The Soviet Union Takes the Lead in the Space Race During the Tokyo Olympics Part 1: The Voskhod’s Historic Launch

Voskhod Japan Times headline

Yoshinobu Miyake was the first Japanese to win a gold medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. But that wasn’t good enough to secure the biggest headline on the front page of The Japan Times on Tuesday, October 13, 1964.

Instead, the full-page headline blared: “Soviets Orbit Three-Man Spaceship”.

On Monday, October 12, the rocket ship, Voskhod, blasted off from a town named “Baikonur” in the southern part of the then-Soviet Union, a town near the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan. The ship held three cosmonauts: command pilot Vladimir Komarov, engineer Konstantin Feoktistov, and medical doctor Boris Yegorov.

The launch was 10:30 am Moscow time, which, with the six-hour time difference, was 4:30 pm Tokyo time. About three hours later, in the early evening, Voskhod transmitted a message to the world, as the second day of competition at the Tokyo Olympics was coming to a close:

Voskhod (l to r) Konstantin Feoktistov, Vladimir Komarov,Boris Yegorov.
Konstantin Feoktistov, Vladimir Komarov, Boris Yegorov.

Flying over Tokyo we convey ardent greetings to the youth of the world participating in the 18th Olympic Games which are called upon to play a big role in strengthening the cooperation and mutual understanding of sportsmen of all continents, in the rapprochement of peoples, and is consolidating the cause of peace.

Perhaps as a dig to their American competitors in the Olympic Village, Soviet officials and athletes there were reported to take the news in stride, according to the Yomiuri. “I knew it was coming off two weeks ago, before I left Moscow,” one Soviet sports official said. “It’s nothing special any more. We’re doing these things all the time,” a Soviet athlete commented.

And yet, this was not just geo-political gamesmanship, sending a ship into orbit during the biggest international event in the world. The Voskhod was a significant advancement in space travel, as it was the first space flight to:

  • send more than one person into space
  • not require the spacemen to wear spacesuits (in fact, they appeared to the press to be wearing overalls, or “ordinary clothes”)
  • send an engineer or a medical doctor into space
  • Climb as high as 336 kilometers from the earth’s surface.

The Voskhod, “Sunrise” in English, orbited the earth 15 times. As it took 90 minutes for the ship to orbit once, the entire time in space was close to 23 hours. During that time, the three cosmonauts were very active, conducting experiments, taking pictures, and noting observations, according to this site called RussianSpaceWeb.com.

During the mission, Komarov piloted and oriented the spacecraft in space, while Feoktistov had responsibility for observations and photography of the Earth, as well as the work with the sextant, an experiment studying the behavior of the liquid in weightlessness, monitoring and recording characteristics of newly installed ion sensors relative to the velocity vector of the spacecraft. All these responsibilities left Feoktistov little time for sleep. Still, the crew was able to fulfill a lot: cosmonauts took several hundred photos of the Earth’s surface, hurricanes, clouds and ice sheets, sunsets and sunrises, the Sun and the horizon. The crew was able to discern several layers of the atmosphere with different levels of brightness, which could help to provide more accurate angular elevation of stars over the horizon, if it would be necessary to determine the ship’s exact position in space. In the meantime, Yegorov conducted his medical studies. To the surprise of his crew mates, Yegorov succeeded with most of his program of taking blood samples, measuring pressure and pulse.

After the 15th orbit, Voskhod entered the earth’s atmosphere and returned safely, landing in a field on a state farm. Different from landings by American spaceships, which send the returning capsules splashing down into the ocean, the Soviet Union brings them back to terra firma. Figuring out soft landings are thus an imperative, and it appears that Soviet scientists and engineers had made advancements in braking methods, employing parachutes and applying retro-rockets just before hitting the surface.

So on the third day of competition the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, “Sunrise” again was the biggest headline in the Land of the Rising Sun.