where the first stage could be tested, and so pragmatically more engines than needed were used under the assumption that some of them would fail. It should be noted that the boosters von Braun designed for the Collier's space program were also based on the use of a large number of small and redundant engines.

The second stage of the N-1 was fitted with eight similar NK-15V engines, while the third stage used four "11D54" LOX-kerosene engines, and the fourth a single NK-9 engine. The vehicle would be assembled, checked out, and fueled on its side in a cradle, moved by rail to the launchpad, and then tipped up to the vertical position. Since transporting large rocket stages over the landlocked expanses of Russia was troublesome, a plant was set up at Baikonur to build the big booster, eliminating the transport problem.

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[21.3] INITIAL SOYUZ FLIGHTS / DEATH OF KOMAROV / MORE ZOND SHOTS

* The first unmanned flight of the Soyuz 7K-OK orbiter capsule did not go well. "Cosmos 133" was launched on 28 November 1966. It was to be followed by a second launch the following day, leading to an automated rendezvous between the two spacecraft. However, the spacecraft's attitude control system went haywire. Ground controllers tried to bring the descent module down using every trick in the book, but its reentry path led to China and so it was commanded to self-destruct.

The second launch attempt was on 14 December and it didn't even get off the ground. The booster engines shut down and a work crew went out to "safe" it, but while they were doing so the capsule escape system activated, blasting the capsule away from the booster and setting the upper stage on fire. The work crew managed to sprint away from the booster before it went up in a fireball, though an officer was killed when he failed to take proper cover, and a number of others were badly injured.

A third test flight was launched on 7 February 1967, with the spacecraft being designated "Cosmos 140". The mission was full of bugs: the attitude control system didn't work properly, meaning the solar panels couldn't be kept oriented, and the batteries ran down. Reentry was troublesome, with a hole being burned through the heatshield on reentry due to the fact that a heatshield sensor had been improperly installed. Although the parachute did deploy, the descent module smashed through the ice on the Aral Sea, and the capsule had to be recovered by divers. If a cosmonaut had been on board, he would have drowned, except for the fact that he would have suffocated or been burned to death first from the breach in the heatshield.

The Soviets focused on fixing the bugs in the Soyuz 7K-OK orbiter. While that exercise was in progress, they began test flights of the Soyuz 7K-L1 Moon orbiter. The initial two launches were of "boilerplate" prototypes, designated of course "Soyuz 7K-L1P", and the flights were more intended to evaluate the launch system, not the spacecraft. A Proton launched the first prototype on 10 March 1967, placing it into Earth orbit. It was designated "Cosmos 146". The spacecraft was not recovered, but that was per plan, since it didn't have a heatshield. All went very well, which gave the Soviets a sense of confidence that they might catch up with the US after all.

The second prototype was launched on 8 April 1967. The payload made orbit, but the "ullage" rockets on the upper stage needed to give a slight kick so propellants would flow to the main engines had been accidentally jettisoned during orbital injection, and the spacecraft fell to Earth eleven days later. It was designated "Cosmos 154". Now it appeared that a circumlunar mission might not be so easy after all.

* The problems and delays in the Soyuz program meant that the USSR hadn't flown any cosmonauts since Voskhod 2 in March 1965, leaving the Americans wondering what was going on. Given the string of failures in the Soyuz 7K-OK orbiter program, it would have been prudent to have continued with unmanned launches until all the serious bugs had been clearly worked out. However, everyone was in a terrible hurry. The decision was made that the glitches found on the Cosmos 140 flight would be fixed, and that the next flight would be manned. And so it was done.

"Soyuz 1" was launched on 23 April, carrying Vladimir M. Komarov, commander of the first Voskhod mission, into his second flight into earth orbit. Komarov had a reputation for being unlucky; in fact, he had been grounded for several years due to a heart irregularity much like that which had grounded Deke Slayton. The doctors finally qualified Komarov as "fit to fly", but that wouldn't turn out to be good luck.

The Americans were expecting that the Soviets would launch a second Soyuz to perform rendezvous and transfer cosmonauts, a feat that would upstage Gemini, but Soyuz 1 suffered from problem after problem and the second launch was canceled. An American signals intercept post on the Black Sea shore of Turkey was listening in on voice traffic between the cosmonaut and mission control at Baikonur. Since it was obvious that something unusual was happening, a Russian language expert was brought in to translate in real time. The expert said he didn't think the communications were from a real cosmonaut, since they were so loaded with foul language; a sergeant replied: "If I was in the position he's in, I'd probably be cursing too!"

On its 15th orbit, the capsule went into a tumble. Ground controllers brought Komarov down quickly, but his parachutes failed to deploy properly. He was killed on impact, which was fortunate, because the capsule then caught on fire and burned his body into a blackened lump.

It was also fortunate that the second Soyuz had not been launched, since it would have suffered the same fate. Although the parachutes had deployed on Cosmos 140, they shouldn't have. The parachute container was improperly designed, and the only reason it had worked on Cosmos 140 was because of the breach in the heatshield: one bug had masked another. The depressurization of the capsule had adjusted the stresses on the parachute container in such a way as to allow it to work when under normal conditions it wouldn't.

Komarov was the first person to die in an actual space mission. The shock of his death was an emotional blow to the Soviet space program, just as the Apollo 1 accident had been to NASA, and for the time being manned Soyuz flights were suspended until the bugs could be brought under better control, NASA wanted to send Frank Borman and Gordo Cooper to the funeral, but the Soviets replied politely that it would be a private affair.

* The Americans were moving rapidly on their Moon program and the Soviets couldn't stop to grieve. A "Luna E-6LS" lunar orbiter was launched by a Molniya booster on 17 May 1967. It was a modified version of the Luna E-6LF imaging Moon orbiter with an additional payload to help test the communications and tracking systems for a manned Moon mission. It never got out of Earth orbit, and was designated "Cosmos 159".

The third Soyuz 7K-L1 Moon orbiter launch followed on 27 September 1967, the first shot with a full-specification spacecraft, not a prototype. The booster failed shortly after liftoff, falling to earth about 65 kilometers (40 miles) away. In some compensation, the escape system worked as advertised and the spacecraft was recovered.

It was still disappointing, and the Soviets were in need of a few successful missions. Two more unmanned Soyuz flights were performed in the fall of 1967, with "Cosmos 186" launched on 27 October, followed by "Cosmos 188" on 30 October. The two unmanned spacecraft performed a docking in orbit, the first time unmanned spacecraft had done such a thing. The docking adapters didn't lock, but it was still another space first established by the USSR.

This was encouraging, but the next launch of a Soyuz 7K-L1 Moon orbiter, on 22 November 1967, was almost a replay of the previous shot, though this time the booster made it farther, falling to earth 300 kilometers (185 miles) away. Once again, the descent module was recovered.

* Things didn't seem to be looking up with the new year. Another E-6LS modified lunar orbiter was launched on 7 February 1968, but the third stage of the Molniya booster failed and the payload did not make orbit.

The fifth launch of a Soyuz 7K-L1 Moon orbiter took place on 2 March 1968 and went better, though still far from perfectly. The spacecraft was shot by a Proton to the equivalent distance of the Moon. There was no attempt to circle the Moon itself, since this was a test of spacecraft systems and procedures, particularly for the critical Earth atmosphere reentry maneuver.

Proton / Zond

The descent module had to hit a narrow reentry "corridor". If the reentry angle was too steep, the deceleration could well crush the capsule's occupants and the friction might incinerate the capsule. If the angle was too shallow, the capsule might skip back out into space and be lost. The descent module came in too steeply, and the spacecraft was ordered to self-destruct. General Kamanin protested this decision, saying the module could have been recovered anyway. The matter was debated and the conclusion was that the self-destruct order would not be given in the future under similar circumstances. The mission was publicly announced as "Zond 4". The previous three Zonds had been lunar / planetary flyby probes, and the use of the "Zond" name for the Soyuz 7K-L1 was a cover to help conceal that it was a test flight for a manned lunar orbit mission.

* A few weeks after the Zond 4 mission, the Soviet space program suffered a another emotional shock, though it had nothing directly to do with spaceflight activities. Like the astronauts, the cosmonauts used two-seat jet trainers to keep up their flight time, in their case the MiG-15UTI, a tandem-seat version of the MiG-15 fighter of Korean War fame. On 27 March 1968, Yuri Gagarin was flying with a comrade; for reasons never completely sorted out, the trainer cratered into the earth, with both men mangled beyond recognition. Gagarin was a true national hero, not just a wooden puppet promoted by the propaganda machine, and there was national mourning. He received a grand state funeral, with his ashes interred in the Kremlin wall. The cosmonaut training center was renamed in his honor.

The grief did not slow down the Soviet Moon program, and in fact progress was finally being made. After the first two failed launch attempts of the Luna E-6LS modified lunar orbiter, a third and final shot on 7 April 1968 was successful. The probe entered orbit and was publicly designated "Luna 14".

The Soviets sent up two more unmanned Soyuz 7K-OK orbiter spacecraft, including "Cosmos 212", launched on 14 April 1968, and "Cosmos 213", launched on 15 April, that performed a rendezvous, locked up properly, and were successfully recovered. The mission had some difficulties but overall went well. Another unmanned Soyuz 7K-OK orbiter launch was performed on 28 August 1968, with the spacecraft designated "Cosmos 238". It was a dry run for returning cosmonauts to orbit and the mission was regarded as highly successful.

In the meantime, the Soyuz 7K-L1 Moon orbiter was still proving troublesome. The next launch attempt was on 23 April 1968. The escape system was accidentally activated a little over three minutes after launch, and mission was a loss. Another Soyuz 7K-L1 launch attempt was scheduled for 19 July, but an upper stage fuel tank ruptured on 14 July, killing one of the launchpad crew and badly injuring another. The accident could have been much worse, the launchpad area being crowded with people at the time.

Finally, on 15 September 1968, the Soviets launched a Soyuz 7K-L1 that took a "crew" of a turtle and other organisms on a loop around the Moon. The reentry guidance system failed, but the descent module was allowed to perform a direct reentry, inflicting a maximum of 20 gees on the occupants. It splashed down in the Indian Ocean and was recovered by the Red Navy.

The flight was publicly designated "Zond 5". One of the benefits of the bungled reentry was that it confused some American observers, who concluded that it had been planned that way and so the flight couldn't be a rehearsal for a manned mission. Either way, this was encouraging, but more work needed to be done before two cosmonauts could be sent on the same trip.

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