Soyuz 26 was launched October 9, 1977
. It was the first mission to dock successfully with Salyut 6
and the start of what would be a semi-permanent occupation of space by the Russians. During the flight, the Russian
s would set several new records as well as for the first time have three spacecraft docked together. And for the first time the Soviets announced that Salyut 6 had two docking ports.
On board were Georgi Grechko and Yuri Romanenko. Their callsign for the mission was Taimyr (Taimyr - Russian peninsula).
The timing of the flight itself was risky. It was the first opportunity after the failure of Soyuz 25. The crew would also have to stay in space over the winter, when there was the worst weather in the launch and landing site.
The first flight to Salyut 6 could not dock so one of the first tasks of the Soyuz 26 crew was to perform an EVA to inspect the docking apparatus on the station to make sure that they were not faulty or damaged. The EVA was done on their ninth day in orbit. This was the first EVA by the Russians since 1969 and would be the first use of the Orlan spacesuits which are still used today on the ISS. The other part of the EVA was to test to new suits.
First the crew entered into the airlock and put on the suits. They then depressurised the airlock Greckho pulled himself half out the airlock so that he could manipulate the docking mechanism with specially designed tools. He carried a colour television camera which sent back to earth pictures of the his work. He found that the docking port was in working order, which meant that it was the docking mechanism on Soyuz 25 that was faulty. In all the EVA lasted 1 hour and 28 minutes.
What was not announced by the Soviets at the time was that the EVA almost resulted in the first death in orbit. While in the airlock, Romanenko did not have his safety tether attached and began to float away from the station. Greckho grabbed him by the belt when he saw that he was not attached to the station. In an interview he said that he asked "Yuri, where are you going?" Greckho feels that the incident has been sensationalised by James Oberg in his book to sound more dangerous than it really was as although the safety tethered was not attached there was still the electricity/communications umbilical that would have stopped him drifting too far.
This paved the way for the launch in the new year of Soyuz 27 carrying Vladimir Dzhanibekov and Oleg Makarov. When they docked on January 11, 1978 it was the first time that three spacecraft had been docked together. It was also the first admission that Salyut 6 had two docking ports. The crew spent five days at the station. They then undocked in the Soyuz 26 craft and landed without incident.
This left the aft port of the station free for another first - Progress 1. Progress was basically a Soyuz spacecraft without all the systems needed for recovery and manned habitation. As such it could be loaded with food, water, equipment and most important of all - fuel. It could carry up to 1 ton of fuel to the station allowing it to stay in orbit far longer than would have been possible just using what it was launched with. Progress 1 docked January 22, 1978 and two weeks later performed the first propellant transfer between two spacecraft. The fuel was transfer basically using pressure. On February 6, Progress undocked and two days later made a controlled reentry.
A month later came another first for the crew - the first international visitor. The Intercosmos program was designed to allow Eastern Bloc and other communist countries access to space. This involved launching unmanned satellites and allowing guest cosmonauts. The first was Vladimir Remek from the Czechoslovakia. He and Alexei Gubarev launched on Soyuz 28 on March 2 and docked with Salyut 6 one day later. They spent a week at the station performing experiments and doing some PR work with Grechko and Romanenko. They then returned to Earth in the Soyuz 28 spacecraft.
Six days later Grechko and Romanenko themselves undocked in the Soyuz 27 spacecraft and landed 265 kilometres west of Tselinograd, Kazakhstan. The stay of 96 days and 10 hours broke the Skylab 4 record by 12 days.