Most spaceflight enthusiasts have heard about the Soviet cosmonaut that became so ill in orbit that his whole crew had to return to earth before they had completed what they were launched to accomplish. The returning crew in question consisted of the commander Vladimir Vasyutin, Viktor Savinykh, and Alexander Volkov. They returned to earth from the orbital station Salyut-7 on 21 November 1985 after the commander Vasyutin had fallen ill. Initially, reports about the problems encountered by the crew on Salyut-7 only mentioned unspecified “illness” and that Vladimir Vasyutin was hospitalized after his return to earth. Later, more details emerged (2) (3) and the medical problems were described as prostate infection and inflammation, i.e. prostatitis. His crewmate, Viktor Savinykh, has also described the physical discomfort (a fever of 40 °C) and bouts of deep depression that Vasyutin had to endure.
At the time, Aviation Week (1) reported that there had been signs of trouble in orbit when radio transmissions from Salyut-7 had been scrambled starting on 13 November 1985 and lasting four days. Aviation Week cited the “Kettering Group” as the source of these reports about scrambled radio transmissions. Actually, these reports came from me through the leader of the Kettering Group, Geoff Perry, who regularly was in touch with journalists at Aviation Week. I recorded these scrambled transmissions on 142.417 MHz on the following occasions:
The first “scrambled” transmissions of the type encountered here were recorded from Salyut-6 in 1978 and were “descrambled” by Richard Flagg and myself using a descrambling system consisting of an analog multiplier chip, a tunable audio-frequency oscillator, and a tunable low-pass filter (see article). The scrambling was really simple, just an inversion of the audio spectrum, and intended as a very simple way of hiding a crew member’s private conversations from the ears of colleagues in space or on the ground. Soviet media even published a few stories about this system. The 1978 recording was all about a very trivial incident – the cosmonauts were complaining about not finding sleeping pills they had asked for in the cargo of a newly arrived Progress transport ship.
Indeed, there were several more occasions over the years when I picked up such scrambled voice signals. But I had not kept the little circuits that descrambled the signals so these recordings just sat on tape cassettes in my drawers.
Recently, however, I decided to digitize all my satellite signal recordings and of course ran across the two scrambled recordings from Salyut-7 in November 1985. I decided to make another attempt a descrambling them, but this time using software only. In theory, it is possible to invert the audio spectrum by changing the sign of every other sample in the audio file. But, being a bit lazy, I realized that with my software coding skills, this would take many hours of coding. Instead I was seeking a simpler solution. An ex-colleague of mine advised me to check if the Audacity audio editor could be used. I already had installed Audacity for another purpose and was aware that it was possible to build simple audio processing functions in Audacity by using a LISP-like language called “Nyquist”. The code lines of Nyquist can be entered in a simple code window. BUT, I had really no idea of how to do it.
To get some help, I registered in the Audacity user forum and sent a question on how to invert the audio spectrum and included a link to the 1978 descrambling of signals from Salyut-6 mentioned above. Within an hour I got a very kind reply on this forum giving me a Nyquist code line that emulated in code what Richard Flagg and I had done in hardware 36 years earlier. The replier had even included a newly descrambled version of one of the 1978 files.
The Nyquist code line reads like this:
(lowpass8 (mult 2 (highpass8 s 300) (hzosc 3763))
To understand this one should work “from the inside out”. “hzosc 3763” means an oscillator at 3763 Hz. "Highpass8 s 300” means that the signal “s” is high-pass filtered with an 8-pole Butterworth filter with a lower cut-off frequency of 300 Hz. The function “mult” multiplies the high-pass filtered signal with the oscillator signal and the factor “2” (can be varied so as to get adequate amplitude). Lowpass8 (…) 3100 then low-pass filters the resulting signal with a cut-off frequency of 3100 Hz. The high-pass filter is used to reduce any audio noise components, like power-line hum that may be converted into high-frequency noise by the inversion process. Otherwise, the code line reproduces exactly the hardware that Richard Flagg and I built in 1978.
This code line certainly descrambled to voice. Here is an example from the 13 November 1985 recording:
Scrambled part as it sounded scrambled:
And here it is descrambled .
As anyone can hear it is not easy to pick out individual words, especially for someone who does not speak Russian fluently. The old descrambled recording from 1978 was translated for me by Gene Kozin about 15 years ago. I had lost the address of Gene in the intervening years, but I had no problems locating him again. I sent the two descrambled recordings to him and eagerly awaited the result. And – just like with the old recording – he showed a remarkable ability to penetrate the noise and distortion to understand and translate the voice.
The speaker on the space station is not Vasyutin, but another crew member, probably Viktor Savinykh. The person on the other end, Viktor Dmitriyevich, is probably flight controller Viktor Blagov. Slava Zudov refers to Soyuz-23 cosmonaut Vyacheslav Zudov, while Georgiy Timofeyevich probably is Soyuz-3 cosmonaut Georgiy Beregovoy.
- Okay then, let’s first now talk about work with Viktor Dmitriyevich. Viktor… Viktor Dmitriyevich, perhaps this, we have a conversation such that, let’s switch over to... to the third.
- So…I mean… at least some general environment… because everything have gotten somehow not very… and… [Second voice: just wait]. I mean, every day we have visitors… with conversations. Yesterday Slava Zudov, today Georgiy Timofeyevich. Of course, we love and respect them very much, but at this particular moment, such conversations, I mean… affect [sighs] Volodya, in not… not the best way.
- This is not... [Static] …now to talk about… This is not support. This is the opposite, Victor Dmitriyevich. And I’m asking you, I mean, all these visits, like this, aside from family… We are here … [unintelligible] …with Volodya and I said, “Maybe we should cancel family visits too?” But no, let them continue. But the visits like these, I mean, with phrases like “Hang on there… ” This is … unnecessary. That is good. So, if some of the guys come, I mean from the regiment, I mean youngsters… I mean, on business or something like that, but without this kind of… conversations.
- Yes. I mean, in general this is not… not… not… improving. The fact that I indeed… [Static]…strength, that is… [Static] ...now the great difficulty does indeed exist.
He’s holding on. But for how long, I mean, and how it’s going to
be, I mean, this second treatment cycle is going to end, there’s nothing I can
- I mean, he’s got strength. For how long it will last, there’s nothing I can say, Viktor Dmitriyevich. How is the situation in general on your side?
- I mean, on the twenty first… [Unintelligible] ...certainly he’s not ready, right? For…
- ...to do, for example.
- That’s understood.
Clearly, Vasyutin’s mood was not very good and he was even disturbed by well-wishers talking to him from Mission Control in Moscow. One can only wonder if the mention of “… on the twentyfirst …” refers to a possible landing on 21 November.
The speaker in this recording is Vladimir Vasyutin himself. The identity of Anatoliy Dmitrievich is unclear. “Sasha” is of course crew member Alexander Volkov.
- Good, or not so good... evening.
- And I am about you, Anatoliy Dmitrievich.
- Umm…today, at seventeen o’clock…
- Here it is, for Sasha thirty-six five, for myself thirty-six nine. Thirty six and nine, thirty six and five. Understood. Ok, now …
- General condition… Umm, before lunch, I again felt… I mean... nauseated.
- Umm … there was vomiting, but such as… I could not throw up anything, because before lunch only bitter pears (?), that’s all.
- Yes, but I did not vomit food. No, today I did not feel chills.
- Pain in perineum still remains. Umm… in that channel where… as usual, on the same note.
- Yes, I also feel it in the groin.
- Yes, when I bend my legs towards my stomach it gets a little stronger.
- Umm… today I tried to get on the [unintelligible], eh… started walking, but I got invited here, right away, for the communication, and…
Vasytuin’s temperature was rather normal on 17 November 1985 even though it was about 0.4 °C higher than that of his crewmate. By checking on-line medical sites it is easy to determine that the symptoms that Vasyutin gives – pain in the perineum and the groin is typical of prostatitis. So, doctors on the ground should have been rather convinced as to what was the problem. Why could he not be treated with antibiotics? Surely, the space station supplies must have contained antibiotics. It seems, however, that acute prostatitis initially is treated by administering antibiotics intravenously. Perhaps this was not possible to do in orbit.
Space travelers that achieve hero status often make daring space walks, landing on other heavenly bodies or narrowly escaping death. But, in my book, Vladimir Vasyutin should be given a special place in the Hall of Fame. He suffered very much from illness while in space. Some of his colleagues said he hid his ailment before launch and it got worse in flight. Can all astronauts honestly say they are innocent of this very human behaviour? The final result was bad for Vladimir Vasyutin and he paid dearly for any wrong-doing and probably felt that he had failed his crew, the space program and his nation badly. But the odds were against him. Still, he fought valiantly and stayed about 65 days in orbit during his only space mission. He retired from cosmonaut duty for medical reasons in 1987. I feel much sympathy for him. Life can be very tough.Vladimir Vasyutin, space hero, passed away in 2004, at the age of fifty. I think he is well worth remembering.
Thanks go to my ex co-worker, Hans Ringstrand, for having the hunch of trying Audacity for the spectrum inversion. Special thanks to Gene Kozin for his brilliant and prompt “decoding” of the unscrambled recordings.
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