The spacecraft was part of the Vostok programme, in which six manned spaceflights were made, from 1961–63. Two further manned space flights were made in 1964 and 1965 by Voskhod spacecraft, which were modified Vostok spacecraft. By the late 1960s both were superseded by the Soyuz spacecraft, which are still used as of 2018[update].
The Vostok spacecraft was originally designed for use both as a camera platform (for the Soviet Union's first spy satellite program, Zenit) and as a manned spacecraft. This dual-use design was crucial in gaining Communist Party support for the program. The basic Vostok design has remained in use for some 40 years, gradually adapted for a range of other unmanned satellites. The descent module design was reused, in heavily modified form, by the Voskhod program.
The craft consisted of a spherical descent module (mass 2.46 tonnes, diameter 2.3 meters), which housed the cosmonaut, instruments and escape system, and a conical instrument module (mass 2.27 tonnes, 2.25 m long, 2.43 m wide), which contained propellant and the engine system. On reentry, the cosmonaut would eject from the craft at about 7,000 m (23,000 ft) and descend via parachute, while the capsule would land separately. The reason for this was that the Vostok descent module made an extremely rough landing that could have left a cosmonaut seriously injured.
The ejector seat also served as an escape mechanism in the event of a launch vehicle failure, which at this early phase of the space program was a common occurrence. If an accident occurred in the first 40 seconds after liftoff, the cosmonaut would simply eject from the spacecraft and parachute to Earth. From 40 to 150 seconds into launch, ground controllers could issue a manual shutdown command to the booster. When the launch vehicle fell to a low enough altitude, the cosmonaut would eject. Higher altitude failures after shroud jettison would involve detaching the entire spacecraft from the booster.
One problem that was never adequately resolved was the event of a launch vehicle malfunction in the first 20 seconds, when the ejector seat would not have enough time to deploy its parachute. LC-1 at the Baikonour Cosmodrome had netting placed around it to catch the descent module should the cosmonaut eject while still on the pad, but it was of doubtful value since he would likely end up landing too close to the exploding booster. An accident in the initial seconds of launch also likely would have not put the cosmonaut in a position where he could make a survivable ejection and in all probability, this situation would have resulted in his death. A 2001 recollection by V.V. Molodsov stated that Chief Designer Sergei Korolev felt "absolutely terrible" about the inadequate provisions for crew escape on the Vostok during the opening seconds of launch.
There were several models of the Vostok leading up to the manned version: