The Douglas ASTRO: An Air Force Launcher


The ASTRO, as pictured in the September 3, 1962 issue of Missiles and Rockets. Image artist unknown and copyright status uncertain, but believed to be in the public domain. Via the Internet Archive.

What it was: A lifting body craft proposed to the USAF by Douglas Aircraft. It would initially be used as a suborbital trainer then, after up-scaling and being paired with a second lifting body in an unusual nose-to-tail arrangement, evolve into a fully reusable vehicle with a nine-tonne payload capacity to LEO.

Details: In late 1962, the USAF was on the cusp of deciding how it would go forward with its plans to put military men in space. The X-15 had made its first flight mid-year, and the X-20 program was ramping up. Doubts about the latter were getting stronger, though, and would ultimately result in the Air Force deciding to work on the Manned Orbiting Laboratory instead.

It was at this point that an article was published in the now-defunct Missiles and Rockets magazine outlining a proposal from Douglas Aircraft that was supposedly being evaluated by the USAF. What it outlined was a two-part development program that would check the usual laundry list of military applications for space as perceived in the early 1960s.

The core of the ASTRO (Advanced Spacecraft Truck/Trainer/Transport Reusable Orbiter) was the answer to a question the USAF had proposed to North American Aviation and Douglas, as well as Boeing, Vought, and Republic: how to train pilots for the X-20 on actual flights prior to the X-20 being built. North American had come back with what they called the STX-15, which was a way of reconfiguring an X-15 to have the projected flight characteristics of an X-20 (except for, of course, the highest speed and orbital parts). The Phase I of Douglas’ ASTRO was their significantly more ambitious counter to the NAA proposal.


A schematic of the ASTRO’s A2 vehicle, which would be both independent for suborbital hops, or be boosted to the point that it could be lifted into orbit by a derivative of the same vehicle. Note the booster nose’s ghostly presence at the far right of the image. Same source as previous. Click for a larger view.

Unfettered by the previously existing X-15, Douglas wanted to build a completely new craft dubbed A2, which would be capable of suborbital hops of about 5000 miles (8000 kilometers) after taking off from a runway under the impetus of a J-2 engine, the same rocket engine used by the Saturn V’s second and third stages. Pilots would get their space training, the USAF would have themselves a reusable vehicle with intercontinental range which could carry ten people, or a similar amount of payload. Two RL-10s, as used on the Centaur, would provide a little extra oomph.

Phase II was where Douglas diverged from the question being asked. Take the A2, modify it so that it only carried one crew and two extra J-2 engines, then stick it nose to bumper on the end of another A2 built to the Phase I spec. Turn it 90 degrees and launch it vertically, with the two separating from each other at altitude and speed (both unspecified). The sole crew member aboard the booster would glide back to Earth, while the uppermost A2 would ignite its engines, hopefully after allowing a bit of distance to build from the booster, and carry on into orbit. Douglas projected two crew and about a tonne of cargo to LEO in this configuration.

Phase III scaled up the booster, now dubbed B, and equipped it with two J-2s and one M-1, a never-built LH2/LOX engine that dwarfed even the F-1 engines used on the Saturn V’s main stage. Also launched vertically, this would be the ultimate version of the craft.

The full, two-stage Phase III vehicle was to have been 159 feet long (48.5 meters) and while mass was not mentioned the propellant capacity of the stages (165,000 pounds for the A2 and 594,000 pounds for the B) are—this suggests a total loaded vehicle mass at launch of about 380 to 400 tonnes. Total payload, as mentioned previously, was about nine tonnes, including crew, and there’s a sign that Douglas was nervous about this: the article specifically mentions wanting to launch due east from the Equator, which is an odd thing to be suggesting in 1962, well after the US had committed to launching from the continental USA.

If built, the program was expected to run from 1964 to 1970, with the first flight of the Phase III craft at the end of that period.

What happened to make it fail: It’s difficult to fit the ASTRO into the chronology of the X-20. Phase I appears to have been an attempt to come up with a “Gemini” for the X-20’s “Apollo”, giving the USAF the capability of sending pilots on long suborbital jaunts to train them for the environment they’d encounter when aboard the fully orbital X-20. Phase III would then have been a follow-up to the X-20, increasing crew capacity and payload over that craft.

If this is the case, then, it explains why the ASTRO never went anywhere. The craft made its sole notable public appearance in September of 1962, and American Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was definitely thinking about cancelling the X-20 no later than March 1963—and possibly earlier. When the X-20 was stopped, then ASTRO would go with it. This is particularly true if one assumes, as seems likely, that the USAF was never very warm about the idea at all, and that it primarily existed as a pitch from Douglas leaked through Missiles and Rockets magazine to drum up support. There’s essentially no reports or discussion of ASTRO post-dating the magazine’s unveil.

What was necessary for it to succeed: It’s not easy to see a way forward for this one. X-20 was dead in the water less than six months later (eventually being formally cancelled in December 1963), and the payload capacity of even the Phase III ASTRO was marginal for what would have been an expensive program. There’s also the issue of Douglas vastly exceeding the question posed by the USAF—it’s unclear that there was any interest on the part of the Air Force in anything other than Phase I. This in turn defeated the purpose of building a fully operational craft for pilot training.


“Air Force Studies Space Trainer”, Missile and Rockets. September 3, 1962.

Sidebar: The Langley Water Lander


A diagram of the Water Lander if it were full sized, as opposed to the one-eighth scale model that was built. Note the curvature of the wings as seen from the front, not coincidentally like the hull of a boat. Public domain image via NASA from Model Investigations of Water Landings of a Winged Reentry Configuration having Ourboard Folding Wing Panels. Click for a larger view.

There are two fundamental dichotomies in spacecraft design (or three, if you count the types of fuels used for their rockets). You have ballistic capsules in opposition to winged craft/lifting bodies, and you have water landings as opposed to coming in on solid ground. Three of the four possible combinations have been used by crewed spacecraft but one hasn’t: a water landing of a winged vehicle.

That’s not to say it hasn’t been examined, though. NASA studied the ramifactions of an emergency ditching of a Shuttle Orbiter (conclusion: a lot of damage to the underside, but it would stay afloat for a while as long as the wings weren’t badly holed), and the Australians famously photographed the USSR retrieving a BOR-4 test article from the Indian Ocean in 1983. Even earlier, the American ASSET, originally conceived for testing the alloys earmarked for the X-20’s heat shield, splashed down off Ascension Island after a suborbital jaunt from Cape Canaveral.


The Water Lander model in its tank. Public domain image from same source as previous. Click here for a larger view.

As far back as 1959, NASA was testing the concept using a water tank at Langley Research Center in Virginia. They had a chicken-and-egg problem, though. How do you build a water-landing spacecraft without tests to tell you what it will look like? But then how do you do the necessary tests without having it built first? Ultimately they had to just go ahead and build it based on first principles and common sense. What they came up with never had a name, so for convenience’s sake we’ll call it the Langley Water Lander.

The re-entry vehicle they posited was a light one, just 3600 pounds (1.6 tonnes), which is only a few hundred pounds more than a Mercuty capsule. Given that much of it was wings, it would have definitely seated only one astronaut, perched in a slim fuselage.

And it really was a lot of wing for its size, 27 feet from tip to tip and with an area of 263 square feet (7.0 meters and 24.4 square meters); it had no tail at all, though it did have a large vertical fin. The wing was gently curved, making a cross-section something like a boat so that the craft could rock from side to side on the surface of the water without the tips of the wings dipping below the surface. This was made even more unlikely by the fact that the wingtips were designed to fold up once the craft had gone subsonic.

On its underside were two retractable 4.7-foot × 0.67-foot (1.4m × 0.20m) water skis and a smaller triangular skid aft, roughly a foot to a side, for drag; this was found to be more stable during the final run-out than anything involving a single nose ski.

Thus configured, a one-eighth scale model was built and tested, with the conclusion that the landings were not so bad at all. The Water Lander wasn’t too sensitive to a little yaw in the touch-down, and even with small waves (eight inches high and fifty feet long, or 20 cm and 20 meters,to scale) the run-out was only three to four hundred feet with a maximum of 5.1 g deceleration. On smooth waters, it came in at under 3.0 g and 100 feet further travel after touchdown.

The Water Lander was never intended to be built for actual use, but rather was a reflection of where NASA was in late 1959. They examined a great many basic possibilities for the crewed space program, many of which have fallen into obscurity. In the case of winged water landers, the reason likely was that there’s no advantage to them. A ballistic capsule, almost uncontrolled, can benefit from a target as big as the South Pacific Ocean. But the whole point of a winged re-entry vehicle is that it can be directed once in the atmosphere, and if you can do that you might was well direct it towards a runway.


Model Investigations of Water Landings of a Winged Reentry Configuration having Ourboard Folding Wing Panels, William W. Petynia. Langley Research Center. December 1959.

The Early Lunar Shelter: Stay Just a Little Bit Longer

Garrett AiResearch Lunar Shelter

The Garrett Early Lunar Shelter, showing its roots in the LM Truck and, in turn, the LM that actually landed on the Moon. The tanks draped around it are hydrogen and oxygen for the fuel cells, shelter pressurization, and recharging the astronauts’ suits after EVA. Public Domain image via NASA from Early Lunar Shelter Design and Comparison Study, Volume IV. Click for a larger view.

What it was: A two-astronaut shelter/living quarters for use with the Apollo program once it had progressed to needing 30-day stays on the surface, studied in 1966-67 by Garrett AiResearch at NASA’s request. Variants for three astronauts and for a mobile version that could be hitched to a lunar rover were also examined.

Details: Certain big names show up repeatedly in conjunction with the American space program: North American Rockwell, Grumman, Boeing, Lockheed, and so on. Around the fringes, though are less familiar names such as Bendix and TRW. Another one of the latter was Garrett AiResearch, a mid-sized aerospace pioneer best known (at least as far as the space program goes) for designing and building the atmosphere controls for Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo.

In 1966, NASA commissioned Garrett to move beyond what they’d done to that point, and work on a  full-fledged, if tiny, Moon base. Dubbed the “Early Lunar Shelter” (ELS), the intention was to build it following the J-Class missions—what turned out to be Apollo 15 through 17. Having progressed from short surface stays like Apollo 11 to longer ones that had a lunar rover to work with, like Apollo 17, the next step was to be month-long stays and that required more than a single LM.

From the beginning, the Moon landings had been quite restricted in mass, as much of an LM was taken up with astronauts, the consumables they needed, and the fuel and engines needed to get them back to the CSM for the flight home to Earth. If you could forgo all of that with an automated lander, you could haul a lot more equipment to the Moon—to wit, 4.67 tonnes of it.

The fruit of this thinking was the LM/T, or Lunar Module Truck, which was for all intents and purposes a rocket-powered mule that would head to the Moon some time before its associated astronauts would start their journey in their own LM (called the LM Taxi in this context). Landing close to the LM/T, the astronauts could walk over, unload everything, and enjoy a huge quantity of equipment as compared to Aldrin and Armstrong.

There were any number of configurations for the LM/T, constrained only by the volume an LM occupied on top of a Saturn V and the limit to the mass it could safely land, but the Early Lunar Shelter was the answer to one particular question: “Suppose we devote the Truck’s volume entirely to living quarters for two astronauts and the scientific equipment they’d use. What would that be like?”

What Garrett came up with was a stubby cylinder, 8.1 feet in diameter and 16 feet long (2.5 meters by 4.9 meters) which rested on its side above the LM/T’s descent stage, looking not unlike contemporary bathyscaphes. It would be launched atop a Saturn V along with a crewed CSM, which would dock to a hatch on its upper side, then ferry it to the Moon after the usual Saturn IV-B trans-lunar injection. After reaching their destination, the CSM would disengage and return its crew to Earth, while the ELS would land automatically.

The shelter could sit on the Moon for as much as six months before its astronaut-dwellers arrived (thanks to another Saturn V/CSM combination), with a minimum seven days prior to their launch for checkout of the shelter. A SNAP-27 radiothermal generator would power the ELS until activation. Once aboard, the minimum time the astronauts would use it was assumed to be 14 days, with 50 days being the upper end of possibility. The first day days of the mission would be devoted to the astronauts activating the shelter for their use, unloading it, switching the shelter to running off fuel cells (which would also supply water) and transferring the RTG to their LM Taxi so their ride home could be deactivated but kept “alive” until it was needed at the end of the mission.

Interior layout of the Early Lunar Shelter

The interior layout of the ELS, same source as previous. One presumes the outer hatch was closed when the toilet was in use. Click for a larger view.

The interior of the shelter was to be divided into two main areas. One was a lunar EVA airlock taking up one end, the CSM hatch on top being used solely for docking with a CSM. It would have been big enough for two astronauts at the same time as well as storage of two hard space suits. The bulk of the shelter was 628 cubic feet (17.8 m3) of living space. Though about half of this would be taken up with supplies, bunks, and spacesuit storage, its shirt-sleeve environment compared well with a regular LM’s 4.5 cubic meters of habitable volume. Alternatively, as the Moon does supply gravity, the ELS can be sized another way: it would have had 68 square feet of floor space (6.3 square meters).

The arrangement of bunks/radiation refuge quarters in the ELS.

The spartan arrangement of bunks/radiation refuge quarters in the ELS. No Apollo astronaut was taller than 71 inches. Same source as previous. Click for a larger view.

The shelter was double-walled aluminum and fiberglass (the latter in the inside), with 58 mils (0.058 inches, or 0.15 cm) between them for meteoroid protection—the usual tactic, as invented by Fred Whipple. The other major danger entertained was radiation, and the aluminum walls couldn’t be made thick enough to sustain 500 rads (a hypothetical solar flare) without weight close to a half ton more than was otherwise necessary. Accordingly the study suggested putting the necessarily numerous  PLSS recharging canisters (for the life-support backpack worn while on the surface) stored in water filled sleeves around the bunk area located at the opposite end from the airlock. Altogether, they, the walls, and the bunk material made an acceptable, if awfully cramped, radiation refuge for everyone on-board.

One final, intriguing safety touch was the dual-purpose boom attached near the airlock. While primarily intended for unloading instruments or a rover, it would also have been used to get an incapacitated astronaut up next to the entrance to the shelter.

Arranged around and behind the shelter were four tanks: one compressed gaseous oxygen, one liquid oxygen, and two liquid hydrogen. These weren’t intended for use with the Truck’s landing engine—it had its own tankage—but rather for use by the astronauts and the fuel cells (and so, accordingly, their water). Garrett pinpointed the storage of LOX and LH2 for up to six months before the astronauts arrived as the main technical challenge facing the ELS.

Another issue was what atmosphere they would breathe: pure oxygen at 5.0 psia, or nitrogen/oxygen mix comparable to Earth. The former was desirable for mass reasons, and to keep the ELS as close in technology to the rest of the Apollo program as possible, but Garrett were concerned that there were no medical studies of a pure oxygen atmosphere for a long period of time; the 30-day maximum they note was apparently just an educated guess. They ended up punting the problem down the road as essentially an issue of how much they could keep the ELS from leaking; if that could be minimized, the problem was moot. Safety concerns weren’t mentioned at all, and in fact the final filing of Garrett’s study was on February 8th, 1967, not even two weeks after the Apollo 1 fire. After that the CSM would switch to a oxy-nitrogen atmosphere for launch, though the LM would stay with the low-pressure pure oxygen.

Mobile ELS variant, hitched to a notional rover.

The Mobile ELS variant, hitched to a notional rover. Same source as previous. Click for a larger view.

As well as being a shelter, the ELS would have been a miniature scientific outpost. It would be equipped with a drill capable of getting 100 feet down into the Moon’s crust, carry explosive charges for seismic readings, and had three remote instrument stations that would be deployed far from the landing site thanks to the extended EVA capability the shelter would provide. All told, the shelter would come with 3470 pounds (1.57 tonnes) of science gear, while the shelter itself was a remarkably light 985 pounds (447 kg). Add in the expendables and altogether it could be successfully landed on the Moon by the LM/T with a mere pound and a half to spare. Let it not be said that they didn’t squeeze all the juice out of this one.

If the project had gone ahead, Garrett anticipated that the ELS would be operational in 1972. The study is silent on cost, apparently because the construction work was to be handed off to Grumman, and so it was their problem.

What happened to make it fail: It got caught up in the rapid ramping down of the Apollo program that started in 1968, not least the fact that Saturn V production was shut down and the rockets they had were all they were going to get.

By scrimping and saving (and cutting a couple of Moon landings) NASA managed to save Skylab, and eventually the detente-driven Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, but that was it. As any mission involving the Early Lunar Shelter was going to require two Saturn V launches it was an obvious target for a cut, taking up as it would two slots that could be used by two different, separate Moon missions. It was one of the first things to go, and did not make it out of 1968.

What was necessary for it to succeed: It’s interesting to compare the Early Lunar Shelter to the other Moon bases we’ve examined so far, Barmingrad and Project Horizon. Both were hugely ambitious and nowhere near happening in reality, while for this project the key word was early. A lot of people tend to conflate Moon bases with lunar colonies, or at least the next rank down of permanently inhabiting the Moon even if the personnel are swapped out periodically. What NASA put its finger on was that we’re not likely to make that big a leap all in one go. The first lunar bases are probably going to be temporary, just like the first space stations were before we worked our way up to Mir and the ISS.

On that basis it’s easy to get the ELS to fly, as it was a big part of the logical next step in lunar exploration (ignoring the elephant in the room that was automated exploration, mind you). With probably no more than some minor redesigning there could have been one on the Moon just a few years after when Garrett AiResearch pictured it: 1972.

As ugly as the post-1969 picture was for NASA’s funding, it’s not too much of stretch to see the three or four more necessary missions past Apollo 17 making it through the budget grinder and “Apollo ELS” flying sometime around late 1974 or early 1975. It’s a lot likelier than much of what NASA proposed post-Apollo 11, at least, if only because one mission like that would be as much or more of a punctuation mark at the end of the program as any other mission bar Apollo 11 itself.


Early Lunar Shelter Design and Comparison Study, Volume I and Volume IV, W.L. Burriss, N.E. Wood, and M.L. Hamilton. Garrett AiResearch. Los Angeles, California. 1967.

The R-56: “Yangel Works for Us”

Thre possible arrangements of the R-56 rocket

Three possible arrangements of the R-56 rocket. The one on the right is the “4-4-1” module arrangement initially favoured, while the one at centre is close to the monoblock version finally settled on (it is missing the flared skirt necessary to house all of its engines). Original source unknown.

What it was: A four-stage rocket proposed by OKB-586 in the early 60s. It was aimed at the Moon, despite having a payload of 40 to 50 tonnes, making it much lighter than any of the Saturn V, N1, or Energia. It still would have lifted more than any rocket being flown in 2016.

Details: In February 1962 Nikita Khrushchev organized a meeting of the USSR’s Defense Council with the main missile designers in the Soviet Union at his dacha in Pitsunda (a resort town in the Georgian SSR) for the purpose of rationalizing their missile and space programs. The main players were Sergei Korolev with OKB-1 and Vladimir Chelomei with OKB-52, but a third invitee was Mikhail Yangel, the head of OKB-586.

While Korolev had surged to the head of the Soviet space program post-1957 and initially stood first in ICBM development, all based on variations of the R-7 rocket, by 1962 he had lost leadership in the latter to Yangel. The previous November his R-16 had become operational, and its use of storable propellants made it more militarily desirable than the liquid oxygen-using R-9 that was OKB-1’s response. Though the R-9 could be fuelled and fired in roughly the same amount of time, the feeling among almost everyone but Korolev was that storable fuels were the way forward when it came to developing a nuclear strike capability that could be used with little notice.

Meanwhile a fourth man and his bureau was working behind the scenes. Valentin Glushko had been trying to make large engines that used LOX for oxidizer. The tremendous vibration in his prototypes led to combustion instabilities that caused, as they say, “rapid disassembly”. Convinced that the problem could not be cracked, he had come around to storable propellants, and this had become a problem between him and Korolev. OKB-1 was pushing ahead with the N1 and, while storables were considered for that project, the writing was on the wall: Korolev wanted LOX and kerosene, or LOX and liquid hydrogen. A few years previous Glushko could have pushed back effectively, but Khrushchev had been downsizing the USSR’s military aviation efforts, and underemployed bomber-designing bureaus had been growing new departments devoted to rockets—the N1 would end up flying, for sadly abbreviated distances, using engines developed by Nikolai Kuznetsov’s OKB-276.

Glushko hedged his bets by teaming up with Chelomei on the UR-700 and the UR-500, which were aimed at the 70+ and 20-tonne payload targets set by Khrushchev. The former was to be a super-heavy interplanetary space launcher and the latter was a combination heavy LEO space launcher and ICBM. The smaller of the two figures was apparently selected due to the test of the RDS-220 hydrogen bomb (better known by the name given to it in the West, the “Tsar Bomba”) a few months earlier. This 100-megaton demonstrator had come in at just under 27 tonnes, and it was thought that refined versions with about half the yield would come in several tonnes less than that.

These two rockets were OKB-52’s proposal to the Defense Council meeting. OKB-1 countered with the already-underway N1 and, for the smaller launcher, the N2, which was essentially the N1 with its tetchy first stage removed. Seemingly out of worry that OKB-1 would still prevail, Glushko had arranged for another card in his hand—Yangel.

A relative newcomer to the space side of missile work, Yangel had earned a reputation as someone who listened to the military with the R-12 and R-16 missiles, in contrast with Chelomei and Korolev, who were viewed to varying extents as prima donnas, or at least less than entirely focused on military applications of their rockets. Yangel parleyed this approval into an unmanned satellite launch that was to go ahead the next month: Kosmos-1, the very first mission of the soon-to-be-ubiquitous Kosmos program that represented the large majority of Soviet launches from 1961 until the fall of the USSR. Yangel was interested in extending his nascent space work into manned programs, at least to the extent of designing the rockets for them, and he and Glushko had initially worked on creating a rocket, the RK-100, using the same storable propellant engines that OKB-52 was designing for Chelomei. If Glushko failed to unseat Korolev through Chelomei, then teaming with Yangel would give him another bite at the apple.

The RK-100 was a clustered rocket and Yangel was reportedly displeased with the particular design that his OKB-586 came up with. In any case the first comprehensive space policy statement by the Soviet government, made in 1960, ruled out any possibility of it going forward. At this point the focus shifted to another Yangel-Glushko collaboration. Once again a clustered approach was used. Working on the base of a booster “module” resembling the smaller rockets with which OKB-586 had had success, this new rocket consisted of four modules on the first stage, four on the second, and then a core booster being the third and final stage. This proposal was dubbed the R-56, and Yangel brought it and another design, the R-36, to the conference.

What he didn’t do was go head-to-head with Korolev and Chelomei. As initially conceived the R-56 would slot into the space between the 20 and 70 tonne launchers, lifting 30-40 tonnes or so, while the R-36 was much smaller than any of the other rockets mentioned, aiming for a sweet spot in automated satellite launches around 1-2 tonnes to LEO.

The meeting did not go well for Yangel’s crewed space ambitions as by April a turgidly named decree called “On the most important projects of intercontinental ballistic and global missiles and carriers of space objects” was issued. It instructed the bureaus involved to go for the N1 as a space vehicle, the UR500 (which would eventually become the Proton) as both a space vehicle and ICBM, and the R-36 solely as a missile—though it too would become a satellite launcher one day, the Tsyklon. However, in the few weeks of space between the original meeting and the decision, Glushko began lobbying the Strategic Rocket Forces and Dmitri Ustinov about not only the “4-4-1” module version but one with a “7-6-1” configuration that he said would lift 70 tonnes—obviously the direct challenge to the N1 and UR-700 that Yangel did not make himself. His efforts paid off. While not authorizing the R-56, OKB-586 were given permission to at least study the “4-4-1” configuration.

A year later, in 1963, the order for the R-56 was revised to specify that it should lift 40 tonnes to LEO. While Yangel’s bureau studied modular rockets that could handle this new requirement, for all intents and purposes they went back to the drawing board and settled on a completely different approach: a four-stage “monoblock” arrangement, to use the Russian term. This is the familiar, boosterless approach where each stage is singular and is merely put on top of another singular stage—the Saturn V being the most famous example of this. The first two stages of this R-56 did the heavy work of getting a payload into orbit, while the third was used to get it to geosynchronous orbit, if that was the intended destination. The optional fourth stage would be for the extra push needed on lunar and planetary missions.

The first stage would be outfitted with sixteen RD-253 engines, the same one to be used on the UR-500 (which had six) and which was ready to fly in July, 1965. This cluster of engines was actually wider than the intended 6.5-meter diameter of the first stage, so it was installed with a short skirt which enclosed 8.2 meters at the base. The second stage had one of the same engine, equipped with a modified bell tuned for operations in vacuum, as well as a small steering engine that produced 15% of that stage’s total thrust. The third stage tapered from 6.5 meters down to 4 meters in diameter, which was the gauge of the rocket up to the top of its 67.8 meter tall stack. Loaded up with Glushko and Yangel’s preferred N2O4 and UDMH, it would weigh in at 1421 tonnes. Compare this with the Saturn V’s 110.6 meters and 2970 tonnes, or the Energia’s 2270 tonnes (not counting Buran) and 58.765 meters. While not in their class, this new R-56 was heading in their direction. If it had been built to spec, it would have been able to lift a little over 46 tonnes to a 200-kilometer orbit when launched from Baikonur, or 12.6 tonnes to the Moon.

What happened to make it fail: All the meetings and decrees regarding the Soviet space program failed to straighten out the USSR’s lunar program. At the end of 1963, multiple boosters and spacecraft were still in play, and the Soviet leadership had still not even formally authorized an attempt by their country at the Moon landing. In an effort to finally settle things, in March 1964 Yangel proposed to the Military-Industrial Commission that Soviet space efforts be split three ways: OKB-1 would work on the lunar spacecraft, Chelomei’s group would get the automated probes to the Moon and the planets, and he would build the rockets.

The Commission turned him down, reasoning that too much work had been put into the N1 already for it to be replaced now. There was reportedly also some discomfort with the fact that the R-56 would need two launches (at minimum) for a Moon mission, which implied a docking in orbit at a time when the first Soviet docking was more than three years in the future.

Yangel then petitioned in succession both Dmitri Ustinov and Leonid Brezhnev (seven months from becoming leader of the USSR, but then in charge of the space program and a native of Dnepropetrovsk where OKB-586 was based). Neither would back him, and the R-56 was formally cancelled by another decree, “On speeding up work on the N1 complex”, that was made on June 19, 1964.

After the Moon program was finally approved in August of 1964, Yangel’s bureau was assigned to work on the terminal descent/ascent engine for the LK-1, the program’s lunar lander. It thus had the distinction of being one of the few pieces of the Soviet Moon landing craft to make it into space, as it was tested successfully in orbit three times in 1970-71.

What was necessary for it to succeed: The main problem with the R-56 program seems to have been Yangel’s willingness to let go, as opposed to the on-rushing bulls that were Korolev and Chelomei. If he’d been willing to push harder or been a little luckier during the 1962 meeting he might have won the day—Sergei Khrushchev specifically says that he thinks his father would have picked the R-56 at that time if Yangel had presented first rather than last.

On the other hand, even down to 2016 no-one has ever built a rocket with a payload capacity in the 40-50 tonne range (SpaceX’s under-development Falcon Heavy is closest, at 54.4 tonnes). Smaller is fine for almost all launches, and crewed missions absolutely require more if going to the Moon or beyond (barring the construction of a larger craft using multiple launches, which has also never been done). There’s good reason to believe that even if it had flown, the R-56 might have ended up not being good for much of anything.


“Heavy Launch Vehicles of the Yangel Design Bureau, Part 1”, Bart Hendrickx. Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, vol. 63, Supplement 2. 2010

“Heavy Launch Vehicles of the Yangel Design Bureau, Part 2”, Bart Hendrickx. Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, vol. 64 Supplement 1. 2011.

Nikita Khrushchev and the Creation of a Superpower, Sergei Khrushchev. Penn State University Press. 2001.

“Barmingrad”: The KBOM Lunar Base

KBOM Lunar Base, "Barmingrad"

A simple schematic of the KBOM lunar base, showing nine of the base module arranged in the proposed figure-8 pattern. Click for a larger view. Based on a blueprint diagram printed in Russia in Space.

What it was: An extensive late-60s/early 70s study of a Soviet lunar base to follow up on the N1-L3 lunar landing.

Details: American lunar base designs, and most Soviet/Russian ones, have generally been quite conservative. They usually consist of upgrades to lunar landers that allow astronauts to stay on the Moon for weeks or months, often with the aid of logistics landers that are more of the same. Detailed study of the construction of something more like a permanent settlement or an Antarctic base is actually quite rare. On the US side we have premature examples like Project Horizon, but in the USSR we had what was probably the most developed of the entire Space Race: Barmingrad.

OKB-1 was swamped with work by the mid-60s, a side effect of Sergei Korolev and Vasili Mishin’s instincts to hold on to as many crewed and automated programs in the aftermath of Vladimir Chelomei‘s grab for control in Khrushchev’s latter days. When in November 1967 the Soviet government launched the Galaktika program to study the exploration of the Moon, Mars, and Venus, they had already informally farmed off study of a lunar base to KBOM, headed by Vladimir Barmin. By March of 1968 this had crystallized into the Columb sub-study and KBOM really set to work developing what was informally dubbed “Barmingrad”.

The choice of KBOM was a bit surprising in that they were the bureau assigned to designing rocket launch facilities for the USSR—the moon base was their first non-terrestrial assignment. Even so, Barmin, his chief A. Chemodurov, and the people assigned to the work took the project with enthusiasm, probably extending far beyond what they were expected to design. Ultimately their work stopped only because the N1-based Moon program was cancelled in 1974.

What they came up with was an ambitious plan based around a multi-use module, which they studied in a variety of configurations before settling on one as the best. The module was 3.5 × 8.5 meters consisting of a rigid section and an expandable section. The expandable section would allow the module to be shipped as roughly a cube and then, once on the Moon, would double the module’s length. At each end as well as on one side of the rigid section was an adapter that  would join two modules together and serve as an access point between them, or allow the attachment of a specialized section, such as the airlock that was to serve as the base’s “front door” for EVA.

Nine of the basic modules would be shipped to the Moon and arranged as two rows of three, with the remaining three serving as “crossbeams”, altogether forming a figure eight. Excepting the aforementioned airlock, this section of the base would be surrounded by berms of regolith and covered with a layer of the same to a depth of 40 centimeters (16 inches), all in the name of radiation protection.

The base was to house 12 cosmonauts, with connections to X-ray and optical telescopes for scientific study, a power source (either a nuclear fission reactor or solar panels), three radiators to dump the base’s waste heat, a unit for cracking oxygen from lunar regolith, and a deep drilling rig. The cosmonauts could get around by walking or, if they needed construction equipment or wanted to travel longer distances, using one of several rovers based around a Lunokhod-like six-wheel chassis. The base would be resupplied by landing craft carrying a logistics module which could be docked to the base, unloaded, and then discarded. By 1974, the base module had reached the mockup stage and KBOM were exploring the ergonomics of their work.

That said, “Barmingrad” took on a life of its own, and KBOM carried on expanding their base design well in to the far future, ultimately using it as the core of a full-fledged Lunar colony with a population of 200, the radical increase of necessary living volume being accommodated by inflatable domes.

What happened to make it fail: When Mishin was replaced as head of TsKBEM (previously OKB-1) in May 1974, Valentin Glushko swept away all of the N1-L3 program in favor of his own ideas. This included a moonbase of his own, LEK, and so Barmingrad was cancelled as part of the coup.

What was necessary for it to succeed: Glushko in turn had his moonbase cancelled along with much of his proposed program about 18 months later, as the Soviet space effort pivoted towards Energia/Buran and space stations. If he’d not cleared the board when taking over from Mishin, that was an 18-month window in which to produce some success with the N1 that might have convinced the Soviet leadership to carry on—and there’s some reason to believe that the success would have come in that timeframe, even if a change in heart is more dubious. At the end of that line was the KBOM moonbase.


Zak, Anatoly. “Going to the Moon…to stay”, Russia in Space: The Past Explained, the Future Explored. Apogee Prime, 2013.

MASS: The Manned Anti-Satellite System


MASS schematic as shown in Transactions of the Eighth Symposium on Ballistic Missile and Space Technology (Vol. II). The launch vehicle was to be a Titan III, while the command module was based on research into lenticular missiles for the B-70 bomber. Public domain image via the USAF.

What it was: A conceptual design for a manned satellite interceptor/killer, floated by General Dynamics in 1963.

Details: The B-70 bomber was conceived to fly high enough and fast enough that it could out-run any possible intercepting aircraft, but before the program was well underway it became clear that surface-to-air missiles posed a problem, and that the USSR was good at building them. In December 1959 the USAF decided to build only one prototype (two were eventually built) for experimental purposes and that was that for the B-70.

There was a short interval before cancellation where the USAF explored putting anti-missile missiles on board the B-70, under the unusual code name of Pye Wacket (probably taken from Kim Novak’s feline familiar in the 1958 supernatural comedy Bell, Book, and Candle). The B-70 flew at such great heights and speeds that making a conventionally shaped missile that could attack on any vector away from the craft proved to be problematic. The Pomona Division of General Dynamics assigned to the project instead settled on a lens shape for the body of the missile, which would make it more maneuverable than the conventional “long-and-thin” approach.

When the B-70 was cancelled so was the missile project, but here the story of the MASS begins. Lenticular shapes were one of the three early contenders for manned spacecraft in the early American space program (along with ballistic capsules and winged re-entry vehicles) and Pomona Division got the idea to scale up the Pye Wacket body into something an astronaut could ride. This was written up and proposed to the USAF in March of 1961.

There’s not a lot of public information about Pye Wacket, given that it was developed as a defense for a cutting edge nuclear bomber, and the larger manned, version was classified too: it seems to have been a dark horse running for the role proposed for the X-20. Much of what we know about the craft comes from a single unclassified paper called “Manned Anti-Satellite System” (MASS), published in October 1963, presumably because it had been definitively ruled out by then. The X-20 itself was cancelled outright in December of the same year.

What General Dynamics proposed was a boost-glide craft, perched atop a Titan IIIC for the climb to orbit. It consisted of a 16-foot in diameter (4.9 metres), 8500-pound (3855 kilograms) lens-shaped command module, which seated three, and a 6200-pound (2812 kilograms) mission module, the latter of which would store a little over 7 US tons (6500 kilograms) of propellant—N2O4 paired with 50/50 hydrazine and UDMH.

The most interesting part of the mission module was its “inspector/killer” modules, four of which studded the sides of the orbiting vehicle. These were protected during launch by “wind shields” or, in modern parlance, payload fairings. Once in orbit the fairings would be dropped and the craft as a whole maneuvered into proximity of a target Soviet satellite. At a standoff distance of 50 miles (80 kilometers), the crew would order one of the inspector/killers to detach and then it would close with the target using its two restartable engines.

Each inspector/killer would be 47″ x 38″ x 38″ (about 1.1 cubic meters) when folded up, but once detached it would unfold a two-foot antenna so that it could send a video signal back to the command module, as well powering up a tracking radar with two antennas (one to lock on the target and one to lock on the command module), a TV camera, a flood lamp (in case the target was in the Earth’s shadow) and an IR detector.


An I/K closes in for a an attack on its target, while the manned section of the MASS lurks at a safe distance. Public domain image from Transactions of the Eighth Symposium on Ballistic Missile and Space Technology (Vol. II).

After inspecting the target, the crew of the MASS then had the option of detonating the shaped charge aboard the inspector/killer so as to destroy the target. As well as its two rocket engines, the I/K was outfitted with six attitude control motors, and using all of these it could even chase after a target that was designed to evade an attack; the I/K’s main motors could push it at 12g if needed.

With up to four satellites destroyed, and potentially more inspected depending on how the targets’ orbits were arrayed, the command module would disengage from the mission module and return to Earth. Its lenticular shape allowed for a very high angle of attack (60 to 75º) to bring its ablative heat shield into play while still giving it a good lift-to-drag ration (∼2 as compared to the 1.0 of the Shuttle Orbiter). Once it was down to transonic velocity it would deploy two horizontal stabilizers/small wings, which were necessary due to the craft’s instability at these speeds as well; they also improved the command module’s L/D ratio considerably.

What happened to make it fail: The MASS is a perfect storm of ideas that seemed promising in 1960 but that turned out to be dead-ends. Lenticular craft have never promised enough advantages to be built, the proposed customer—the USAF—never did get its own manned space program, and its proposed mission to intercept, inspect, and potentially destroy satellites has never been worthwhile in practice. In the X-20, it was also up against a strong competitor that had already got underway when MASS was proposed.

What was necessary for it to succeed: It’s awfully hard to get this one to fly. Perhaps if Eisenhower hadn’t been so insistent on giving space to a civilian agency, and if the USAF had been able to fend off the Army to gain it for themselves (far from a foregone conclusion even in the absence of NASA), MASS might have moved further. Even under those circumstances we would have been much likelier to see something like the X-20 or the Manned Orbiting Laboratory rather than the MASS.

When it comes down to it, this proposal placed bets on too many things that, in retrospect, never worked out. It’s interesting as a concrete example of how much we didn’t know in the early 1960s but, with the exception of the Project Horizon Lunar Base, it’s the least likely of all the post-Sputnik projects we’ve examined.

On the other hand…for those of you who (like the author) enjoy stories about conspiracy theories, black projects, UFOs, and the like without actually giving them any credence, I’ll direct you to a strange Pye Wacket-related article published in Popular Mechanics’ November 2000 issue. It makes the case that the MASS wasn’t cancelled but instead went black and turned into a vehicle called the LRV. Fair warning, though: the words “Roswell”, “Nazi”, and “flying saucer” are used in all seriousness.


“Manned Anti-Satelllite System”, E.E. Honeywell; Transactions of the Eighth Symposium on Ballistic Missile and Space Technology (Vol. II); Defense Documentation Center, Alexandria, Virginia; 1963.

“Pye Wacket”, Mark Wade,

TMK-1/MAVR: Red Planet

MAVR sketch schematic

Soviet-era schematic of MAVR, provenance and copyright status unknown. Please contact the author if you know of its source. 2 is the greenhouse, 3 is the drop probe for Mars, 9 the probe for Venus, 10 the telescope, and 11 the living quarters.

What it was: Two separate, competing Mars flyby/lander missions (with the same name) from OKB-1, synthesized into a Mars/Venus flyby mission that was the original purpose of the N1.

Details: Wernher von Braun was famously focused on Mars for much of his life, so it’s no surprise that there were two serious proposals to send American astronauts to our next neighbour out during his heyday at NASA. Less well-known is that Sergei Korolev was likewise enamoured of a Mars mission. When the N1 rocket was first floated in 1956, it was quite specifically intended as a launcher for Korolev’s early partner Mikhail Tikhonravov’s proposal of the MPK (марсианского пилотируемого комплекса, “Mars Piloted Complex”). The MPK spacecraft was wildly ambitious—a 1630 tonne ship requiring 20 to 25 N1 launches!—and never even got to the point of sketch plans.

The basic reason for the MPK’s enormous mass was that it was both a landing mission and relied on chemical propulsion. That implied two possible routes out of the dilemma, and in the wake of Korolev and OKB-1’s success with Sputnik, work got underway on studying both under the umbrella name of TMK (Тяжелый Межпланетный Корабль, “Heavy Interplanetary Spacecraft”). One group headed by Konstantin Feoktistov—later famous as a member of the first multi-person crew aboard Voskhod-1—studied an ion-propulsion driven landing mission, while Gleb Maksimov spearheaded a conventionally propelled flyby craft.

Feoktitsov’s TMK settled on a nuclear reactor to power a “slow but steady wins the race” approach that would spiral up, unmanned, through the Van Allen radiation belts. A conventionally launched mission would sprint through the belts and catch up, depositing cosmonauts aboard this spindly-looking ion drive-driven craft for the long journey to Mars. This arrangement initiated one “look” for Soviet and Russian long-term manned missions since then: the dangerous reactor, its engine, and the necessary cooling vanes were all arrayed along a long boom that kept them away from the fragile men aboard.

Maximov’s TMK was far more conservative from a modern perspective, and actually somewhat resembles both the MVF and Skylab. This was the option selected for moving forward. By the end of 1961 the basic parameters of the craft were settled and the mission tentatively aimed at leaving Earth on June 8, 1971 and returning on July 10, 1974—by far the longest manned mission seriously considered of which the author is aware, topping even the Triple Flyby variant of NASA’s MVF.

During coast and flyby it would have been 12 meters in length and weighed 35 tonnes—prior to Mars injection this would have been 75 tonnes including propellant, hence accounting for the lifting capability of a single N1. There would have been 50 cubic meters of space inside, split evenly between habitation and work space. A visual-light telescope for astronomical observations was attached to the side, a communications antenna to the fore, and a spread of solar panels girdled it. During coast the craft would have rotated end-over-end for a bit of artificial gravity, and during flyby there was an unmanned probe to drop off for landing. At the end of the mission a return capsule, nestled in the aft end to that point, would bring the cosmonauts back to the ground.

Both life support and food would have been dependent upon a greenhouse based on Chlorella chlorophyte algae, which was calculated to give better value for mass than chemical oxygen plants: 27 kilograms of oxygen per day per kilogram of algae. The food it made would have been supplemented partly by prepared stores. Getting this plant (no pun intended) up and running was considered the key breakthrough needed for the craft, and considerable work was done through the 1960s. Three men were sealed into a close-looped simulator ecosystem based on it in 1967.

A mockup of the MAVR (MArs-VeneRa) itself—as TMK-1 was renamed once a Mars/Venus flyby path was found that was shorter than the 1000-day mission mentioned above—was begun in 1964 but foundered due to zero funding.

What happened to make it fail: MAVR was ready to roll as exactly the wrong time. Khrushchev had grown disenchanted with Korolev’s follow-up to the R-7 missile, the R-9, and instead was coming to favour the line of storable-propellant missiles developed by Mikhail Yangel. Vladimir Chelomei jumped on this and proposed his own set of manned spacecraft, one of which was for interplanetary voyages, after poaching engine designer Valentin Glushko from Korolev to build his own rockets.

By the time Korolev regained control of the Soviet manned space program he and his nation’s leaders had decided that the gauntlet thrown down by Kennedy for a race to the Moon was serious, and moreover that they should pick it up. The N1 was “stretched” to become a Moon rocket, the Mars mission was put off into the indefinite future, and the rest is history.

What was necessary for it to succeed: Getting people to Mars has turned out to be far harder than expected, so the breezy optimism that had the MAVR at Mars by the mid-1970s is hard to sustain. A lot of things went against it: the early-60s infighting in the Soviet space program, disinterest in space on the part of the Soviet military, Korolev’s egotistic insistence on going head-to-head with Apollo, the shift in the USSR’s manned spaceflight focus to shuttle and space station during the 70s…the list goes on.

One thing that would have cleaned up a lot of them, or at least softened their impact, was the transfer of the space program away from the Soviet military, in particular the GRAU which funded the rockets. They wanted missiles not launch vehicles, and so logically if Khrushchev has been serious about wanting a space program he would have accepted a proposal from Korolev made post-Sputnik that OKB-1 be reorganized as a civilian organization like NASA. It didn’t happen.

One more note: long-time readers with good memories might have noted that the initial dates selected for the mission (though it was extraordinarily unlikely that the Soviets could have hit their targets) were roughly similar to those mentioned in our discussion of the NASA Mars-Venus Flyby. As mentioned in that post, there was a tremendous solar flare in 1972 that, by NASA’s estimate, would have hit anyone outside of the Earth’s protective magnetosphere with roughly 4 grays of radiation, with death resulting in the next few weeks.

A fine image of what MAVR might have looked like as it passed Mars can be seen on the Deviantart page of Polish artist Maciej Rebisz.