The Reusable Nuclear Shuttle: To the Moon, Again and Again (Integrated Program Plan, Part II)

Sample Nuclear Shuttle configurations

A 1971 slide prepared by Marshall Space Flight Center showing an unloaded Nuclear Shuttle (top) and two configurations with a various components docked to its forward end (middle and bottom). Public domain image by NASA via Wikimedia Commons. Click for a larger view.

What it was: The solution NASA envisioned to the difficulty of getting large payloads to anywhere much beyond Earth with mere chemical rockets. Something like a dozen of them would serve as the brute force “trucks” of the American space program beyond Low Earth Orbit.

Details: We’ve already discussed some aspects of the Integrated Program Plan, NASA’s ambitious 1969 proposal to follow up the Apollo Moon landings with a new goal and new technology. The new goal was a manned Mars Mission, but the new technology had two particular pieces that would do the grunt work of building a space station and a Moon base as intermediate steps to the red planet: a reusable orbiting space plane (not yet dubbed the “Space Shuttle”) and the Reusable Nuclear Shuttle (RNS), many of which would have been built. It would have been the space plane’s role to get astronauts and cargo into low Earth orbit, while the RNS would have been used for the “high frontier”, so to speak. If something was going to go higher a few hundred kilometers, it would be offloaded from the spaceplane to an RNS, and then sent on its way—potentially to the Moon, or even beyond.

The RNS was suited for this task and similarly restricted from landing on Earth for one reason: their engines were given oomph by a nuclear reactor, but approaching one too closely at the wrong angle would expose a person to a fatal dose of radiation.

Start with the Nuclear Shuttle’s advantages. A variety of factors affect the power of a rocket, but the dominant number is the specific impulse (ISP) of the propellants it uses (to be precise, it’s a proportional measure of how much propellant the rocket has to use to add or subtract a given amount of velocity, though confusingly its unit is the second). With variations due to several other factors, rocket engines that use UDMH and N2O4 produce a specific impulse in the neighbourhood of 280 seconds, while LOX/LH2 is much more efficient at around 450 seconds (the low density of liquid hydrogen hamstrings it, though, so it’s often only used in upper stages where the rocket is already well underway and moving fast).

Unfortunately, all chemical fuels with a better ISP than that are either fantastically explosive, corrosive, toxic, or some hellacious combination of all three of those characteristics. Even at that, the best known ISP ever obtained (with a tripropellant of lithium, hydrogen, and fluorine) is 542 seconds.

Ultimately this because chemical propellants depend on chemical bonds, and there’s only so much energy you can contain in those. Quite early on rocket engineers realized that a good way to higher ISP was to use a different source of energy. In the absence of real exotics like nuclear fusion and matter/antimatter reactions, nuclear fission was the way to go. Hydrogen heated by a nuclear reactor can have an arbitrarily high ISP; it’s just a matter of how much heat one can get away with before the physical components of the engine are melted away.

When John F. Kennedy made his famous 1961 speech that started the race to the Moon he made a largely-forgotten reference to the Rover nuclear rocket, a contemporary project that was working on a preliminary nuclear-fission powered rocket. This in turn led to successively more advanced nuclear engines with the colourful names KIWI, Phoebus, and Peewee-1. By the end of 1969, NASA had a design for a functional nuclear rocket engine, the NERVA-2.

NERVA-2 would have had a specific impulse of 825 seconds in vacuum, and be able to burn for 20 minutes and produce 399.5 kilonewtons of thrust. Compare this to the J-2, NASA’s comparable workhorse engine (used on the second stage of the Saturn V, among others): it produced 486.2 kN of thrust, but was far less efficient at just 421 seconds of ISP. Accordingly, even though the NERVA-2 was far larger and heavier than the J-2 (having an entire nuclear reactor on board does that), the savings on propellant mass and the mass of the tanks needed to store it would make any spacecraft using one smaller than the same spacecraft based around a J-2.

Getting to the Moon is considerably more difficult than getting to orbit—you need to add another 3 to 4 kilometers per second to your orbital speed—and so the radically reduced fuel consumption of a NERVA-2 engine was very useful. Enter the Reusable Nuclear Shuttle. This was a conceptually simple ship: a single large fuel tank containing LH2 would have a NERVA-2 attached to one end, while the other had a docking adapter that could connect up to a variety of payload containers. Attach your payload, light the engine, and the RNS would push the payload into high orbit, to the Moon, or even beyond. Ideally you’d also put it on a trajectory which would let it return to Earth orbit, as the NERVA-2 was designed for ten round trips before it would be unsafe to light up again.

The disadvantage of the RNS lay in the radiation environment it produced. The rocket’s exhaust was only marginally radioactive and so arguably acceptable to allow on a launchpad, but in the event of a containment breach on the ground or, worse, in the air the engine would have sprayed uranium all over the environment. Even in the heady days of the late 1960s this was considered too risky, so the plan was to launch an RNS on top of a Saturn rocket using conventional fuels—if the Saturn blew up, the reactors were sufficiently ruggedized that they could survive the accident intact and fall into the ocean safely (by 1960s standards anyway).

What was more problematic was the NERVA-2 in orbit. Once the reactor was up and running it needed a great deal of shielding to protect approaching astronauts. As shielding was heavy, the RNS wasn’t going to have much of it. Instead the approach chosen was the have a “shadow shield”, where the propellant tank and any propellant aboard would provide most of the shielding. This meant that humans getting close to an RNS had to approach it from the front at a fairly shallow angle, using the bulk of the RNS to cover them from the reactor. If they approached from the sides or, God forbid, the aft where the engine was located they were assured of radiation sickness or death. Even on top of the RNS, a crew member would get about the recommended annual maximum radiation dose each time the engine fired.

Nevertheless, the advantages of the RNS outweighed the disadvantages in NASA’s collective mind, and the Integrated Program Plan called for it to be the workhorse of the space program beyond Earth orbit. Each would be used up to ten times (with refueling gingerly taking place after each use), after which it would be discarded in a high orbit due to its extreme residual radioactivity. With it, crews and payloads could be sent to the Moon and returned, and ultimately the American manned Mars mission craft envisioned for the early eighties would be perched on top of three of them.

What happened to make it fail: As with much of the IPP, the nuclear shuttle never got built because of a combination of disinterest from the Nixon administration and the falling budgets that that caused. Of all its parts, only the re-usable Space Shuttle and its rocket stack made it off the ground.

The RNS has its own particular story embedded in this larger tale, though. For many years the nuclear rocket engine program had been championed by New Mexico Senator Clinton P. Anderson, as much of the work on NERVA had been done at Los Alamos. Just as NERVA-2 was ready to become operational he became seriously ill and unable to press his case as much as he had in the past. The White House convinced Congress to pull the plug on the nuclear rocket on the grounds that it would be the basis of a manned mission to Mars, a goal about which Congress was quite negative at the time. The plan was that the freed-up funds could be used for the more-practical Boeing 2707, a Mach 2.7 supersonic commercial passenger plane similar to the Concorde or the Soviet Tu-144. Ironically, Anderson had enough clout remaining in the Senate to apparently engineer a 51-46 vote against moving ahead with that project; the House of Representatives soon followed. While the exact maneuvering involved has never been documented, the vote was widely considered retaliation for the cancellation of NERVA.

Regardless, with its funding quickly dwindling despite Congressional efforts to keep it going, NERVA was cancelled on January 5, 1973, and the Reusable Nuclear Shuttle was dead.

What was necessary for it to succeed: Like much of the Integrated Program Plan, the RNS was doomed by the political currents in Washington, within NASA, and in the general public. When it came down to picking something to move forward on NASA picked the Space Shuttle and the hope that one day they would be able to move on to a space station from there. The RNS ranked third (with the Moon base and Mars landing fourth and fifth) on their priority list, and they even tried very hard to claim that without the Space Shuttle they would not be able to get any nuclear shuttles into space. This was not actually true as the initial plan to use NERVA involved an upgraded Saturn rocket, but it was a measure of NASA’s determination to do anything to get the Space Shuttle built.

Ultimately that’s the main route to getting the RNS into the sky. NASA engaged in a great deal of internal debate from 1968 to 1970 over whether to continue with ballistic capsules or move on to a reusable, winged orbiter. Related to this was the debate over whether or not to focus on Earth orbit as a testing ground or push hard into the rest of the solar system. If both debates had gone the other way, a nuclear engine would have been very attractive to planetary mission planners and the money would have been there to continue with NERVA and the RNS–despite Congress’ objections to Mars missions, the presidential Office of Management and Budget had considerable discretion to ignore how it was told to allocate the money it received until a post-Nixon backlash in 1975.

Instead the arguments settled around a winged orbiter and sticking close into Earth unless the mission was unmanned, and we got the space program that we did from 1975 to the first decade of the 21st century. Nuclear rockets were revived for a short while during the days of the Strategic Defense Initiative’s Project Timberwind, but again it never came to anything.

Even if the RNS got built, there’s the possibility that it would have been much restricted in use or even cancelled outright no matter what successes it scored. The Three Mile Island accident in 1979 soured the American public on nuclear power in general, and after the Challenger explosion in 1986 NASA became very leery about dangerous payloads–for example, deciding against the planned Centaur-B booster that was to be orbited aboard STS-61-G later in the same year for the purposes of getting the Galileo probe to Jupiter. While both were specific incidents, they were each the culmination of long-term cultural trends that likely would have choked off the use of the RNS no later than the mid-1980s, and possibly earlier if one of them was involved in an accident.

Gemini Lunar Flyby: Always the Bridesmaid

gemini-agena-lunar-orbital-craft

The most ambitious of three different proposals to fly a Gemini by the Moon, all made during the Gemini’s short heyday of 1964-66. This version of the capsule would have been mounted on an Agena-D rocket stage that could brake it into Lunar orbit and then send it back to Earth. The Gemini/Agena in turn would have been mounted on a Centaur for the initial trip from Earth orbit to the Moon. Image from Gemini Applications for Lunar Reconnaissance. Click for larger view.

What it was: A series of 1964-65 proposals to use the Gemini capsule as the core of a manned Lunar flyby mission, or even a Lunar orbiter.

Details: NASA was committed to the Apollo spacecraft for journeys to the Moon, and had begun development on it before work began on the Gemini. At first Gemini had been intended solely to build on the Mercury program (it was originally named “Mercury Mark II”), as a way of giving astronauts practice in the orbital docking and spacewalking techniques they’d need for the Apollo missions. Jim Chamberlin did try to sneak two circumlunar flights into the original Gemini plan of August 1961, but they were gone in a week; he’d try again with a Gemini Lunar lander in 1962, and still get nowhere. In essence the program was just supposed to fill the relatively short time between the last Mercury flight on May 15, 1963 and the flight of the first, unmanned Apollo sometime in 1966.

But then the Gemini proved itself to be a capable little spacecraft. From March 1965 to November 1966 it was flown on twelve missions with only one partial failure, Gemini 8. Both McDonnell Aircraft (which made the Gemini capsule) and Martin Marietta (which made the Gemini launcher, the Titan II GLV) had been shut out of Apollo and so they set about making the plausible argument for a Gemini Lunar flyby again rather than have NASA trust entirely to the as-yet untried Apollo spacecraft.

And so it was that one proposal from McDonnell dropped on to NASA desks in April 1964, shortly after the first unmanned Gemini flight. Another came in from Martin Marietta in July 1965—right in the middle of Gemini’s successful run. Both were based on the premise that the Moon landing was going to happen with Apollo no matter what they said, but that a prior Lunar flyby was still an open question.

gemini-flyby-reconnaissance

The alignment for the Earth, Sun, and Moon for the flyby mission that would give maximum coverage of the Lunar far side while also allowing photography of the proposed Apollo landing on the Sea of Tranquility. Image from Gemini Applications for Lunar Reconnaissance. Click for larger view.

McDonnell’s proposal was actually three wrapped up into one, unified by the goal of performing Lunar reconnaissance for the Apollo landings. The least ambitious of these was a single-flyby spacecraft made up of a modified Gemini capsule, the base of which was mated to a Centaur rocket stage. By not loading the Centaur entirely with propellants this arrangement was just light enough that a Saturn IB could lift it into Earth orbit while still providing enough propulsion to send it on a free-return trajectory around the Moon. There it could either focus on photographing the Sea of Tranquility while also photo-mapping the Lunar far-side to an extent, or alternatively it could look at those two targets with the opposite priority. In return for getting only one pass at the Moon and having to cut down on the amount of fuel the craft carried, this proposal had the advantage of being a single-launch, no-rendezvous mission.

Next, McDonnell proposed two missions that used two launches instead, but with the compensating advantage of putting the craft into Lunar orbit so that much more mapping was possible. The first put the Gemini—with a modified service module—base down onto an Agena-D rocket stage, a combination that could be launched into low Earth orbit together by a Saturn IB. A second Saturn IB would be used to send a Centaur rocket into orbit, and then the Gemini/Agena would dock nose-first into it. The Centaur would fire and send the Gemini/Agena into a translunar trajectory, then separate once its propellant was spent.

68 hours later the Agena would fire and bring the ship into a 150 × 20 kilometer Lunar orbit, with the perilune arranged over the proposed Apollo landing site so that it could take extremely high quality photographs of the area. After 24 hours of orbiting the Moon and shooting pictures, the astronauts would fire the Agena again to head back to Earth. There the Gemini would separate from the spent rocket stage and splashdown, returning the crew home just shy of a week after they left.

The second of McDonnell’s orbital proposals was quite similar, the major difference being that instead of using an Agena-D as the Lunar orbital and return stage this version had a massively altered service module carrying its own engines. There’d be extra development time and money needed for this version of the mission, but in return it saved almost 700 kilograms in launch weight to supplement the thin margin for error involved in launching the Gemini/Agena combination aboard a Saturn IB.

A bit more than a year later Martin Marietta moved in with their proposal. As the manufacturer of the Gemini’s launch vehicle, their idea didn’t have anything to do with a Saturn rocket. This was a real problem as Martin Marietta launchers could at most, assuming a Titan IIIC with its strap-on boosters, lift some 13,100 kilograms into orbit (contrast that with the Saturn IB’s 21,000kg). Accordingly there were no Lunar orbiters here, and even the Lunar flyby required two launches. Of course from Martin Marietta’s standpoint this was not a problem: they were more than willing to sell NASA two Titans if that was what it took.

In fact they even managed to work in a third. Not only would the Gemini launch by itself on a Titan II GLV and the Lunar injection stage on a Titan IIIC, the injection stage itself was not an Agena or a Centaur, but rather another stripped-down Titan III upper Transtage (its specific name, confusingly enough, since it’s just one example of a trans-stage used throughout the years) mated to an Agena docking adapter.

gemini-titan

The Gemini docked to the Titan Transtage that would push it into a flyby orbit. Note how the astronauts had their backs to the direction of travel; in contrast to the Lunar orbiter shown above, the Gemini flyby missions pushed the capsule backwards to its destination. Image from Rendezvous Concept for Circumlunar Flyby in 1967, Click for a larger view.

Despite the different equipment, this meant that the mission they proposed was essentially a recapitulation of Jim Chamberlin’s 1961 proposal—one presumes that they were hoping that the at-the-time recent success of the Gemini and the Titan II GLV would override James Webb’s veto. If it did and the mission flew, the idea was to launch the Transtage and the Gemini within a few minutes of one another (or, if absolutely necessary, launch the Gemini after the trans-stage had made most of one orbit and was coming back over Cape Canaveral). After maneuvering their capsule into the vicinity of the Transtage the astronauts would dock their Gemini nose-first to it and then use it to fire them into a free return orbit around the Moon.

Perhaps because they’d heard nothing encouraging back from NASA in the year since they’d made their own proposals, McDonnell backed this mission too; the pair even managed to rope in Pete Conrad, who would soon fly on Gemini 5, to advocate for them in a meeting with NASA’s top people on June 24, 1965. Like the earlier McDonnell proposals, Martin Marietta aimed to perform the Lunar flyby sometime in 1967, in April to be precise, and do it for US$350 million.

What happened to make it fail: McDonnell’s proposals likely went nowhere because they backed the wrong horse when they pitched them as Lunar reconnaissance missions. NASA already had plans for site mapping using the Lunar Orbiters and even a back-up plan using Apollo, the LM&SS. The latter was actually handled in part by Lockheed, and so it’s unclear why they thought NASA needed a back-up for the back-up.

Martin Marietta’s attempt failed for a more fundamental reason. They quite astutely positioned theirs as a spectacular, primarily for the purpose of beating the Soviet Union to a Lunar flyby. This was bound to pique some interest because at the time NASA’s attitude was that they were going to lose that particular race; the Moon landing had been specifically selected in 1961 as the first major one that the US could definitely take from the Russians. In the actual event it turned out that the Zond program was in trouble and Apollo 8 would take this particular laurel, but hindsight is 20/20.

As a result, NASA was supremely focused on Apollo and the Moon landing. In stark contrast to the shambolic Soviet program in the mid-60s, they picked their goal and their program and they stuck to it. While there was some late sentiment for an early flyby with a Gemini, NASA’s upper management felt it would be a distraction. There was only so much money and, more importantly, so much engineering talent in the organization, and looking away from the Moon landing to anything else was just going to delay their final goal. They were willing to give up a Lunar flyby if it got them the manned Moon landing instead. History, in both the American success with Apollo and Soviet failure with their equivalent of the Gemini Lunar Flyby, Zond, suggests that they were right.

What was necessary for it to succeed: Any of these missions could have flown if it had been only a matter of technical specs.  Their margins for error were slim, and there was a good chance that they would have lost a crew, but all four possibilities were well within NASA’s capabilities.

Some organizational impulse toward flying them was all that was really necessary. Ultimately it comes down to the fact that NASA had conceded the Lunar flyby race to the Russians already, and felt no need to go all out for one. If they beat the Soviets with an Apollo flyby, so much the better, but they weren’t going to deviate from that plan. It likely would have taken considerable external political pressure to cause a deviation—how you generate this is up to you. While Pete Conrad was able to fire a little interest for the Gemini flyby in Congress in the real world, James Webb was able to tamp it back down again.

Conrad did get one little victory out of his advocacy for a Lunar flyby. When he flew his second Gemini mission, Gemini 11 in September 1966, his goal was to dock with an Agena—as was usual in Gemini rendezvous tests. Conrad was, however, given permission to use the arrangement to boost himself and Richard Gordon to an apogee of 1369 kilometers. It was a miniature version of the mission he had wanted to fly a year previous, and set the record for a human being going furthest from the Earth. Apart from the Apollo missions to the Moon that followed, it still holds that record.

Fuji: Bringing the Mountain to the Masses

fuji-separation

Fuji’s Standard System configuration, showing its three components separating for re-entry. The crew would return in the saucer-shaped Core Module, centre, while the propulsion and habitation modules would be allowed to burn up. The Core Module could also be flown solo, in Fuji’s Minimum System. Based on an image from NASDA/JAXA. Click for a larger view.

What it was: A Japanese proposal to develop a manned space capsule as part of an effort to produce an “open architecture” for space travel, announced to the public in September of 2001. Intended to be launched on a Japanese H-IIA rocket, or an Ariane, or a Russian rocket (and even conceivably an American one), it would start with a very wide and flat ballistic capsule suitable for short LEO missions. It would soon be extended with a habitation module and a propulsion module for longer missions and missions to higher orbits.

Details: In 2003 China became the third country to launch a person into space entirely on its own accord. The surprising thing is that it took so long for the Astronaut Club to grow from two to three. The first two countries to qualify did so over a period of a few weeks in the spring of 1961, and then it was another 42 years before they had any company.

By the late 1980s both the European Community and Japan had active space programs and, at first blush, the economic heft to match the USA in 1961—but both failed to take advantage of it. The rise and fall of the European spaceplane Hermes is for another time, as is the strikingly similar Japanese HOPE, but in the particular case of Japan they also made an attempt at a simpler manned spacecraft. While it came along sufficiently late in the day that they wouldn’t have beaten Yang Liwei into orbit, Japan could have had a way into space during the second set of Shuttle-disaster doldrums to hit the United States, and be in an interesting position to get their own astronauts to the ISS (one module of which is Japanese) afterwards.

The Fuji spacecraft was proposed in a way that tried to address the main reason why Europe and Japan didn’t come up with their own manned space programs: there’s as yet no good economic reason, and very few scientific reasons, for people in low Earth orbit. Without the additional boost to nationalist pride that the 1960s USSR, 1960s USA, and 2000s China felt to be valuable, a manned space program in the late 20th century and early 21st produces poor returns that bring out the budgetary knives when a country’s economy hits some bumps. It’s no coincidence that the ESA and Japan’s best efforts towards manned spacecraft took place in the salad days of the late 80s and early 90s.

fuji-cm

The extremely wide command module of the Fuji spacecraft. Click for a larger view. Image copyright NASDA/JAXA.

The Minimum System was the simplest form of Fuji. It was a ballistic capsule intended for three, the Core Module (CM), four meters in diameter and only about a meter and a half tall—in other words a very flat shape that resembled an Apollo Command Module that had somehow got itself run over by a steamroller. It’s also reminiscent of the lenticular (read: saucer-shaped) re-entry vehicles considered in the early days of American spaceflight.

The strange shape was driven by one of Fuji’s design goals. The proposal specifically describes the original astronauts and cosmonauts of the 1960s as “supermen” because of their ability to withstand and even work while experiencing high-g forces. Fuji’s designers considered this unacceptable as they wanted to defray the cost of running the system by allowing for commercial passengers of average health. By re-entering at a high angle of attack the Core Module could generate lift and keep the stress on its crew down to 4 gravities.

The Fuji proposal was fairly general, as a full design was to wait until funding was received from the Japanese government, so the mass of the capsule is uncertain. However, the proposal depicts the cheapest possible Fuji mission having an Economy version of the CM share its launcher with a similarly sized commercial satellite from a paying customer, and the launcher is clearly a two-strap on-booster H-IIA, which means it could only lift 10 tonnes into LEO. If the capsule took half of this, it would have been comparable in size to the Russian Voskhod and about 25% smaller than a Soyuz. The former of these could accommodate three people only by sending them in a “shirtsleeve” environment and even the first few varieties of Soyuz couldn’t contain three people in spacesuits, so it’s likely that Fuji would have done the same—especially because the plan was to fly the Economy version with a crew of one and four commercial passengers.

The first manned Minimum System mission was to be launched by 2008, but the bare Core Module would have been restricted to no more than 24-hour missions in a 200 kilometer orbit. This isn’t very useful: if nothing else, the ISS orbits at about 400 kilometers up. As a result, once the Minimum System had been proven NASDA would have moved onto the Standard System. This would have sandwiched the CM between an Expansion Module above it and a Propulsion Module below it. In other words, while the CM may have vaguely resembled something from an American spacecraft, Fuji’s eventual arrangement was to be more like a Russian one.

The Propulsion Module would have packed fuel tanks and a rocket engine that together gave the ship 3,000 meters per second of delta-v. To put it another way, while the Standard Configuration couldn’t orbit the Moon it would have been able to do a lunar flyby in a free return orbit—which fact was also touted as helping keep the program economical by being a commercial draw. Little was said about the Expansion Module, other than it being more volume for the crew to inhabit outside of launch and re-entry; there is a quick mention of attaching robotic arms to it so that Fuji could be used to repair satellites or as a manned space station construction runabout.

The goal for the Standard System was to have it up and running within four years of the first successful Minimum System flight—in other words, 2012 if everything went right.

fuji-parafoil

Fuji’s Core Module returning its crew to Earth under a steerable parafoil rather than a parachute. Based on an image from NASDA/JAXA. Click for a larger view.

At the end of any mission only the Core Module would return. After reaching subsonic speeds, it would have then deployed a parafoil—an idea first considered by the US for the Gemini program but rejected for lack of time to develop it. This would have given the returning crew some ability to direct the last stages of their flight.

NASDA also added one more attempt to make Fuji pay for itself. Without much in the way of details (instead relying almost entirely on the analogy of the IBM PC architecture) they suggest making Fuji’s design as openly available as possible and encouraging the other space-faring nations to freely re-use what Japan developed. Ultimately the goal would be to turn space development into a single large market in which Japan could compete, rather than several isolated smaller ones in the US, Russia, Europe, and so on.

What happened to make it fail: Fuji was proposed just as Japan’s security in the region started becoming more tenuous. North Korea tried launching its first satellite in 1998, but many believed that it was not that at all but rather a cover story for the development of an ICBM. Similarly, negotiations to prevent North Korea from developing a nuclear weapon were going badly.

Add on to this the continuing economic growth of China (which allowed the more-than-doubling of their military budget between 1995 and 2000), and Japan would have been under some budget strain even in the best of circumstances. Yet IMF estimates say that recession and the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 saw the Japanese economy contract from a nominal GDP of US$5.33 trillion in 1995 to a low of US$3.91 trillion in 1998—and it did not exceed the 1995 figure in any other year prior to 2010.

Accordingly the Japanese government cut spending on science and reorganized their space program by merging NASDA with two other agencies—the National Aerospace Laboratory of Japan and the Institute for Space and Astronautical Science—on October 1, 2003 to form the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). While scientific use of space has continued under JAXA they have placed a new emphasis on developing an independent Earth observation capability, apparently at least in part so they can keep a closer watch on North Korea and China without having to rely on US intelligence.

Fuji never made it out the other end of this reorganization. In 2005 JAXA proposed a different spacecraft, one that is intended to be launched on the more capable H-IIB rocket. Whether anything comes of the new plan remains to be seen, however, as it’s a very unaggressive plan to send a man to the Moon by 2025.

What was necessary for it to succeed: This is a hard one, for all that it was a perfectly reasonable spacecraft for its time and place, as two of the three reasons for Japan failing to follow through on it were about as movable as Fuji’s namesake. Japan’s economic crisis had been slowly ripening for a decade or so, while China’s rise seems nearly inevitable in retrospect—at least it doesn’t seem right to speculate on, say, a new bout of Maoist reaction in that country simply to get a spaceship to fly.

The wild card here is North Korea. After the collapse of the Soviet Union they did try for a modest rapprochement with the United States, but it foundered on American distrust stemming from the People’s Republic having broken previous two-party agreements. While it’s hard to see Kim Jong-Il sticking to any agreement for good, one with the US that lasted through the early 2000s might have given Japan a sufficient feeling of security that they would think they should go ahead with Fuji despite the contraction of their economy. This is especially true if the agreement also brought a moderate thaw to Sino-Japanese relations, as well it might have.

Even so, it seems likely that NASDA would have felt a budget crunch anyway, and that Fuji would at the very least have happened several years later than initially planned.

The Martin 410: Apollo of Santa Ana

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A cutaway view of the Martin 410 as it would have been configured en route to the Moon (excepting the escape tower, at left, which would be ejected after launch). Note the lifting body shape of the crew compartment, and the stubby cylinder of the habitation module enclosed in the larger toroidal equipment and propulsion module. Image from Glenn L. Martin Company’s “Apollo Final Report: Configuration” delivered to NASA in 1961. Click for a larger view.

What it was: One of several formal proposals made to NASA in 1961 as part of the design competition for the Apollo spacecraft. It had certain similarities to the one that was actually built (as did all of the proposals, as they had to meet criteria set by NASA) but was primarily different in two ways. As Apollo was still pictured as a direct descent mission at the time, it didn’t use the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous technique that was used for the real missions, and the re-entry vehicle was a lifting body instead of a ballistic capsule.

Details: On October 9, 1960, fourteen different companies answered NASA RFP-302, which asked them for feasibility studies on advanced manned spacecraft for the upcoming Project Apollo. Among them were Lockheed, Boeing, General Electric, and Grumman, as well as the subject of this post: the Glenn L. Martin Company of Santa Ana, California.

Within two weeks the contest was down to three: GE, Convair, and Martin with what they called their Model 410. Up against the contractors was an internal design by NASA’s Langley Research Center, specifically their Space Task Group, which had designed the Mercury capsule. Time passed and with the agency buoyed by the first successful American manned spaceflight on May 5, 1961—Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7—May 17 saw the final proposals for all four on NASA desks and the process of evaluating and deciding between them underway.

Eight days later John F. Kennedy challenged Congress to achieve “the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth”, and things changed—the White House had had its interest piqued back in October when the study contracts were awarded and had been working behind the scenes with NASA. The Langley group rapidly metamorphosed into the much-larger Manned Spacecraft Center—now the Johnson Space Center—and by September started the move to land in Texas donated by Rice University (which is why Kennedy’s second famous space speech, the “We choose to go to the moon” one, was made there).

langley-apollo-design

The suggested layout of the Apollo spacecraft for the second phase of the competition. Note the considerable similarity to what actually got built. From Chariots for Apollo: A History of Manned Lunar Spacecraft. Click for a larger view.

Even before then, the Langley group had swung into action. Their chief engineer was Maxime Faget, an American of Belizean birth, had designed the Mercury capsule, and his head of engineering (Canadian Jim Chamberlin, formerly of Avro) was in the middle of designing the Gemini. Their job was to synthesize what the contractors had developed with their own design and use it to develop a new set of specifications—in actuality, a nearly complete design of its own—that could meet Kennedy’s challenge. While the three previous contractor proposals had been paid for by NASA to the tune of US$250,000 apiece (though all of them took a loss, spending in excess of $1 million apiece), the other contractors had been encouraged to carry on with their work on their own. This attitude now paid off: a new competition was begun for a final design, open to all groups who’d tried back in October not just the three previous winners. On July 28 twelve contractors (two had dropped out back during the first phase, Cornell and Republic Aviation) were asked to submit again based on the new prerequisites. Several of the contractors teamed up with each other, reducing the number of replies to five, but Martin once again went with the M-410 on their own.

Not counting the rocket adapter ring (which all the proposals had so they could mate to the upper stage of a Saturn), the M-410 was made up of three parts: a command module for use any time an engine was burning and for re-entry, a mission module in which the crew would live at other times, and a composite equipment and propulsion module.

The command module was the most interestingly divergent component compared to the Apollo spacecraft that actually got built. All three contractors evaluated ballistic, winged, and lifting body re-entry vehicles. The latter was a particular one NASA called an M-1, and Martin went above and beyond by evaluating a number of other shapes in all three categories before settling on a variation of the M-1. Their solution made the M-410’s re-entry moderately controllable, especially as it would have had four control flaps; Martin considered this a big improvement on Mercury or the Soviet Vostok. It would have been built out of aluminum alloy, and had a composite heat shield made out of ablative material and a superalloy (undecided at the time, but something like René 41 or an Inconel). The version of the M-410 submitted post-Kennedy’s speech was also unusual because of the four rectangular flaps that would deploy from its underside, which would expose solar panels to power the craft. During launch the command module had an emergency escape tower perched on top of it, though this would be jettisoned on reaching 90 kilometers in height.

The three crew would live for the majority of their mission in the mission module. This supplied a little over eleven cubic meters on top of roughly the same for the command module (contrast this with the 12.9 cubic meters of the combined Apollo Command Module and LM).

These two were then mated to the equipment and propulsion module. As well as the usual electronics for a Moon-bound manned spacecraft, it packed a single LR-115 engine (a design which later evolved into the R-10 and derivatives used for the Saturn I and the Centaur) and 4740 kilograms of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen.

Having launched in an unspecified way (NASA was still trying to decide if they were going to use multiple smaller rockets to establish a fuel depot in orbit, or go as they actually did with a larger rocket like the Saturn V), Martin suggested that the M-410 be sent on its way to the Moon using a lower stage attached to the rocket adapter ring. This stage would have contained roughly 13 tonnes of LH2 and LOX and been pushed by three LR-115s.

This was powerful enough to get it down to the Moon, because the entire thing was designed to land there. Exactly how this was to be accomplished remained to be seen, as NASA was then in the middle stages of its most historic argument: land directly via an Earth Orbit Rendezvous profile, or send a separable landing module and rendezvous above the Moon. Going in to the proposal period it was assumed that the former was likeliest, though the contractors were asked to consider what they would have to do if the latter won (as, of course, it did).

artificial-gravity-on-the-martin-410

One of the ideas studied, but explicitly rejected, for giving the M-410 artificial gravity: spin it up using the booster stage as a counterweight. From “Apollo Final Report: Configuration“. Click for a larger view.

Assuming it did land directly, though, the lower stage would be left behind as the propulsion module had sufficient thrust to lift itself back off the Moon and home to Earth. One thing the lower stage would not be used for was the generation of artificial gravity—Martin took the time to figure out if it were possible to generate a bit of it during the mission, including putting the lower stage out on a tether and using it as a counterweight to spin up the rest of the craft. They decided that for a trip as short as one to the Moon it wasn’t worth the extra weight needed for systems that could pull the trick off.

At the end of the mission, the command module would separate from the rest of the craft and re-enter. The M-410’s CM lifting body was designed to touchdown on water or land, with a combination of parachutes and retrorockets slowing it to just one meter per second as it touched the ground.

What happened to make it fail: On October 9, 1961 the new proposals were received, and two days later the five competing contractors gave presentations on their work. The evaluations began immediately thereafter, and were completed on October 28th. At the end of the competition, the M-410 was first with an average score of 6.9 points in each of the categories that NASA had outlined. Next came General Dynamics and North American Aviation, tied for second with 6.6 points; the GE-led and McDonnell-led contractor coalitions were the also-rans.

Despite the win Martin lost the contract to North American on November 28, 1961; NAA would go on to build the actual Apollo CSM. NASA administrator James Webb and his deputy Robert Seamans justified their decision on the basis of an external factor: NAA’s experience building the X-15.

The real reason is widely believed to be that North American had made the conscious decision to stick as closely as possible to Max Faget’s post-synthesis Langley design, and that NASA wanted that regardless of the merits of any other approach. Faget reportedly had been annoyed by the fact that none of the three initial designs had gone for a blunt-body re-entry vehicle, which was why he had come up with the Langley design in the first place and then convinced the agency to re-open the competition. He then had enough influence to disqualify any bid that didn’t follow his lead, including the Martin 410.

From this point onwards (and most noticeably in the proposals for the Space Shuttle a decade later, excepting the oddball SERV) NASA contractors understood that the implicit rule in any spacecraft design competition was “What Max Faget wants, Max Faget gets”. Despite the obvious possibilities for disaster with this approach giving him a veto turned out to be a pretty good idea: history has proven Maxime Faget was a talented spacecraft designer, arguably the best ever.

What was necessary for it to succeed: Not an awful lot more than what actually happened—the M-410 is one of the likeliest “what-ifs?” of the Apollo program.  It won the Apollo design competition, and if a small number of people (Faget, Webb, and Seamans) hadn’t been able to shift the results arbitrarily, it would have gone ahead. There would have been changes made, as happened in the real world to NAA’s design between 1961 and the first completed Block II Apollo craft flown in October 1968, but otherwise this design could have gone to the Moon.

7K-L1 “Zond”: Russia’s Last Best Chance

zond-cutaway-and-mission-profile

A cutaway view of the Zond lunar flyby craft and the mission it would have flown. For weight reasons the Soyuz’s usual spherical habitation module had to be removed; the two-man crew would live in the re-entry module for the entire flight. Image source unknown, believed to be Russian.

What it was: A derivative of the Soyuz capsule designed for a manned lunar flyby. Two cosmonauts would be sent in a six-day, figure-8 loop around the Moon and then back to Earth. It was initially proposed to get a cosmonaut to the Moon by 1967 (though more realistically by the end of 1968), before the Americans could land there and even before they could do a manned flyby themselves. By the time it was being developed the USSR had no realistic chance of beating the US to a Moon landing, so this was their last chance to make Kennedy’s Moon challenge a draw.

It should not be confused with Zond 1 through Zond 3, which were unrelated robotic lunar and planetary probes. The manned craft started with Zond 4, and it was the first to actually use that resurrected name (which simply means “Probe” in Russian) despite several tests of other similar and identical craft before its launch.

Details: The 1964-65 tug of war over the Soviet manned space program was finally resolved a few months prior to the passing of Sergei Korolev. Unfortunately, it wasn’t resolved to anyone’s satisfaction and signs are that Korolev would have continued to chip away at his rival Vladimir Chelomei if the former hadn’t died on the operating table in January of 1966.

That having happened, the USSR was left with two manned Moon programs that didn’t quite mesh with one another. The 7K-LOK/LK was the Soviet Union’s answer to the Apollo program: it was a Soyuz derivative mated with a one-man lander (the LK) comparable to the American CSM/LM combination that culminated in Apollo 11. It was to be launched on the closest thing the Russians had to a Saturn V too, the N1.

But while the United States was working up to Apollo 11 with a flyby using the same craft and the same rocket (leading to the first manned flyby of the Moon, Apollo 8 on December 24, 1968), the Russian flyby program remained independent thanks to the fight between the two Soviet designers. Korolev mostly held the field by early winter 1965, but while Chelomei’s parallel flyby craft, the LK1, had been shunted to the sidelines the launcher had stayed in his hands. The UR-500 was a completely different rocket from the N1: different designer, different fuels, different engines. While it would eventually become the highly successful Proton booster that Russia still uses today, it didn’t provide any data on how the N1’s various stages would work. As such, using it was a distraction from the Moon landing, not a help like the American flyby program was to their eventual landing.

Furthermore the UR-500 was a much less powerful rocket, which meant that the 7K-LOK/LK combination absolutely couldn’t be launched on it. Even stripping out the LK lander from the arrangement and just testing the 7K-LOK wasn’t possible—even that was too heavy. As a result, Korolev’s OKB-1 (renamed TsKBEM two months after his death, as part of a reorganization under his lieutenant and successor Vasili Mishin) was tasked with building a smaller flyby craft that the UR-500 could get off the ground. They did manage to make it into a relative of the 7K-LOK by once again returning to their basic Soyuz setup, but the resulting 7K-L1 is probably the weirdest variant in that entire family of spacecraft.

A basic Soyuz consists of three pieces. At its base is a cylindrical support module containing electrical equipment and the propulsion system. At the opposite end is the spherical habitation section, which houses the crew in orbit. In the middle is the acorn-shaped re-entry module, in which the crew sits during launch and re-entry; when re-entering the Soyuz breaks into its three constituent pieces and the re-entry module is the one that brings the cosmonauts home.

In order to bring the weight of the 7K-L1 down to acceptable levels, its engineers deleted the habitation module and its 60% of the living volume in the vanilla Soyuz. During the week-long flyby of the Moon, its crew of two would have to live entirely in the re-entry module, which had a grand total of four cubic meters of space. Also removed were the reserve parachute, and enough fuel to actually orbit the Moon (as Apollo 8 did, ten times). The Russian mission would be a quick loop around and back, and then the re-entry capsule would be skipped off the Earth’s atmosphere and aimed at the Kazakh SSR. Even if the skip maneuver failed, it would still land safely in the Indian Ocean; the Soviet Union developed naval assets for the specific purpose of retrieving cosmonauts who went off-course that way.

Design decisions driven by weight aside, by the spring of 1967, the 7K-L1 was ready for its first test. Contrary to their reputation, the USSR has always been keen to test their systems unmanned in space before committing a human being to them. When Apollo 8 was launched as a manned mission, the Russians were by all accounts shocked that their rivals would put men aboard their craft the very first time it left Earth orbit. Unlike their Soviet counterparts, the Americans felt that their system was safe already, and one can judge them on the fact that of the eleven manned missions using some combination of the CSM and LM only Apollo 13 had a serious failure.

Less confident, the Soviets launched their first prototype 7K-L1 craft on March 10, 1967. As they were wont to do, the Russians hid its nature behind the generic name they used for space missions, Cosmos. Cosmos 146, as this launch was called, was even aimed away from the Moon to allay suspicions, as the necessary testing could be done so long as the craft went somewhere approximately away the Moon’s distance away from the Earth. Its destination in deep space was explained as simply being an exploration of the conditions far away from our atmosphere and magnetic field.

Cosmos 146 was a success, and the Russians went on to more complex testing with the aim of flying two cosmonauts by the Moon in either June or July 1967.

What happened to make it fail: That stated goal wasn’t dictated by anything realistic, but rather a desire to make a big splash prior to the fiftieth anniversary of the October Revolution. This was part of a general pattern of unattainable goals imposed on TsKBEM under its new, insecure leader Vasili Mishin.

That pressure led to several large failures in the period immediately following Cosmos 146, not all of them directly related to the Zond program but helping to demonstrate how the entire Soviet space program was in disarray following the death of Sergei Korolev:

  • The second Zond test, Cosmos 154, was launched on April 8, 1967, but its translunar injection stage failed on April 10 and it was stuck in Earth orbit.
  • Soyuz 1, the first manned Soyuz in Earth orbit, had several serious systems failures one of which (the parachute system) ending up killing cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov on April 24. All derivatives of the Soyuz fell under suspicion after this.
  • After a considerable delay caused partly by Komarov’s death, on September 27 another Zond was launched. This test failed after its Proton booster’s first stage had an engine failure.
  • November 22 saw yet another try, and this time the second stage of the Proton failed to ignite properly.
  • Zond 4, was launched on a “lunar distance but not near the Moon” journey like Cosmos 146 and was a much-needed partial success. Unlike Cosmos 146, though, it was designed to re-enter, but when it tried on March 10, 1968 it failed to execute its skip maneuver properly. Rather than let it land in the Gulf of Guinea where it might have been retrieved (or even seen) by someone other than Soviet personnel, it was sent a self-destruct signal a few minutes before splash-down.

The success of Zond 4, besides belatedly earning the program a name, was enough for the USSR to move on to trying to fly biological specimens around the Moon as a final test before committing cosmonauts to a flight. The first two tries at this in April and July failed. The former had the Zond signal that its booster had failed when it hadn’t—it was in the middle of its second stage-burn—and “rescue” itself by separating and flying away on its launch escape system. The latter was even worse: four days before the mission was scheduled to go the oxidizer tank on the Zond’s translunar injection stage exploded, killing one person. It took two weeks to disentangle the Zond and the remainder of the rocket (both of which were recoverable) as it tipped over into the launch tower and was partially fuelled with the toxic propellants used by the Proton, and further tests had to be pushed back.

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Members of the Soviet space program examine the first two living creatures to successfully travel to the Moon and back. Vasili Mishin is the third from the left. Image from www.energia.ru.

Zond 5 was next up, and on September 15, 1968 it executed the sole successful lunar flight of a Zond prior to the Apollo moon landings. It took the first living things (plants, drosophila fruit flies, and two tortoises) to the Moon and back, beating Apollo 8 and its biological cargo of three human astronauts by three months. The sole main failure of the flight was an inability to pull off a skip trajectory again, but the capsule was successfully recovered from the Indian Ocean and the tortoises and other cargo shipped back to the USSR.

With Zond 5 under their belts, the Soviets felt sufficiently happy with their progress to decide on three possible two-man crews for the first manned mission to the Moon. In another world we might be discussing Alexei Leonov and Oleg Makarov in the same sentences and Armstrong and Aldrin. But the Russians wanted one more “biological” test success before moving on, and didn’t get it. Zond 6 depressurized a few hours before re-entry, then its parachute failed to open. The next three attempted launches had their Proton fail instead. The last of these was sent up just prior to Apollo 11, and from then on the Zond program was running on vapours: the US had beaten them to the Moon in both possible ways, and the USSR’s leadership were concerned that both the Zond flybys and the N1 single-man lunar lander would look feeble in comparison even if they succeeded in every detail. All planned manned flights of Zond were cancelled in March 1969, though Vasili Mishin did keep flying them on more automated flights until all the built Zonds remaining were used up, in the hope that someone would change their mind.

Zond 7 flew from August 7 to 14, 1969, and if manned would have successfully sent two cosmonauts on a trip to the Moon and safely return them. Zond 8 would have done the same in September of 1970. But the program had its orders: both were unmanned.

What was necessary for it to succeed: There was a short window between the Apollo 1 fire on January 27, 1967 and Vladimir Komarov’s death in April of the same year where it looked as if the Soviet Union had an opportunity to beat the US to a flyby. Instead everything went wrong for them after Cosmos 146, while the US successfully sorted out what was wrong with their program by the flight of Apollo 7 in October of 1968.

If TsKBEM and the builders of the Proton had somehow been able to resist the pressure to try and go from the first unmanned prototype test in February 1967 to a manned lunar flyby no later than July and biweekly manned missions in August, September, and October, then they had a chance. Instead they were held to an insane schedule for propaganda reasons, one which they knew was impossible even at the time. That pressure led directly to repeated failures and disarray, even though both the Soyuz and the Proton that kept failing them eventually became highly successful pieces of equipment. While they were able to return to a more normal pace after the fiftieth anniversary of the Revolution in November 1967, the program never recovered from the shortcuts that had been built in to try and reach that date.

While it was far from a sure thing, if it had been given a more realistic (though necessarily quick) pace from the beginning, Zond certainly could have taken two Soviet cosmonauts around the Moon before Apollo 8, giving the USSR one last laurel before Apollo 11: the final 1968 launch window from Baikonur to the Moon was from December 8 to December 11, as much as thirteen days before the Americans could and did go. Instead they ended up with a second batch of space tortoises in August 1969.

A composite video of pictures taken by Zond 8 as it flew around the Moon can be found on YouTube. It gives us a close an idea as is possible of what hypothetical cosmonauts aboard would have seen during their mission—except that, as well as not having a habitation module or a reserve parachute, the Zond didn’t have any windows either.

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.