Dzhanibekov began stalking the rotating hulk, calculating its movement so he could pounce and dock without wasting his craft’s scanty fuel supply.
“But we found ourselves looking right into the blinding sun,” the cosmonaut recalled. “We bided our time until the two craft moved into earth’s shadow, into the night.” For this the crew carried special night-vision optics. “I gradually positioned the capsule to rotate with the Salyut. Then I moved in . . . closer . . . closer. Suddenly we felt the two vehicles lock solidly together—docked.” Below them at that moment spread China. Now new uncertainties loomed. Had the defunct space station maintained atmospheric pressure? If not, the mission must fail. If atmosphere remained, would it be poisoned by an electric fire? In that case too they must return to earth defeated.
“We took a chance and opened a valve in Salyut’s hatch,” the general told me. “I held up my finger and felt air rushing into the station. Pressure fell in our capsule. Then the flow stopped; the station still was tight. “We put on oxygen masks and moved in to check the air. Savinykh thought he detected contamination. I lifted my mask and breathed. The air was stale but not toxic.
“When the air hit my face, I realized how bitterly cold the station was. Moisture from my exhalations froze in a tiny cloud around my face. Ice was everywhere—on the instruments, control panels, windows. Mold from past occupations was frozen on the walls.”
“We bundled up in fur-lined suits and hats until we looked like babies in a Moscow winter. With flashlights we explored the ship.”Water in both storage tanks was frozen solid. This worried us. We could work for days without food but not without water.” If necessary the cosmonauts were prepared to drink coolant water drained from their space suits. “We could not tell Flight Control how cold it was, because our thermometers went only to zero degrees Celsius. So we spit on the wall and timed how long it took to freeze—ten seconds. From this, Flight Control calculated the temperature to be about minus 10°C [14°F].
“The first thing was to recharge the batteries to restore heat, light, and ventilation. We raised the shades on the sunlit side to admit a little sunshine. Still it was terribly cold. We could work only the 40 or so minutes that the station was in sunlight; when it entered earth’s shadow, we retreated into the space capsule. Our feet suffered painfully; it helped to rub them together as we worked. “To charge the batteries, we had to bypass the normal connections to the solar panels. We found extra electric cables on board and cut them to length. Without loves our hands got stiff, but with them we could not do much. We hooked up the first battery, and saw the voltage rise.
“Everything started to move forward. We were able to charge a second battery, a third, finally six of the eight. “Without the ventilators to circulate air, carbon dioxide from our exhalations hovered around us like a big ball. Our heads began to ache, our arms and legs grew sluggish. We felt sleepy and limp. “We switched on the power, hoping. Suddenly the lights turned on and ventilators started whirring. We realized the station was saved. We had worked nearly 24 hours —it was time to sleep.”
Salyut’s ice age gradually receded—and an epoch of flooding began. As ice melted, the humidity rose into the 90s, and the hapless cosmonauts were constantly clammy. “We fought it for a month,” recalled Dzhanibekov. “Finally the station entered longer periods of sunlight, and the interior began to dry.”