What it was: A fairly sophisticated 1973-76 attempt to square the circle between the ballistic capsules favoured by Russian spacecraft designers and the Space Shuttle analog being demanded of them by the Soviet military. It would have been an elongated lifting body with a rounded triangular cross-section and small folding tail stabilizers. As designed it would have had a payload to LEO of roughly fifteen percent more than the US Space Shuttle.
Surprisingly little information about this craft is available for something that was at the forefront of Soviet space development for nearly two years, and what there is is contradictory: the author even found four different names for it (MTKVP, MTKVA, MTC-VP, and MTK-AM) let alone a raft of inconsistencies in the project’s details. Much more than other False Steps posts this is an attempt to synthesize what’s available and may not be completely accurate. One presumes that only further discoveries in Soviet archives are going to bring this one into proper focus.
Details: As discussed previously, the Soviet space program went through a radical reorientation between 1974 and 1976, as Vasili Mishin was removed as its head, the N1 rocket was cancelled, and the N1-L3 lunar landing mission was scrapped. While the new head Valentin Glushko was well aware that he was expected to focus on a reusable space plane and space stations in low Earth orbit, for eighteen months he entertained the possibility that he could satisfy the military and military-friendly backers who had allowed him to take over while still retaining the dream of a Russian Moon base (or, to be more precise, Glushko’s vision for how this would be done, Zvezda).
The key difference he wanted was a big rocket booster that he could also use for Moon projects. Accordingly, what he supported was an effort to develop a reusable transporter without engines. This could be put on top of the booster, unlike the US orbiter, which needed clearance for its engines and had to be laterally mounted on the side of its rocket-and-fuel-tank stack. While initially conceived as a cylindrical body for cargo with a separable ballistic capsule on top for the crew return, it soon evolved into the MTKVP (“Reusable Vertical Landing Transport Craft” in Russian).
In this new version of the craft the cylinder was replaced with a triangular prism with rounded edges. It tapered gently toward one end, where the crew cabin—now permanently attached to the vehicle—was located, while a single orbital maneuvering engine and small thrusters were placed at the other wider end. The aft end also sported two small winglets, which were folded up during launch and in orbit, but descended to give the MTKVP (in combination with its body shape, which was aerodynamic at hypersonic speeds) a bit of controllability. All told it had about 300 kilometers of cross-range capability, which in usefulness was its major negative compared to the American Space Shuttle.
The booster which it would have topped was a variation on the largest rocket in Glushko’s proposed RLA series, the RLA-150 Vulkan. Dubbed the RLA-130V, it was a recognizable ancestor of the Energia rocket. The Vulkan’s upper stage was removed and replaced with the orbiter. That sat on top of a a large liquid-fuelled core (LOX and LH2) in the centre and six liquid-fuelled boosters around it; these burned LOX and syntin, an artificial hydrocarbon fuel developed by the Russians with better performance than kerosene. In contrast to the Shuttle, which lost its external fuel tank but had recoverable boosters, the launch vehicle would have been completely expendable.
The main body of the MTKVP was dominated by an aft cargo bay, which like the American orbiter was protected by two long bay doors which could be opened to space. As it didn’t have to lift engines and full-fledged wings to orbit, it was to be capable of carrying some 30 tonnes of cargo to orbit, and bring back 20: more than the Space Shuttle, despite the disadvantage of being launched from higher-latitude Baikonur instead of Cape Canaveral.
The MTKVP would have been about thirty meters long; some sources say 37 but this likely includes the mating adapter to its booster. In all it weighed 88 tonnes, which if you add on the 30 tonnes of cargo means the RLA-130V would have been lifting 118 tons to orbit—and if you noticed that that is similar in lift to the Saturn V and N1, congratulate yourself for finding the hidden Moon rocket.
Once it dropped below subsonic speeds, to Mach 0.75 at a height of 12 kilometers, it would demonstrate its other major difference from the Shuttle. The V in its name stood for “vertical” (in Russian, anyway) and instead of coming in roughly horizontally to a landing strip, it would deploy parachutes and descend vertically. At the last moment it would fire retrorockets on its underside and settle to ground on skid landing gear. So unlike the US’ orbiter it didn’t need a landing strip, and in fact didn’t need a prepared landing site at all. As long as the ground was flat—a common condition in much of the former Soviet Union—it could land pretty much anywhere.
The first flight of the MTKVP was proposed for 1980.
What happened to make it fail: The Soviet leadership—even Dmitri Ustinov, who had been one of his main supporters in his push to take over TsKBEM and transform it into NPO Energiya— made it abundantly clear to Glushko that they were not going to give him his Moon base, and that furthermore that they would not accept anything less than a close copy of the Space Shuttle.
The psychology of the second part of this decision is interesting. Interviews with the various players since the fall of the Soviet Union have established that in the years following the Moon race the Russians had a bit of an inferiority complex toward American space technology. Though their spacecraft designers could see no advantages to the Space Shuttle as compared to expendable systems like Soyuz and Proton, there ensued a battle between those who felt that their analysis should be read at face value and those who were sure that they were missing something.
While the first of these approaches held the field for a while, the political and military people calling the shots became progressively more paranoid about what the Shuttle would be able to do and that the USSR was simply failing to see. Dmitri Ustinov in particular changed his tune after hearing from a shuttle enthusiast at NPO Energiya and from KGB Chief Yuri Andropov—one of the key believers in a hidden military purpose for the US’ orbiter.
For their part, the spacecraft designers had realized there were a number of problems with MTKVP that they were not sure they could solve. Many of them could have been cracked: for example, it would have had to withstand 1900 Celsius on re-entry rather than the maximum 1500 of the Shuttle, but the tiles they later developed for Buran were within striking distance of this. Nevertheless two issues seem problematic even today.
First, as it was designed to land virtually anywhere flat, there was always going to be the problem of how to get the MTKVP back to Baikonur for the next launch. Its low cross-range capability meant that it couldn’t always make it to an airstrip where railways or roads could be used to transport it, let alone something like the enormous Antonov An-225 used to carry Buran: it was by many measures the largest aircraft ever built and needed long, special-purpose runways.
Furthermore the lack of cross-range capability made it hard to get the MTKVP back to Soviet territory in case of an emergency. The Space Shuttle could, if absolutely necessary, land in places as widely scattered as Gander in Newfoundland, Banjul in Gambia, and Guam. Russian insistence on secrecy ruled out this sort of emergency landing. Paradoxically, the USSR was both too big and too small—there wasn’t the necessary infrastructure in many places up-country where the MTKVP might land, and it was unable to be underneath every possible place where a crippled mission might want to land.
Accordingly even as the MTKVP was being designed there was a portion of NPO Energiya working on something much closer to the Shuttle, the OS-120—which even had on-board rocket engines, meaning it was an even more slavish copy of the US orbiter than Buran turned out to be. It seems to have begun as a “due diligence” project, with Glushko far more interested in MTKVP because that approach would allow him his big booster. As pressure from the Shuttle advocates in the military increased, however, Igor Sadovksy (one of Korolev’s long-time engineers going back to the 1950s, and the man in charge of the OS-120) synthesized the two approaches by moving the engines off the orbiter and onto the rocket stack: in other words, the Energia superheavy launcher and the Buran shuttle.
This gave Glushko his big booster and a way to satisfy the military and political forces pushing for a winged shuttle. On January 6, 1976 he approved the proposal, and work on MTKVP and the RLA-130V stalled and eventually stopped; in the future he would refer to this day as “Bloody Sunday”, as he realized it also meant the death of his Moon base plans for the foreseeable future. Buran’s huge costs would see to that. Glushko’s Zvezda base was allowed to move forward in a desultory fashion until 1978, but were cancelled outright then when Buran fell behind schedule and NPO Energiya was forced to work on it almost exclusively.
What was necessary for it to succeed: There are actually a few different avenues that could have led to the MTKVP flying.
A somewhat less-successful US Space program would have helped assuage the Soviet inferiority complex at the time and given them the confidence to go ahead with something more different from the American shuttle, rather than quite literally building an orbiter in which they did not see (but merely suspected) an advantage.
The other way to keep it a going concern is to note one of the reasons Glushko submitted to “Bloody Sunday”. A movement was afoot by engineers who had worked on the N1 to propose the revival of that rocket to the Soviet leadership, and they were preparing to make their pitch in February of 1976. The MTKVP was relatively agnostic about the rocket on which it could be perched: there’d be no real difficulty in designing it to sit on top of an N1. Glushko’s pride couldn’t allow the resurrection of his rival Korolev’s dream booster after having advocated against it for more than a decade, so in part he chose to scrap the top-mounted orbiter in favour of a laterally-mounted Shuttle analog because there was no way to attach one to an N1.
Give Vasili Mishin a successful flight of an N1 (perhaps due to a little more luck with the last failure in November 1972) and Mishin probably could have headed off the coup of 1974. The switch away from a Moon base and toward a Shuttle-of-sorts would have probably happened anyway, and the same engineers who developed MTKVP under Glushko would have been in place in this scenario. All other things being equal, they’d have ended up with a similar design, and would have had a boss who wasn’t beholden to the military people who wanted Buran. Under those circumstances we could have seen an MTKVP (or something quite like it) flying on Korolev’s superheavy instead of Glushko’s mooted replacement.