One of the most unexplored and possibly foggy topic of Soviet astrophilately is the Space support fleet. There are several reasons and the issue is not only in the lack of the post-offices aboard the ships. First of all it is a total secrecy around space program at least during the first decade and tracking ships were under the cover of fishing flotilla support vessels. The Space Fleet remained in the shadow until 1970 when the Space Service section of Maritime Research Department was formed in the Soviet Academy of Science. With the entrance of the “Big” scientific fleet more and more people became involved in the operations and spread the “spirit of collecting”. Handy sailors crafted personal cachets and stamps while the others used official ship roundels to create postal memorabilia. In the late 80s – early 90s a couple of enthusiastic dealers arranged a small series of dedicated ship covers using stationary covers. This initiative continued to 2000s but on a very low gear.
Unlike in the USA, there was a special unit of recovery ships – 8th division of search and rescue ships of Black Sea Fleet, created in 1968 to fulfil the requirements of Soviet Lunar Program. Before this unit was formed all the recovery duties were laid on Selena class vessels. Such ships with other support and military vessels were placed along the deorbiting trajectory of the spacecraft on the last dozen of revolutions before reentry in case of emergency, but fortunately there was never a chance to explore such situation apart from some unmanned operations that involved preprogrammed splashdowns.
The story of Soviet Space Fleet begins in 1959 when with the start of the interplanetary program a problem appeared - ground tracking stations did not cover the required flight "path" above the Earth - namely, the second acceleration stage that occurred over the Gulf of Guinea.
many photos and some information were taken from the Cosmonaut Georgy Dobrovolsky site ©
In 1960, it was decided to rent four vessels from the Ministry of the Merchant Fleet and install the necessary equipment to obtain required information (motor ships - Krasnodar, Voroshilov-Ilichevsk, Dolinsk and tanker - Aksai).
Voroshilov (Ilyichevsk) and Krasnodar have been withdrawn from the research fleet in 1965/66 and assigned to the Black Sea Shipping Company (merchant fleet). In the early 70s they were scrapped. I do not know exactly re Krasnodar but Ilyichevsk went down in 1972.
Dolinsk made its last voyage for space program in 1973 and returned to the Baltic Shipping Company (merchant fleet). It has been decommissioned in 1986. I have a nice collage of Dolinsk stamped covers commemorating 20th anniversary of Gagarin’s flight in 1981 – by then Dolinsk was the only remaining ship to track it.
In 2011 was 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin flight. G&G publishing house issued a limited number of covers to commemorate Dolinsk involvement in the event. Two variations were made using Baltic Shipping Company stationary envelopes – with Gagarin souvenir sheet and stamp (60 and 20 pieces respectively). All covers were serviced in Saint-Petersburg on the Cosmonautics Day Apr 12, 2011 and received certificates.
In the same 1967 the first dedicated naval tracking and command complex was launched – R/V Cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov. The ship belonged to the Black Sea Shipping company with the homeport in Odessa (now Ukraine). It served for 22 years and completed 27 voyages to support almost every type of space launches – from Soyuz, Salyut and MIR to Venera and Vega interplanetary probes. After decommissioning from the scientific space support duties in 1989 the vessel was relocated to the Baltic Sea and served as cargo ship belonging to the private shipping company until it was scrapped in 1994.
The last two pictures show the single episode from Vladimir Komarov 10th voyage to support communications in Northern Atlantic during Brezhnev visit to Cuba in January 1974. The storm developed after the visit but the ship stayed in the open ocean for additional two weeks holding its position as it was simply forgotten to be released from duty.
Fishing trawler Cosmonaut Gagarin (this is not R/V Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin) belonged to Northern Fishing Company with homeport in Murmansk. Besides the name and nice cachet on the cover, it had no other connection to Soviet Space Program.
In 1960, all the ships were dispatched to the sea and started to practice. In February 1961 the ships have worked upon the program of the Venera-1 and on April 12 they supported Yuri Gagarin's flight along with TOGE-4 Navy unit. TOGE – USSR Navy missile range instrumentation unit, created to support ICBM launches in the Pacific - in 1961 it consisted of 4 ships that were reconverted from the new Polish ore carriers - (Siberia, Sakhalin, Suchan-Spassk and Chukotka). To maintain the usual secrecy this unit got a name of Pacific Hydrographic Expedition (Russian - TOGE) to be confused with scientific fleet.
Note - TOGE ships were pure military vessels belonged to the Navy, therefore all the correspondence had general military postage postmarks and no stamp roundels were used. Though there were some exceptions but much later.
In 1967, Space Flotilla received additional 4 motor ships - Borovichi, Nevel, Morzhovets, Kogostrov. They were built on the Northern Warf shipyard in Leningrad in 1966 as timber carriers but converted to support space communications under the project Selena. They were launched as research vessels with all necessary equipment in 1967 and often referred as “small space flotilla” or Selena ships. All four served for more than 20 years and completed 24 voyages. They were decommissioned in 1989 and scrapped in the following year.
G&G publishing house continued the Space Fleet commemorative series and issued three covers for Morzhovets, Kegostrov and Nevel towards 50th anniversaries of Titov and Tereshkova flights plus Leonov spacewalk respectively…. but neither of the vessels supported Vostok or Voskhod flights as they were commissioned a couple of years later. So besides the story, these are very nice Space Fleet covers.
In 1970, R/V Akademik Sergei Korolev was launched, and in 1971 - the largest and most powerful, R/V Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. The most notable assignment of Gagarin, Korolev and Komarov tracking ships was the flight of Soyuz-Apollo in 1975 (I must say that this project was supported by about 20 vessels - scientific, military and civilian). Another project that heavily involved scientific and military tracking ships was Soviet Lunar program – Zond.
Both ships served until collapse of the USSR in 1991 completing 20 voyages each. After 1991 they remained under Ukrainian flag and were used as cargo ships at least up to 1993. The greatest Space Fleet ships remained in Odessa port motionless due to the lack of budgeting, slowly degrading and being plundered until 1996 when they were sold for scrap for some $170 per ton.
The covers from Korolev and Gagarin appear with tree types of stamps – official ship roundel, scientific “expedition” roundel and privately made rubber stamps, sometimes in English and called “tourist” stamps.
In 1977/78 another batch of 4 Space fleet research vessels was received from the Northern Warf shipyard. They were built as timber carriers in 60s and converted under the project Selena-2. The vessels became the part of “Big Space Flotilla” together with R/Vs Academic Sergey Korolev and Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. All Selena-2 ships served up to the mid-90s. After collapse of the Soviet Union and lack of funding all the Space flotilla ships participated in commercial projects like cruises, cargo shipping and various public activities sponsored by Europe and US.
Selena-2 ships gained the most philatelic publicity as many souvenir covers produced in late 80s and early 90s using different ship rubber stamps and official roundels. Probably R/V Cosmonaut Vladislav Volkov gained the highest score and R/V Cosmonaut Pavel Belyaev with the lowest. Actually sometimes R/V Belyaev referred as the least pictured Soviet tracking ship.
In 1995 all four Selena-2 vessels were transferred to Roscosmos (Russian space agency). All the communications equipment from R/Vs Belyaev and Volkov was dismantled by Russian military and those vessels were scrapped in 2000. Georgy Dobrovolsky participated in the joint project Sea Launch and even got some upgrades but in 1998 US rejected the contract installing its own equipment and redirecting all the communications via TDRS satellites. In 2003 Roscosmos tried to overhaul the vessel but found no budget for it and finally it was sold in 2005 and scrapped the following year.
The last Space Fleet ship that remained “alive” is R/V Cosmonaut Victor Patsaev that was on duty as space communications station in Kaliningrad since 2001 until mid-2015 acting as a museum at the same time. Interestingly that during Rita hurricane in 2005 when all Houston mission control personal was evacuated the R/V Cosmonaut Victor Patsaev served as communications relay between ISS and Russian mission control center. Through the efforts of the public, the vessel keeps the status of the museum, in spite of the Roscosmos attempts to sell it for scrap.
Here are some ships that were not connected to Space Fleet, but still worth to mention.
The first ever US-USSR joint space experiment was related to the ice monitoring and sea parameters measurement. This research was done in early 1973 in the Bering Sea (between Soviet Far East and Alaska) and code named BESEX (Bering Sea Experiment). The experiment involved two meteorology satellites – NIMBUS-5 and METEOR (Kosmos-243), several specially equipped aircraft and two ships – USCGC Staten Island, Coast Guard ice-breaker, and MR/V Priboy, meteorological research vessel.
R/V Academic Korolev (not to mix with R/V Academic Sergey Korolev - Big Space Flotilla ship) was a meteorological research vessel equipped for the launch of M-100 high altitude rockets. Some joint experiments were held in 1977/78 involving firings of Soviet M-100 and M-12 rockets from R/V Academic Korolev and R/V Professor Vize and American Super Loki and Nike-Apache from Wallops Island. Both ships together with R/V Professor Zubov also participated in joint experiments at the French missile range near Kourou in 70s and 80s.
Besides pure meteorology research, the launches of the M-12, M-20 were used to test the landing system of Mars probes.