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.

M-19 “Gurkolyot”: Grab the Problem by the Throat, Not the Tail

Myasishchev M-19 Gurkolyot schematic

A schematic of the M-19. Despite its great width and length, it was to be very flat, and mass only 500 tonnes. Image by the author, released to the public domain. Click for a larger view.

What it was: The Ministry of Aviation’s candidate for a Soviet shuttle, an apparent attempt to wrest control of the Soviet crewed space program away from the Ministry of General Machine Building. It was a runway-launched, single-stage-to-orbit spaceplane using a hydrogen propellant-based nuclear engine, designed by the Myasischev bureau that had previously worked on the VKA-23.

Details: After the first Myasishchev bureau was dissolved 1960 and many of its people moved to OKB-52, Vladimir Myasishchev didn’t lose his interest in spaceplanes. He became head of TsAGI, the Soviet experimental aviation bureau, then in 1967 was allowed to refound his own bureau, at which point he picked up from where he left off. A few years later the Soviet Shuttle project began, and Myasishchev was in the large camp of designers who were skeptical of the American design which slowly became the favorite behind the Iron Curtain.

Many years earlier, responsibility for the development of rockets in the USSR had been disavowed by the Ministry of Aviation and fallen instead to the Artillery wing of the Red Army. When ballistic missiles and rockets became the glamorous thing in the late 50s the aviation types came to regret their decision and repeatedly tried to barge into the business—Vladimir Chelomei came from the aerospace side of things, for example. Now that the USSR was in the large, reusable orbiter business, the Ministry of Aviation chose Myasishchev’s new bureau as their new champion and set him to work.

What the V. M. Myasishchev Experimental Design Bureau then proposed was a series of three craft, with several variations on each type, that would start with a high-speed test-bed and end with an orbital spaceplane. The middle craft was a reasonable knock-off of the NASA Shuttle, but the first and third were a radical alternative program. Back in the 1960s an engineer at NII-1 (“Institute of Jet Aviation-1”), Oleg Gurko, had come up with a novel concept for a SSTO, based around a nuclear reactor, the details of which we’ll explore shortly.

His suggestion got nowhere in the 60s despite his approaching both Myasishchev and Mikoyan, representing the Aviation Ministry for which he worked. Once work began on the Soviet shuttle, however, the Aviation Ministry’s interest picked up and the Myasishchev bureau was told to work on a proposal based on Gurko’s idea. Myasishchev himself realized that this SSTO would be a massive leap that would take a long time to develop, but he was uneasy with merely copying the American shuttle as that kind of a project would only be completed several years after the United States was flying (as indeed was the case, with STS-1 occurring in spring 1981 and Buran’s one, crewless flight being in November 1988). If his country was going to be behind anyway, why not work on a project that would at least offer the opportunity to leap ahead during the delay? He reportedly summed up his approach as “Grab the problem by the throat and not the tail, or else you will always have the tail”.

The breadth of Myasishchev’s ambition can be measured by understanding that the first plane in his program was not just a testing ground but, in order to bring the Ministry of Aviation on-side, was intended to double as an operational Mach 6 bomber flying at 30 kilometers up, twice as fast and fifty percent higher than the XB-70. The final plane was considerably more capable than even that.

Weighing in at 500 tonnes with fuel, the M-19 was a very flat, 69-meter long triangular wedge with two small sets of wings, one at the tail and one as canards near the nose. Launching horizontally from a runway, the M-19’s trip to orbit would begin with twin turbofan jet engines burning liquid hydrogen. After getting up to Mach 4, the plane would switch over to scramjet engines, also burning hydrogen. In both cases, though, the engines had Gurko’s idea behind them for a little extra kick.

The M-19 would have had a nuclear rocket engine that would take over in turn once the scramjet pushed the plane to Mach 16 and out of the appreciable atmosphere around 50 kilometers high. As the reactor was just sitting there during the turbojets’ and scramjets’ operation, Gurko reasoned, why not use it to superheat their exhaust to increase thrust? The potential increase in efficiency was considerable, and as the nuclear rocket (already more efficient than chemical rockets) would only be used for the final leg, the low inherent fuel use of the air-fed turbo- and scramjets gave the M-19 a tremendous payload fraction: the 500-tonne fully fueled plane was projected to lift 40 tonnes to LEO in its 15m × 4m cargo bay, which compares favorably to even staged rockets. Consider the Space Shuttle at 2040 tonnes and 28 tonnes of payload, or the Saturn V at 3038 tonnes and 118 tonnes of payload. To move whatever was stored in it, the bay was to be equipped with a manipulator unit, and an airlock from the crew compartment allowed EVA. Behind the bay was a large LH2 tank and, it should be made clear, no oxidizer tank. The rocket would run on raw hydrogen, while the two different types of jet would use the air as their source of oxygen.

After completing its mission in orbit, the M-19 would then fly back home, using the same propulsion systems in reverse order to come into a powered landing at an airstrip somewhere in the USSR, with an astonishing cross-range capability of 4500 kilometers. This completely plane-like return was of considerable interest to Soviet space planners for other reasons too, as it meant that the M-19 would reduce search and retrieval costs to nil as compared to capsules unless there was an emergency. Under those circumstances the cabin was to be entirely ejectable, serving as a survival capsule for the three to seven cosmonauts that might be on-board..

That the M-19 was perfectly capable of flying as an airplane in the lower atmosphere made it much more flexible too, as it could be moved to a different launch site relatively easily. And, as it didn’t drop stages on the way to orbit, it could be launched in any direction without worrying about what was downrange—a problem that’s particularly difficult for the USSR and Russia, and has led the latter to build its newest cosmodrome in the remote Amur region by the Pacific Ocean.

Even in space the M-19 was unprecedentedly flexible, able to make repeated orbital plane changes by diving into the upper atmosphere and maneuvering aerodynamically. Whether performing an inclination change or coming down to land, the M-19 was protected by reinforced carbon-carbon (like the Space Shuttle’s leading wing edges) and ceramic heat tiles.

The rocket for the M-19 was to be be built by the Kuznetsov design bureau, also the builders of the conventional engines for the N1, and would have been the first operational nuclear rocket in the USSR (and indeed the world).

Testing beforehand would involve several flying test beds to develop hydrogen-burning engines and scramjets, drop test articles, and the aforementioned hypersonic test vehicle/bomber. Though Gurko himself did not work for the organization assigned to build the M-19 he consulted on it, and the M-19 gained the nickname “Gurkolyot” (“Gurkoplane”). If given the immediate go ahead, the Myasishchev Bureau predicted that the final craft would be ready for flight in 1987 or ’88.

What happened to make it fail: First, Myasishchev’s bureau was absorbed again in 1976, this time into NPO Molniya, newly founded to make the Buran orbiter. The Soviet leadership had placed their bet on a close copy of the US’ Shuttle.

Second, even Myasishchev called the M-19 his “swan song”, and that his ambition was to set the USSR on the right course, not see it through. He was in his seventies even before preliminary work began on the spaceplane, and his death in 1978 took away the program’s biggest voice. While some testing of a jet engine running on liquid hydrogen took place in 1988 (in the modified Tu-155 jet), and the first Soviet scramjet was tested on top of an S-200 missile in 1991, by 1980 the M-19 had receded into the future as a possible successor to Buran, rather than a competitor.

Then the USSR came apart from 1989-91, and the future of the Soviet space program was forced into radically different channels.

What was necessary for it to succeed: This is an awfully tough one to assess, as the M-19 is by some distance the most technologically sophisticated spacecraft we’ve looked at. It was based around so many novel approaches (a nuclear rocket engine, a scramjet, preheating the jets’ air, SSTO, and so on) that it seems impossible even with current aerospace technology. Scramjets and SSTO in particular are two things which seem to endlessly recede into the future as we come to understand how difficult they are.

However, Myasishchev and his bureau acknowledged that it was a radical departure, that it would take a long time to develop, and that nevertheless they thought it could be done—and they were some of the best aerospace engineers in the USSR, if not the world. Who am I to say they were wrong?

Even so, it does seem like they were. The problem was not an engineering one (even if I’m skeptical that anything like this could fly before the mid-21st century), but rather an economic one. The M-19 needed time, and the USSR had surprisingly little left. How to fix the economic mistake on which that country was based? There are convincing arguments that it could not be fixed, and that at best the Soviet Union could have lasted only another decade or two past 1991 while becoming increasingly pauperized year-on-year—hardly the best environment for cutting-edge aerospace research. The M-19 simply could not fit into the time remaining, even with any reasonable stretch in the USSR’s lifespan.

Samoletoya EMZ in V. M. Myasishcheva, A.A. Bryk, K.G. Oudalov, A.V. Arkhipov, V.I. Pogodin and B.L. Puntus.

Energia-Buran: The Soviet Space Shuttle. Bart Hendricx and Bert Vis.

Sidebar: The Intercontinental Ballistic Vehicle

Intercontinental Ballistic Vehicle schematic

A schematic of the IBV as printed in LIFE Magazine, March 7, 1955 via Google Books. Artist unknown, possibly Michael Ramus. © Time, Inc. Click for a larger view.

We’ve previously discussed Eugen Sänger and Irene Bredt’s wildly ambitious Silbervogel, a suborbital spaceplane that they worked on in Germany prior to the end of WWII. Mentioned in passing at the time was Stalin’s interest in it after the war, and Mstislav Keldysh’s unsuccessful attempt to scale back its necessary technological innovations so that the USSR could build something similar. What we didn’t look at at the time was the high-water mark of Sänger and Bredt’s craft in the United States.

Their core design paper was translated into English in 1946 as A Rocket Drive for Long Range Bombers (and is readily available today on the web), but otherwise there was not a lot of interest in it in the West. Sänger and Bredt lived in France for several years after 1945, having secured positions there, but worked on other projects.

Grigori Tokaev/Grigori Tokaty

Grigori Tokaty (to use his preferred name) in 2001, more than a half-century after revealing Stalin’s interest in rocket bombers to the West. Public Domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Then, in November 1947, Soviet rocket engineer Grigori Tokaev defected to the United Kingdom. According to him, Stalin had become aware of the work on Silbervogel, and assigned the trio of Tokaev, Stalin’s son Vasily, and future head of the KGB Ivan Serov to the case. The Germans scientists were to be convinced to come to the USSR (Tokaev’s preferred approach) or kidnapped (Serov, naturally, for a man nicknamed “The Butcher”). The pursuers were unaware that the two they sought were no longer in Germany, though, and none of the three trusted any of the others, so nothing came of it. In 1949, Tokaev became an author under the Ossetian version of his last name, Tokaty, writing several popular articles about Soviet ambitions with long-distance airpower and other then-advanced weapons, then getting into an extended war of words about them with the hard Left in the UK.

Into this furor stepped John Earley and Garret Underhill in LIFE’s March 7th, 1955 issue, with an article named “From Continent to Continent”. Based on their own understanding of Sänger and Bredt’s work, as well as Tokaty’s story, they sounded the alarm. Keldysh’s aforementioned failure would not become known outside the USSR for many years, and the two LIFE authors felt that instead the USSR was probably working on the project with alacrity.

Their particular iteration of Silbervogel was closely based on the German design with a few variations suggesting that the authors didn’t really know what they were doing (for example, changing its trapezoidal cross-section to a circular one, which would be hell on re-entry). Launched from a rocket-propelled sled it would get up to a speed of 10,600 MPH (17,000 km/h) and 113 miles (182 kilometers) in height, then skip/glide its way around much of the planet. On a sortie from the Soviet Union, the authors thought that this craft would fly over the Arctic, bomb the United States, and then make a landing in the Pacific “for recovery by submarine”—which seems a bit optimistic but may reflect the idea in Sänger and Bredt’s original paper that WWII German Silbervogels could land in the Japanese Mariana Islands.

Really, “From Continent to Continent” is a bit of a head-scratcher until one realizes that it’s not a proposal, but is instead largely a con job, presumably written for the purpose of stirring up trouble and increasing circulation. For example, as can be deduced from the previous paragraph, the authors took the particular tack of describing how the IBV would be used to attack the United States even though the ostensible purpose of their article was to suggest that the US build one themselves, by their estimate in three years for a mere $23 million. Its mission as an American craft was left unstated, and was surely not the exact inverse of their favoured blood-curdling scenario of a Soviet attack.

There’s also the way the article’s authors are described: “[John] Earley, a rocket designer, and [Garrett] Underhill, a former Army officer who is an expert in Russian weapons” looks crafted to make unsuspecting readers think that they were insider sources for another, different LIFE correspondent. They’re almost certainly the authors of the piece themselves, even though it’s unbylined. I can find no other references to John Earley, but Garrett Underhill was the military affairs editor for LIFE in 1955 and had been out of the military intelligence business for most of a decade. Incidentally, if you’ve heard of Underhill, it’s as a minor figure in JFK conspiracy circles who committed suicide in 1964.

Taken as a whole, the IBV is more interesting as a snapshot of its time than it is as a quite ill-founded proposal. In a way it’s the flip side of the contemporary Moonship of Wernher von Braun: it was a popularization of the future military use of space, as opposed to its scientific exploration. The major difference between them is that von Braun’s fundamental vision was the one that took hold, making the way it was laid out in Collier’s and by Disney into well-known classics. Meanwhile the IBV has long since dropped into obscurity.

LKS: The Buran Alternative

LKS spaceplane on Proton rocket

An LKS orbiter atop its Proton launcher at the launch gantry. Original source and copyright status unknown, but pre-dating 2004. Note the folded wings: most sources do not mention this feature, with the implication that LKS’s wings were fixed, but the LKS is sufficiently badly documented that even this basic question is not definitively answered.

What it was: A small, 20-tonne spaceplane intended for launch on top of a Proton rocket. From 1979 to 1983, OKB-52 touted it as an alternative to the Energia/Buran shuttle.

Details: Continuing the parallel, military-oriented space program of OKB-52 (previous entries so far being the LK-700, Almaz, and the TKS), we come to the LKS. In late 1973 the Soviet government decided to respond to the prior year’s announcement by the United States that they would be building the Space Shuttle. OKB-1 was given the task of examining a large spaceplane in the same class as the Americans’, while Mikoyan and OKB-52 were ordered to look at something in the 20-tonne range.

The convulsions of 1974-75 pointed NPO Energiya, the former OKB-1, in the direction of responding to the American Space Shuttle with a quite-close copy (though not before sketching out the MTKVP), and eventually the “Buran Decision” was made in its favour in 1976.

Governmental decision or not, the ever-contrary Vladimir Chelomei and OKB-52 carried on with their own spaceplane from 1976-79 to address what they saw as Buran’s deficiencies: it was smaller, lighter, would be quicker and cheaper to develop and, in their opinion, be almost as capable. They called their two-cosmonaut craft the LKS (“Legkiy Kosmicheskiy Samolet”), meaning “Light Space Plane”.

Inevitably the LKS was to be put on top of OKB-52’s workhorse, a Proton rocket—though not man-rated, the intention was to do so for also launching the TKS anyway. This dictated much about the orbiter, starting with its mass. The Proton-K used until recently could lift just shy of 20 tonnes to low-Earth orbit, which is a bit less than a quarter of either a Shuttle or Buran orbiter carrying a full payload. So while the LKS had a similar shape to its larger cousins by design, its launch mass was only 19,950 kilograms, with a length of 18.75 meters and payload of 4 tonnes (compare with 37.24 meters and 27.5 tonnes for an American shuttle). This is, not at all coincidentally, close in mass to the TKS, and the two can be thought of flip-sides to one another as OKB-52 tried to be everything to everyone while also integrating their proposals into the larger space effort envisioned by Chelomei.

The LKS orbiter diverged from the larger shuttles in a number of other notable ways too, even after being redesigned to be essentially a half-scale version of the US Shuttle Orbiter (earlier incarnations had twin tail fins and wings with a straight leading edge). Its in-orbit engines were to burn N2O4 and UDMH, like every other motor of note proposed for use by OKB-52. Its landing gear was peculiar too, with a steerable wheel up front and landing skids under the wings. Chelomei also proposed to use a renewable ablative re-entry shield rather than the ceramic tiles common to the American and Buran orbiters. As aerodynamically similar as it was, though, it still had the same ~2000 kilometer cross-range capability and would glide in to land at a similar speed (reportedly 300 km/h, a bit slower than the Shuttle’s 350).

OKB-52 had made a full-sized mockup of the orbiter by 1981, then Chelomei pounced during the period of Soviet alarm following Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” speech in March 1983. In a letter written directly to Leonid Brezhnev he suggested that the LKS could be used to quickly and cheaply deploy counter-missile lasers into orbit. Sources differ on whether this was as satellites in the payload bay, or if he meant a fleet of unmanned LKSes carrying the lasers directly—but most lean towards the latter.

What happened to make it fail: Having raised the profile of the LKS as a counter to SDI, Chelomei’s efforts came under the scrutiny of the Soviet military. A state commission was convened in September of 1983, headed by the deputy minister of defense Vitali Shabanov. It eventually came to the conclusion that the LKS would not be useful for missile defense; Chelomei was reprimanded for working on an unauthorized project. Previous setbacks on his projects never had much effect on the headstrong designer, but the LKS came to a definitive end when Chelomei died in August 1984. The mock-up was apparently destroyed in 1991.

What was necessary for it to succeed: OKB-52 were right that Buran would take too long and cost too much. Originally planned to fly in 1983, the Soviet shuttle made its sole, automated flight in November 1988; even then it was not completely fitted out and was only suitable for a 206-minute flight (and the next was not scheduled until 1993!) Something like 20 billion rubles, at a time when the ruble was officially marked at better than par to the US dollar, were spent on the program.

Even at the time there was resistance to the big orbiter, but NPO Energiya and Valentin Glushko‘s grip on the Soviet manned space program was firm. First you probably have to get it loosened somehow, though not so much that Chelomei and OKB-52 took over for them—as was discussed in the previous post to this blog, that would have left the USSR flying TKS spacecraft and not LKSes.

The difficult thing here is that if a small spaceplane got built there are two other, likelier candidates. Prior to about 1990 it probably would have been the other 20-tonne study mentioned at the beginning of this discussion, Mikoyan’s. The Spiral project got even further along than LKS did, to the point of a subsonic demonstrator and orbital re-entry tests of scale models. After 1990, NPO Molniya, builder of the Buran shuttle, floated the MAKS shuttle, which introduced the wrinkle of being air-launched by the An-225 superheavy cargo plane originally designed to cart Buran around.

As a result, unless one can cook up a Soviet leader circa 1983 who had the desire to save money of Mikhail Gorbachev while also having the willingness to rise to the challenge of the Strategic Defense Initiative, the LKS probably does not fly.


Light Space Plane, LKS“, Anatoly Zak.

‘LKS’, The Chelomei Alternative to Buran“, Giuseppe di Chiara.

Malysh v teni «Burana»: Sovetskiy legkiy kosmoplan“, Oleg Makarov. Popular Mechanics (Russian Edition) #93. July 2010.

“The Soviet BOR-4 Spaceplanes and Their Legacy”, Bart Hendricx, The Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, vol. 60. 2007.

Energia-Buran: The Soviet Space Shuttle, Bart Hendricx and Bert Vis.

TKS: Chelomei’s “Soyuz”

TKS spacecraft

A cutaway view of the TKS, with its associated Almaz station in the background. The VA is the white section at left, while the FGB is the green portion with the solar panels. Image originally published in Russian space magazine Novosti Kosmonavtiki.

What it was: A Soviet transport and resupply spacecraft for use with the Almaz space station.

Details: On February 7, 1991, Salyut 7 orbited the Earth for the final time, re-entering over southern Argentina and scattering its pieces over a wide area. Sixteen hours before this the Federation of American Scientists used Doppler radar to image it as it flew overhead, producing this remarkable picture. The murky image clearly showed the thing that made Salyut 7 most notable: on the top of the station proper was what was then known as Kosmos 1686. The Soviet station had been the first truly modular space station, and the Kosmos 1686 module had been docked to Salyut 7’s core module for more than five years. It was the harbinger of a new thing in orbit, space-based construction, that would be followed up in both Mir and the ISS. But as well as being the start of something it represented the end of one too: a crewed spacecraft that shares with the shuttle Buran the peculiar distinction of having flown, but never with anyone aboard.

The Kosmos label was used as a smoke screen for a variety of Soviet programs, and Kosmos 1686, along with numbers 929, 1267, and 1443 were used to hide perennial bridesmaid Vladimir Chelomei‘s answer to the Soyuz: the Transport Supply Spacecraft, or TKS, to use its Russian acronym (“Transportnyi Korabl’ Snabzheniia”).

The story of the TKS begins with the fallout of the battle between Chelomei’s OKB-52 and Sergei Korolev OKB-1 over the Soviet Moon program in 1964-65. Korolev won the war but died before he could make his victory complete. Chelomei’s contribution was greatly reduced but still consisted of the rocket for the the circumlunar Zond mission, the capsule for which was to be based on OKB-1’s tech. Chelomei reloaded for space stations and took the capsule he was developing for the LK-1 (his alternative circumlunar craft) and the LK-700 into the new project. The station was soon dubbed Almaz, and the LK-derived TKS was worked up to serve as a crew and supply ferry, much as the Soyuz and Progress do for the ISS.

The first thing to note is that the TKS would run both missions simultaneously, as opposed to the aforementioned ISS ships, which do one or the other. Despite countless upgrades over the years the Soyuz spacecraft is still rather cramped and there’s only enough room for astronauts or supplies, not both. As a result the Russians have been trying to replace the Soyuz for almost as long as they’ve been flying it, which accounts for the Zarya, the Kliper, the Energia/Buran shuttle, and the one they’re working on now, Federation, just to name a non-exhaustive few. The TKS was bigger—a lot bigger—and was Chelomei’s flying rebuke to OKB-1’s compact ship.

The TKS consisted of two modules. The first was the orphaned VA crew capsule (Vozvraschaemyi Apparat, “Return Vehicle”), which was attached to the new FGB support module (Funktsionalno-Gruzovoy Blok, “Functional Cargo Block”) which also served as a crew habitation module.

The VA was made of two components itself (three, if one includes the abort tower that was jettisoned after launch). The main portion was a truncated-cone capsule with a habitable volume of 4.56 cubic meters and a base of 2.79 meters. While originally designed for one person to make a loop around the Moon, as a LEO craft it was to hold three. Many commentators have mentioned the similarity in appearance of the VA’s capsule and the Apollo capsule, but the TKS’ was considerably smaller than the one used by NASA, which came in at 6.17 cubic meters and 3.91 meters. Where the VA diverged from Apollo even more sharply was in its nose module, the NO (Nosovoj Otsek, “Nose Compartment”), which took some of the support functionality out of the FGB support module and perched it at the front of the craft. Most notably this included the de-orbiting engines, but the communications equipment and the parachutes were loaded in it as well. Altogether this part of the ship weighed 3800 kilograms and was 7.3 meters long.

The rather beaky-looking VA was attached at its base to the FGB, which was a cylindrical module another 5.9 meters in length and 4.15 meters in diameter. While the VA was capable of being used as a complete craft it had endurance for only 31 hours and could carry only 50 kilograms of cargo. This was where the FGB picked up the slack. Sporting two solar panels with a span of 17 meters and a habitable volume of 41.08 cubic meters, it extended the TKS’ mission duration to a week, or 200 days if docked to an Almaz. Discounting the abort tower, together they made a 17,510 kilogram spacecraft which meant that it cleared the payload limit of a Proton-K (AKA the UR-500 designed by Chelomei’s bureau) by a couple of tonnes. With the joint capabilities of its modules, the TKS was specifically designed to be a “space truck”, ferrying passengers and cargo to a space station: the FGB’s maneuvering engines (which burned N2O4 and UDMH, like the Proton) would let it rendezvous with one in a higher orbit, and the docking adapter at its aft end would let it connect up. As the adapter took up the usual position of a rocket motor, the engines—four of them—were moved to the sides of the FGB, as were the engines’ fuel tanks.

The most revolutionary aspect of the TKS was what happened when it was time to go home. If so desired the entire TKS could disconnect and return its cosmonauts to Earth (in particular to a landing in the Kazakh SSR, softened by last-moment solid fuel rockets), with the FGB burning up. However, the other possibility was to use the VA’s autonomous capability to do the same while the FGB, which could be customized to one of many roles, stayed behind to be the latest module of the station.

What happened to make it fail: Chelomei’s efforts were an entirely parallel space program to the one being run by Glushko’s Energia, a military one comparable to the X-20/Manned Orbiting Laboratory on the American side. It ran into the same difficulty as the American one too: there turns out to not be a lot of military use for crewed spacecraft and stations. As Buran was also being built on the insistence of the Soviet military and it was tremendously expensive, the TKS and the Almaz stations were constantly in danger of being cut entirely or folded into the Buran/Mir ecosystem.

The TKS had a champion, Minister of Defense Andrei Grechko, who died in 1976. From then on Chelomei was unable to resist the pressure coming from Valentin Glushko and his champion Dmitri Ustinov, candidate member of the Politburo and then full member and Grechko’s successor as Minister following Grechko’s death.Ustinov is known to have had a personal grudge against Chelomei dating back to Chelomei’s temporary time in the sun under Nikita Khrushchev: he perceived Chelemei as an interloper from the Aviation Ministry whereas he represented the Artillery, under which ballistic missiles had been assigned for decades. Well before he reached the height of his power, in 1970, Ustinov as the Deputy Minister responsible for space travel had already ordered that Almaz be melded with the Salyut station project underway at TsKBEM (as NPO Energia was called at the time). From 1976 onwards he continued picking away at it, eventually leading to the TKS program being subsumed by Mir.

Before then, though, Chelomei’s bureau managed to get off six uncrewed flights and recoveries of the VA capsule beginning in 1976 and four uncrewed flights of an integrated TKS (VA with NO, and FGB) beginning in 1977. The spacecraft was tested and ready to go. But Ustinov had his way and there was never a full-up flight of a TKS with a crew aboard—three of the four TKS flights were in support of NPO Energia’s Salyut 6 and 7, while Kosmos 1686 in particular was modified so that it could not undock from Salyut-7, and its VA was gutted and filled with instruments. While two cosmonauts used the final TKS for some experiments during the Soyuz T-15 mission in 1986 it was merely a part of the space station at the time.

What was necessary for it to succeed: A lot of the projects we’ve discussed on False Steps are well down at the far end of the plausibility spectrum; “on paper only” is one of the most commonly used meta-tags around here. TKS is the antithesis of that. It was done, had been flown remotely, and needed only a final push to turn it into an operational system. As a result there’s several possible ways one can imagine that gets flying cosmonauts.

  • When OKB-1 was shaken up and Vasily Mishin relieved of his leadership, have Chelomei be the new leader instead of Glushko. This is not very likely because of Ustinov, but is the most direct route.
  • Have Marshal Grechko live and stay on as the Minister of Defense for a few years more than he did.
  • Have Minister Ustinov hold less of a grudge against Chelomei despite events in the Khrushchev era.
  • Have Energia/Buran be just slightly less of a money sink than it actually was.
  • Or give Energia some teething pains rather than two successful launches out of two tries, so that the Soviet leadership outside of Ustinov started looking more closely at the alternatives.

Any one of these would have been enough, and once flying it’s easy to see the TKS becoming the Soyuz replacement that Russia has been looking for since before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

As it was, the intriguing ability of the FGB to dual-purpose between being a spacecraft component or a space station component led to it alone becoming one of the cornerstones of space station construction from 1986 to the present day. No less than five of Mir‘s modules were based on the FGB, and on the ISS one current (Zarya) and one future (Nauka) module have the same base. The jerry-built Polyus payload for Energia’s first launch was also based on an FGB.


Khrushchev, Sergei N. Nikita Khrushchev and the Creation of a Superpower. Penn State University Press. University Park, PA, 2010.

Portree, David S.F. Mir Hardware Heritage. Houston, Texas. Johnson Space Center, 1995.

The TKS ferry for the Almaz Space Station“, Sven Grahn.

TKS“, Anatoly Zak.

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,

“Big G”: Getting to Orbit Post-Apollo


A schematic of one Big G configuration. The original Gemini capsule can be seen on the left, while everything from the passenger compartment on to the right was new. The adapter on the far right was designed to allow yet another cargo module, space lab, or habitation/life3 support module depending on the mission. Public domain image from a short briefing document given to NASA in December 1967. Click for a larger view.

What it was: A 1967 proposal by McDonnell Douglas to build a new Gemini spacecraft with an extra module attached to its aft end. This would be the craft for flying astronauts to and supplying the proposed space stations—both civilian and military—that were to follow the Apollo landings. It would have been able to deliver twelve people (ten on top of the pilot and co-pilot of the original Gemini) and 2500 kilograms of cargo to low Earth orbit; with an optional extension module it could have taken 27,300 kilograms.

Details: NASA was well into post-Apollo planning by 1967 and at that early stage it was far from settled that they were going to go for a spaceplane as their next major spacecraft. Even if they did go for one, some (including Wernher von Braun) felt that an interim system was needed until what was slowly turning into the Space Shuttle was ready. Basic research on lifting bodies was still underway and while landing on land was already considered desirable, at the time NASA’s chief spacecraft designer Max Faget favoured doing so with a ballistic capsule using a device that the agency had been working on for years: a Rogallo parawing to brake its descent.


A clear view of the third, cylindrical module which would have been used for some Big G missions. Public domain image dating to 1969 via the NASA publication SP-4011 Skylab: A Chronology.

While there had been discussions about using the parawing with an Apollo capsule, the Gemini had the advantage in that it was the one where that program had begun; it had progressed as far as manned drop tests—Jack Swigert of “Houston, we’ve had a problem here” fame started his career as an astronaut flying a Gemini mockup under a parawing. McDonnell Douglas then sweetened the pot by reconfiguring their Gemini B so that it had the same base diameter as an Apollo capsule (making it simple to attach to a Saturn rocket) while giving twice the cargo capacity of its competitor. A modification of the Apollo CSM had studied in the years prior to Big G, and the so-called MODAP could match this increase, and even go beyond it with external cargo capsules—but then this is where the Big G’s cylindrical extension module came in and blew the Apollo derivative out of the water.

The Gemini B had begun as a logistics craft for the USAF’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory that, for the purposes of this discussion, had one important difference from the regular Gemini. It needed to be able to dock to the MOL and the most reasonable way to do so was at its aft end. This necessitated cutting a hatch into the capsule’s heat shield. While this looked like a dangerous strategy on the surface, it was proven to work and it became possible to attach other things to the Gemini B’s underside. For the basic Big G this was a truncated cone that increased the base diameter of the new craft to match that of the Apollo spacecraft, making it easier to mate it with Apollo hardware—and not just rockets. While they preferred their own cylindrical module for the third module that made a regular Big G into the nearly thirty-ton large cargo craft, McDonnell Douglas also came up with a side proposal to use Apollo Service Modules in that slot if NASA so desired.

The Big G was designed to be launched by one of three rockets. In its smallest configuration, it would be lofted by a Titan IIIM, a man-rated version of the Titan III which the USAF had started working on as a rocket for the Dyna-Soar program and then moved over to the MOL when Dyna-Soar was cancelled. This was the least powerful of the three alternatives, and would have been able to launch only the basic Big G. For one with the full complement of extra modules the choices were one of two Saturn variants that NASA was interested in building, either the Saturn INT-11 (the first stage of a Saturn V with four of the strap-on boosters used for the Titan IIIM) or the Saturn INT-20 (which would have consisted of a Saturn V’s third stage directly mated to the same rocket’s first stage).

As Big G was proposed not long after the Apollo 1 fire, it was designed to use an oxygen and helium mixture for its atmosphere, a difference from the pure oxygen of the original Geminis. The interior of the craft was also heavily reworked, with all of its systems upgraded and improved from the original’s. After all, as successful as it had been the previously flown Gemini had been only the second model of spacecraft flown by the United States.

When launched the Big G could have flown directly to a space station of short resupply or astronaut delivery-or-return missions. Alternatively the third module could be adapted to be a mini space lab, or a life support and habitation module capable of stretching the flight to 45 days; when the Big G was first being discussed, the then-record longest spaceflight of 13 days, 8 hours, 35 minutes had been achieved in an original model Gemini.


Coming in for a dry-land landing under its triangular parachute, the Rogallo wing. Public domain image from McDonnell Douglas briefing to NASA, December 1967.

As previously mentioned, the end of the mission would see the re-entry capsule of the Big G bring its  astronauts home to somewhere in the United States by landing with a Rogallo wing. The capsule itself would have three landing skids that would cushion the impact of swooping into the ground, and then bring the vehicle to a stop.

Using the Big G as its transportation backbone, NASA’s hope was to have a 12-man space station in orbit by the time the Space Shuttle was ready to fly in 1975 (to use what turned out to be the optimistic estimate of 1969).

What happened to make it fail: The late 60s were an era of falling budgets for NASA, and there was a great deal of concern that the cost of launches was going to sink the manned space program—the Saturn V was notoriously expensive on a per kilogram-to-LEO basis (one figure, adjusted for inflation to modern dollars is $US22,000 per kilogram). Prices were anticipated to come down, but in general even the cheapest expendable launch vehicles have only beaten this figure by about a factor of three.

A re-usable launch vehicle had the promising appeal of bringing these costs down a great deal (projections, unfortunately based on unrealistic launch schedules, ranged as low as $US1,400 per kilogram). For crew return this made a glider of some sort necessary—either a lifting body or a winged craft—and when a high cross-range capability in NASA’s next spacecraft was cemented as desirable about 1970, wings became an absolute necessity. All possibility of a capsule, Big G included, fell by the wayside.

What was necessary for it to succeed: In retrospect the Space Shuttle looks like a mistake—its most basic reason for existence was to be a cheaper way to orbit than missions launched on expendable launchers and it never did so—most calculations pin it as more expensive per kilogram to orbit than the already expensive Saturn rockets it replaced. It’s important not to apply too much hindsight to this decision, but even in 1969 there were signs that sticking with capsules for manned spaceflight was the way to go. NASA had a strong constituency for this approach including, at first, the chief designer for the manned spaceflight program Max Faget. If he had stayed on-board with capsules, there’s a good chance that things would have turned out that way.

If they’d decided to go with a capsule, the two main options were continuing using Apollo spacecraft or building the Big G. Apollo had the advantage of still being in production, and it could have been launched on very similar rockets to the ones suggested for Big G. Big G, as mentioned, had the advantage of considerably more cargo space. Which of the two would have been picked comes down to an impossible-to-settle question of which advantage would be seen as tipping the scale.

The other possibility is that the Shuttle could have gone ahead, but that NASA could have realized just how long it was going to take before it flew: instead of going to space in 1975 its first mission was pushed back to April 12, 1981. If in 1967-69 they had had a better handle on the challenge they faced, the idea of using Big G as an interim logistics craft until the Space Shuttle was ready to fly would have been more attractive. The only problem with this scenario is that the Shuttle’s development costs put a big dent in NASA’s budget through the 1970s, so the space station that the Big G would have supported would have been hard to build while also going ahead with the orbiters.