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Watching Vostok - A Memory

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This was sent to me by Bill Wood, and it is worth sharing. Bill was a lead engineer on the Apollo TV camera.

On April 11, 1961, I was assigned to a Pacific Missile Range tracking station on Tern Island in the French Frigate Shoals. We had been asked to track the Vostok missions. We modified our telemetry system to receive the Vostok T/M on 83 and 183 MHz and installed a low frequency interferometer array to receive the Vostok 20.005 MHz beacon. Shortly after sunset we first detected the HF beacon and then received both the 83 and 183 MHz telemetry downlinks. We were able to track the spacecraft visually with a Navy MK-51 gun director fitted with a large 20 power ship's binocular, that slaved our AGAVE telemetry antenna.

Since our normal 225-260 MHz tracking antenna did not cover the Vostok frequencies, we installed a standard Jerrold USA TV antenna on top of the quad helix to receive the signals. We had several Nems-Clarke 1502A, tunable from 55 to 260 MHz AM-FM, receivers to copy the signals. The attached photos show how the site, antenna, and MK-51 looked in March of 1961.

Vostok 1 was launched on a 65 degree inclination orbit. Tern Island was directly under the flight path with the spacecraft travelling from the northwest to the southeast. Since the mission was only one orbit, it never passed over any other US territory. It passed over the lower part of South America and up through central Africa and back over the Soviet Union. Check the attached pages from the site manual to see what the station looked like.

We knew beforehand that such a mission would occur. So the liftoff at the Baikonur launch facility on the other side of the International Date Line was not a surprise to us. What was surprising was the sophistication of the telemetry we recorded. I had worked with the Corona project with our best spacecraft at the time. But the Soviets used a very different telemetry system that used digital pulse position modulation instead of FM/FM modulation. It was tricky to record but was usable by those who looked at the data.

The one-two punch of the Yuri Gagarin flight, and the Bay of Pigs debacle a couple of days later must have energized Kennedy to find a way to recover national prestige. The very next month he announced his decision to go to the Moon in a speech before Congress on May 25, 1961. NASA then had to deliver on that promise.

Looking back these fifty years I feel proud to have been involved in manned spaceflight tracking from the very first day!

Bill Wood



Extract from Technical Manual, showing island layout and electronics cabinet configuration.

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Actually, quite an interesting read, for the Grauniad. :P

His 108-minute journey into space made him the first man to orbit the Earth and one of the 20th century's greatest heroes, but Yuri Gagarin was almost undone by a wonky door and an overweight spacesuit.
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That is interesting; I'll have to buy the book.

On space matters, I found this quite interesting. I have to admit to not paying as much attention to current space activities as I had with Apollo:


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Well, now. This is pretty cool. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJuIO6kp5jY

Just been linked to this from a friend, and it's a video montage from the ISS, overlayed by the (almost?) full recording of Yuri's first orbit. With additional snippets from the Radio Moscow broadcasts about him, the craft, and the flight.

It's a feature-length film, with no adverts, so get your popcorn. :P

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I can't believe it. Someone over at BAUT has pointed out a website which claims that - wait for it - Vostok was FAKED!!!

The Russian TV documentary "Cosmonaut Cover-Up" (2001) also claims that on 7 April, 1961, Vladimir Ilyushin left for space, got into trouble during the first orbit, and crash-landed in China during the third orbit. Ilyushin was badly injured. He was returned to the Soviet Union a year later. Ilyushin was killed in an engineered car accident in 1961.

The Soviet Union did not have a spare capsule at that time and in Moscow it was decided to orchestrate a huge bluff, a cosmic lie.

Read the whole thing, if you dare!


I guess Jack and Duane are going to proclaim this as truth? I await their verdict!

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