Andrian Nikolayev

Cosmonaut who held the space endurance record

Monday 19 July 2004 00:00

Over the last four decades, more than 400 men and women have journeyed into space and experienced the unworldly delights of weightlessness. The foundations of this success were laid by young men from both sides of the Iron Curtain, who risked their lives on primitive, modified ballistic missiles to fly through the vacuum of space.

Andrian Grigoryevich Nikolayev, cosmonaut: born Shorshely, Soviet Union 5 September 1929; married 1963 Valentina Tereshkova (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1982); died Cheboksary, Russia 4 July 2004.

Over the last four decades, more than 400 men and women have journeyed into space and experienced the unworldly delights of weightlessness. The foundations of this success were laid by young men from both sides of the Iron Curtain, who risked their lives on primitive, modified ballistic missiles to fly through the vacuum of space.

One of these pioneers was Andrian Nikolayev, a granite-like character who survived the privations of the Second World War and the hardships of exhaustive medical tests and training sessions to become only the fifth human to orbit the Earth. He went on to make his mark in the annals of human spaceflight by becoming the first person to spend more than one day in orbit, subsequently setting a space endurance record that survives to this day.

At the height of the Cold War, the governments of the United States and the Soviet Union took advantage of every opportunity to compete - whether in the political arena or the prestigious fields of science and technology. By the early 1960s, the two super- powers were head to head in the race for space, with the Soviets apparently well in the lead, after a series of dramatic successes that included the launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, and the flight of Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space.

As the Americans began their remarkably ambitious endeavour to meet President John F. Kennedy's target of landing a man on the Moon by the end of the decade, the Soviets continued their programme in secrecy, squeezing every drop of propaganda from their successes while hiding their frequent failures from public view.

Following the day-long flight of Gherman Titov in August 1961, the Americans waited nervously for the next Soviet advance, but, unknown to them, the programme of their rivals was hindered by launch failures and lack of direction from above. A plan to fly two Vostok spacecraft simultaneously was delayed by efforts to launch unmanned, Vostok-based spy satellites from the only suitable launch pad at Baikonur cosmodrome. Only after America threw down the gauntlet in February 1962, with the orbital flight of John Glenn, did the Kremlin suddenly spring to life and order another manned spectacular at the first opportunity.

So it was that Andrian Nikolayev lifted off on board Vostok 3 on 11 August 1962, followed 24 hours later by his colleague Pavel Popovich, in Vostok 4. Travelling in different orbital planes, there was no possibility of the ships flying in formation or docking, but, entranced with the novelty of two men aloft simultaneously, the world's media gave the mission an importance that was not really merited.

Nevertheless, the Soviets made the most of the headlines as the craft momentarily passed within four miles of each other, close enough for visual contact. The impact of the dual mission was further enhanced by television images of Nikolayev inside his capsule, the first live telecast from space.

The flight of Vostok 3 came to an end on the steppes of Kazakhstan after almost four days aloft - smashing the previous endurance record. According to plan, Nikolayev ejected from his rapidly descending spacecraft at an altitude of about 20,000 feet, before parachuting safely to the ground. He and Popovich, whose mission terminated only minutes later, returned to Moscow for a hero's welcome.

Meanwhile, a young amateur parachutist and cotton factory worker named Valentina Tereshkova had become the first woman to join the cosmonaut corps. The following year, in a media opportunity made in heaven, the first woman in space pirouetted around the Earth for almost three days alongside her male colleague Valeri Bykovsky during a repeat of the Vostok 3 and 4 joint flight.

According to the Soviet media, romance blossomed between the 26-year-old heroine and Nikolayev, the only bachelor in the cosmonaut group. The truth seems rather more prosaic. After Tereshkova's triumphant return from her Vostok 6 flight in June 1963, a joke began circulating that she should marry Nikolayev. The experienced cosmonaut had helped the young newcomer during her training, and the pair got along quite well, though there seemed to be no prospect of a serious relationship.

Eventually, the story reached the Kremlin. Always aware of propaganda opportunities, the premier Nikita Khrushchev pressurised General Nikolai Kamanin, the director of cosmonaut training, to act as matchmaker. The famous couple finally succumbed, and the celebrity wedding took place at the Moscow Wedding Palace in November 1963, followed by a celebration at a governmental mansion set apart for state receptions. Khrushchev himself presided at the party, together with top government and space officials.

On 8 June 1964, Tereshkova gave birth to a daughter, Yelena, the first child born to parents who had both flown in space. Despite fears to the contrary, the youngster showed no ill effects from her parents' exposure to space radiation. However, the relationship was soon in trouble and the couple began to drift apart as personal appearances and pressures of work took their toll. In 1982, once they were no longer in the spotlight, Nikolayev and Tereshkova divorced.

Andrian Nikolayev was born in 1929 in Shorshely, a village in the Chuvash Autonomous Republic, some 400 miles east of Moscow. The son of a collective farmer, he was one of six children. After seeing an aeroplane for the first time at the age of seven, he began to dream of flying one day. However, after leaving the local secondary school, he decided to be a doctor and enrolled at the Tsivilsk Medical School.

Clearly, the course was not to his taste, and his brother Ivan soon persuaded him to transfer to a forestry school. After graduating in 1947 as a technical forester, he worked as a lumberjack and then as the foreman of a logging operation in Karelia.

His life changed completely once he was drafted into the Soviet Air Force in 1950. After initial training as an aircraft gunner and radio operator, he was sent to Chernigov Air Force Pilots School. Transferred to the Frunze fighter pilot training school in 1951, he graduated three years later and was assigned to MiG-17 fighter units in the Moscow area.

On one occasion, the engine of his aircraft shut down at an altitude of nearly four miles. Reluctant to bail out close to a built-up area, he risked his life to guide the aircraft successfully to a bumpy landing in a field. For his valour and presence of mind, the young aviator was presented with a watch. He subsequently joined the Communist Party in 1956.

In 1959, Nikolayev was one of hundreds of military candidates sent for evaluation during the nationwide search for the first group of 20 cosmonauts. The medical examinations showed that he had "excellent health, a firm character and enviable calmness". Gagarin was quoted as saying, "He is the most unflappable man in a crisis that I know."

In 1960, Nikolayev was assigned to an élite group of six who were to be given advanced training in preparation for the highly prestigious, but extremely dangerous initial flights of the Vostok spacecraft. Apart from a remarkable ability to withstand the crushing acceleration forces in the centrifuge, the pilot's unflappable character was demonstrated during training by his record-breaking stay of 96 hours in an isolation chamber. During exposure to heat, Nikolayev maintained a steady body temperature by painting pictures of ski slopes and blizzards.

After acting as back-up to Gherman Titov, the second Soviet to orbit the Earth, Nikolayev was assigned to Vostok 3. On successfully completing a record-breaking flight that lasted almost four days, the 32-year-old pilot was awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union and the Order of Lenin.

Over the next few years, Nikolayev worked as a member of the support group for future Vostok and Voskhod crews, then began training for the first flights of the new Soyuz spacecraft. In 1966 he took over from Gagarin as the commander of the cosmonaut corps, so he was particularly distressed when his colleague Vladimir Komarov nose-dived into the ground during the re-entry of Soyuz 1 in April 1967. Nikolayev had been assigned as a member of the back-up crew for the flight of Soyuz 2, which was intended to dock with Komarov's craft. Instead, he had to pay his respects as the ashes of his dead comrade were buried in the Kremlin Wall.

With the Soyuz grounded for 18 months, Nikolayev completed a course at the Zhukovsky Air Force Engineering Academy, but further disappointments followed when the Soviet challenge to America's Apollo Moon programme was hit by technical problems and launch failures. Instead of flying around the Moon, Nikolayev had to settle for a more mundane trip around the Earth. Despite being dropped from Soyuz 8 for failing his pre-flight examinations, he was appointed commander of the Soyuz 9 attempt to break the space endurance record.

Two days before launch, he was almost grounded once more after a fishing expedition ended with a pike sinking its teeth into his finger. Fortunately, swift medical attention saved the day, allowing Nikolayev and Vitali Sevestyanov to complete an 18-day marathon between 1 and 19 June 1970.

Soyuz 9 was intended to be a test run for the first crews to occupy the Salyut 1 space station - which was launched 10 months later. Apart from two sessions of exercise a day, the crew was expected to conduct a series of Earth observation and astrophysical experiments, and to assess manual-navigation techniques. The men found that they were so involved in the research programme that they began to skip their exercise sessions. The consequences of this decision became apparent when the crew returned to Earth in such a weak condition that they had to be carried from the capsule.

Unable to walk or sleep properly, the men were placed in quarantine when doctors discovered the presence of mutated microbes in their bodies, but these alien intruders soon died under the effects of gravity. However, some benefit came from their painful experience, as Soviet planners became aware of the need to set up suitable exercise programmes on future space stations.

Promoted to major-general, Nikolayev was once more inundated with honours, prizes, medals, and privileges. A prominent lunar crater was also named after him. In April 1971, he caused a major security scare when he disappeared from a cocktail party being held in the Soviet Embassy in Paris. Far from defecting, the cosmonaut was found enjoying a quiet drink in a nearby café, but the authorities were not amused and whisked him back to Moscow on the next available plane.

Nikolayev never flew in space again. Until his retirement from flight status in 1982, he worked in many administrative roles, including flight controller for several missions to the Salyut 1 space stations. He was also first deputy director of the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre between 1974 and 1992, after which he retired from the Air Force, and he served as a deputy in the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation from 1991 to 1993.

Peter Bond

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