Lunar Gemini: Take Two to the Moon

Gemini III Lunar Lander schematic

A schematic of the most capable of the proposed Gemini lunar landers, the Lunar Gemini III. Public domain image from Direct Flight Apollo Study, Volume II: Gemini Spacecraft Applications, written for NASA by McDonnell Aircraft in 1962. Click for a larger view.

What it was: A direct-ascent lunar lander based on the Gemini capsule, which would be mated to a lower landing and ascent stage and a rocket stage that would get it to the Moon. Two men would travel in it, land on the Moon, and return to Earth in it, no docking required.

Details: One of the main factors that made the United States the winners of Kennedy’s lunar landing challenge was their focus. In contrast with the Russian program, which was constantly torn between three visionary designers (Korolev, Glushko, and Chelomei), the Americans settled on one way of getting to the Moon and stuck to it. The parameters of the Apollo program—three men launched on a Saturn V in a Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) craft—were all set by early 1963. From there it was a steady run for the next six-and-a-half years to the lunar landing, disrupted only by the Apollo 1 fire.

One thing that nearly upset this single-mindedness was the Gemini capsule. It was originally intended as a time-filling experimental craft that would use the gap between the end of Mercury capsule flights on May 15, 1963 and the first planned Apollo test flights. When Lunar Orbit Rendezvous was selected as the Moon mission’s approach, however, McDonnell Aircraft—manufacturer of the Gemini—pointed out that this would mean only two astronauts would go down to the surface. If only two were landing, why not just send two? The Gemini had fourteen days of endurance, after all, and it was only six days to the Moon and back if all went well. McDonnell worked up a way to create a lunar landing craft out of a Gemini that could be sent on a direct-ascent mission to the Moon, the approach that NASA had favoured until the surprising sea change of Spring 1961 that lead to the LOR decision.

In all McDonnell came up with three versions of the craft, dubbed the Lunar Gemini I, II, and III based on how different they were from the orbiting Gemini they were also in the process of building. The Model I was most similar, down to the use of ejector seats for the crew if something went wrong during the initial launch from Cape Canaveral. Its main difference was a modification to the side of the capsule above the left-hand crew member’s head so that there would be a bubble canopy he could look out. Model II was modified to re-enter over water (at the time, the orbital Gemini was being built to come in over land, and so was the Model I Lunar Gemini), with the resulting weight savings allowing for an upgrade to the navigation system and the installation of Apollo’s beefed-up communications system. Model III was most different, including an escape tower to replace the ejector seats, re-entry over water, and a rearrangement of the seats and windows that will be discussed later. All three were also to be equipped with the planned Apollo landing radar.

Besides the other modifications to the capsule, the Lunar Geminis would be built so they could mate to three other pieces, a terminal engine module, a landing gear stage, and a retrograde module. The whole works was then to be attached to the top of a Saturn V which would launch it into Earth orbit. Once in orbit the landing legs would be exposed by ejecting aerodynamic fairings used to protect those fragile structures from the slipstream during ascent.

The retrograde module’s engine would then fire the Lunar Gemini away from Earth towards to Moon, perform mid-course corrections, and insert it into lunar orbit. The module’s final responsibility would be to knock the craft out of lunar orbit into the descent phase, slowing it down until it was only 1800 meters above the surface.

At 1800 meters the retrograde module would have been jettisoned to crash elsewhere on the Moon and the last distance to the ground covered by the terminal landing module’s engine with the capsule and landing stage perched on top.

This touchdown would have been the most hair-raising part of the mission for the Lunar Gemini I and II. As with the regular orbiting Gemini the crew faced towards the nose of the capsule in these two, which is to say they were pointing away from the Moon as the craft backed into a landing. While the co-pilot worked the controls of the lander and watched the Moon in a deployable rear-view mirror, the pilot needed to turn around and observe the lunar surface out of the side of the capsule. That way he could look for a clear area large enough to land in and call out a course to the man working the controls. The plan was to supply him with the aforementioned bubble canopy to give him a 180-degree field of view; if engineering difficulties arose during development the alternative solution was to depressurize the cabin and have the pilot lie prone on his seat back while sticking his head out of the capsule’s opened hatch!

The Lunar Gemini III thankfully proposed rotating the crew seats so that they were side-facing and replaced the windows of the orbital Gemini so that the astronauts could see out to land—much like the Apollo LM was to do.

After touchdown, the astronauts would stay on the Moon for a day, and then the capsule and terminal landing engine would launch for return to Earth while leaving the landing gear behind. This diminished craft would be able to get home directly, without having to stop in lunar orbit like the Apollo program’s LOR.

On arrival at Earth six days after the start of the mission, the Lunar Gemini capsule would detach from the rest of the craft and bring the astronauts home. Models II and III would splashdown with the help of parachutes, while the I model would glide into an airstrip on US soil with the help of landing skids and a Rogallo wing—what we would call today a hang glider, an invention of NASA’s aerospace-focused predecessor NACA. The last remaining change to the Gemini capsule would come into play here: as a direct return from the Moon is faster than a return from low Earth orbit, all three models of the Lunar Gemini would have had a thicker heat shield than their orbital counterpart.

What happened to make it fail: NASA stayed focused and staved off all suggestions that they go with anything other than a three-man, LOR configuration. President Kennedy’s science advisor Jerome Wiesner was the highest-placed advocate of using the Lunar Gemini, but a confrontation with NASA director James Webb eventually eliminated any chance of it by the end of October 1962.

Their refusal stemmed from a couple of good objections to the two-man direct descent approach. The Lunar Gemini had much less redundancy than the Apollo CSM/LM combination, which made its missions considerably chancier. Apollo 13 proved their decision by giving Lovell, Swigert, and Haise the LM to use as a lifeboat, letting them eke out their resources on the way back to home. A Lunar Gemini crew had no such option.

NASA had also studied the Lunar Gemini I and II’s pilot-backwards landing configuration in other contexts and couldn’t come up with a way to do it that satisfied them. Lunar Gemini III was the only arrangement that went for a setup like that used by Apollo, and had to creep up in weight towards the Apollo CSM/LM combination to do it. That meant there was less incentive to move away from their initial plan.

What was necessary for it to succeed: If the Russians had been able to keep Sergei Korolev’s initial lunar landing program going, rather than having it fall into disarray during 1964-65, then the US might have been panicked into switching horses. At the very least US intelligence would have had to conclude that the Soviet Union was on track for a lunar landing in 1967 or ‘68, regardless of whether or not they actually were. This is not entirely unlikely: consider the Uragan space interceptor, which the CIA and industry insiders became convinced the Russians were developing during the 1980s. It apparently never existed.

The Jim Chamberlin-designed Gemini capsule was surprisingly capable, so the Lunar Gemini would probably have worked. The proposal suggested a landing during the first half of 1967, but it would have had to wait until no earlier than 1968 as the craft depended on the Saturn V and that rocket wasn’t ready to go until then—as late as January 1967 one of its stages exploded during testing. The shortcut to the Moon, in other words, would not actually have been that short.

The main difficulty with Lunar Gemini lay with, as mentioned earlier, its lack of redundancy. The crude landing systems of the Gemini I and II would have also produced problems. Consider the famous episode of the last few seconds of Apollo 11’s landing as Neil Armstrong worked feverishly to find a clear landing spot and only just succeeded despite flying a craft more capable than the two lesser Geminis.

So there would have been a Gemini-based lunar landing if NASA had decided to go that way, but the program would have chanced more failures and outright disasters. Mapping it on the Apollo missions has “Gemini 11” aborting at the very last second if NASA has gone with the Gemini I or II, as its pilot can’t find a place to put down. “Gemini 12” succeeds, but then “Gemini 13” is an unmitigated disaster: its astronauts have no place to go after their capsule fails and die while en route to the Moon. Whether or not there’d be a “Gemini 14” through “17” after that is an open question.

The Orbiting Quarantine Facility: Keeping Earth Safe from Martians

OQF Diagram

A schematic of the Orbiting Quarantine Facility. Public domain image from Orbiting Quarantine Facility: The Antaeus Report, published by NASA in 1981.

What it was: A late 70’s space station intended to keep any samples returned from Mars away from Earth’s biosphere while still allowing scientists to study them. It would have been built in conjunction with a follow-up to the Viking missions which would have brought the samples back.

Details: The Orbiting Quarantine Facility (OQF) was born at a 10-week session held at NASA’s Ames Research Center in 1978. The goal of the meeting was to discuss how to study Martian soil samples without risking their escape into the Earth’s biosphere. Some techniques, such as building a special-purpose lab on Earth or sterilizing the samples in transit, had been discussed and analyzed before, but studying them in orbit until they could be declared safe (or not) had never been closely examined until that point. The resulting “Antaeus Report” (named for the mythological giant who lost his strength when lifted up off the Earth by Heracles) was the result.

The report suggested a station supported by the Shuttle and based around Spacelab modules. Spacelab in development at that time by NASA and the European Space Agency, with the goal of making reusable laboratory modules that would be provided for free (or cheaply) by European countries in return for seats for their astronauts on the Shuttle. Each Spacelab consisted of one to four sub-segments which could be joined together, depending on how much space was needed, producing a module that would just fit in the diameter of the Space Shuttle’s cargo bay (a four-segment module would also fill up the length of the bay). The cylindrical modules supported a variety of scientific labs with shirtsleeve environments, with the intention that they would ride into orbit with the Shuttles and then return (as they did several times starting with STS-2 in 1981 and continuing until 1998).

While the Spacelabs that were built were designed to stay safely ensconced in the Shuttle’s cargo bay, the scientists and engineers behind the Antaeus Report suggested that several of these modules could be hooked together in orbit and left behind as a space station devoted to studying Martian samples. If the samples were proven safe in the quarantine facility, they could be brought down to Earth. If they turned out to be dangerous they could be sterilized before coming to the ground or left in orbit to be studied.

One shuttle flight would raise two small Spacelab modules: one with one segment and four docking ports, and a one-segment logistics module that would contain the food and other renewables the station crew would need. They would be mated in orbit, and then a second Shuttle mission would loft a one-segment power module which would also attach to the docking module. The power module would then deploy solar panels which would bring the station to life.

A third mission would bring a four-segment habitation module where the crew would live, and then a fourth would bring a two-segment laboratory module containing a microbiology station modeled on the ones used by the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta. Both would be attached to the docking module’s remaining docking ports, ultimately producing a figure-X shaped space station with the docking module as its hub.

OQF Laboratory Module in action

A cutaway view of the OQF’s laboratory module in action. Also from Orbital Quarantine Facility: The Antaeus Report. Click for a larger view.

A five-person crew of one commander and four scientists could then live on the station for thirty days (or longer, if the logistics module’s supplies were renewed by another Shuttle flight). There they would perform a series of tests laid out in the Antaeus Report, checking for life and ultimately leading up to what they called “Challenge Tests”: exposure of Martian soil to cultured cells taken from every phylum of life on Earth to see how they reacted.

If the samples proved to be lifeless, or if they had life and proved to be safe, the remainder of the Martian soil could be brought to a quarantine facility on Earth, secure in the knowledge that if a catastrophic breach in containment occurred, the planet wouldn’t be facing ecological catastrophe. If any doubt remained, or if Martian life was proven to be dangerous, study could continue in orbit for up to two years.

The proposal recommended putting the station in low Earth orbit, as the Shuttle could only lift the modules to about 450km. Unfortunately this allowed for the possibility that a breach in the station could infect Earth anyway—the report’s authors calculated that a small particle could drift down out of orbit into the stratosphere within 30 years, and the hypothetical nature of Martian life meant no-one knew if that was long enough for LEO’s radiation environment to sterilize it. Accordingly the report also studied sending up the most powerful possible booster that could be brought in the Shuttle, attaching it to the OQF, and using it to send the station higher into geosynchronous orbit (which was possible) or even putting it in orbit around the Moon (which wasn’t). This also led to their suggestion of how to react if, despite all precautions, the station was overrun with dangerous Martian microbes. A booster could be brought up, attached to the station, and then the whole works pushed into an “eternity orbit” 8000 kilometers high, where it could circle in isolation forever.

What happened to make it fail: The late 1970s were a nadir for NASA and the pace of exploration was much slower than it had been in the Apollo era before or in the period from about 1981 onwards (notwithstanding the stutter caused by the Challenger explosion). The whole period is littered with projects that fell by the wayside due to lack of funds and this was one of them, twice over. Not only was there no sign of money for the OQF, even the Mars Sample Return mission was dead in the water. Without a mission to support, the station never got off of paper. Even NASA tacitly acknowledged this by not bothering to publish the 1978 study that proposed it until 1981.

What was necessary for it to succeed: To start, the discovery of life on Mars by Viking 1 or 2. Actually, a few scientists argue that they did find life so rephrase that a little: results from the Viking biological experiments that were widely accepted as signs of life in 1976. The excitement generated by that might well have helped drag NASA out of its late-1970s doldrums and get them enough money to run a sample return mission.

Unfortunately, a lot more money would have been needed for the Orbiting Quarantine Facility to be built. The estimate at the time was that, for a minimum mission where the scientists on board quickly determined there was no life in the samples, the OQF would cost US$1.66 billion to build and operate. If life had been found and the captured bugs studied in orbit for two years, that inflated to US$2.21 billion. On top of this, NASA has had a history of badly underestimating space station costs (the ISS, for example was originally planned to cost US$22 billion; the actual ISS has cost roughly US$100 billion, and for a smaller station than was originally suggested too). So US$2.21 billion was probably well under what would have actually been needed—and who knows where that would have come from, Martian microbes or not.

Like the ISS, the OQF was also going to need Space Shuttle launches to be built (four of them, to be precise) and so with the Shuttle eventually pushed back from the late 70s to April 12, 1981 there’s the embarrassing possibility that the hypothesized Martian sample return mission would show up in Earth orbit only to find its quarantine station only half-built—or not even started if something like the Challenger disaster had happened in the interim.

On the other hand, it’s interesting to consider that the basic idea of the OQF—to use modules based on Europe’s Spacelab technology—did eventually work out. Three of the ISS’s modules (Columbus, Harmony, and Tranquility) are derivatives of Spacelab, and were in fact built in Italy. Who knows? NASA has been talking about a Mars sample return mission sometime in the 2020s. The ISS may end up becoming an orbiting quarantine facility after all as it approaches the end of its lifetime around 2030.

Manned Venus Flyby: Apollo’s Hail Mary Pass (Apollo Applications Program, Part I)

MVF Cutaway

A cutaway view of the Manned Venus Flyby spacecraft. Based on Apollo hardware, this remarkable proposal would have sent three astronauts on a year-long mission to Venus and back. Public domain image from the 1967 NASA document Manned Venus Flyby, via Wikimedia Commons. Click for a larger version.

What it was: A proposed post-Moon landing manned mission using Apollo hardware. It would have launched during a good alignment of Earth and Venus in November 1973 and taken three astronauts on a flyby of the planet Venus, returning to the Earth 13 months after launch.

A later variation of the mission ambitiously suggested using a better conjunction in 1977 to visit Venus and Mars on an outbound leg and Venus again on the Earth-return leg, however most of the work done considered the shorter Venus flyby.

Details: By the mid-1960s NASA was well aware that if they successfully completed the Apollo moon landings they would probably face a severe decline in budget for the manned space program. In the hopes of proving their ongoing worth they developed a few different post-Apollo proposals using evolutionary versions of the Apollo hardware, including plans for a manned lunar base, space stations, and planetary exploration. The latter two of these goals were at first grouped under the name Apollo X, and then became the Apollo Applications Program (AAP).

By far the most ambitious of the AAP missions was a manned flyby of the planet Venus. After two preliminary missions in Earth orbit to test the technology, a Saturn V launch would lift an Apollo Command Module into orbit. As in a typical mission, the first two stages of the rocket would be jettisoned. However the uppermost stage, the Saturn IVB, would be kept and drained of any remaining propellant. Using gear stored where the Lunar Landing Module would have been placed in a Moon mission, the astronauts would then rig it as a habitation module.

The resulting 33-meter-long spacecraft would leave Earth orbit on October 31, 1973 and travel towards Venus for 123 days. There would be a flyby on March 3, 1974. The craft would have been aimed to pass Venus as close as 6200 kilometers above the surface (one planet radius) very quickly—orbital mechanics would have it moving relative to Venus at a clip of 16,500 kilometers per hour—crossing the lit side of the planet. A sidescan radar would map the portion of the planet they could see as they flew by, and the astronauts would perform spectroscopic and photographic studies.

A series of probes was to be dropped by the spacecraft, and they were specifically enumerated in the proposal for the Triple Flyby variant of this mission that was mentioned earlier. Near closest approach the MVF would launch an orbiter and fourteen planetary probes; the probes would communicate with the orbiter, which would then beam the results back to Earth. Altogether the probes were:

  • Six atmospheric probes, which would enter the atmosphere at six locations: the planet’s solar and anti-solar points, its terminator and equator, and the middle of the light and dark sides. They would drop in ballistically and try to determine how Venus’ atmosphere increased in density the closer one got to the surface.
  • Four meteorological balloon probes. They would float in the atmosphere and try to learn how the Venusian atmosphere circulated as well as study smaller-scale winds.
  • Two “crash-landing” probes that would try to photograph the surface on the way down, much like Rangers 7, 8, and 9 did with the Moon.
  • Two soft-landers that would take surface photographs, examine the soil, and measure Venusian weather.

As well as acting as a communications hub, the orbiter would use X-band radar to map the planet.

MVF Mission Trajectory

The MVF’s trajectory. Detail from Manned Venus Flyby. Click for a larger view.

After that burst of activity the MVF craft would then return home, taking 273 days more to loop out to 1.24 AU from the Sun on a hyperbolic trajectory and eventually swing back to Earth. The astronauts’ landing on Earth would happen on December 1, 1974—total mission time would be 396 days. The Triple Flyby variant would have taken more than 800 days starting in 1977.

When not at Venus, the MVF astronauts would have studied the Sun and solar wind as well as making observations of Mercury, which would be only 0.3 AU away two weeks after the Venus flyby. To keep them occupied otherwise their habitation capsule would have been outfitted with a small movie screen (to show 2 kilograms of movies allowed), and a “viscous damper exercycle/g-conditioner”. The crew would also be allowed 1.5 kilograms of recorded music, 1 kilogram of games, and 9 kilograms of reading material. Hopefully they would choose wisely.

What happened to make it fail: The MVF was part of the Apollo Applications Program, and the AAP was killed dead on August 16, 1968 when the House of Representatives voted to cut its funding from US$455 million to US$122 million. President Johnson accepted this as part of a larger budget deal that kept NASA’s near-term goals safe, though even at that the agency’s entire budget dropped by 18% between 1968 and 1969. The only AAP mission to survive was Skylab.

What was necessary for it to succeed: It’s tough to get this one to work as it’s difficult to see any advantage to sending people on this mission. Mariner 5 had already flown by Venus in 1967 and NASA was able to send a robotic orbiter as part of the Pioneer 12 mission in 1978, just a few years after MVF would have flown.

Even the many probes that the MVF would leave behind at Venus had no obvious connection to the manned part of the mission; it would have been easier to send an unmanned bus of similar size and drop the probes that way. There would be no need then for heavy food, water, or air, or the space for people to move around. And unlike the manned mission there would be no need to bring the bus back, greatly reducing the mission’s difficulty. About all the manned mission had going for it was an opportunity to see what kind of effect a year in microgravity would have on humans, and that could just as easily be determined using a space station in low Earth orbit.

On that basis we also need to be aware that Congress asked hard questions about the purpose of NASA’s manned Mars mission plans in the late 1960s and were hostile to all of them. If Mars wasn’t going to get any money, it’s hard to see what could influence them to fund a mission to Venus.

Finally it needs to be pointed out that no matter even if the MVF launched, nature itself probably had this mission’s number. We didn’t have a very good understanding of the Sun at that time, having only observed one solar cycle from above the atmosphere when the flyby was proposed in 1967. While the launch window was deliberately chosen to be near a solar minimum, and the flyby craft was to have a radiation lifeboat in the equipment module, the mission would have run into an unforeseen natural event on the way back to Earth.

On July 5-6, 1974 the Earth was hit by a big coronal mass ejection (CME), a storm of electrons and protons thrown off of the Sun. People down on Earth were protected by the planet’s magnetic field, as usual, but the astronauts coming back from Venus wouldn’t have been so lucky. Their line to the Sun was several degrees off from the Earth’s (at the time they would have actually looped out past Earth as their trajectory slowly took them back home), but CMEs can cover quite a bit of space. Had the mission actually flown, the astronauts on-board may well have died of radiation sickness after being hit with more (and more energetic) solar protons than their spacecraft was built to handle.

The saving grace here is that coronal mass ejections were discovered in 1971, so the initial plan probably would have been called off rather than risk casualties, or at least be reconfigured to give the astronauts the protection the 1967 plan failed to give them.

An interesting simulation (using the program Orbiter) of how the MVF mission would have run can be seen on YouTube.

The Soyuz Complex: the USSR’s First Manned Moon Plan

Soyuz A/B/V complex

The Soyuz A/B/V complex, AKA the 7K/9K/11K. This three-part craft would be assembled in Earth orbit and, after fuelling, the tank on the right jettisoned. The remaining two thirds would then fly-by the Moon. The left-most section is the famous Soyuz capsule making its first-ever appearance, though the crew cabin is cylindrical rather than round as the built versions were to use. Image provenance unknown, presumed to be from Soviet archives. Please contact the author if you know who owns this image,

What it was: An early Soviet manned lunar mission plan, arguably the first. Three elements would be launched into Earth orbit, docked with one another, and then launched on a  figure-8 lunar flyby and return.

Details: The Russians were planning for a manned Moon mission from very early on. In 1959 they studied using a Vostok capsule to send one man on a loop around the Moon, but realized that it wasn’t feasible. The Vostok could only hold one person, which was problematic for a six-day mission, and its round shape meant that its ballistic return from the Moon (which implies an 11 km/s re-entry speed instead of the 7 km/s of low Earth orbit) would be hard to handle. It would also have to return somewhere near the equator rather than on land in the Soviet Union as preferred.

As a result, Sergei Korolev’s OKB-1 got to work on a new capsule with two cabins. One would be cylindrical and used to house three cosmonauts, while the other would be used to return to Earth. This second cabin was acorn-shaped, which allowed a skip trajectory: it would come in over the Indian Ocean and bounce once off the atmosphere, bleeding off speed and pushing the craft north over the Kazakh SSR. Taken together these two components were dubbed the Soyuz A, also known as the 7K, and it was the ancestor of the very successful Soyuz capsule still used today.

From the standpoint of alternative space races, it was the rest of the plan proposed in March 1962 that catches the eye. As well as the Soyuz A, two other components were planned at the same time, the whole making up a Lunar flyby craft.

The Soyuz B/9K was a rocket block. It would be launched unfuelled to save weight, and placed in Earth orbit. Then another launch would send up a Soyuz V/11K, which was a tanker. Remotely controlled from the ground, the Soyuz B would dock with the Soyuz V and receive its fuel load. The tanker would then be cut loose. Three launches of three Soyuz Vs would fill up the rocket block completely, at which point the Soyuz A and its two astronauts would be launched to dock with the ready-to-go Soyuz B. Once mated, the combined Soyuz A/B would ignite its engine for a journey around the moon and back.

The plan was approved by Soviet leadership on December 3, 1963. Construction of the craft began a few weeks later, with first test flights scheduled for late 1964.

What happened to make it fail: Sergei Korolev became concerned that five launches and four docking maneuvers in orbit would be too hard to pull off. In 1962 he decided that a better approach would be a Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR), which would reduce the weight of the spacecraft to the point that it could be achieved with one launch with a larger rocket—not only for a flyby mission but a lander mission too. This was the same decision reached by the Apollo program.

At the time, these two missions were to be a follow-up to the Soyuz Complex missions, but that eventually changed. Political infighting with Vladimir Chelomei had the Soyuz A/B temporarily replaced with his LK-1 in mid-1964. Nikita Khrushchev fell not long after and, as he was Chelomei’s ally, Korolev managed to get the lunar orbiter and lunar lander mission returned to him a year later. By then there was no time for the Soyuz Complex flybys as well as the later LOR flyby and landing. To make up for the lead the Americans now had, the former was jettisoned from the program and efforts switched to getting the latter two done more quickly. Soyuz A would be used in the single-launch plans, but the other two modules were cancelled altogether.

What was necessary for it to succeed: Korolev coming up with a way to keep Khrushchev off his back.

In retrospect, the Soyuz Complex may have been the Soviet Union’s best bet to beat the Americans to the Moon. All other Moon missions they came up with required either a Proton rocket (which had growing pains until 1970 or so) or an N1 (which had the same but squared); this mission called for the tried and true R-7 derived Soyuz launcher that had been going up since Sputnik. The Soyuz capsule was made relatively safe quite quickly too, so all the eventually-built components that the Complex used have been proven workable. Whether the same is true for the hypothetical 9K and 11K modules is another question, but they were not particularly byzantine in their designs so prospects there were good too.

Against the relative simplicity of the mission hardware we have to place the complexity of the mission profile. While an Earth Orbit Rendezvous is admittedly more involved than a Lunar Orbit Rendezvous, the Soyuz Complex had two more things going in its favour. First, automated docking turned out to be a Soviet strength: they managed to perform history’s first docking between two spacecraft in October 1967 and another in April 1968. They then did so with manned Soyuz capsules in 1969. If anyone was going to pull off the necessary dockings, it was them. At worst they would have had to make several attempts at doing it, but the mission profile was unlikely to kill any cosmonauts so they could have just kept at it until one series of dockings worked out.

The available slack time is the 7K/9K/11K’s other big advantage: it had time to get its bugs worked out before Apollo, or at the least before the post-Moon landing letdown in funds and interest. Its plan was finalized in December 1962, at which point in time the American program was still six months away from finishing Project Mercury. While NASA did at least consider using a Gemini for a Moon mission, they decided to focus on Apollo and getting three men to Lunar orbit.

This opened a window for the Russians as they were content with the two that the lighter Soyuz A would carry, but they squandered it with the bickering between Korolev and Chelomei that saw Khrushchev back the latter until his fall. Korolev and OKB-1 ended up not having a finalized plan until the middle of 1965, and by then Korolev had made the justifiable mistake of switching to a single-launch, no-docking profile that left him at the mercy of Valentin Glushko’s Proton and that rocket’s initial problems.

On top of that Korolev’s OKB-1 design bureau, which constantly verged on oversubscription, was distracted by Khrushchev’s insistence on an earlier multi-man craft. They ended up having to work on the dead-end Voskhod craft in 1964 and 1965. As a result the design, construction, and testing of the Soyuz capsule was heavily delayed; the first successful Soyuz flight wasn’t until October 1968. By then it was all over except for the shouting.

Paracone/MOOSE/SAVER/AIRMAT: Escape Pods from Orbit

Paracone and MOOSE schematic drawings

Schematic diagrams of the Paracone (left) and MOOSE (centre and right) emergency orbital re-entry systems. Public domain image derived from two diagrams printed in the NASA publication Analysis and Design of Space Vehicle Flight Control Systems. Click for a larger view.

What it was: A last-line-of-defense system for getting astronauts out of orbit by ballistic re-entry when all else had failed. With it the endangered spacefarer could put a heat shield around himself and then skydive from orbit. Backwards.

Details: Getting a spacecraft’s crew out of orbit during a dire emergency has been a problem considered since the earliest days of the Space Age. A capsule returning from orbit hits the air at no less than 7 kilometers per second and needs a heat shield capable of handling something like 2,000 to 3,000 Celsius, which is beyond what even most solid metals can handle. What hope does a fragile person have? Since the mid-1970s the answer has almost always been “none whatsoever” and the solution to most problems in orbit has usually been to scramble another craft into orbit for rescue purposes, a situation that has thankfully never occurred as of this writing. But not everyone has always been so pessimistic (or realistic).

Self-recovery from orbit stems from efforts made at altitudes only moderately lower. By the mid-1950s the Air Force had become concerned with the greatly increasing height at which its planes were flying. The air where they went was so thin and so cold there was no way an unprotected human could survive a bailout, and so researchers and engineers went to work to find out what would be necessary to save a pilot who had to parachute from that height.

First came Operation High Dive, which hoisted dummies into the stratosphere and then dropped them to see what would happen. As well as the anticipated problems, the researchers made the discovery that a human form would spin as it picked up speed, often reaching 200 revolutions per minute—fast enough to kill if it kept up for the duration of the descent. Aerodynamic stability was needed.

Dummies would only take you so far, though: what about blood pressure or the fluid in one’s ears or eyes in a near-vacuum? What about air? What about freezing? Project Excelsior launched in 1959 and saw a person—Capt. Joseph Kittinger, to be precise—make three jumps from a balloon-lifted capsule. He wore a variation on the MC-3 partial pressure suit worn by high-altitude pilots at the time, bulked up with heating equipment and insulation to the point that it verged on a spacesuit. When falling from as high as 31.3 kilometers (where he was above 99% of the atmosphere) he naturally assumed a seated position with his back to the ground, and that discovery led to the proposed approach for orbital rescue in the next few years.

By the early 1960s the Air Force were sending pilots to the very edge of space: on July 17, 1962 Robert White got to 95.9 kilometers in an X-15. Once the X-20 “Dynasoar” was flying, Air Force personnel would be in orbit. Pilots get an ejection seat, that had been standard in Air Force planes since not long after WWII ended. The Dynasoar needed one and that was that.

Douglas Aircraft led off with the Paracone in 1963. Their suggestion was to build a shroud of nickel-chromium-cobalt alloy (René-41, which was also used to make the outer shell of the Mercury capsule) into the pilot’s seat. On ejection the astronaut would use an attached retro-rocket to slow his orbital velocity, then inflate the shroud into a rounded cone some 7.6 meters in diameter with himself in the centre of the concave side. The Paracone would drop into the atmosphere, keeping re-entry heat relatively low through its large surface area and low terminal velocity—only 42 kilometers per hour. The last of the Paracone’s speed would then be bled off the hard way: on crashing into land, it had a crushable nosecone that would have worked much like the crumple zones on modern automobiles. The astronaut could then get up and walk away, thus meeting the formal definition of a good landing, though the initial plan was that he might be as much as 800km away from where he aimed.

At about the same time, General Electric proposed the MOOSE—“Man Out Of Space, Easiest” though this was later backronymed to the more sedate “Manned Orbital Operations Safety Equipment”. This is the most famous of the options for getting out of orbit. It was a simpler and smaller system than Paracone: on ejection the pilot would pull a ripcord on his chest to trigger a canister of polyurethane foam inside a fabric container. When filled this would leave him partially embedded in an ablative heat shield 1.9 meters in diameter. After MOOSE’s solid retrorocket was fired, the pilot would re-enter with his back to the atmosphere. When he approached the ground he would pull a second ripcord on his chest that deployed a parachute—the shock of the parachute catching air would pop him loose of his foam casing and then the MOOSE would be left to its fate as the rescued astronaut drifted down. There appears to be no literature discussing what would happen if the pilot pulled the two ripcords in the wrong order.

As it happened the X-20 was cancelled in late 1963 (to be replaced by the Manned Orbiting Laboratory), but the idea of getting people out of space once more sophisticated stations were built remained. This led to two more proposals from contractors associated with the Air Force and NASA.

SAVER was Rockwell International’s contribution in 1966. The pilot’s ejection seat was virtually all of that rescue pod, and it had a solid heat shield on the back of it. The seat was supported by an inflatable balloon some ten meters in diameter, which slowed the craft to survivable speeds. AIRMAT, on the other hand, was suggested by Goodyear in 1968. Perhaps fittingly for that manufacturer it resembled a small blimp, with two astronauts riding inside it. Both systems once again had the stricken astronauts falling backwards to Earth as a fabric heat shield protected them. Neither design made it off the drawing board.

What happened to make it fail: A few tests were performed on the Paracone and MOOSE concepts. In the former case it was mostly wind tunnel tests to confirm the cone’s terminal velocity and impact tests on the nosecone. MOOSE’s ablative shield was heat tested, and one experiment was run to see if it would orient itself correctly in the air: a dummy wearing a MOOSE shield was tossed off a six meter bridge near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania (some sources say it was in Massachusetts somewhere), landing on its back in the water as hoped and then floating downstream.

But with the exception of a short period during the initial development of the Space Shuttle in the early 1970s, NASA has always taken the position that sending a rescue craft is the better way to go. With either of MOOSE or the Paracone, the agency would have had to develop new training for the astronauts and the contractors would have had to develop new materials and new technologies. At least with a rescue craft they were dealing with a spacecraft that they were going to be developing and testing anyway for the main missions.

So during the Apollo program the idea was to always have another Saturn V and Apollo craft ready to launch if the Apollo craft that was on a mission became stranded in Earth orbit. In the actual event this was not done, as it came to be recognized that the rescue mission was as likely to put another astronaut in jeopardy (the Command Module would have to be unsafely flown by only one person, so there’d be room for the three being rescued), and the de facto situation was that the astronauts in a Mercury, Gemini, or Apollo capsule were on their own once they reached orbit. Skylab did return to the idea with a modified CM that allowed for five on-board.

After the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia, NASA’s approach for Space Shuttles was to have another Shuttle ready to go within 40 days so that it could be launched on a rescue mission if the first one could not return to Earth for whatever reason. The crew of the disabled Shuttle would simply wait out the interval on rationed air (carbon dioxide scrubbers being the limiting factor). After May 2009, the International Space Station was sufficiently large and capable that the plan became for anyone stranded in orbit to go to the ISS where they can be indefinitely supplied—since that’s the only place American and Russian astronauts are going these days, this is OK. The ISS itself always has a Soyuz-TM capsule attached to it for emergency re-entries in case the station becomes uninhabitable.

What was necessary for it to succeed: Despite the fact that returning from space essentially naked looks at first glance to be insane, there doesn’t appear to be any particular reason why it couldn’t work except for an interest in doing so despite the danger.

With the rise of commercial space flights, the author expects to see sometime in his lifetime a rich adventure-seeker in the mold of Richard Branson give it a shot purely for the sake of doing it.

The Manned Orbiting Laboratory: A USAF Space Station


An artistic view of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, the last gasp of the USAF’s manned space program. Public domain image via the San Diego Air and Space Museum archives. Click for larger view.

What is was: A small space station based on the Gemini capsule, to be used by the United States Air Force for reconnaissance and as a platform to study military applications of space. It would have been launched in one piece and carry two men for a thirty-day mission; one variant was intended for longer missions.

Details: When NASA was created in 1958, the United States had no less than four manned space programs. As well as the new civilian agency, the Army, Navy, and Air Force were all interested in putting humans into orbit. The Navy’s was the least far along, and while they did test a prototype lunar lander their whole program soon fell by the wayside. Similarly the Army agreed to the transfer of Werner von Braun’s rocketry team and all the Army’s facilities to NASA in October 1959. It too was out of the game quickly.

The Air Force was the one that kept on reaching for space after that, though starting in 1961 they were forced to work in co-operation with NASA. First the two developed the rather successful X-15 spaceplane together, and then they moved onto developing the X-20 “Dynasoar”. Before that second, more capable spaceplane could be begun in earnest, though, it was cancelled and its role transferred to a new project in December 1963: The Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL).

In fact the Air Force’s space program nearly died right there as the initial proposal was that NASA would do all the work and then just fly the Air Force’s astronauts for them. NASA pushed back, however, uneasy with the role of building a military space station; as a civilian agency, one of their founding principles was the peaceful use of space. The compromise reached in January 1964 was that NASA would give them support, but the MOL would be the Air Force’s baby.

At first the goal of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory was purely research: to determine what the long-term effects of being in space would be on the human body (when the MOL was approved, the space duration record was just shy of five days), and to determine what military operations could be done in space.

Cutaway view of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory

A cutaway view of one configuration of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory. Click for larger view. Public Domain image from the USAF.

The basic plan for the MOL took the two-man Gemini capsule and rebuilt it so that it could serve as the command module of a larger craft. This so-called Gemini B was placed on top of a larger crew cabin, which in turn sat on top of a mission module which could be swapped in and out depending on that particular MOL launch’s goal. There were at least three modules planned: one for earth sciences study, one for astronomy, and one for testing space subsystems like solar panels and laser communications. The portions of the station below the Gemini B would be accessed through a hatch cut through the capsule’s heat shield—an approach that caused concern at first, but turned out to be viable after a test launch and re-entry on November 3, 1966. The capsule would then be put in hibernation while the station was occupied and, after the mission was over, it would be reoccupied, detached from the habitation and mission modules, and used to return to Earth. After the astronauts splashed down, the station would then be allowed to decay out of orbit on its own.

The whole thing was at first to be lofted on top of a Titan IIIC rocket, but by early 1966 the station had grown in size to the point that a specialized Titan with enhanced strap-on boosters, the Titan IIIM, was put into development. By the time the program reached its end, the idea of using the even more capable Saturn IB was being mooted.

Meanwhile the purely research mission of the MOL was deemed too expensive to justify and its goals were accordingly expanded. The initial mission parameters had quite specifically arranged for the MOL to be launched into an equatorial orbit that never exceeded 36 degrees of inclination; this meant that the MOL would never pass over the Soviet Union, specifically to avoid a military reconnaissance mission except to the extent that photography from orbit would be tested with an eye to a future program. So as it became clear that pure research was a no-go, a reconnaissance mission was added in 1965 and the capabilities of the station upgraded. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara also authorized three contractors in the aerospace industry to study what else the MOL could do. The Air Force started development of the KH-10 camera for the MOL and also began upgrading Vandenberg Air Force Base into the United States’ second major space launch facility after Cape Canaveral so that a higher inclination orbit could be reached.

Just as the Manned Orbiting Laboratory was gearing up, it ran headlong into Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs and the cost of the Vietnam War. The United States’ budget was strained to the limit and the MOL consistently got the short end of the stick. The Air Force estimated they needed US$600 million in 1968 to develop it and got $430 million instead. This pushed back the program’s first launch from late 1969 to late 1970. The next year was no better. Estimates for 1969 were from US$600 to US$640 million, and they were to be given $515 million.

After Richard Nixon was elected at the end of 1968 the numbers got even worse. The first manned launch slipped to mid-1972, and then the US economy dipped into recession and the amount of money available dropped again.  Without an infusion of more cash the program literally could not move forward, and it was becoming apparent that the unmanned Keyhole satellites were going to match the performance of the KH-10 on the station. A radical rethink was necessary.

What happened to make it fail: A perfect storm of circumstances. First, Robert McNamara was replaced as Secretary of Defense. His technophilia and interest in space had helped protect the MOL despite his otherwise strong tendency to consolidate programs.

Second, as the Keyhole satellites proved their worth the MOL was left entirely as a platform for research into what the Air Force might want to do in space. It became, quite literally, a solution in search of a problem.

Third, the Vietnam War was eating up money for the military, and it was necessary to cut many programs to their cores. Something as speculative as the MOL, without an active military purpose now that reconnaissance was out of the picture, wasn’t going to survive.

Finally, with the Apollo program on the brink of success NASA was ceasing to be the focus of public and political interest and no longer could resist an attempt to merge the Air Force and civilian programs as they had done in 1963-64. On June 10, 1969 the new Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird informed Congress that he was cancelling the Manned Orbiting Laboratory. At the same time the new NASA administrator, Tom Paine, was pushing for a new spaceplane to follow on to the Apollo program. To his chagrin he got what he wanted but only if the MOL’s missions were folded into what would become the Space Shuttle (much to the detriment of its design).

What was necessary for it to succeed: Several things would have had to broken differently for the MOL to fly. Its main backer in high places was Robert McNamara, and he resigned as Secretary of Defense a few months before the 1968 presidential election that removed the Democratic Party from that office entirely. If he had stayed on, and had the election been lost by Nixon, then it might have flown. Taken as a whole, this is not a likely possibility.

Past that, the MOL’s real problem was the lack of a mission. Even with McNamara behind it, the Air Force’s space program had been slowly dying on the vine since the early 60s. Once McNamara was replaced, the only thing that was going to keep it from being folded into NASA was something to do. As long as it stayed a pure research mission, it was going to be at the tail end of the queue for money and resources where cancellation would always loom.

N1: The Soviet Moon Rocket

The final N1

The fourth N1 launched, as configured. The N1 itself is the angled portions to the left as far as 65 meters. To the right is the L3, the Russian lunar spacecraft, and an escape tower that could pull the craft free of the N1 in case of a launch emergency. Public domain image derived from an image created by NASA. Click for a larger version.

What it was:  A Soviet super-heavy orbital launcher with three stages, designed to take a manned spacecraft and lander to the Moon and back. It was a behemoth, comparable to only a few other rockets like the Saturn V, and the twice-flown Russian Energia. It was designed to lift to low Earth orbit more than four times the payload of the largest currently operational rocket, the Delta IV-H. It was never discussed by the USSR during its lifetime, though it was known to the West through espionage—particularly spy satellite photos of the Russian launch facilities at Baikonur. Official recognition of its existence didn’t come until 1989.

Details: If you are going to the Moon, you need a capable spacecraft. The more capable your spacecraft, though, the heavier it will be: getting it to the Moon and back is a problem.  In theory you could spread the weight over multiple launches and assemble your craft in orbit, but space docking was in its infancy in the 1960s and the fewer the maneuvers, the better.

Both the Americans and Russians independently came to the conclusion that the best way to pull off the trick was by Lunar Orbit Rendezvous: send a craft out in one piece, then leave the lunar lander portion behind and return in the other half. This reduces the weight that has to be lifted back off of the Moon and also reduces the weight returning to Earth, and so they could radically reduce the amount of fuel needed to get the whole works off the ground during the initial launch. With this in mind, the magic number for a rocket needed to pull this off could be calculated: it had to be able to lift about 100,000 kilograms to low earth orbit.

This was a problem, as the rockets developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s were far less powerful than that. The Russian launchers based on the R-7 topped out at about 6500 kilograms, while even the most capable American rocket in 1965, the Air Force’s Titan IIIC, could loft only 13,100.

Faced with this the US began work on a much bigger rocket as far back as 1959, which would eventually lead to the successful Saturn V that took Apollo spacecraft to the Moon. Russia’s answer to this was the N1, which they began in earnest in 1964.

The most unusual thing about the N1 was its first stage, which was very wide at its base—the rocket more closely resembled a flying cone than the sharp spire of its contemporaries. In the Saturn V there were only five engines used to give the entire stack its initial boost, and accordingly they had to be monsters by previous standards (and even by today’s: the F-1’s, as they were called, are still the most powerful liquid-fuelled rocket engines ever built). The designers of the N1 didn’t think they could pull off an engine that big and so approached the problem from another angle. Their rocket was so broad in the beam because they used a smaller engine, the NK-33, but more of them: 24 of them in the initial design, to be precise, though as we will see even that needed to be changed.

The difficulty was that with so many engines, there was a much higher chance that one or more of them would fail on every launch, as opposed to the American launcher where at least there were only five of them to keep happy. To overcome this, the N1’s lowest stage was designed with more thrust than was necessary: 50,655 kilonewtons of force, as compared again with the Saturn V’s 38,703. Even if as many as four engines cut out, there would still be enough strength left to reach orbit. The only wrinkle with this approach was that if the failed engine was off-centre from the rocket’s main axis (as it almost certainly would be) the N1 would start listing toward that side and go off course. The engineered solution to this problem was to place the engines symmetrically. A system named KORD—the acronym for “Engine Operation Control”, in Russian— would detect an engine failure and then automatically cut off the mirror-image engine on the other side, thus restoring balance.

More cleverness was required when it became clear that the Russian spacecraft capable of going to the moon (the Soyuz 7K-LOK mated with the LK Lunar Lander) was going to ring in at 95,000 kilograms instead of what the N1 was originally designed to loft, 75,000. Rather than go back to the drawing board, the N1’s designers tried a variety of tricks to come up with the extra 20 tonnes. Its fuels were supercooled, each engine was revved up to 2% over its design specs and, most fatefully, the already extreme number of engines in the first stage was upped from 24 to 30.

The Russians first looked to fly the N1 in May 1968, but cracks were found in the first stage after the whole thing had been assembled on the launch pad. The only solution was to pull it back down and repair the cracks, and this took much longer than expected. 1969 rolled around before they were ready to go again.

The N1’s first flight took place on February 21, 1969, and at first looked OK. It got off the pad and flew correctly for almost a minute, but as it turned out there were tiny bits of metallic debris in the turbine of one of the engines, fouling it, and the rocket started oscillating rapidly. The extra stress on the rocket’s components caused a fuel leak, which caused a fire, and then the KORD sent an incorrect signal that shut down all the engines. Seventy seconds into the flight, the N1 was dead in the air 30 kilometers up, and had to be destroyed by remote control from the ground to prevent it from crashing back into the launch site.

This flight was actually the N1’s first full-scale test; usually a few of a new rocket’s stages are clamped to the ground and static-tested first before you let one loose into the air; the Saturn V’s first stage had been tested this way as far back as 1965. So even though the N1 was “flying” some six months before Neil Armstrong stepped on the Moon, the Soviets were actually well behind the Americans. On this basis the Russian space program’s leadership had come to the conclusion that, barring some kind of accident happening to the Apollo program, they were going to lose the Moon race. So when the first N1 blew up it was a disaster for any further progress and morale dropped through the floor. More N1’s would be sent up, but the Soviets’ already-spotty standard for quality control slipped even further.

The second N1 flight sealed the Russian space program’s fate for some time. An unmanned version of the Russian lunar landing craft was to be launched on July 2, 1969, and sent into a looping orbit around the Moon. This was a bit more than two weeks before the Apollo 11 landing and would give the Soviets some kind of laurels prior to that event, but instead it just made things far worse. Something—either a piece of slag in the fuel tanks or debris from a faulty fuel pump that disintegrated—was ingested by one of the engines a quarter of a second after launch and the rocket caught fire just as it cleared its launch tower. 200 meters up the KORD decided to shut off all of the engines, except one. The second N1 collapsed back onto the launch pad at a 45-degree angle—tipped by the one remaining engine. The fully fuelled rocket then exploded, destroying the launch pad and damaging the second N1 pad nearby. It would take 18 months to rebuild, and the Russians were forced to wait until June 26, 1971 for the next test flight.

The third N1 had filters attached to the engine intakes so as to prevent the problems of the first two flights, and this time all the engines worked correctly. Unfortunately the exhaust from the engines began interacting with the slipstream of air passing the rocket and it began twisting as it rose. This rotation became so bad that the rocket began breaking up from the centrifugal force, so once again the N1 was blown up by remote to prevent another pad disaster. This time the flight lasted 50.2 seconds.

The relative success of the third launch showed that the N1’s designers were getting a hold of the rocket’s problems even if it had failed in the end. Now they were in a race to fix them all before their program was cancelled. As it turned out, there was just one more flight and one more chance.

The launch on November 23, 1972 would be the most successful of all of the N1’s flights. The first stage burned for 106.9 seconds, only seven seconds short of its scheduled burnout. Though early, if the first stage had simply been shut down and cut loose so that the second stage had ignited, the mission could have continued. But while KORD did its job, something after the main stage shutdown led to an explosion—this time no-one ever determined what, as the investigation became embroiled in politics between the rocket’s designers and the designers of its engines.

The N1 was done. The Soviet lunar landing program had been cancelled a few months previously, on June 1, and no-one in power had any interest in a proposed space station or an automated Mars soil sample mission that would re-establish Russian prestige in space. After a period of infighting further launches were cancelled on May 19, 1974, and then development as a whole on June 24 of the same year. A fifth rocket, heavily upgraded and which its engineers reportedly felt was finally finished, was dismantled rather than launched as planned in August.

What happened to make it fail: Putting aside the sloppy construction techniques that caused two of the crashes, the proximate reason was its innovative lowest stage. The pipes needed to get fuel to the many engines had to be numerous and so small and less robust than turned out to be necessary. As the N1 rumbled and vibrated through the ascent to orbit, something was bound to break. This was compounded by the too-clever plan to automatically counterbalance one failed engine by turning off another—as the launches proved, KORD had a nasty habit of turning off all the engines in short order. The various cheese-paring techniques used to get the N1 from a 75,000 kilogram payload to a 95,000 kilogram payload also meant that it was skirting disaster in a variety of other ways. Too many things could go wrong, and did, even when the first stage otherwise worked as it should.

More generally the N1 had a problem in leadership and technique. After the death of Sergei Korolev his lieutenant Vasili Mishin proved unequal to the task of continuing Korolev’s work—most of the major projects he headed failed dramatically, which is to say not only the N1, but the first Soyuz capsule and the first Soviet space station (with both failures costing the lives of cosmonauts). Essentially he kept his job only because by the time it became obvious he needed to be replaced (1967 or 1968) no-one was willing to take over from him when it was also obvious that the Americans were going to win the race to the Moon. He was the perfect fall guy while others maneuvered behind the scenes to take over once the Soviet space program was ready to regroup from that psychological blow.

When Mishin was finally replaced by Valentin Glushko, Glushko took revenge on him and Korolev for past slights. Both had worked tirelessly to centralize the Soviet space effort in their department, OKB-1, and Glushko’s alternative rockets were driven out of the picture. So before taking over Glushko had convinced the Soviet leadership (particularly Dmitri Ustinov, the Russian minister in charge of the space program) that the N1 was a white elephant—admittedly not hard. With their blessing, Glushko’s first official act was to cancel the N1 that had been so dear to his predecessors, notwithstanding that there were already two others ready to fly and four more in various stages of completion behind them. A new super-heavy launcher was begun, which would eventually lead to the Energia—the third of the three most powerful rockets to ever fly along with the Saturn V and its ill-starred Russian counterpart.

What was necessary for it to succeed: Better quality control and more money.

Peak annual spending on the N1 was about US$1.5 billion, as compared with Saturn V at $3 billion, and the contrast in total spending on the two rockets was worse, about 4:1 in favour of the Americans. Furthermore the N1 was competing for money, time, and personnel with no less than three other Moon programs (the Zond orbiter, a proposal to build the UR-700 rocket with its associated lander, and the Luna robotic sample return mission). As a result, the N1’s design and testing facilities were much less extensive than Saturn’s. Literally the first time the first stage was fired as a unit was for the rocket’s first flight, which was beyond foolish if somewhat typical of the Soviet space program at times.

With more money, they could have afforded static tests on the ground like the Saturn V got to its benefit. With better quality control, they’d likely have worked out the kinks with the fuel pipes and the temperamental KORD system. The N1 was also due to have upgraded engines on its next launch before it was cancelled, which would have made the various other shortcuts to extra lift less necessary.

That also leads to another possible route to success: more time. Unlike a lot of other items on this blog the N1 was approaching completion; what really killed it was the quickly waning interest of the Soviet government in the wake of their loss of the race to the Moon—they had no more patience for it when that was what it needed. Mishin needed to go, but if Glushko had supported the N1 in 1974 and given it a few more years, it likely could have been turned into a workable launcher.

Evidence for this can be gleaned from the fate of the NK-33 engine. While 30 of them may have been problematic in tandem, the engine itself has been suggested for several rockets since—including the Space Launch System which is being developed by the United States to replace the Space Shuttle. The fate of the Russian Proton-K, a smaller contemporary of the N1, is also informative. It too had bad teething problems (though nothing can match its big sister’s four-for-four failures), but it eventually became one of the most reliable launch vehicles in history. A variation of it is still being used in the modern day.

Video of the final N1 flight

Google Maps satellite images of the remains of the two N1 launch pads, in modern-day Kazakhstan