The exact cause of the hatch failure that resulted in the sinking of the Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft, and the near drowning of Gus Grissom, was never determined with total certainty, but it was theorized that either a stray lanyard from the spacecraft’s collapsed parachute had wrapped around the exterior release handle, or the handle itself had expanded with the heat of re-entry, and then shrunk, causing the explosive charges around the perimeter frame of the hatch to detonate too early. The lost of a spacecraft in this manner cast a shadow over an otherwise text book perfect mission, while accusations that Grissom had panicked and triggered the release too early, would continue to dog him for the rest of his life. In an ironic twist, North American Aviation, which was already drafting a proposal for what would become the Apollo Command Module, decided that it would not utilize a hatch with explosive bolts like those being used on the Mercury missions. In January, 1967, Gus Grissom would die in a fire because the hatch could not be opened quickly enough.
August 6, 1961
The transfer van pulled up at the base of the gantry. The door opened, and Gherman Titov, dressed in his spacesuit, clambered out. He paused for a moment, staring up at the Vostok rocket, in the embrace of its gantry and umbilical cables. Titov had been awakened three hours earlier and gone through the pre-launch rituals that were rapidly become a part of manned space exploration. After a low residue breakfast, Titov had undergone his pre-flight physical and been helped into his spacesuit before being driven to the launch pad. Now he was standing at the base of the rocket, which glowed pink, its curved flank reflecting the light of the rising sun. He walked cross the concrete apron surrounding the launch pad and got into the elevator. He rode the elevator all the way to the top and got out. He crossed the catwalk to the White Room and was helped into the spacecraft. Titov was plugged into the communications and life support systems. He made contact with mission control and began running through his pre-flight checklist. The technicians moved the hatch into place and seal Titov into the spacecraft. To this point, Titov had felt as though the morning’s events had differed little from the lead up to the launch of Vostok 1 in April and that this was just another simulation. It was only after he had been sealed into the spacecraft that he realized that this was not another simulation. A voice began to count backward in Titov’s ear.
Titov felt as though he were in a fast moving elevator, as the rocket was hurled off the pad and into the early morning sky. He keyed his mike. “Lift off! We have lift off!” he said. “She’s off and running.”
Less than ten minutes after engine ignition, the Vostok spacecraft reached orbit. It glided silently into the void, as the second stage detached and fell away. “Control, Vostok 2,” said Titov. “Staging complete.”
“ Acknowledged,” said Andrian Nikolayev. In training, Nikolayev had served as Titov’s back-up pilot and was now acting as the mission’s Capcom.
By the time he reached orbit, Titov was passing over the remote forests of Siberia and the Kamchataka Peninsula. He saw still lakes and trackless steppes. He glided high above puffy white clouds as his orbital track took him out over the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific Ocean was an endless blue expanse studded with innumerable islands. He could clearly see the wakes of ships, plying their way across the waves. He crossed the terminator reached the tip of South American and passed from day into night. Crossing the terminator from day into night, Titov felt as though some one had simply flipped a switch and turned out all the lights. He crossed over the South Atlantic. The darkness below was lit by the silent flicker of lightening that revealed a storm swirling sullenly in the middle of the ocean. As Titov crossed over the coast of Africa, Nikolayev’s voice spoke in his ear.
“Vostok 2, this is Control. Do you hear me?”
“I hear you Control,” said Titov. “Go ahead.”
“Vostok 2, it is time to eat.”
“Acknowledged,” said Titov. He opened a compartment and pulled out a plastic tube filled with food. Because nothing has any mass in space, special precautions must be taken in order to prevent crumbs or droplets of fluid from floating an behind instrument panel and interfering with the life support system, or other vital hardware. Titov unscrewed the plastic top on the tube of borscht and squeezed the contents into his mouth. Titov swallowed. He was about to key his mike, to inform Mission Control that he had eaten his meal with no ill effects, but he suddenly felt ill. Titov’s stomach felt queasey and he found his hand scrabbling at a pocket on his space suit for a sickness bag. He pulled it out and brought it to his mouth just in time to wretch. After he was done, he very carefully tied a knot in the bag and put it away. He keyed his mike. “Control, this is Vostok 2, please respond.”
“Vostok 2,” said Nikolayev, “this Control, we read you.”
“Control, I have just been sick.”
On the ground, Nikolayev felt, Korolev’s eyes boring into the back of his skull. He knew Korolev was listening in. “I copy your transmission,” he said. “Can you tell us what happened?”
“I tried to eat a tube of borscht,” said Titov, “but I was unable to keep it down.”
“Transmission acknowledged, Vostok 2,” said Nikolayev. “Please stand by.” He switched to the Flight Director’s loop. “What should I tell him?”
“Stand-by, we are assessing the matter now.” Several minutes of silence ticked by. The Flight Director came back on the line. “Flight Director, Flight Surgeon.”
“We believe that Comrade Colonel Titov’s bout of illness was the result an imbalance in his vestibular system.” The vestibular system is composed of the bones and canals of the inner ear. The canals of the inner ear filled are with fluid that the human brain uses to keep the body upright and balance. In some instances, such as on the deck of ship, or this case, in space, the inner ear and the eyes present the brain with conflicting evidence, which can lead to nausea and dizziness. It was these confused sensory signals that cause Titov to throw up before he had even completed a single orbit.
Titov’s sickness, however, was not sufficiently serious to warrant aborting the mission, so the flight continued. As he crossed over the coast of Africa, he could see the smouldering glow of brush fires, as farmers burned away the jungle to clear the land for planting. Over the deserts of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, he saw the bright pinpricks of Bedouin camp fires, glowing like rubies in the night. Over Europe, he saw the lights of London, and Paris, and Berlin, each surrounded by constellations of lights representing smaller satellite communities. Titov had feeling that he was in not a spacecraft, but a time machine, circling the world every 90 minutes, while the Earth below, only turned once on its axis every 24 hours. On the third orbit, Titov passed over New York. He could clearly identify the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building, as well as the Statue of Liberty. Through his viewer, they looked like they were the size of match sticks. On the fifth orbit, it was night again. Titov passed over the lights of Sydney and Brisbane He skirted the edge of the Antarctic, where crystalline glaciers shone brightly against the midnight blue waters of the South Pole. On the seventh orbit, he swirling dust storms in the Gobi Desert. On the ninth, he passed over the Aleutian Islands and the coast of British Columbia, with its verdant rainforests, deep valleys and jumbled mountains. On the ninth orbit, he saw New York again, this time at night, and blazing with light. On the fifteenth orbit, Titove heard Nikolayve’s voice in his ear again.
“Vostok 2, this is Control. Please respond.”
Titov keyed his mike. “Control, this is Vostok 2, standing by.”
“Stand by for retrofire.”
“Roger, Control,” said Titov. “Vostok 2, standing by.” The spacecraft was jarred by the staccato THUD! THUD! THUD! of the retrorockets. Titov could feel the spacecraft begin to slow. On the instrument panel, the altimeter needle began to tick steadily backwards. “Stand by for service module jettison.” Titov flipped up the plastic cover marked S M JETT and flipped the switch. Click. BANG! The explosive bolts fired, but as with Gagarin’s flight not all of the cable bundles connecting the service module to the capsule separated. As he entered the atmosphere, the ungainly and unaerodynamic service module caused the capsule to corkscrew wildly, gyrating this way and that. With a screech, it eventually separated, sending the capsule tumbling, outside the horizon spun crazily. Eventually, the spacecraft settled down again. As it sank deeper into the atmosphere, it was buffeted back and forth by air currents and gusts of wind. Titov kept a close eye on the altimeter needle as it spun backward. He was quickly approaching his bail out altitude.
20, 000 feet.
15, 000 feet.
10, 000 feet.
5, 000 feet.
The locking mechanism disengaged with a clunk, then the hatch popped off with a deep throated OOOMPH!. Titov clambered out of his seat and jumped.