Seven and a half hours after the Soyuz 19 launch, the Saturn 1B rocket took off from the US Launch Complex 39 at the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It allegedly put the Apollo module into orbit with three American astronauts on board. But in reality, all the ASTP Apollo astronauts remained on Earth. Nevertheless, the world was informed that the US astronauts had begun working in orbit.
And what a coincidence and what an extremely unfortunate situation, almost in solidarity with the ‘breakdown’ of the on-board TV on the Soviet craft, the US side reported a ‘breakdown’ of its own. The Soviet participants of the ASTP reported:1
"Immediately after reaching orbit a malfunction was discovered on the Apollo [module] as well." Astronauts had failed to remove the docking mechanism. This threatened the very possibility of transferring crews between the two craft. But Houston assured us "Tomorrow everything will be OK!"
Then a further timely "coincidence" occurred. Another Soviet ASTP participant wrote:2
"July 16 is the day of unplanned repairs. At 19:35, in the Soviet Mission Control Center (MCC), a colour image of our cosmonauts appeared on the television screens. Almost immediately within 10 minutes the message came through: the astronauts have coped with the ill-fated mechanism."
"These abnormal situations were reported neither by the Soviet nor the American press,” said A. Leonov (see Chapter 6).
Why were not they reported? Was it because such messages might have raised some tricky questions:
One party had the TV breaking down just before launch, while the other found that immediately after entering orbit the docking mechanism didn’t work. And both parties were for some reason firmly convinced that these breakdowns would be repaired. The first side was confidently sending a craft into orbit with a non-functioning TV system. The other side demonstrated similar calmness and assured everyone that "Tomorrow everything will be OK!"
Different breakdowns, different repairs, different repair times, different launch times, but they finished their repairs almost simultaneously! As if the American ‘repair’ intentionally ‘waited’ for the Soviet ‘repair’ to be completed. Surely this entire international flight was just for show?
It took about six months before the official Soviet publication of Soyuz and Apollo3 reported on these abnormalities. This procedure was quite normal. Was it possible to conceal from the controllers in the Soviet MCC that the Soyuz 19 had a non-operational TV system if their monitors just displayed white/gray noise?
A hunting knife saves the ASTP
We will take another look at the story of the mission-saving hunting knife, as told by the knife’s owner – a story that is far from an innocent tale. Its purpose was to convince any skeptics of the accidental nature of the TV breakdown on Soyuz 19. On the basis that this failure was unexpected, it had to be repaired with what was available. The exchange:4
A. Leonov: While we were going to orbit, the television issue was sorted out on Earth: it turned out that the [TV] switch had failed. But the trouble was that it was located in the Orbital Module."
Interviewer: Under the paneling?
A. Leonov: Yes, it's made of a duralumin [a hard aluminium alloy]. We began opening it up, but of tools we had were just scissors, a screwdriver and a pair of pliers. I do not know how we managed to tear this panel out and bend it. But we got to the switch. We began taking it down. It is secured with four screws, and filled with epoxy resin. One bolt was removed, the second, the third ... When we started undoing the fourth one, the pliers broke. The wrench with 12 bits broke off. That’s it. There was nothing else available to remove it.
But there was a hunting knife with a screwdriver! I had bought [the knife] just before the launch. I remember that I paid 5 rubles 50 copecks for it. It did help me and Valery Kubasov do the job. We pulled out the switch, unmounted it, and connected up the ends from all the camera feeds. We made a TV cable out of some wire, we straightened it with [our] teeth and insulated it by wrapping it with adhesive plaster. To be honest I didn’t even believe this would work out. I was in the Descent Module, I looked: the green light had illuminated. I shouted, ‘Valera, the circuit works!’
The wrench broke, the pliers (a very strong tool) broke. But the very flimsy-looking knife (Figure 1a) endured and saved the ASTP!
Figure 1a) A. Leonov’s famous hunting knife; b) Set of special tools for working in micro gravity, designed at the Scientific Research Institute of Construction Power Tools (VNIISMI) following the Soyuz 9 mission (1970)
In the Soviet MCC the flight was directed by cosmonaut A. S. Yeliseyev PhD. and V. G. Kravets PhD. They stated:1
The first problem emerged on our spacecraft starting with the launch segment. The video feed from the on-board cameras was not being transmitted to Earth. It turned out that the switching unit that controlled the TV cameras had failed. The solution was found quickly, it was suggested that we disabled the failed unit, and connected the cameras directly to the transmitter. The repair procedure for all cameras was meticulously rehearsed on the ground-based Soyuz simulator.
Interestingly, in the ground-based Soyuz simulator they should also have cut away the duralumin panelling with a knife – one purchased for 5 rubles 50. Because if it wasn’t a similar hunting knife, then how could the result possibly be of assistance to the cosmonauts? They were having to straighten wires with their teeth and insulate them with adhesive plaster! After all this ground trial had to be an exact replication of what cosmonauts were able to do in orbit, shouldn’t it? Therefore they should have used the exact same tools in the simulator.
The author believes that in reality the instructors in the MCC worked with the special tools developed at the Scientific Research Institute of Construction Power Tools (VNIISMI) specifically for working in micro-g (Figure 1b). In 1970 the Institute was tasked with the job of this development. M. Gelfand5 said:
The turning point was the 18-day Soyuz 9 mission in June 1970. That was the first experience of extended work in space. Cosmonauts V. Sevastyanov and A. Nikolaev took on board a set of regular pliers, screwdrivers and other tools. Upon their return, they said that in micro-g conditions regular terrestrial-type instruments were either of little or no use at all.
On Earth, for example, one would hand-hold a screw, while the other hand screws it in with a screwdriver. In orbit a cosmonaut, trying to perform such a simple operation would have to hold onto a surface-grab with one hand, and then twist with the other – only one hand could be used. Who then will hold the screw?
If a screwdriver jumps out of the groove, then a smallest metal chip may form. In conditions of Earth gravity this is of no consequence, but in micro-g such motes will fly throughout the craft, threatening to get inside a cosmonaut's lungs. There are many such difficulties. Consequently, a set of specialized tools was quickly manufactured in the shortest time possible.
It is very hard to imagine that the ‘shortest time’ did not fit into the five years that had passed between 1970 and 1975, moreover, that for the first international flight (such as portrayed in the ASTP mission) a set of these special tools wasn’t provided.
The public loves hearing touching stories and incidents. A rescuer’s knife grabs our imaginations to such an extent that a deeply-moved audience won’t doubt the claim that on the Soyuz 19 they lacked a set of these special tools. The story of the mission-saving knife is very similar to the legends about Americans’ adventures on the Moon. They could, for example, with help of duct tape repair the fenders of their lunar rovers. Or, as reader A. Burganov wrote to the author,
This fairy tale in some way reminds us of the tale of Apollo 13 where a component of the oxygen supply system was made from paper and duct tape. A similar scenario of ‘repair’ with improvised means says one thing – American supervisors also worked here.
Duct tape rescued more than one US lunar mission; Leonov's hunting knife rescued a space flight of international importance.
The planned day of 'unplanned' repairs
A television picture only appeared on TV screens in the Soviet MCC 28 hours and 15 minutes after the launch of Soyuz 19.
For more than 28 hours the cosmonauts worked without visual control – they could report to the MCC one thing but do something completely different. For example, connecting a US video player to the on-board TV system.
It is indeed surprising that as soon as the 28-hour Soviet ‘repair’ was over within just 10 minutes the Americans had everything sorted out as well.
Such synchronism, given different announced breakdowns, detection times and different announced repair durations, is difficult to put down to mere coincidence. It is entirely possible that during the 10 minutes between the senior American and Soviet officials responsible for the secret part of the ASTP a short top secret conversation like this one may have taken place:
Moscow to Houston: Our cosmonauts have turned on the TV system the way we agreed.
Houston to Moscow: OK. Then tell your MCC that our astronauts have just repaired the ‘breakdown.’
The broken Apollo docking mechanism was a perfect cover story in case it became necessary to back out of the hoax
The highest leadership of the clandestine operation could not be 100% sure of the success of the cosmonauts' work on connecting up the US video player to the on-board Soyuz TV system. Of course, A. Leonov and V. Kubasov trained in advance on Earth. But ground training is one thing it’s another thing to undertake the same work in micro-g. And if the Soviet cosmonauts weren’t able to cope with the assigned task, how would the planned events have unfolded?
All of humankind considers itself to be the witness of the world's first joint flight of American and Soviet spacecraft and was waiting for the television broadcast. There was on-board TV on both craft. If one system was to fail, the other would help out. But for some reason there was no TV transmission at all! There will be questions, and some perhaps very unpleasant. In such a case the planners of the secret part of the ASTP mission probably had the following scenario as back up:
Removal of the broken Apollo docking mechanism has failed. Transition from craft-to-craft is therefore impossible. The joint flight must be cancelled. The spacecraft will have to return to Earth.
The public would be disappointed, but there would be no scandal.
Soyuz 19 would land in the Kazakh steppe. During descent Orbital Modules are separated from the craft and they are not recovered. Everything would be hushed up. The Orbital Module with the altered TV system and its on-board US video player wouldn’t return to Earth. It would burn up in the dense layers of the atmosphere in a hot flare of plasma. The Apollo CM would splashdown near Hawaii, as if it had just returned from orbit. Similar events had already been performed by the Americans on numerous occasions during the Apollo recovery of the missions allegedly returning from the Moon.
But as reconfiguration of the Soviet on-board TV to operate with the US video player had in fact succeeded. Immediately the Soviet MCC received information about the successful completion of the Apollo ‘repair’, and the hoax mission continued. Within a short period TV broadcasts about the ‘joint flight’ started arriving from the Soyuz 19 craft flying solo in orbit. The very ones that were prepared back in 1974.
Today, many years after the ASTP project, we can analyze the entire body of events that occurred at that time. And it is now easier for us to understand that in reality all those ‘unplanned’ repairs were in fact carefully planned.
Aulis Publishers, September, 2018
English translation from the Russian by BigPhil
Internet links verified January 10, 2018
- Cosmonaut A.S. Yeliseyev Ph.D., and V.G. Kravets,Ph.D., Article Flight Control in the book Soyuz and Apollo
- Engineer L.I. Dulnev, Article Soyuz and Apollo are in Space in the book Soyuz and Apollo
- Soyuz and Apollo. A collection of articles edited by the ASTP project manager from the Soviet side, the Hero of Socialist Labor, laureate of the Lenin and State Prizes, Corresponding Member of the USSR Academy of Sciences K.D. Bushuev, Moscow, 1976, 271p
Article 1, Article 2, Article 3, Article 4, Article 5
- Alexey Leonov, Souyz with Apollo. Only now Alexei Leonov reveales to Americans the mystery of a historic flight into space, A. Leonov’s interview for RG.RU, Natalia Yachmennikova, July 14, 2015
- The magazine DrelDoDyr, article The Workers Of The Sky
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