Far back in 1956 when space explorations were not so widespread, Sergei P. Korolev convincingly stated that rocket flight to the Moon and back was practicable. One year later he repeated: "Reaching the Moon is technically feasible".
In 1964, Central Committee of the USSR's Communist Party adopted a secret resolution regarding circumlunar mission and manned lunar exploration. The decree contained a list of special tasks for defense ministry, Navy, and other agencies.
To execute maritime component of the moon program, Soviet Council of Ministers in 1967 ordered to reassign 8 commercial vessels to the Navy. Their task was to pick up descent space capsules splashing down in the Indian Ocean. Those ship-timber carriers were refitted into expeditionary oceanographic vessels Taman, Baskunchak, Dauria, Dickson, Sevan, Apsheron (had been serving in Black Sea Fleet until recently), Donbass, and Yamal. The flotilla was lead by command ship Semen Cheliuskin.
In 1968 civilian sailors were replaced with military crews. The unit was reformed into 8th Squadron led by Rear Admiral V. Leonenkov, and then – Rear Admiral A. Trofimov. The ships were equipped with deck-based helicopters Ka-25 and additional hardware for communications and search of descent capsules. The squadron was attached to Black Sea Fleet.
Zond-5 has delivered two tortoises back to the Earth
Major tasks of the squadron were patrols, space capsule pickup practice, and maintain splash trainings of astronauts near Feodosiya. The crews were thoroughly selected and prepared for long-term ocean cruises.
I was appointed commanding officer of Taman in Dec 1968. The ship was based in Baltiysk at the time. Early in February 1969 Taman and Baskunchak started an 8-month long ocean cruise. The route to the Indian Ocean went around Africa, as the Suez Canal was closed after Arab-Israeli War of 1967. During the cruise we did various drills and called at foreign ports. Our operational zone was the whole Indian Ocean, and call ports were Port Louis (Mauritius), Mombasa (Kenya), Colombo (Ceylon), Tamatave (Madagascar) and so forth.
Early in October 1969 we returned back to Baltiysk. Then after repairs at Klaipeda shipyard we sailed to Sevastopol in May 1970.
Part of the squadron headed for the Indian Ocean in September 1970, Taman was among those ships. Upon arrival in the rendezvous area, ships of 8th Squadron and Pacific Fleet started preparing for search operation. Space station Zond-8 with two mockup astronauts on board launched on October 20, 1970 was in space at the time. It circumnavigated the Moon and was expected to splash down in the Indian Ocean on October 27.
Zond is an automatic interplanetary station, unmanned space capsule used for research of the Moon; physical characteristics of space environment on the route Earth-Moon-Earth, and their influence on living organisms; photographing of the Earth and the Moon at various distances; improvement of spacecrafts and methods of their return to the Earth. In 1964-1970 there were 8 stations launched. Out of them, Zond-5 (with tortoises on board) was the first one to return on Earth after moon orbital flight in September 1968.
At the set time the ships were ordered to take initial position. Group of oceanographic vessels headed by Semen Cheliuskin concentrated in the most probable splashing area. The operation was led by 8th Squadron Commander Rear Admiral A. Trofimov. Four ships of the squadron were placed along the intended landing path from the northwest to the southeast (the direction was determined quite precisely and then was insignificantly corrected). Taman took the most northwestern position six vessel-days southward Bombay. We were in contact with Flight Control Center in Podlipki (now called Korolev, Moscow region) and with the command ship. Corrected time and direction of the spacecraft's entry into dense atmosphere were reported all the time.
The operation began somewhat at 8 pm, in the twilight. Taman was alarmed; visual observation and technical surveillance were enhanced, too.
January 1, 1969 in the Indian Ocean. Capt 1 rank A. Trofimov is in the center
A bright flying "star" appeared in appointed time – the descent capsule entered dense atmosphere. After a while the "star" went out and then sounded a snap. That was a parachute deployment. During parachute descent search equipment detected operating spacecraft's radio beacon and determined its direction.
Taman started to move towards touchdown point. After a while, a flare appeared on the port beam; that was a capsule's soft landing engine. Radar operator reported then: "Target on the port bow. Range 10 cables". When the ship was at the distance of one nautical cable from the descent module, we switched on searchlights and directed them upon the spacecraft. Zond-8 was dancing on the ocean waves. Sailors standing on the top deck were so excited that they began to crow hurrah.
We regularly reported to Flight Control Center and command ship throughout all mentioned events. After visual detection of the descent capsule we requested permission to pick it up. However, operation leadership ordered to wait arrival of staff ship Cheliuskin.
In 15 minutes Flight Control Center requested report. After that squadron commander ordered me to begin lifting of the space module. For this purpose, Taman had a special team led by the ship's executive officer Capt Lt Diakonov and a ship-based motorboat.
Zond-8 on the deck of Taman
The team on boat was dropped on water and started the operation in accordance with special instruction. The operation consisted of the following operations: approaching to the capsule, catching the spacecraft's upper hatch by a "spider" (special rope for crane lifting), and towing the module to the ship.
However, when we got closer to the descent capsule it was found that the parachute had not blasted off, and the boat's screw tangled in shroud lines. Having received a report about the problem, I decided to move the ship closer. When maneuvers were over, the boat with the capsule was at portside, near the crane jib. Parachute shrouds were cut; Zond was lifted and placed on a special pallet. The picking-up operation took 42 minutes. We reported to command ship and measured radiation level of the space capsule. It was normal.
Messroom of Taman. The crew hosts astronaut A. Nikolayev. Capt 1 rank V. Vasilevsky (the author) is at the right
Other ships of the squadron approached the Taman's drifting site after a while. Squadron commander made a decision to transship Zond from Taman to staff ship Cheliuskin. But the weather was getting worse, and sea disturbance became harder. We could barely take up a group of three experts from space design bureau, and they immediately started their work. In the morning Zond was transshipped to Semen Cheliuskin which laid a course for Bombay. Afterwards, the space capsule was delivered at appropriate destination.
That was the end of pick-up operation over the Zond-8 space station circumnavigated the Moon. Today, some participants of that operation reside in Sevastopol. They were staff officers of 8th Squadron – Capt 1 rank (retired) S. Vagentov, Capt 1 rank (retired) I. Bogdanov, Capt 1 rank (retired) S. Perevozchikov, and Colonel (retired) G. Pilipenko. They are proud to be involved in the space exploration program.
I recall those distant events when I look at a piece of the capsule's parachute. Having written the operation's date and coordinates on such patches, my assistant for political affairs Capt 3 rank V. Belkin handed out those souvenirs to all crewmembers of Taman.