Konstantin Feoktistov: Cosmonaut who helped set a space altitude record on Voskhod I

Konstantin Feoktistov was an eminent space engineer and Soviet cosmonaut, who feigned death and went on to make history as a member of the first three-man crew to fly into space, in 1964. Following the launch of Sputnik 1, the first Earth-orbiting artificial satellite, on 4 October 1957, and Yuri Gagarin's first manned space flight, on 12 April 1961, the Soviet Union appeared to be well on top in the space race. Feoktistov was a member of the Sputnik design team.

Further success came in October 1964, when, Feoktistov, who had played a key role in the development of Voskhod [Ascent, or Dawn], was aboard Voskhod I, the first in which crew members were sent into space without space suits, and the first craft to carry more than one man. The Soviet mission was specifically planned to beat the US Gemini programme to this milestone. It also set an altitude record of 336km (209 miles).

As part of the first group space flight in history Feoktistov was along side Vladimir Komarov and Boris Yegorov. However, he almost did not make the flight as approval for his participation met with resistance from the Politburo because he was not a member of the Communist Party. "I had many enemies who did not want me to make that flight," he recalled. "Once we took off, I remember thinking, 'That's it. No one can get me off this spaceship now!' For me, it was a thrill to ride that beast."

During the flight of Voskhod I, on 12-13 October 1964, Feoktistov and his colleagues carried out experiments and made observations beyond the capability of previous cosmonauts. They took blood and made measurements to determine how humans reacted to being in space as well as seeing how a multi-disciplinary team could work together. The rocket was also the first to carry specialist civilians (a doctor and an engineer) and the first to make a soft landing. Feoktistov and Yegorov, whose training was shorter than previous cosmonauts, were initially disoriented by the microgravity environment but recovered before the end of the 16-orbit mission which lasted 24 hours and 17 minutes.

The mission itself was considered a huge Soviet triumph, and the Soviet propaganda machine swung into action. Television showed live and recorded footage of the three cosmonauts and they exchanged greetings with the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev. With Feoktistov a civilian the Russian Space Agency heralded the flight as a new era in space travel. They added, "The expedition made Mr Feoktistov the first spacecraft designer to have tested his brainchild under real conditions."

However, unfortunately for the authorities, the achievement was given limited coverage in the West due to other events, such as Labour winning the General Election on 16 October, China detonating its first atomic bomb the same day, the Olympic Games in Tokyo being in full swing and Dr Martin Luther King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, as well as the growing tension in Vietnam.

Upon their return to Earth, all three cosmonauts were perhaps a little disoriented by the political landscape awaiting them. Despite having talked to Khrushchev during their third orbit, by the time they had touched down he had been removed from power and replaced by a trio of leaders.

Feoktistov's first flight proved to be his last, because, although he continued training for a short time for further space missions, he eventually retired on medical grounds. He continued to work in space engineering and returned to the team that had already designed the Sputnik, Vostok and Voskhod rockets and would go on to design the Soyuz spacecraft under the leadership of Sergey Korolev.

Konstantin Petrovich Feoktistov was born in Voronezh in south-west Russia, near the Ukraine, in February 1926. During the Second World War his town came under Nazi occupation; at 16 he joined the Red Army as and worked in intelligence gathering. He was captured by a German Waffen-SS patrol and sentenced to death by firing squad: shot through the chin and neck, with the bullet passing through him, he feigned death and managed to escape from the burial trench, and eventually made it back to Soviet lines.

After the war he attended the Bauman Moscow Higher Technical School and worked for a time as a factory engineer. In 1955, he earned a doctorate in physics, and then joined the OKB (Experimental Design Bureau) run by the respected space craft designer, Mikhail Tikhonravov. Later that year, Feoktistov joined the team that would design the Sputnik, Vostok, Voskhod and Soyuz craft.

Of the Voskhod I mission, he recalled that the decision to omit spacesuits for the crew and remove the ejection seats used during the one-man Vostok flights was driven by logistics; simply, three suited cosmonauts would simply not fit within the spacecraft and a complete re-design would have been required. He did campaign to fly on the second Soyuz mission, after the first had suffered a parachute failure, taking the life of his Voskhod I commander Komarov, but his efforts were thwarted by the head of cosmonaut training, who said he did not meet the physical standards for a pilot.

Later he became head of the Soviet space design bureau, where he worked until his retirement in 1990, helping to design spacecraft and space stations such as Progress, Mir and Salyut, among others. It was while working on the Salyut space station that he came within a few days of launching, only to be grounded at the last minute due to medical problems.

During this time, he also worked on a design for an ion-powered craft capable of taking humans to Mars – though he later criticised the idea of manned space flights to other planets as a "stupid" waste of money. Following this, he decided to go back as a Professor to teach at the Bauman Moscow Higher Technical School.

Feoktistov received a number of honours including the Order of the Red Banner of Labour following the launching of Sputnik I in 1957, and again after the first successful manned flight by Yuri Gagarin, as well as appearing on Soviet stamps. He even had a crater on the lunar far side named in his honour.

"The Voskhod venture opened a door to outer space and I hoped to walk through that door once again on a serious and longer space mission," he lamented to a journalist in 2001. "Life has, however, rewritten my plans."

Konstantin Petrovich Feoktistov, cosmonaut and space engineer; born Voronezh, Soviet Union 7 February 1926; died Moscow 21 November 2009.

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