Computing in the Soviet Space Program












Photo of Valentina Ponomareva

Interview with Valentina Ponomareva

Moscow, May 17, 2002

In 1957 Valentina Ponomareva graduated from the Moscow Aviation Institute and went to work for the Applied Mathematics Division of the Mathematical Institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. At the same time, she was training as a pilot at the Tushino aviation club. In March 1962, she was selected to be a member of the first women's group of cosmonauts, which also included Valentina Tereshkova, Zhanna Erkina, Tatiana Kuznetsova, and Irina Solov'eva. After Tereshkova's space flight on June 16, 1963, the members of this group continued their training at the Cosmonaut Training Center for several years, until the group was officially disbanded in October 1969. Except Tereshkova, no one from this group was ever sent to space. After 1969, Ponomareva worked at the Scientific Research Department of the Cosmonaut Training Center. She pursued her interest in space history and became a researcher at the Institute for the History of Natural Science and Technology of the Academy of Sciences in Moscow. Currently Dr. Ponomareva is the head of the History of Aviation and Cosmonautics Section of the Institute.

This interview was conducted and translated from the Russian by Slava Gerovitch. The text includes materials from Ponomareva's lecture at the LXV Plenum of the Russian National Committee of the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology on May 21, 2002, and also fragments from the following books (in Russian): Ponomareva, The Female Face of the Cosmos (Moscow: Gelios, 2002), and Nikolai Kamanin, The Hidden Cosmos, book 1 (Moscow: Infortekst, 1995). This interview was published in the collection: Slava Gerovitch, Voices of the Soviet Space Program: Cosmonauts, Soldiers, and Engineers Who Took the USSR into Space (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

Gerovitch: How was the first women's group of cosmonauts created and why?

Ponomareva: These days in the course of my work I read a lot of memoirs of rocket designers and leaders of the space program, and I am struck by their attitude toward the development of cosmonautics. For some reason in those days it was believed that cosmonautics would develop at a great pace, that space flights would become regular and routine, that there would be built almost as many spacecraft as aircraft. I cannot figure out how such prominent, intelligent people, who knew all the complexity and the expense of the construction and use of space technology, could be so mistaken about the rate of development of space technology. Sergei Pavlovich Korolev [the chief designer of the Soviet space program] and other leaders believed that this technology would advance with seven-league strides. Perhaps their belief has a psychological or sociological explanation, but I cannot explain it. At the end of 1961, Korolev sent a letter, I think, to Nikolai Kamanin [assistant to the deputy Chief Commander of the Air Force in charge of cosmonaut training], in which he wrote that in the near future 60 cosmonauts of various professions would be needed, including five women. By then only 20 cosmonauts had been trained. Such were the premises on which our space program developed.

Different authors offer different opinions as to whose idea it was to select women - Korolev's or Kamanin's - but Korolev's letter came earlier than Kamanin made his statements. The space race also played a role here. Competition with the Americans gave a powerful impulse to such rapid development of space technology. In many memoirs one can find the idea that one must not allow lagging behind the Americans in the space program at all costs, especially in manned flights as the most impressive for the masses. At that time in America women tried to make their way into the Mercury program. They had not been invited, but some first-class women pilots began to act on their own. They reached the Vice President with their request to be allowed to participate in the space program. Nothing came out of it, but since the Americans did not hide anything, some publications about this appeared in the press.

Diary entry on October 24, 1961

After Gagarin's flight, I persuaded [the Air Force Chief Commander] Vershinin, [the Chief Designer] Korolev, and [President of the Soviet Academy of Sciences] Keldysh to organize the selection of a small group of women. This project, however, is moving along with great difficulty. In my view, it is necessary to prepare for women for space flights mainly for the following reasons:
1. Without doubt women will fly into space, and it is therefore necessary to start preparations for women's flights now.
2. Under no circumstances can one allow that the first woman in space becomes an American. This would hurt the patriotic feelings of Soviet women.
3. The first Soviet woman-cosmonaut will become an agitator for communism as great as Gagarin and Titov.

From Nikolai Kamanin, The Hidden Cosmos

Thus the decision to create a women's group was made at the top. Kamanin wrote in his diary that it was necessary to train women for space flight within 5-6 months. The women's group was selected in March 1962, and in August he already wanted to have trained cosmonauts and to send them into space. As usual, the construction of spacecraft was delayed, space suits were not ready, and therefore the training of the women's group was extended.

Gerovitch: What were the criteria for selection?

Ponomareva: At that time it was assumed that a cosmonaut could only be someone connected with aviation. At the beginning, they selected only combat pilots, even though later Korolev objected to this idea (he had initially supported it and, quite possibly, he was its author). Women were selected through aviation clubs in the European part of the Soviet Union. They mostly selected sports parachute jumpers, since in the Vostok spacecraft the cosmonaut had to land on a parachute. Parachute jumping is a complex skill, and therefore to train a novice in such a short time is impossible. A group of five was formed: four parachute jumpers of different skill levels and I. I had been trained as a pilot and had only eight jumps. I was a third category jumper; in comparison to the sports master Irina Solov'eva's 800 jumps, my eight jumps were nothing. Kamanin wanted to look over the documents of approximately 200 women candidates, and he asked the Central Committee of the Voluntary Association for the Advancement of the Army, Aviation, and the Navy to help. They could find only 58, and he was rather disappointed. In his diary he wrote that the Association's Central Committee had done a bad job and that 58 candidates was not enough. At that time, the view that everything connected to cosmonautics must be on a giant scale was typical. From those 58 applications the final five were selected.

Gerovitch: How was the training for space flight organized?

Ponomareva: In March 1962, we began training at the Cosmonaut Training Center. Then the town [i.e., the Star City] did not exist yet; there were only office buildings. We lived in a rehabilitation center and went through the very same training as did the first men cosmonauts. We were trained to withstand various conditions of space flight: weightlessness, G-loads, and so on.

When we arrived in the Center, we were enrolled as privates in the Soviet Air Force. We found ourselves in a military unit, in which we became a foreign element, with our different characters and different ideas. Our commanders had great difficulty dealing with us, since we did not understand the requirements of the service regulations, and we did not understand that orders had to be carried out. Military discipline in general was for us an alien and difficult concept.

Specialists from Korolev's Design Bureau visited us and gave lectures on the Vostok spacecraft. Many of them later became cosmonauts. Specialists from other organizations also gave lectures. Our training was completed by the end of 1962. We passed a State Examination. Kamanin, who supervised our training for space flights, came in and asked us whether we wanted to become regular officers of the Air Force. This question was definitely too difficult for very young ladies not accustomed to military discipline. We thought it over and talked to the guys from the first group.

By the way, the cosmonauts of the first group, as well as everyone in the military unit, were opposed to the women's group and to a woman's flight. But they all understood that to put a woman into the orbit first was a matter of our prestige and it had to be done. These days reasons of prestige are called into question, but back then such was the popular attitude, not just among the leaders of the space program. Everyone believed that new world records must be set.

Despite their opposition to the idea of a woman's flight, the cosmonauts of the first group treated us very well; they cared about us, they helped us, they taught us how to deceive physicians and how to pass tests easier. After consulting with them, we decided that it was necessary to join the staff of the Air Force; it was necessary to be like everybody else.

Jumping ahead a bit, I will mention that this would play an important role in the future fortunes of our group. After Tereshkova's flight the commanders of the Center wanted very much to get rid of us. But the fact that we were regular officers presented an obstacle to such efforts. It was not so easy to get rid of us. Later, however, they found a way, but this first time they failed.

Gerovitch: Did the women train under the same program as the men?

Ponomareva: Yes, under precisely same program. It is well-known that the main tasks for the first flights (Tereshkova's flight was the sixth) were to find out whether people can survive in space and whether they can work there. Those were medical and biological tasks. Therefore the bulk of the training, both in terms of volume and importance, was devoted to medical and biological preparation, that is, to the preparation of the organism to withstand the conditions of space flight. Besides, the influence of these conditions on the organism remained largely unclear and unknown. This is especially true with respect to weightlessness, since most other factors - noise, vibrations, G-loads, isolation (the latter was referred to by the charming name "sensory deprivation") - could be adequately simulated on earth. It is very difficult to simulate weightlessness on earth. Medical and biological training was aimed at preparing the organism to withstand all these conditions. We were also given extensive theoretical training so that we could understand what was going on.

There were many training sessions and tests. With G-loads, it was simple: a centrifuge was used. As it was later discovered, in the beginning they, as usual, overdid it, that is, they put too many Gs. With the first group of men cosmonauts, G-loads reached 12 Gs. For us and for all subsequent groups G-loads were up to 10 Gs. There were two rotations a day. It began with small loads (4-6 Gs), the next day we would get 8, and then other loads according to the diagram of launch and descent. There was much physical training, so that we would have a healthy body for a healthy mind. For weightlessness, so-called "vestibular training" was used. There were many special devices for stimulating and training the vestibular system: rotating chairs, stimulation by electric current, chairs on unstable support, and so on. These devices had probably existed in medical practice for a long time. With these devices, they tried to improve our ability to withstand weightlessness. Real weightlessness was simulated with flights first on fighter planes and later on a huge, specially designed flying laboratory. Weightlessness there lasted 20-40 seconds - just enough time to notice that a pencil sharpener was floating in front of you. When the flying laboratory was built, they started training for specific operations. At that time, cosmonauts were trained  for a space walk and for repairs in space. Later on, they built a hydro-pool. A cosmonaut floated in a space suit and performed various operations. But weightlessness in this case is not the same as weightlessness in orbit. There were also parachute jumps. For our group, parachute jumping was considered - implicitly, unofficially - the most important part of training, because the cosmonaut had to land on a parachute. They also provided theoretical instruction: they gave lectures on rocket technology, astronomy, and navigation, the sciences related to the technical side of the matter. This was our training, just the same as in the men's group.

Gerovitch: What tasks did you have to carry out during weightlessness training flights?

Ponomareva: There was a speech test: you had to say something. First, a certain phrase was recorded on the ground, and then the same operation was performed in flight. They checked if weightlessness made any difference. The same thing was done for writing. There also was a psychological test: we drew spirals, stars, various funny figures - again, first on the ground and then in flight. We also tried eating food from a tube.

Gerovitch: Were you asked to turn control knobs in weightlessness to check your functions as an operator?

Ponomareva: No, I was not. I had the impression (and Boris Chertok hints at that in his book) that initially there was no intention to build a manual guidance system for the Vostok spacecraft. It is clear why: this was the first flight; it was not clear what would happen to the pilot; and the weight limits allowed for a completely automatic space ship with back-ups for almost all systems. They fully counted on automatic systems.

Gerovitch: There are many different explanations as to why they relied so much on automation. First, the weight allowed for that; second, as you wrote in your article The Human Factor in Space Exploration: Soviet and American Approaches, rocket engineers had stuck to specific technological traditions of building automatic devices with no human on board.

Ponomareva: The main reason was, I think, the lack of knowledge of what would happen to a human in orbit. Before the first flight physicians had fears that he would go mad. A human left the Earth for the first time, in outer space there was no input for sensory organs, and other, unknown factors could also kick in. Because of the fear for the cosmonaut's state of mind, they put a "logical lock" on the descent engine. A numeric code was kept secret, and it was given to the cosmonaut in a sealed envelope just before the flight. Of course, any secret leaks out pretty fast. Already then we knew that one person had given that code to Gagarin, and from recent memoirs it follows that there were four or five such informants.

Gerovitch: In your book, you also write about the third factor - ideology, the general Soviet mistrust of an individual.

Our unconditional reliance on automation . . . is not a random error or a conceptual mistake; it is a natural course of events. "The emphasis on automation" is the result and an inherent part of the total mistrust of the individual, the mistrust peculiar to our ideology. The roots of this mistrust, I think, must be sought in the period of industrialization of this country, when huge masses of people built factories and plants by hand. ... Propaganda tried to impose on people's minds the idea that technology decided everything. From this it directly followed that the individual was small and insignificant, only a tiny "screw" in a giant mechanism. Under powerful ideological pressure two different mental patterns were formed: the "screw" stereotype in mass consciousness and purely technocratic thinking in the Party-state management apparatus. Technocratic thinking always prefers a technological solution. Therefore they trusted the machine and did not trust the human being.

From Ponomareva, The Female Face of the Cosmos

Ponomareva: We were all very angry. One could understand why they made the Vostok fully automatic. Thank God, they also added a manual guidance system, but it had to be turned on only on the Voskhod. But later, when they began building the Soyuz, their attitude toward the human as a link in the control system remained the same: let automata do everything. We did not have computers back then; everything worked on analog elements. They used double, triple, and quadruple redundancy in automatic systems in order not to allow human participation. Perhaps, I am exaggerating a bit. But I remember very well how it all was designed. We visited Korolev's Design Bureau; they gave us lectures. Certainly, we did not participate in the design; we were only listeners. There was a prolonged dispute whether to trust the cosmonaut with manual rendezvous and docking. There were pros and cons, and it was necessary to look for optimal scenarios. In his book, the cosmonaut Vladimir Shatalov writes that they had executed over 800 dockings on a simulator, and all the same, just before their flight there was an argument over which mode of docking - manual or automatic - will be chosen as nominal. Inertia also played a role. On unmanned missions everything was automatic, and it worked successfully. It is obvious that when a particular path of development is successful, nobody wants to deviate from it.

Gerovitch: There is also an argument offered by the spacecraft designer and cosmonaut Konstantin Feoktistov: the cosmonaut's task on board is not to operate a space vehicle, but to carry out research. If all human efforts are spent on servicing the flight, then what is the purpose of a manned flight? A human would only serve the machine then.

Ponomareva: In the beginning the processes of rendezvous and docking were new and complex, but later they became routine. Certainly, the human should carry out research tasks; here Feoktistov is right. But if the human does not regularly take part in spacecraft control, then in case of emergency he will become helpless. Pilots know this very well. If a pilot does not fly, if he does not exercise his skills, if he does not himself operate an aircraft, then one can hardly expect that he would cope with an extraordinary situation.

Gerovitch: What was your training on a spaceship simulator?

Ponomareva: There were, I think, seven sessions total. The entire flight was simulated. The candidate sat in the ship and carried out everything as though he or she were flying in space. Visual conditions, the noise of engines - everything that could be simulated on the ground was simulated. Emergency situations were played out. There were many training exercises in spacecraft control.

On the signal panel in the right corner of the instrument board green "window" lights are on: this means that everything is running in the nominal mode. ... There were two regimes for automatic descent - Descent-I and Descent-II; they were independent and provided full back-up. A particular regime was initiated from the ground, and the cosmonaut only had to control the execution of an automatic sequence of instructions via the Descent Regime Control Device (DRCD). This was beautiful! Green "windows" lit up on the dial, marking the passage of various phases of the cycle, and a white triangular mark (the "DRCD index") started "jumping." When the DRCD index jumped next to a window, the window would go out, a signal would sound, and all this had to be reported back to the ground. "The DRCD index has started," the cosmonaut would say. "The first window is out," the cosmonaut would say. I liked the fact that those words (there were a few of them) were full of hidden meaning and they could only be understood be the initiated.

From Ponomareva, The Female Face of the Cosmos


Control panel on the Vostok spacecraft

Instrument board on the Vostok spacecraft

Control panel and instrument board on the Vostok spacecraft

from Yurii Tiapchenko, "Forty Years of Manned Flights"

Gerovitch: What were the functions of various instruments on the instrument board?

Ponomareva: The sphere in the middle is called "the globe." It is a real globe, which shows two kinds of motion: the rotation of the Earth and the spacecraft's movement in orbit. On this globe, you can see over which part of the Earth the spacecraft is currently flying. If you press a button and "reset" the globe, you will see where the spacecraft would land if you turn on the descent engine at this moment. Above the globe is a digital indicator of the number of orbits. Below are four dial indicators of various system parameters: humidity, temperature, and pressure inside the capsule, the oxygen and nitrogen pressure in the capsule (this was reported back to Earth), and the pressure in the pneumatic systems of two attitude control systems. On the right, you can see a set of "windows." In case of emergency, a red window would light up and a signal would sound. In each "window," a specific message would light up, for example, "enough fuel for descent only." For every foreseen emergency situation, there was a corresponding "window."

Gerovitch: Did the instrument board serve for information purposes only? Could you press any buttons, request information, make adjustments?

Ponomareva: One could operate the globe reset button, the hand controller, and the descent engine switch with a logical lock. Besides, on the left there was a communication panel with various radio transmitters and a telegraph key (we learned Morse code). Except for turning on the attitude control system and the descent engine, the cosmonaut did not have any control functions.

Gerovitch: How were the visual conditions simulated?

Ponomareva: They made a film and showed it through a window. A machine received control signals as the hand controller was moving, and this caused changes in the window. Pointers would light up, showing the position of the ship, the roll, and so on. It was a typical simulator, similar to those they made for aircraft.

Hand controller on the Vostok spacecraft


Three-axis hand controller on the Vostok spacecraft

from Yurii Tiapchenko, "Forty Years

of Manned Flights"

In my view, the yaw control and the roll control in the hand controller were rearranged. I did not get used to it right away and was very much surprised: Why could not it be done like on aircraft? "That's because artillerymen made it," I was told.

From Ponomareva, The Female Face of the Cosmos

Gerovitch: In your book, The Female Face of the Cosmos, you wrote about the difficulty you had had adjusting to the design of a hand controller on Vostok, which was different from the design of a regular aircraft control column.

Ponomareva: I did not like it. I thought this was wrong. On an aircraft, the pitch (the aircraft nose goes up or down) is regulated by the back-and-forth movement of the hand controller; the roll (the aircraft wings tilt to the right or to the left) is regulated by the right-to-left movement; and the yaw (the aircraft nose turns right or left) is regulated by pedals. A hand controller on an aircraft has two axes, while a hand controller on a space ship has three. On a space ship, the pitch is regulated in the same way as on an aircraft, but the roll and the yaw are rearranged: the yaw is where I thought the roll would be (the right-to-left movement), and the roll is where I thought the yaw would be (rotation of the hand controller knob clockwise or counterclockwise). Other pilots, however, were more experienced than I, and none of them complained about it. This was just my personal opinion.

Gerovitch: Besides the rearranged yaw and roll controls in the hand controller, what were the differences for you as a pilot between flying an airplane and a space vehicle?

Ponomareva: On an airplane I did indeed fly, while the space vehicle was standing on the ground. There was nothing in common. There was very little equipment on the Vostok.

Diary entry on November 19, 1962

Ponomareva has passed her training very evenly with good marks, and she has all excellent marks for theory, except for one good mark. Based on her health and level of preparedness, Ponomareva could have been the first candidate for the flight, but her talk and behavior give basis for doubts whether she is morally adequate. ... She told Tereshkova: "You have been irreversibly flawed by the Party and the Komsomol," and this was said in reply to Tereshkova's attempt (as the appointed leader of the group) to give her advice to act more modestly. ... Everybody's impression of Tereshkova is very good; she sets an example in her behavior and propriety. Tereshkova and Ponomareva feel that they can be the first candidates for the flight, and one can already perceive some rivalry between them.

From Kamanin, The Hidden Cosmos


For some reason, Korolev started with me: he asked why I was sad and whether I would resent it if I do not fly. I rose and said with emphasis: " Yes, Sergei Pavlovich, I would resent it very much! " Pointing his index finger at me, Korolev said: "You are right, you fine girl. I would have resented it too." He spoke with emphasis, very emotionally. Then he has kept silent for a while, gave every one of us a long attentive look, and said: "It's all right, you'll all fly into space." ... The session [of the State commission on May 21, 1963] was short, and there was no miracle. It was announced that Valentina Tereshkova was appointed the commander of the space ship, and Irina Solov'eva and Valentina Ponomareva were the back-ups. As I remember [the physician] Karpov's explanation, two back-ups, instead of one as for men, were appointed "with the consideration of the complexity of the female organism."

From Ponomareva, The Female Face of the Cosmos

Gerovitch: What was the fate of the women's group after Tereshkova's flight?

Ponomareva: During the preparation for the flight and during the flight itself we had conversations with Korolev on the launching pad. It is well known that Korolev's attitude toward the presence of women at work and especially on the launching pad was very negative. He believed that on a launching pad, like on a ship, a woman brings misfortune. But toward us he acted with kindness. Perhaps he realized that our training was not easy; it was hard and even dangerous. He told us: "Don't be upset that you did not fly today. More important, more complex, more interesting flights await you." I am talking about myself and about Tereshkova's first back-up, Irina Solov'eva. We had mixed feelings: on the one hand, there was hope, on the other, skepticism. It was clear that women's role in cosmonautics had no prospects for the future. There were no specific tasks for women. The main task - establishing the Soviet priority - was fulfilled, and the men would handle the rest.

Many male cosmonauts queued up for flights. First, in 1963-64, there were plans to build new Vostok spacecraft; then, in 1965, new Voskhod spacecraft; interesting missions were proposed. All this was not implemented; it was delayed and then fell through. The hopelessness of our stay in the group was becoming more and more obvious. Nevertheless, we remained in the group, we continued training on a centrifuge, in a strato-chamber, in a thermal chamber, and so on. To tell the truth, all this already felt routine, and it was not as scary as the first time. Perhaps, adaptation had occurred. All cosmonauts were assigned to scientific and technical groups, and we could observe the development of various projects. We visited the Experimental Design Bureau No. 1 and got acquainted with projects. We had something to do, but for me this useless stay in the group was rather burdensome. From 1963 (Tereshkova's flight) to 1965, all the time there was a chatter that we were not needed, that there were no prospects for us, and that our group would soon be disbanded. Once I even asked Gagarin if this was true. He said: "How could your group be disbanded - where would Tereshkova go? She would then be alone without a group." Nevertheless, all this worried us and sounded a note of hopelessness.

By the way, when the flight of Tereshkova and Bykovskii was being prepared, Kamanin insisted that this would be a women's group flight. This would have looked very impressive. Nevertheless, the engineers, and the military too, were set against it. He was told that if he manages to obtain an approval for a women's group flight, then one of the space ships intended for this flight would simply be given to a museum. Iron longstops and knife-rests were erected in the way of this idea, and it did not go through.

The plans to build a Voskhod-type spacecraft for research purposes were real. On July 28, 1965, the Government adopted a special resolution on this issue. The spacecraft series received the general name "the ships of the 1965 order," or, colloquially, "Voskhod-65." ... Instead of five separate instrument boards, as on the Voskhod-2 space ship, a uniform system for information display and manual control was developed, which gave the cosmonaut an opportunity to control the work of all onboard systems. Here we were on the cutting edge of science and technology: the Americans did not have such devices and indicators yet. ... But manufacturing deadlines were pushed back ... and eventually from among all the cosmonauts prepared for flights the only ones who actually went into space were the dogs Veterok and Ugolek.

From Ponomareva, The Female Face of the Cosmos

However, Kamanin did not abandon the idea of a new woman's flight. I remember this day perfectly. It was 1965. He arrived at our Center, called up Solov'eva and me and told us that our group would not be disbanded and that the Air Force was planning a flight for us on the Voskhod spacecraft, which would include a space walk and would have the duration of up to 15 days. What a reckless planning! Back in 1961, when there had been only one day-long flight, they already talked about modernizing the Voskhod space ship for flights up to 10 days. And by 1966 the longest flight was Bykovskii's five-day flight. There was not enough medical and biological data to plan such long flights. Nevertheless, such flights were being planned. The 18-day long flight of Nikolaev and Sevast'ianov on the Soyuz was carried out in the conditions of hypodynamy, and they returned to Earth barely alive; it took a long time to bring them back to life.

Kamanin's words, of course, brought joyful excitement, but we really believed only a half of it, maybe even less. Nevertheless, preparations began. There were two waves: first, our training started, then we were sent on vacation, and then we returned and continued training. But then suddenly Sergei Pavlovich Korolev died. I do not know whether this influenced the termination of the women's program. They closed the entire Voskhod-65 series. They did not build those ships any more.

Gerovitch: What role did the "space race" play in the development of Soviet cosmonautics?

Ponomareva: Soon after the first six flights on the Vostok and two flights on the Voskhod our lag behind the Americans began to show. What both Kamanin and Korolev feared so much indeed happened. Everyone spoke about the apprehension - and even fear - of falling behind. Komarov's flight on the first Soyuz ended tragically precisely because there was a demand to show the world a great achievement for the 50th anniversary of the October revolution.

Gerovitch: Why, in your opinion, did this lag occur? Were the problems mostly technical or political?

Ponomareva: I believe that the problems were financial and organizational. One can find in memoirs many complaints about management putting a spoke in the wheel, not allowing further development of technology. Docking was just one problem, and it could not have had a global effect on the lag. A series of ten Vostok spacecraft of 1963-64 was being planned. Then a series of five Voskhod spacecraft was being planned. Neither was implemented. I think that organizational and political reasons played the main role. Korolev's untimely death also critically affected the development of cosmonautics. He was capable of communicating effectively with the top leadership who authorized launches; he managed to maneuver about and to look over not just one branch of production, but the entire cooperation of many branches. Objective factors here overlapped with a subjective one, Korolev's death. I am convinced that if Korolev were alive, he would have never allowed launching the first Soyuz in such poor condition, without a sufficient number of quality tests.

Gerovitch: What was the role of secrecy in the Soviet space program?

Ponomareva: Americans always conducted their communications with crews on board in the open. And we had to talk about any malfunction in code, usually botanical: "dahlia," "oak," "elm," "mountain ash," and so on. All foreseen technical malfunctions and the condition of the cosmonaut - everything was coded in such a table. There was a case with cosmonaut Popovich: he observed a thunder-storm and communicated to Earth: "I see a thunderstorm." And in his code "thunderstorm" meant vomiting or something of this sort, a bad state of health. There was a big alarm on the ground. One could get so confused that it would be hard to disentangle things.

Gerovitch: If technical malfunctions occur and some non-standard actions have to be taken, then you can hardly encipher the instruction given to the cosmonaut from the ground. Were such instructions given in the open or by code?

Ponomareva: No, on the Vostok there was no "return" secret code, that is, for communications from Earth to the spacecraft. Neither it was on the Soyuz; most likely, they talked in the open.

Gerovitch: Was there a special code for the request to switch to manual control? Was the cosmonaut allowed to use such words?

Ponomareva: I am not sure; one has to check the transcript of the Voskhod 2 communications. Cosmonaut Beliaev said that they had requested a permission to switch to manual control. Here they put a brave face on a sorry business. They simply had no choice, except to switch to manual control, for both control systems - the regular and the back-up - had failed. At a press conference he said that they had noticed some malfunctions, requested the permission, and were "afraid that we would not get it."

Gerovitch: Was it often necessary to switch to manual control during docking?

Ponomareva: Automatic systems failed in every other flight. In case of failure, manual docking was never successful. Besides, the mistrust of the cosmonaut also played a role. A cosmonaut would request a permission to switch to manual control during the final stage of rendezvous and docking, but even if he gets the permission, it would happen only when the ships have already passed each other and it is too late. So it happened in the flight of Sarafanov and Demin, if I am not mistaken. The ground did not reply right away; they deliberated, modeled the situation, and only then made a decision.

On the first Soyuz ships there was no onboard computer, and in case of failure of automatic systems it was impossible to carry out manual docking. Specialists believed that this happened because the back-up manual guidance system on board did not ensure effective participation of the cosmonaut in the control process. Certainly, this was true. I think, however, that the situation was aggravated by the discrepancy between our stereotype of relative motion on the ground and the reality of space flight: we got used to rely on our experience of operating airplanes and automobiles, where it is possible to "add gas" to catch up with a moving object. ... Besides, a significant role in guiding an airplane belongs to intuition. ... But I am not sure that space guidance could rely on intuition. In order to predict relative motion of objects, it is necessary to know their orbits precisely; it is not enough merely to rely on the sense of anticipation. This is confirmed by the fact that when an onboard computer was installed, in case of failure of automatic systems, cosmonauts successfully performed dockings manually.

From Ponomareva, The Female Face of the Cosmos

Gerovitch: If because of the lack of onboard computers manual docking in case of failure of automatic systems never succeeded, then it follows that the lack of adequate computer facilities on board put a brake on Soviet cosmonautics. Yet the Americans have been putting computers on board since 1965.

Ponomareva: Yes, on Gemini they already had an onboard computer. Because of the lack of onboard computers we had to choose an unnatural method for rendezvous. We did not use the method of free trajectories, as did the Americans. They calculate a trajectory and then make small corrections. We used the method of parallel navigation: first one must reduce the angular speed of the line of sight, and then accelerate or slow down along the line of sight.

Gerovitch: Why did not Soviet designers put a computer on the first Soyuz?

Ponomareva: One has to take into account the state of Soviet microelectronics at that time. At the Applied Mathematics Division I worked on the Strela computer and later on the M-20 machine. It was a huge hall stuck with metal cabinets. That was our computer technology!

Gerovitch: What, in your opinion, is the optimal division of functions between human and machine?

Ponomareva: The machine works according to prescribed algorithms. It cannot change its own algorithm, but sometimes a combination of two or three different algorithms or a change in the algorithm is needed. Only a human is capable of doing that. If our developers managed to create what they wanted - a fail-proof automatic system - then there would have been no further questions, and this system would have worked all the time. But this cannot happen, because it is simply impossible.

Gerovitch: After working at the Scientific Research Department of the Cosmonaut Training Center you came to the Institute for the History of Natural Science and Technology. How did you become attracted to history of cosmonautics?

Ponomareva: I was invited to participate in the Tsiolkovsky history conference series. I liked it very much and became very interested. I knew Arkadii Aleksandrovich Kosmodem'ianskii, who was giving lectures to cosmonauts. All cosmonauts loved him very much. He became my dissertation advisor at the Zhukovsky Academy, but I did not finish that dissertation. And I asked him for a letter of recommendation to the Institute for the History of Natural Science and Technology. Recently, while organizing the personal papers of the late Viktor Nikolaevich Sokol'skii [the former head of the History of Aviation and Cosmonautics Section of the Institute], I found a ten-year-old letter of recommendation signed by Kosmodem'ianskii. So they took me in.

Gerovitch: How did you make this transition - from one environment to a completely different one?

Ponomareva: At the Scientific Research Department of the Cosmonaut Training Center the environment was also academic. It was just like at any other academic institution: research, development, discussions, and so on. And now I like being here at the Institute very much. Historical research and reinterpretation of events interest me a lot. Everything that I wrote in the book and in my articles did not come to me back then, but only now: a new understanding has emerged as the result of this research.

Gerovitch: You have participated in important events and you have your own perception of those events; you have your own vision from a particular personal viewpoint. Then you become a historian, and you are trying to look at the situation objectively. Is there any distance between you as a participant of events and you as a historian?

Ponomareva: Probably not. My position did not radically change. It was simply detailed and corrected. I have learned many things that I did not know before. There is probably no such distance.

Gerovitch: How well is the history of cosmonautics being written today, in your opinion?

Ponomareva: In the beginning it was written simply shamefully. It was forged. Failures on board were never openly reported. Take the Komarov flight: while it was not clear whether he would make it back to Earth, he was transmitting greetings to the nations of Africa, Asia and Australia and publicly reported that everything was all right. I specifically checked all the announcements of the TASS news agency during his flight. They all said, "All systems aboard the ship function normally," even though his spacecraft barely managed to descent. On the ground they compiled a set of instructions for Komarov to perform manual orientation so that he could descent, and Gagarin transmitted it to the ship. It was, probably, an open text, since it had not been prepared beforehand.

Gerovitch: Clearly, in the Soviet years historians had to follow the official, TASS version of events. Has there been a turn in their approach to the history of cosmonautics?

Ponomareva: A turn has occurred, but some elements still linger. Space engineers are still overprotective of their interests, which, in my opinion, is not necessary. Obviously, it is impossible to create a new technology and expect that it would be perfect and fail-proof. Take the story with Gagarin's landing. The designers tried to prove that the separation of the instrument module and the landing module was in the nominal mode. In fact, as we [the cosmonauts] were taught, the separation occurred according to the backup regime. Perhaps, one could call it "nominal," since it was included in the design. Besides, the cable-mast of his space ship did not separate, and this caused rotation of the ship, which he wrote about. For the last three or four years a dispute about this has been going on at the Gagarin history conferences. Recently we invited to a Gagarin conference a designer from the Rocket and Space Corporation Energia, and he gave us a report on what happened in that flight. They still do not want to admit that there were any failures, erroneous decisions, or breakages. It seems odd to me, but this is how it is.

Gerovitch: In the West, failures were openly reported; Western historians write about it frankly, and they continue to believe that Russian historians of cosmonautics still adhere to old stereotypes.

Ponomareva: The problem is to get access to Energia archives. Just try it!

Gerovitch: Should not these documents be declassified sometime?

Ponomareva: Certainly, they should. For all documents there is a certain limitation period. There is the Russian State Archive of the Scientific and Technical Documentation. There are people who go to various organizations, select interesting materials that can be declassified, and send those documents to the Archive. But I do not think that these organizations willingly give up any materials.

Gerovitch: In controversies, when different points of view clash, it is probably only documents that can finally resolve a dispute: which regime was nominal, for example, and which was not.

Ponomareva: Certainly, all this had to be authorized, which regime was nominal and which backup, but later diverse interpretations appeared. At Energia, they made ballistic calculations of the descent of Gagarin's ship, and this report dotted all the i's.

Gerovitch: What, in your opinion, are the most important tasks for historians of cosmonautics today?

Ponomareva: First, it is necessary to record the reminiscences of people who witnessed the early days. And they often have different interpretations, different assessments. This all has to be cleared up. One must write history as objectively as possible; one must reinterpret history.

Gerovitch: You included in your book many fragments from the diary you kept, perhaps, your entire life.

Ponomareva: Yes, I kept it since the fourth grade.

Gerovitch: Is there any hope that this diary will sometime be published?

Ponomareva: There are many personal things in it. While I am alive, it will not be published.

Gerovitch: Thank you so much for the interview.

The requirements [for being a cosmonaut] are very strict. They include readiness to take risks, the sense of utter responsibility, the ability to carry out complex tasks in harsh conditions, high dependability of operator's work, advanced intellectual abilities, and physical fortitude. ... But the cosmonaut must also possess such qualities as curiosity and the ability to break the rules. ... Regulations work well only when everything goes as planned. ... The ability to act in extraordinary situations is a special quality. In order to do that, one has to have inner freedom (even with respect to the Regulations), to have intuition, to have the ability to make non-trivial decisions and to take non-standard actions. In an extreme situation the very life of the cosmonaut depends on these qualities. Sergei Pavlovich Korolev understood this very well, and he captured his vision of professional qualifications for the cosmonaut in a short but capacious phrase: for cosmonauts, one must not select the disciplined, but the intelligent.

From Ponomareva, The Female Face of the Cosmos

See also Valentina Ponomareva's essay The Human Factor in Space Exploration: Soviet and American Approaches

site last updated 27 February 2003 by Slava Gerovitch