L-l ZOND 5

Autumn was well in the air and the nighttime temperatures were cool once more when at midnight on 15th September 1968, Zond 5 rose off the pad at Baikonour and its Proton launch vehicle silhouetted the gantries, masts and assembly buildings for miles around. It all went effortlessly well, all the more remarkable after the frustrating 18 months which had passed since Cosmos 154 had triggered off so many frustrations. Sixty-seven minutes later, Zond 5 was moonbound, right on course. Its cabin con­tained two small turtles, fruit flies, worms and 237 fly eggs. The spacecraft weighed 5,500 kg. The plan was to recover Zond on Soviet territory after a skip trajectory, but failing that in the Indian Ocean on a ballistic return. Ten ships, equipped with three helicopters, had been sent as a recovery task force and spread out at 300 km intervals. Cameras were carried to take pictures of the close approach to the moon. Designed by Boris Rodionov of the Moscow State Institute for Geodesy and Cartography, they appear to have been developed from mapping cameras rather than from the earlier lunar missions. The standard camera for the Zond missions was a 400 mm camera taking 13 by 18 cm frames. Publicly, the official announcement said even less about the mission than usual.

Chief designer Vasili Mishin flew from Baikonour to follow the mission at the control centre in Yevpatoria. Everything was going well and the control team partied into the night. Then news came through that the stellar orientation had failed. Alexei Leonov recalled how Vasili Mishin, despite having more than enjoyed the party, analysed the problem correctly right away and had it fixed. He had good intuition, noted Leonov.

On 17th September at 6: 11 a. m. Moscow time, after one failed attempt, Zond 5 successfully corrected its course at a distance from Earth of 325,000 km. At Jodrell Bank Observatory in Manchester, Sir Bernard Lovell quickly pointed his radio dish to track the enigmatic Zond 5. He picked up strong signals at once, receiving 40 min bursts on 922.76 MHz. On 19th September he was able to reveal that the spacecraft had been around the moon at a distance of about 1,950 km and was now on its way back. This information was based on the signals he had received. But nobody really knew. The Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs categorically denied that Zond 5 had been anywhere near the moon.

If the mission planners had been as inept as the Soviet news service, the flight would have failed at this stage. As it was, Zond 5 had seen the Earth disappear to the size of a small blue ball in the distance. Any cosmonaut then on board would have been treated to the fantastic spectacle of the moon’s craters, deserts and rugged highlands sweep below him in stark profusion. Zond soared around the moon’s farside and then, nearing its eastern limb, a nearly full Earth rose gently over the horizon, a welcoming beacon to guide the three-day flight home. Would a cosmonaut soon see and feel this breathtaking vista?

Early 20th September. A belated Russian admission that Zond 5 had indeed been ‘in the vicinity of the moon’ (as if any spacecraft happens to find itself ‘in the vicinity’ of the moon) was eclipsed by new, even more startling news from Jodrell Bank. A human voice had been picked up from Zond 5! Was this a secret breakthrough? Had a

L-l ZOND 5

Zond 5

man been aboard all along and would the Russians then announce an historic first? Not likely, said Sir Bernard Lovell. It was a tape-recorded voice, designed to test voice transmissions across deep space (one of the voices was Valeri Bykovsky’s). He expected the next flight would have a cosmonaut aboard. Some 143,000 km out from Earth, Zond 5 corrected its course to adjust the entry angle. Jodrell Bank continued to track the probe till it was 80,000 km from the Earth and picking up speed rapidly. Zond 5 took its last pictures of Earth as it filled the porthole.

Zond 5 was indeed returning to the Earth. One of the reasons for Moscow’s reticence was that the mission was not going well. The astro-navigation sensor had broken down, this time for good and then the gyro-platform had failed, making it impossible to restart the main engine. As a result, the two small orientation engines had to be used to set up the craft for reentry. Chances of recovery were considered slim and the gyro failure meant that a skip reentry would now be impossible. Zond 5 would now reenter steeply, ballistically.

At 6: 53 p. m. Moscow time, 21st September, the L-1 cabin reached the limb of the Earth’s atmosphere over springtime Antarctica, met its 10 km by 13 km reentry frame dead on, slammed into the atmosphere at 11 km/sec and burned red hot to a temperature of 13,000°C. Gravity forces built up to 16 G. After 3 min, the ordeal was over. A double sonic boom, audible over the nighttime Indian Ocean, signified survival. Still glowing, parachutes lowered the simmering Zond 5 into the Indian Ocean at 7: 08 p. m. Beacons popped out to mark the location of the bobbing capsule, some 105 km distant from the nearest tracking ship. The naval vessel Borovichy moved in the next morning, took Zond out of the water and hoisted it aboard: in no time it was transferred to a cargo ship – the Vasili Golovin, en route to Bombay – where it was brought to a large Antonov air transport and flown back to the USSR. The capsule was intact, the two turtles had survived, some fly eggs had hatched and there were pictures of the Earth from deep space.

In one sweet week, all the reverses of the past 18 months had been wiped out. The moon could be Terra Sovietica. The first glimpse out of the porthole, the historic descriptions, the joy of rounding the corner of the moon – these could yet be Soviet successes. Zond 5 had become the first spaceship to fly to the moon and return successfully to the Earth. It was a real achievement.

All NASA could do now was cross its fingers and hope against hope that the Russians would not somehow do a manned mission first. They now knew they could. Before long the Russians released information which confirmed NASA’s worst fears. They announced that Zond was identical to Soyuz, but without the orbital compart­ment. It had air for one man for six days. It carried an escape tower. The Soviet Encyclopaedia of Spaceflight, 1968 rubbed it in: ‘Zond flights are launched for testing and development of an automatic version of a manned lunar spaceship,’ it said.