It’s amazing to be hitting the half-century mark after so many space firsts, and today is one that many may not be aware of it. It was a pretty big deal at the time, but it isn’t as well remembered as the first man in space, first EVA, first woman, etc. After the flurry of basic “firsts” by Vostok and Mercury, it was time to move into multi-crew missions, to prepare for a moonshot. America was working on the Gemini program. Russia was working on . . . well, too many things at once, probably. Shifting political winds kept moving funds from one team’s spaceflight efforts to the other, a problem which may have ultimately cost them the moon. But be that as it may, in April of 1964, the Americans launched an unmanned Gemini capsule aboard a Titan II ICBM, an obvious prelude to their first two-man flight.
Gemini had deleted some of the safeguards that Mercury had carried; in particular, it would not have an escape tower. And it would fly atop a dangerous hypergolic fueled rocket. Gemini would also carry another innovation that only NASA would ever make further use of during spaceflight: fuel cells. But what really mattered was that it would carry multiple crews. That had the potential of robbing the Soviets of a “first”, which couldn’t be allowed to happen.
By October, Sergei Korolev’s team had taken a Vostok capsule and reconfigured the one-man capsule with three seats. As there would not be room for three ejection seats, for the first time the crews would actually have to land in the thing, so a backup retropack was added for some extra safety. The rocket was beefed up to carry the extra weight, but it wasn’t quite enough, so the escape tower was removed, as were the crew’s spacesuits to protect them should the capsule depressurize. As long as they were at it, the Soviets decided to make two of the crew non-pilots. In addition to Colonel Vladimir Komarov as the pilot, the ship carried Konstantin Feoktistov (PhD in physics and a spacecraft designer who later went on to be chief designer of Salyut and Mir stations) and Dr Boris Yegorov. They were, respectively, the first scientist and the first physician in space.
The mission lasted just one day and accomplished very little other than to demonstrate that multiple humans could be in the same spaceship at once. But it maintained Russia’s apparent lead over the US. The Voskhod program would only last for one more flight, accomplishing the world’s first EVA, before resources had to be focused more intensely on Soyuz. Arguably, Voskhod was a distraction from Soyuz, which did not fly crewed until 1967. The crew of that first Soyuz was the same man who piloted Vostok 1: Vladimir Komarov. Sadly, it would be his final flight, as on Soyuz 1 he became the first man to die during a spaceflight.
But in 1964, his experience was more joyous, and with his two crewmates returned home to a hero’s welcome. The line in the sand for human spaceflight had been edged a little bit further over.