The Soviet space programme had experienced great success in its early years, but by the mid-1960s the pace of success had grown sluggish. The Soyuz project was intended to rejuvenate the programme with docking capability for spacecraft; forging a direct physical link between two independent craft would be the basis for the Soviet space station program. The manned spacecraft Soyuz 1 was launched with the expectation of "union" with the manned Soyuz 2 craft, but even before the second craft was launched, it became apparent that the Soyuz 2 mission had to be canceled before the landing of Soyuz 1. This saved the lives of the crew of Soyuz 2; Soyuz 1 ended in disaster, as Commander Vladimir Komarov was killed on 23 April 1967 by a faulty parachute system and the Soyuz 2 mission would have flown with the same defective parachute system as Soyuz 1. As a result, revised spacecraft were built for the Soyuz 2 and Soyuz 3 missions in 1968.
The unmanned Soyuz 2 was launched on 25 October 1968, and Soyuz 3 followed it the next afternoon. The mission had been given to Beregovoy, with cosmonaut Vladimir Shatalov designated as the backup commander, and Boris Volynov in reserve. Entering outer space within a half an hour and already near Soyuz 2, Beregovoy gradually guided his craft within docking range (under 200 meters) of the satellite. The next day, having orbited the Earth numerous times, a second rendezvous of similar distance was completed. Just hours later, Soyuz 2 began its descent and was back on Earth by 8:00 am the next day. Beregovoy continued to orbit, making topographical and meteorological observations for the next two days. Beregevoi also treated television viewers to the first "live" tour of a spaceship interior.
Beregovoy and Soyuz 3 came back to earth on 30 October 1968, after completing 81 full orbits of the Earth. The re-entry vehicle landed near the city of Karaganda in Kazakhstan, fortuitously cushioned by a blizzard's snowfall. Despite subzero temperatures, Beregovoy's landing was so easy he said later that he hardly felt the impact at all. The Soviets hailed Soyuz 3 as a complete success. Beregovoy was promoted to Major General and named director of the national Center for Cosmonaut Training at Star City.
The launch of Soyuz 2 had not been reported by the Soviet Union, although other nations were aware through their own monitors. It was not until Soyuz 3 was safely aloft that an official announcement was made. Contemporary Western news reports described the orbital mission of Soyuz 3 in the same manner as the Soviets, referring to a successful "rendezvous" with Soyuz 2, but characterizing it as a test with no actual ship-to-ship docking planned. This interpretation was largely accepted for years afterward. With information released after the breakup of the Soviet Union, historians began to reassess the presumed "success" of the mission: the early Soyuz missions had indeed been intended to perform a physical linkage between two spacecraft, and in this they had undeniably failed. Moreover, the fault could be largely ascribed to piloting error by Beregovoy: after a misaligned approach, Beregovoy's ineffective countermeasures burned up so much fuel that the mission simply could not be completed.
The flight of Soyuz 3 had numerous effects on future space exploration both short- and long-term. The flawless recovery of Soyuz 3 left the spacecraft designers with the impression that re-entry and landing systems had been perfected: the crash-landing of the Zond 6 satellite just one month later had been partly attributed to this mistaken sense of security. The value of the outer space survey of earth was a defining step in the development of the Soyuz program's grand strategy: the later evolution of space-based research platforms have roots in Beregovoy's lengthy and meticulous data-collection. Even the failure of the space docking proved an experiential benefit to the Soviet space program: after the demoralizing catastrophe of Soyuz 1, the credible achievements and safe return of Soyuz 3 breathed new life into the faltering program. New flights continued apace, and they put the knowledge gained from Soyuz 3 towards missions of increasing audacity and success.
^Harvey (2007). See p.188: "Soyuz 2 was launched first, on October 25, unmanned. Soyuz 3, with Georgi Beregevoi onboard, roared off the pad the next day into a misty drizzling midday sky. Half an hour later he was close to the target, Soyuz 2."
^Clark, Philip (1988); The Soviet Manned Space Program, Orion (Crown Publ.), NY. See p.49: "The launch announcement said the Soyuz 3 had carried out a rendezvous with the unmanned Soyuz 2 satellite. The two craft were brought to within 200m of each other, with Soyuz 3 being the active partner."
^Clark (1988). See p.50: "During 28 October, Beregevoi undertook a series of Earth observations, noting three regions of forest fires and a thunderstorm building up in the equatorial regions."
^Clark (1988). See p.50: "Beregevoi took the opportunity of giving viewers a conducted tour around the interior of Soyuz. They were shown both the orbital and descent modules (of course, the rear instrument module could not be seen)...."
^Hall, Rex D. & Shyler, David J. (2003); Soyuz, A Universal Spacecraft; Springer/Praxis, Berlin. See p.146: "Beregevoi, in Soyuz 3, remained aloft for two more days, and accomplished a safe landing after the eighty-first orbit."
^Hall & Shayler (2003). See p.147: "A blizzard had passed through the landing area earlier that day, and... he descended into a soft snow drift near the city of Karaganda,"
^Harvey (2007). See p.188: "Thick, early snow lay on the ground and the temperature was -12 degrees Celsius.... The impact was so gentle that Georgi Beregevoy barely noticed it."
^Clark (1988). See p.49: "On 25 October... Western tracking stations picked up the launch of a new Soviet satellite. No Soviet announcement was immediately made, however.... News of the launch of Soyuz 2 on the previous day was only revealed in the Soyuz 3 launch announcement...."
^"Russian space programme plods ahead"; New Scientist magazine; April 29, 1971; p.256. Retrieved August 2010: "Early tests are related to Georgy Beregevoi's October 1968 flight in Soyuz when the objective was to 'seek out the pilotless Soyuz 2 vehicle orbited earlier, approach it within docking distance and manoeuvre with the use of automatic and manual control systems.'"
^Hall & Shayler (2007). See p.145: "...details recently received make it clear that docking was planned...."
^Hall & Shayler (2007). See p.145: "...and that Beregevoi had failed to achieve it."
^Hall, Shayler (2007). See p.145: "He [Beregovoy] did not turn his attention to the fact that the ship to which he was meant to dock [Soyuz 2] was overturned [upside-down in relation to his own Soyuz 3].... Therefore the approach of Soyuz 3 [caused] the pilotless object to turn away. In these erroneous manouvres, Beregevoy consumed all the fuel intended for the ship docking."
^Harvey (2007). See p.190: The [Zond 6] landing accident was so serious that more work was still required on the landing systems, which had been considered solved by the smooth return of Soyuz 3."
^Hall & Shyler (2007). See p.146: "[Beregovoy's survey] was path-finding information for extending the use of Soyuz as an observation and research platform in addition to its role in lunar flights and possibly for its involvement in manned space station operations."
^Clark (1988). See p.50: "With Soyuz 3, the Soviet manned programme regained its confidence, and its success may have encouraged the Soviets to consider a manned flight around the Moon in December, 1968.... Overall it represented a successful return to manned space missions after a break of eighteen months."
Payloads are separated by bullets ( · ), launches by pipes ( | ). Manned flights are indicated in bold text. Uncatalogued launch failures are listed in italics. Payloads deployed from other spacecraft are denoted in brackets.