Back in the 1980s, when returning cosmonauts were sat in their Soyuz capsule awaiting collection, there was a possibility that the first person they saw would be driving one of these things. The ZiL-2906 was a screw-propelled vehicle designed specifically to retrieve cosmonauts who had landed in extremely inaccessible areas. Possibly a swamp or a bog, or even in water. Areas a helicopter couldn’t land, and a regular truck couldn’t drive.
The vehicle was transported to the general area of the returned space capsule by a six-wheeled amphibious leviathan called the ZiL-4906 or “Bluebird” – a version of which is still used to collect returning Soyuz crew. If the Bluebird was unable to get to the capsule, then the ZiL-2906 would be deployed to go and retrieve the cosmonauts.
Onboard the vehicle were two crew members, a driver and a doctor. The doctor was there just in case any of the cosmonauts required medical aid. In the rear of the vehicle was space for two stretchers for the recently returned space travellers as well as additional seating. To keep the occupants warm in the bitter Russian winter, the ZiL 2906 had two heaters. Other equipment included a radio system and a transponder system.
The screw drive system of the ZiL-2906 was a complicated setup which used two 77-horsepower VAZ engines each driving one of the screws. It also had two four-speed manual transmissions. The direction of rotation for the screws was done with two levers on the left and right side of the central driver’s seat. Steering was done by pressing one of the two foot brakes. Push the left brake and the vehicle turned left. Push the right brake pedal and it turned right. It could travel over snow, ice, mud, sand, water, bogs and wetland with relative ease.
While the vehicle was capable of traversing terrain which would be impassable by most other forms of transport. It wasn’t without its Achilles heel. It didn’t cope well with rocks, and it wasn’t all that quick. It also took around 25 minutes to deploy the vehicle from the Bluebird carrier truck. On top of that, if the temperature was below -40C it took about half an hour to warm the engines up enough that it could be driven. Interestingly, although it only took about 20 minutes to warm the cabin, and the driver and passenger seats both had warming cushions, the stretchers were placed over aluminium sections of the hull, meaning that even after 3 hours they were still ice-cold. Welcome to earth comrade!