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What it Looked Like in the Past: Preparation of the First Cosmonauts

Bird In Flight continues the series of publications on what the world looked like in the past. In this issue — archive photographs showing the first Soviet astronauts and their training for a space mission.



Preparation of a person for flight into space is not an easy task even now when we are witnessing development of space travel and NASA is busy with a manned debarkation on the Mars project. But what kind of training did astronauts receive 50 years ago, when space was still a terra incognita for the humans?


Candidate Selection

Candidates were sought among pilots. Around 1,500 candidates were drafted for the preliminary check-up, and by the autumn of 1959, after numerous checks-ups and medical examinations, 20 candidates were selected.

A good candidate had to have a thorough command of his instructions and be able to carry them out with conscious automatism, be able to solve unexpected problems and, besides being in a perfect health, have a lot of physical capacities in stock, Evgeny Karpov, Chief of the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, recalls. Due to the complete uncertainly as to how flight into space would influence a human being, doctors conducted a very strict preselection. They were trying guard against a failure of the whole space mission. No particular professional skills were required at that time since the job of a cosmonaut was completely new.

Scientists were particularly concerned about the psychological issue. What woud a person feel after having volunteered to be propelled into a vacuum with no oxygen where no one has previously travelled? Author of Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, Mary Roach, writes that Soviet psychiatrists dreaded schizophrenic attacks among cosmonauts; that Gagarin, for example, might lose his mind and fail the whole mission. “Those concerns were serious to the point where up to the final moment before the “Vostok” launch all the manual control devices in it were blocked. But what happens if something goes wrong, if the connection is lost and the pilot has to take control of the spaceship in his own hands? Scientists considered it too. Right before the launch Gagarin was given a sealed envelope with a secret passcode for unblocking the control board.”


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/cosmonaut_05.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “Summer training. Valentina Tereshkova. From the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) archive.”}


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/cosmonaut_14.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “General physical training. Yuri Gagarin. From the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) archive.”}


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/cosmonaut_01.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “Trampoline training. Valentina Tereshkova. 1963. From the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) archive.”}


On the ground, in the water, in the air

Soviet experts decided to proceed from the evident — train candidates in conditions as closely imitating those of space as can be possible on earth. The Cosmonaut Training Centre was inaugurated in January 1960. Training aircraft flights, parachute jumps, pressure chamber “lifts”, thermo chamber tests, isolation chamber tests (“the tower of silence,” soundproof room with dimensions of 2,5 x 2,5 m), catapult jumps, vestibular research and training, centrifuge rotation, weightlessness flights and thorough medical examinations were ceaseless. Beyond general technical disciplines, and astronomy and geophysics classes, the cosmonauts attended filming classes.

Vestibular training on rotating chairs meant to improve the astronauts’ tolerance to space-sickness was among the most disagreeable. Weightlessness provokes a sensor conflict in humans: if you shake your head the body takes it for a swift motion, but the body itself is not moving, hence the unpleasant nausea effect. As Roach writes, “Space-sickness is not just an unpleasant condition. A disabled member of the crew costs the company much more than any sickness leave in the world.”

The cosmonauts were tightly fastened with belts not giving them a chance to move. For safety reasons they were supposed to be wearing space suits the entire period of time spent in the orbit, and work in a seated position, firmly pressed to ejectable chairs.

In 1960 candidates were training for the flight in “Vostok” spaceships satellites. The equipment necessary for the training was often missing — either it has not yet been made or was not enough. “The future pilot starts training for solo flights in an actual aircraft, first on the ground, then in flight, with an experienced instructor by his side. But our spaceship, the make of it that was destined to take the man into the space, was still being built,” Evgeny Karpov recalls.


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/cosmonaut_11.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “Gherman Titov, member of the Vostok-2 mission at a photography course. 1961. From the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) archive.”}


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/cosmonaut_12.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “Vostok-5 and Vostok-6 programmes participant at parachute training. 1963. From the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) archive.”}


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/cosmonaut_09.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “Valentina Tereshkova in a pressure chamber. 1963. From the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) archive.”}


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/cosmonaut_07.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “Radio communication training. Valentina Tereshkova. From the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) archive.”}

After Gagarin’s flight in 1961 three compulsory trainings were to be performed by cosmonauts in a full-scale model of the spaceship. The first one was to be performed wearing a space suit — the candidate had to complete a three day flight program. The second training was the same as the first, but without a space suit. The third training consisted in mastering manual control of the spaceship in an emergency situation prior to the landing.

The cosmonauts were tightly fastened with belts not giving them a chance to move. For safety reasons they were supposed to be wearing space suits the entire period of time spent in the orbit, and work in a seated position, firmly pressed to ejectable chairs. “Back then they were afraid that in conditions of weightlessness the cosmonaut might slip out of the chair and not be able to get back into it before the landing,” lieutenant colonel Vasily Lesnikov, with over 20 years work experience at the GCTC, recollects. “Those were the conditions Yuri Gagarin and Gherman Titov worked in. The latter spent 24 hours in that position, without a chance to change it. His body ached because of belts and straps, he felt space sick, but he had no right to leave his place.”


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/cosmonaut_13.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “Geogriy Beregovoy in Soyuz shuttle simulator. 1967. From the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) archive.”}


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/cosmonaut_06.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “Eating in a space suit. Velentina Tereshkova. From the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) archive.”}


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/cosmonaut_10.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova during radio communication training. From the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) archive.”}


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/cosmonaut_03.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “Training for space flight factors. Valentina Tereshkova. From the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) archive.”}


After Gagarin

Soon after the first flight into space the first shortcomings of the early medical selection of cosmonauts became apparent. Doctors favored relatively small candidates over tall people to be sure they would fit into the ejectable chair, but no one considered arm length. As a result, Ivan Inikeev, the smallest of all candidates, found himself in a situation where he was unable to reach the control board in the fastened position. To solve that problem, engineers made a special mechanic extension handle that would help him reach for the buttons and switches on the control board.


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/cosmonaut_04.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “Spaceship training. Valentina Tereshkova. From the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) archive.”}

One’s behavior at training effected the selection results: one had to keep balance between activity and excessive calmness — candidates with a tendency for extremes were expelled from the program. In total, 25 people completed the GCTC training, with six of them making it to space.

Flights to the Earth orbit have long ceased to be something extraordinary. The effects of weightlessness and other space conditions on humans have been thoroughly studied — the time has come for more complicated tasks. From 2007 to 2011 “Mars-500” simulator of the expedition to Mars was used as a training device at the Moscow Institute of Biomedical Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Psychological experiments were conduted meant to answer the question as to what will happen to crew members in a closed room with the absence of a private life, lack of sleep and monotonous food. Now that flights are planned not for a couple of hours or days but for a few months, such experiments are a priority.


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/cosmonaut_08.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “Medical checks. Valentina Tereshkova. From the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) archive.”}


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/cosmonaut_02.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “General physical training. Valentina Tereshkova. From the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) archive.”}

Photos: federalspace.ru

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