Soviet Space Deceptions - not so many after all!

Sven Grahn, Sollentuna, Sweden

When the space age started in 1957 the thirst for information about space ventures was unquenchable, both from the public and from the media. A situation quickly emerged where the U.S. space efforts were well publicized with plenty of technical and human-interest details but unsuccessful, and the Soviet space launches were conducted in secrecy and therefore failures were never revealed. The technical details about Soviet space ventures were meagre. Sometimes they were not correct, outright fabrications, like the well known disinformation about the location of the launch site for Yuri Gagarin - thoroughly explored by Jim Oberg. Interestingly, up until Gagarin's flight, Soviet public statements about their space launches were, as far as I can ascertain, truthful, but meagre in technical details. Yuri Gagarin's and Gherman Titov's flights generated the first cases of deliberate disinformation about Soviet space launches. The half-truths about the mode of landing of Gagarin and Titov are other cases that have been explored by Jim Oberg, who has also extensively covered the retouching of photos to remove cosmonauts that had left the program for various reasons.

The "Great Vostok Configuration Myth"

Some technical information released by the Soviet authorities at the time were very accurate. For example, on 7 August 1961, TASS issued a communiqué about the continued flight of Vostok-2 and repeated the radio frequencies used by the cosmonaut (20.006 MHz, 143.625 MHz), but added that the reports from the cosmonaut on 143.625 MHz were frequency modulated with a deviation of ± 30 kHz! Why would such technical detail be released? Well, the flight would last quite a long time, and many people around the world would have the chance to listen in. To create maximum excitement and "propaganda effect" it was essential that listeners around the world would be able to tune in, but it was also important that people did so, in order to avoid any claim from the West that the whole flight was a fake!

But, the Vostok flights generated some grand pieces of disinformation. It started with the launch picture! For some reasons those who directed the media coverage around the Gagarin flight felt compelled to publish some kind of picture of the launch - and the result was the one shown on the left, released in Moscow on April 14, 1961, alleged to show the nose of the Vostok launcher rising through cloud! Why publish such a completely retouched photo after all? Maybe to tell everyone that the launch vehicle was secret and that revealing it would give the West dangerous information? Showing such a retouched picture is a sort of bragging!

Naturally the interest in the Gagarin flight was so high that some kind of public display of the very heavy spaceship was necessary, but without revealing some essential details about the spacecraft. One should remember, that at this time, the sister ship of Vostok, the Zenit-2 spy satellite had not flown yet, and revealing the configuration of Vostok would reveal the configuration of Zenit, from which Western intelligence could glean details about its performance as a spy satellite. Also, the very simple shape of the re-entry vehicle may have been regarded as a bit of embarrassing to show to experts in the West, while NASA was designing Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, the two latter with re-entry vehicles that could manoeuvre because of their shape. So, there were plenty of reasons to keep the actual configuration of Vostok secret for some time.

The next step in the Vostok publicity campaign was therefore quite brilliant. A mock-up of the last stage of the carrier rocket and the shroud covering the Vostok was shown at the Tushino air display in July, 1961. The shroud even included the opening for the the catapult. But - the mock-up had a confusing addition. It had an annular aerodynamic fin arrangement at the back. Whether this was added as a device to keep the nose of the mock-up pointing in the direction of flight or intended as disinformation is hard to know. Perhaps someone in Russia can shed light on this? However, this annular fin now became a solid part of the "Vostok configuration myth" as we shall see. It is a bit strange that nobody in the West was able to interpret the shroud opening for the catapult as evidence for a spherical capsule. The strange thing about the Tushino mock-up is that it actually carried real telemetry antennas on the last stage of the carrier rocket.

At about the same time, i.e. in July 1961, the Soviet Union released a movie called "With Gagarin to the Stars". In this movie there was a still picture showing the mating of the shroud to the Vostok mounted on the last stage of the carrier rocket. It is strange that this picture is absolutely free from fakes, and does not show the annular ring, but still was seen as confirming the Tushino display! The keen observer noticed the similarity between the last stage and that of Luna 1! Pictures of the catapulted container for the dogs carried on Sputnik 5-10 had been released and their configuration obviously added to the confusion as we can see from the picture below. It is a Vostok configuration sketch the seems to have been generated by engineers at the Bendix Corporation and published in German magazine "Raketentechnik und Raumfahrtforschung" (No. 1, 1962). It is easy to sneer at sketches like these in this day and age, but remember what the situation was like 36 years ago. The person who drew this sketch must be forgiven for forgetting the heat shield and other essential parts of a manned spaceship. He even got position of the cosmonaut wrong - on his belly!

The "Vostok configuration myth" got another injection of half-truths and disinformation with the release of the film about Gherman Titov's flight "To the Stars Again" in October 1961. In several scenes the orbital motion of Vostok 2 was illustrated using a model of Vostok that retained the annular fin or "stabilizing ring" at the base, added absolutely correct details about radio antennas and thermal shutters at the base of the craft. But - it added another fantastic piece of disinformation: two little wings on each side of the body (or "canard control surfaces" as Missiles & Rockets called them). Also a green band around the waist for thermal control was also added, and mentioned in technical descriptions of the craft - this is obviously a non-existent part, isn't it?

It is strange that the little cylinders with pointed noses that were seen on the stabilizing ring of the Tushino mock-up had been modified and lacked the little nose-caps. Why change a little detail like this? Artistic license or a desire to make the craft look more real and less like a sci-fi creation? But, half the truth of configuration of Vostok was now out in the open. The top of the re-entry vehicle is obviously a sphere and the size of camera that can be put on board Vostok for reconnaissance purposes is now quite obvious. The canards certainly do a good job at hiding the true shape of the re-entry vehicle. It is hard to imagine there is a sphere behind the canards!

Well, let us now examine how this movie model was interpreted by the media. The sketches below come from the now defunct magazine Missiles & Rockets. I must say I accepted these configuration sketches as the undiluted truth when I first saw them in the magazine shelves of the American Library (run by the U.S. Information Service) on the top floor of "Hotel Stockholm" at the Norrmalmstorg Square in downtown Stockholm, a place that I could reach during the lunch break at my high school. I went there about twice a week to read Missiles & Rockets, Aviation Week and to pick up the mimeographed news releases about U.S. space exploits that were available at the Library. I have kept old, brown photo-copies (Yes, real photo-copies, no Xeroxes around in those days) of these configuration sketches. Instead of letting them fade away in my files I have put them on here.

In the December 18, 1961 issue of Missiles and Rockets the model of Vostok 2 shown in the film about Titov's spaceflight had prompted this interpretation of the launch configuration of Vostok. The canards are longer than in the movie and the stabilizing ring lacks the little cylinders. The thermal shutters are included, but shown somewhat stylized. In the accompanying text, the magazine says that "Soviet officials said Vostok II was different from Vostok I and the wings were new. They connected them with maneuvers Maj. Gherman Titov reportedly carried out during the last orbits of his 17½-orbit Aug. 6 flight, when he was in the denser regions of the atmosphere". Yet another piece of disinformation! Who concocted this whole story.....?

The magazine continued: "There has been continued speculation in the west that Vostok's were winged and that they were being designed as a military spacecraft. the model, however, is the most concrete evidence to date that this is the case.....There are reports that Russia is working on orbital rendezvous. the various control surfaces of Vostok may be designed for the necessary maneuverability in space." Well, they got one thing right - Vostok was being developed as a military spacecraft.

The crowning achievement of this disinformation campaign can be seen in the diagram of the Vostoks that Missiles & Rockets published in its issue of July 9, 1962 (p.9). This sketch contains almost everything from the Tushino air display and the Vostok 2 film. The artist has added a Mercury-style heat shield and retro rocket. The window is placed very far from the pilot and the parachute of the re-entry vehicle is placed at the apex of the spherical front of the craft. This sketch has very little in common with the real Vostok - which of course was the purpose of the disinformation campaign!

The Vostok deception ends - suddenly!

In my files there is a clipping from a Swedish newspaper (Stockholms-Tidningen) dated April 30, 1965 showing a picture of Vostok taken at the Exhibition of Economic Achievements in Moscow where Vostok had been put on display. I have another newspaper article dated May 3, 1965 where the Novosti description of Vostok is recounted with the comment that the spherical capsule was the great surprise: "Gagarin travelled like Baron Münchhausen- on a cannon ball" was the paper's comment. Aviation Week published pictures from the exhibition in its May 10, 1965 issue.

The actual release of the truth about Vostok occurred on April 29, 1965. It is interesting that just five weeks earlier Leonov's flight in Voskhod 2 had taken place and the lid of secrecy about Vostok was still tightly in place. Of course, everyone thought Voskhod was a great technological leap over and beyond Vostok, so perhaps that is why Vostok could now be revealed. Or, the fact that the Soyuz craft was getting nearer to flight status made Vostok obsolete and therefore possible to put on display.

In the Soviet documentary film "Man Steps Into Space" about Leonov's spacewalk, the first glimpses of the R-7-based launch vehicle for Vostok and Voskhod were shown. This film reached the West in September 1965. But, it took until the Paris Air Show in June 1967 for the Vostok booster to be shown in full detail! The full-scale replica of the rocket carried a mock-up of the Vostok spacecraft. Finally, we knew what Gagarin's chariot looked like. Why was the R-7 revealed at that particular juncture? Well, perhaps it was no longer the most powerful rocket that the Soviet Union had at its disposal. The UR-500, Proton, rocket was now being used more and more and the less powerful rocket could therefore be shown without revealing the true extent of Soviet capability. In fact, we had to wait another 18 years before the Proton was being shown in public on the occasion of the Vega launch! By that time, the Energiya rocket was in the final stages of development, the Proton could be shown without revealing the true extent of Soviet launch vehicle capability. The logic seems to be same, doesn't it? Anyone who has knowledge about Soviet censorship policy is invited to comment on this and the whole article of course!

The last elaborate fake - the configuration of Soyuz hidden for 18 months

When Soyuz was launched in April 1967, everyone realized it was a new ship and that the design must differ from that of Vostok. The disaster that followed shook everyone and the Soviet Union's space prowess did not seem so overwhelming. However, the primary objective of the Soyuz 1/2 flight - rendezvous and docking was brilliantly carried out with two unmanned craft in October 1967, a mere 6 months after the death of Vladimir Komarov in Soyuz 1. Cosmos 186 and 188 were of course nothing but two Soyuz vehicles. The feat of docking them automatically was not small and the Soviet publicity machine naturally wanted to take advantage of this triumph. For some reason, perhaps the continuing investigation into the death of Komarov, it was deemed necessary to keep the real configuration of Soyuz secret. Again, it was the shape of the re-entry vehicle that needed to be hidden. Why?? The picture below was released by Soviet authorities in early November 1967. The area between the orbital module and descent vehicle has been heavily retouched to hide the shape of the descent vehicle. Of course, just a year later the true shape of Soyuz was revealed in connection with the flight of Georgi Beregovoy in Soyuz 3.

The interesting thing about the picture below is the fact that all antennas are correctly shown. I used this picture to determine that the U-shaped antennas at the solar panel tips were designed for 165-185 MHz. As it turned out this was more accurate than I could imagine. That is precisely the band in which several telemetry frequencies were located on early Soyuz craft. In general, I have never been able to detect that antennas on Soviet spacecraft models or sketches were distorted in any way. Somewhat surprising, but true - it seems.

The Soviet censors did perpetrate some lies and fakes, but no so many - actually. Usually, I must conclude, the information released by Soviet authorities was meagre, but truthful.

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