Mir-2: The Once-and-Future Station


A schematic of the final Mir-2 design circa 1993. DOS-8 is the large module just above the central junction. Image source unknown, believed to be NPO Energiya. Click for a larger view.

What it was: The next in in the long line of increasingly large and sophisticated Soviet space stations that stretched from Salyut 1 in 1971 to Mir in 1986.

Details: Mir is the least-heralded of the major space firsts. Sputnik-1 and Yuri Gagarin rightly retain their fame, and of course the United States can answer with Apollo 11. Yet of the “big five” goals of the early manned space programs (the fifth being the still-yet unclaimed manned Mars landing) Mir fulfilled one: the first “real” space station. There had been other stations before, as far back as Salyut 1 and Skylab in the early 1970s, but they were not what was envisioned when an orbital outpost had first been seriously discussed in the late 1950s. Unlike the earlier single-piece stations Mir was the first “building” in space, in the literal sense of the word, constructed out of multiple components sent up over time and joined to make a functional whole. Salyut 7 had had one experimental module (TKS-4) attached after launch, but Mir was the real thing.

The station was built around the so-called Base Module (DOS-7), the ultimate version of the DOS framework derived from Vasili Mishin’s civilian Salyuts and Vladimir Chelomei’s Almazes. While it was being built the Soviets also built a backup base module, DOS-8, in case something went wrong with the first one. From the beginning, though, they were also making plans for what to do with the backup if DOS-7 and its launch went as planned. When they did, DOS-8 definitely became the centrepiece of a second space station.

At first Mir-2 was to have been “just another Mir”, which is not too surprising considering that they shared the same design for the core module. The only major difference between the two was the addition of a truss extending from the end of the station, greatly increasing its length, for solar panels and other equipment. But in 1982 Leonid Brezhnev died and was replaced by Yuri Andropov; in the United States, Ronald Reagan had become president the year previous and four months after Andropov’s takeover the US leader initiated the Strategic Defense Initiative. Andropov chose to fight fire with fire, and the Soviet space program was re-oriented to deal with the newly perceived threat. Mir-2 began to change.

There were actually several major redesigns of the station before 1993. One was still fairly close to the original Mir, in that most of its modules were designed to be lifted by Proton rockets and so had to stay in the 20-tonne range. But the station’s solar panels and a larger core module were designed with Energia in mind, and could range up to ninety tonnes. In fact the Energia’s first test payload the space weapon testbed Polyus, which was hurriedly cobbled together from several pieces of equipment, was in part based on a test article of the proposed Mir-2 core. The truss was also turned into a long docking tunnel meaning that one more manned ship or supply craft could visit this version of Mir-2 as compared to the original.

While that design went a fair distance, by the end of the 80s Mir-2 had grown again into what was formally called the Orbital Assembly and Operations Center but generally referred to as “Mir 2.0”. The first two designs had belonged to the Fili Branch of TsKBM, which is to say largely the Almaz design bureau that had been taken from Vladimir Chelomei after the death of his Politburo supporter Andrei Grechko. This version of the station was entirely NPO Energia’s baby and so under the close watch of Valentin Glushko.


The largest version of Mir-2, with its dual keels. Public domain image via NASA.

The new design was similar in appearance to the largest of all the American designs for their space station Freedom, the dual-keel arrangement proposed by McDonnell-Douglas in 1986; Mir 2.0 was to have been constructed around a rectangle made of four trusses. After the launch of DOS-8, Energia rockets would do the rest of the work: a 90-ton core module, then the truss and solar panels, then three more launches carrying three more 90-ton modules. The modules and the solar panels would be attached to a cross-beam on the truss, while various pieces of equipment would be balanced around the rectangle to balance tidal forces as the station orbited Earth.

By the time Mir 2.0 was getting really underway though, the ground had shifted again. Andropov and his successor Konstantin Chernenko were gone, replaced by Mikhail Gorbachev. The US and the Soviet Union had begun reducing their nuclear arsenals with the INF Treaty, Eastern Europe had cut ties with the Soviet Union, and the USSR itself was in an economic collapse. Now Mir-2’s design started heading in the other direction.

“Mir 1.5” was once again based on the DOS-8 block. Dedicated Energia launches were no longer in the picture, so smaller modules in the seven tonne range were assumed now. The real twist was that now DOS-8 was to be launched sometime around 1994 along with the second flight of the Soviet shuttle Buran—its first manned mission. Using the orbiter’s robotic arm, DOS-8 would be maneuvered to join up with the original Mir station; a power module and a biotechnology module would be launched and automatically docked later. When those were all in place, some two years later, DOS-7 would be detached and allowed to deorbit. The newly hatched station would then be built up with additional modules (including a second biotech lab) and a long cross-truss on which to attach solar panels and some equipment, the latter brought by another flight of Buran. This version of Mir-2 would see the second Soviet shuttle (supposedly to be named Burya) arrive every six months to swap out the biotechnology modules, returning their manufactured goods to Earth.

Then the USSR came apart completely. Toward the end of 1993 Mir 1.5 was no longer going to begin its life attached to the original Mir. It was down to just four modules at this point, and would hold a crew of two. By this point, except for the cross-truss, it was largely the same model as Mir, made better primarily by the experience of building the first station.

What happened to make it fail: By then the Soviet Union itself had come apart, and the Russian economy was approaching its nadir, contracting something like 40% in the first half of the 90s. Meanwhile, the American space station Alpha was in very severe trouble. In March of 1993 the new President Bill Clinton had told NASA to look at bringing Russia into the space station effort (which, while primarily American, was also being supported by the ESA, Japan, and Canada). On November 1 of the same year NASA and the Russian Space Agency agreed to merge Mir-2 and Alpha into the International Space Station.

What was necessary for it to succeed: In a sense it did. The third piece of the ISS was the Russian module Zvezda, which is in fact the well-travelled DOS-8 block. Altogether there are five Russian pieces to the ISS as of this writing and, while most of them are newly designed for this station, one more beyond DOS-8 has its roots in the older project: the Rassvet module is built on the repurposed hull of the SPP module which was to have powered the final redesign of Mir 1.5 prior to its folding into the international effort.

For that matter, the ISS is due to be decommissioned sometime after 2020. In 2008, Roscosmos informed the US that they intend to detach some of their modules—both already in space and planned to be attached to the ISS between now and then—starting in the late 2010s and use them as the core of a new station, OPSEK (“Orbital Piloted Assembly and Experiment Complex”, in Russian). One of the modules to be detached is DOS-8, and the designs of OPSEK seen to date bear a family resemblance to Mir’s once-proposed descendant.

Sidebar: The Mercury Space Station


One of two configurations of a proposed Mercury-based space station. The other had the capsule stay in place with an inflatable tunnel running between the two hatches. Click for a larger view.

(Another little experiment along the lines of the Chief Designer posts. I’m finding a few space projects here and there that couldn’t support an entire discussion in False Steps’ usual format, but that still are worth examining. I’m thinking that perhaps they can be used as short sidebars here and there in the final product. I’ve tried two of them out on Reddit so far and they seem popular enough, so here they are for you too.)

In August 1960 McDonnell Aircraft suggested to NASA that a Mercury capsule should be extended into a small space station. This was despite the fact that a human being could just barely fit into a Mercury capsule, and couldn’t live in one for long—the final Mercury, Mercury-Atlas 9, could only last a full day because it was stripped down to hold more consumables, and even at that Gordon Cooper was only able to get it back to Earth through heroic efforts on his part.

That didn’t deter McDonnell. They suggested building a secondary, cylindrical capsule with the main Mercury capsule mounted to one end, and then sticking the whole thing on top of an Atlas LV-3B to fire it into space. Since it would be too heavy for that rocket to lift, the new capsule would have an Agena motor attached to its other end, which would finish pushing the spaceship into orbit.

They stated that the one man aboard the capsule could, with the aid of the extra living and storage space, live on board for an entire two weeks, performing experiments and whatnot until it was time to return home. As a result, they pitched it as a “space station”, but it really was no such thing. Altogether the whole thing only massed a few hundred kilograms more than the Vostok capsule that carried Yuri Gagarin into space; its internal living space was actually smaller than a modern-day Soyuz capsule. Nobody calls either of those craft space stations.

The Mercury Station never got built and likely the kicker was that the Mercury was pretty much an experimental craft. It was never intended to be upgraded and so McDonnell had to resort to a remarkable kludge just to let the astronaut onboard climb between the two pressurized volumes. Ideally there would have been a tunnel directly between the two when they were docked normally, but the Mercury’s retrorockets were in the way. So as designed, this craft would have had to take one of two approaches. Either the Mercury would stay in place and an inflatable half-toroid would join the hatch on the side of the capsule with the hatch on the secondary module, or else the Mercury would bend backwards on a hinge until its side hatch actually touched the side of the new capsule. Only then would the astronaut be able to clamber from one to the other.

NASA said no thanks and nothing ever came of it, but the basic idea seems to have evolved into the Manned Orbiting Laboratory for the US Air Force. Gemini was called “Mercury Mark II” after all, and was configured so that a tunnel could run between its base and any add-on modules behind it. It was quite natural, then to take the concept and adapt it to the newer, more capable spacecraft.

STAR: The USAF’s “Everything” Spacecraft


STAR, the Space Technology and Research Vehicle. Based on a Poseidon missile MIRV (though upscaled), by the 1980s it was a candidate to be a research spaceplane in the mold of the X-15 as well as a cheap, re-usable operational craft for the USAF. Public domain image from the DARPA document Spaceplane Technology and Research (STAR). Click for a larger view.

What it was: An early 1980s proposal to build a research spaceplane along the lines of the X-15 program of the 1960s. To defray costs it would also have been an operational system, designed to do as many things as possible as a supplement to the relatively limited Space Shuttle. It was a slim, small spaceship capable of taking one crew and would have been taken to orbit in the cargo bay of the Shuttle, on top of a modified Peacekeeper missile, or eventually part of an air-launched stack fired from underneath a heavy-lift version of a 747.

Details: In the early 1970s the US Navy looked at a submarine-launched manned spacecraft intended to attack Soviet spy satellites in the event of a war—the idea being that it could be launched from an undetected submarine, perform its mission in less than one orbit, and then return to Earth before being picked up by Soviet radar.

The basic concept foundered on fitting the so-called “Space Cruiser” into a Poseidon missile tube aboard a sub: even a much stripped-down design was hard pressed to fit into one. Anything that could fit wasn’t even going to get to orbit on its own. There’s not a lot of detail available about this early phase of STAR, but one presumes that a submarine looking to send one into space would have to surface, and then have the sub crew remove it from one tube and place it on top of a warhead-less missile in another.

Ultimately the Navy lost interest, but one part of the initial design lived on. The Space Cruiser was a very long, thin cone, taking advantage of work that had been done on the hypersonic characteristics of the MIRV warheads for the Poseidon missile—though much larger, the Space Cruiser would have encountered the same conditions during re-entry.

The designer of the alpha version of the craft, Fred Redding, was a civilian contractor and so by the late 70s he had managed to extract his work from the Navy and revive it under the auspices of DARPA and the US Air Force. Now the Space Cruiser—redubbed Spaceplane Technology and Research (STAR)—would be launched more conventionally, but otherwise was very similar: long and pointed, with only a minor change from a circle-based cone to one with an elliptical base. This had the twin advantages of increasing its internal volume (as the STAR was always starved for propellants) and turning the craft into a lifting body: the original Cruiser needed small aerodynamic strakes, which were difficult to make in a way that could withstand re-entry, but STAR would have stability and cross-range capability solely as a consequence of the shape of its fuselage.

The bigger change in STAR was its goal. Reading the project’s final report from 1984, one gets the sense that Redding felt burned by the Navy withdrawing funding. Accordingly this time he spread STAR’s purpose as far and as wide as possible. For DARPA he was proposing a research craft, specifically modelled on the X-15, that would provide insight into flight into hypersonic travel in the atmosphere, in low Earth orbit, and even as high as geocentric orbit. Paired with this were suggestions from a large number of defense contractors for research questions, with the goal of demonstrating that private industry might pony up some or all of the necessary money for flights that investigated them.

The Air Force got a research vehicle too (Redding specifically mentions a mandate from the Air Force’s Aerospace Medical Division to gather biometric data on humans in microgravity), but for them and the Department of Defense STAR was more an operational vehicle. While the idea was that at first it would be primarily for research it would be extended in a variety of ways as more was learned about flying it. STAR was also specifically tuned to address a number of failings in the Space Shuttle both from the standpoint of the American military and the Shuttle’s overall capabilities, such as lack of maneuverability in space, inflexible launch schedules, and the vulnerability of its launch facilities to military attack.

The basic STAR was intended to be as small and cheap as possible. It would take only one man to space, and do it in Spartan style. The crew compartment would be unpressurized and was only big enough to sit in: the astronaut would have to stay seated in a spacesuit for the duration of his mission. The craft would have no hydraulics, or an ejection seat, or even landing gear. Instead it would finish its ride home under a parawing, like the one originally planned for Gemini. As it would usually end up on land in the US and was relatively simple in design, refurbishing costs and turnaround time would be kept at a minimum. As the lack of an ejection seat suggests, Redding was also a bit contemptuous of the safety culture that had evolved in NASA since the mid-60s, and spec’d his proposal to the test-as-you-fly/fly-as-you-test standards of years earlier.

STAR itself wasn’t intended to get into space under its own power, and is best thought of as an orbital runabout. It would have been eight meters long and only a meter and a half tall at its aft end, tapering down to a fine point at its nose. The nose itself was designed to fold back at a hinge four meters down from the tip of the STAR, producing a compact package just four meters long. While it wasn’t the primary reason for the folding nose, Redding points out that the cost of shipping something in the Space Shuttle’s cargo bay was the greater of two numbers based on length and mass (a mere 4500kg in the case of STAR, folded or unfolded), and so the compacted version would save quite a bit of money at a time when NASA’s carriage fees were rising dramatically.


The more-capable STAR/Centaur-SP combination, which would have been capable of getting to geosynchronous orbit. The Centaur tank could be left behind for use as a small space station module. Public domain image from Spaceplane Technology and Research (STAR).

At first the Shuttle would be used to lift a STAR into orbit, and potentially even two or even three at a time, and deploy them from its cargo bay. Once there it could tool off on its missions and either return to the Shuttle when done or head back to Earth on its own. In situations where the STAR needed to go higher than its on-board propellant would allow (a figure of about 1650 kilometers is quoted), the Shuttle could instead lift a STAR mated to a truncated Centaur stage with a single RD-10 engine, dubbed the Centaur-SP, an arrangement which would just fit into the NASA craft’s cargo bay lengthwise. On top of one of these, a STAR could travel as far as geosynchronous orbit and return, plus the plan was to keep the emptied Centaur tank in orbit to use as the base of a small space station if so desired.

Being able to divorce themselves entirely from NASA was apparently one of the Air Force’s goals, because the plan was to eventually move STAR on top of its own launch vehicle. Mid-term, the idea was to put it on top of a man-rated three-stage MX Peacekeeper missile, then the newest and hottest rocket in military hands (the first of them had been test-fired the year before the STAR proposal was published). One wouldn’t be able get a STAR to orbit by itself, but the STAR could do the rest of the work and reach LEO with some internal propellant remaining.

This was less than ideal, though, as the STAR’s peculiar shape didn’t allow for much fuel on-board and ideally you wanted its tanks full after leaving the atmosphere. This led to the long-term solution, developing an air-launched launch vehicle. Nose folded, the STAR would be put in an aerodynamic fairing on top of a two-stage rocket. The first stage would be a Titan III derivative and burn LOX and LH2, while the second would be one of the aforementioned Centaur-SPs. The Titan III stage would be assisted by two recoverable strap-on boosters again derived from a Titan III, but not as tall and so carrying less fuel.

This whole works would then be strapped to the underside of a 747-200F, the freighter version of the then-current intercontinental 747, with its landing gear increased in height by four feet and fixed into place to make room for its spacebound passenger. The jet would take off normally and lift the STAR stack to an unspecified height and then drop it, at which point the stack’s engines would fire and the astronaut aboard begin his climb to orbit.

However it got there, once the STAR was on its own in space it would burn N2O4 and a blended fuel based on UDMH located in two tanks immediately to fore of the pilot. In front of that, just past the nose hinge, was the payload bay. As can be imagined, the bay was not large: just eight cubic feet, or 0.2 cubic meters.

While it was up and moving around, STAR was intended to have a variety of operational missions. It was proposed to use it as a repair craft for satellites, a way of getting a man close up to a satellite just for inspection purposes (including potentially for objects not belonging to the US), and even as a weapons platform for shooting them down. It could be used as a rescue craft, and was cheap enough and small enough to engage in “buddy system” missions needing two STARs in orbit at the same time.

Once its mission was done, the STAR would return to Earth. As mentioned previously the craft would have an elliptical conical shape, which would give its pilot some control as it re-entered. This reveals one more interesting detail: the original Space Cruiser design, with its circular cone, was largely retained in the STAR vehicle and re-named the “substructure”. The external shape was maintained by a removable aeroshell, which had the advantage of greatly decreasing the turnaround time of a STAR: the internal “spacecraft” part could be extracted from the aeroshell and the latter replaced. While whatever necessary work was done on the bits that had actually been exposed to re-entry heat, the guts of the STAR could fly again in new clothes.

Once the STAR landed under its parafoil, it would be retrieved—and at 4500 kilograms, it wouldn’t be hard to retrieve from almost anywhere on land. If the mission was in the latter days of the program when the 747-based launcher was available, the jumbo jet could also serve as a carrying craft to get it back to base.

If the STAR program had gone ahead, three Shuttle payload opportunities in 1987, 1988, and 1989 were targeted for initial flights.

What happened to make it fail: The ground was shifting quite rapidly under STAR. When Redding made his final report to DARPA, the Air Force, and the Department of Defense in August 1984, the Soviet Union was seven months away from getting Mikhail Gorbachev as its new leader.  The US and Soviet Union would soon sign the INF Treaty, Eastern Europe would break free of Soviet domination, and SDI became a dead letter. The US military suddenly lost much of its interest in space.

After that STAR was left with only its worth as a research test bed. The USAF and the Department of Defense decided not to go ahead with it. DARPA apparently demurred too, though the reasons there are less obvious. One presumes that without military money the defense contractors which had expressed an interest in the program backed away too, and DARPA didn’t want to be entirely on the hook for funding the project.

What was necessary for it to succeed: Besides a change to the wider course of US/Soviet relations, you can also argue that STAR ran into trouble because it was at the tail end of a long-existing argument in space operations: “do we need a man on this, or can we get what we need with an automated system?” As a result, it’s difficult to get it to fly unless you can come up with some way to have it follow on to the X-15 more closely than it did, back into the era when a pilot was more necessary, or keep it in the 80s and get rid of the man on board.

It’s interesting to compare STAR to the current X-37B. So far as can be told from its classified flights the latter spacecraft covers much the same ground for the Air Force as STAR would have: testing spaceplane technology, apparently making dry runs of orbital rendezvouses, and landing horizontally on a regular landing strip. The major difference is that it does so unmanned, the state of the art having advanced even further than it had in the mid-80s—and it can do so for much longer periods of time (the two missions flown to date having been 224 and 469 days long). Something like STAR, with a one-man crew on board, was too extravagant for any time after the late 60s or early 70s.

MTKVP: Glushko’s Opening Gambit


Schematic views of the MTKVP as first originally proposed (above) and as redesigned (below) in the first attempt to satisfy the Soviet military’s desire for a Space Shuttle analog. Image ©Mark Wade of astronautix.com, used with permission. For much more detailed (but unfortunately not free) images, visit buran.ru.

What it was: A fairly sophisticated 1973-76 attempt to square the circle between the ballistic capsules favoured by Russian spacecraft designers and the Space Shuttle analog being demanded of them by the Soviet military. It would have been an elongated lifting body with a rounded triangular cross-section and small folding tail stabilizers. As designed it would have had a payload to LEO of roughly fifteen percent more than the US Space Shuttle.

Surprisingly little information about this craft is available for something that was at the forefront of Soviet space development for nearly two years, and what there is is contradictory: the author even found four different names for it (MTKVP, MTKVA, MTC-VP, and MTK-AM) let alone a raft of inconsistencies in the project’s details. Much more than other False Steps posts this is an attempt to synthesize what’s available and may not be completely accurate. One presumes that only further discoveries in Soviet archives are going to bring this one into proper focus.

Details: As discussed previously, the Soviet space program went through a radical reorientation between 1974 and 1976, as Vasili Mishin was removed as its head, the N1 rocket was cancelled, and the N1-L3 lunar landing mission was scrapped. While the new head Valentin Glushko was well aware that he was expected to focus on a reusable space plane and space stations in low Earth orbit, for eighteen months he entertained the possibility that he could satisfy the military and military-friendly backers who had allowed him to take over while still retaining the dream of a Russian Moon base (or, to be more precise, Glushko’s vision for how this would be done, Zvezda).

The key difference he wanted was a big rocket booster that he could also use for Moon projects. Accordingly, what he supported was an effort to develop a reusable transporter without engines. This could be put on top of the booster, unlike the US orbiter, which needed clearance for its engines and had to be laterally mounted on the side of its rocket-and-fuel-tank stack. While initially conceived as a cylindrical body for cargo with a separable ballistic capsule on top for the crew return, it soon evolved into the MTKVP (“Reusable Vertical Landing Transport Craft” in Russian).

In this new version of the craft the cylinder was replaced with a triangular prism with rounded edges. It tapered gently toward one end, where the crew cabin—now permanently attached to the vehicle—was located, while a single orbital maneuvering engine and small thrusters were placed at the other wider end. The aft end also sported two small winglets, which were folded up during launch and in orbit, but descended to give the MTKVP (in combination with its body shape, which was aerodynamic at hypersonic speeds) a bit of controllability. All told it had about 300 kilometers of cross-range capability, which in usefulness was its major negative compared to the American Space Shuttle.

The booster which it would have topped was a variation on the largest rocket in Glushko’s proposed RLA series, the RLA-150 Vulkan. Dubbed the RLA-130V, it was a recognizable ancestor of the Energia rocket. The Vulkan’s upper stage was removed and replaced with the orbiter. That sat on top of a a large liquid-fuelled core (LOX and LH2) in the centre and six liquid-fuelled boosters around it; these burned LOX and syntin, an artificial hydrocarbon fuel developed by the Russians with better performance than kerosene. In contrast to the Shuttle, which lost its external fuel tank but had recoverable boosters, the launch vehicle would have been completely expendable.

The main body of the MTKVP was dominated by an aft cargo bay, which like the American orbiter was protected by two long bay doors which could be opened to space. As it didn’t have to lift engines and full-fledged wings to orbit, it was to be capable of carrying some 30 tonnes of cargo to orbit, and bring back 20: more than the Space Shuttle, despite the disadvantage of being launched from higher-latitude Baikonur instead of Cape Canaveral.

The MTKVP would have been about thirty meters long; some sources say 37 but this likely includes the mating adapter to its booster. In all it weighed 88 tonnes, which if you add on the 30 tonnes of cargo means the RLA-130V would have been lifting 118 tons to orbit—and if you noticed that that is similar in lift to the Saturn V and N1, congratulate yourself for finding the hidden Moon rocket.


Image of the MTKVP coming in for landing, vertically. Image source and copyright status unknown, please contact the author if you know. Click for a larger view.

Once it dropped below subsonic speeds, to Mach 0.75 at a height of 12 kilometers, it would demonstrate its other major difference from the Shuttle. The V in its name stood for “vertical” (in Russian, anyway) and instead of coming in roughly horizontally to a landing strip, it would deploy parachutes and descend vertically. At the last moment it would fire retrorockets on its underside and settle to ground on skid landing gear. So unlike the US’ orbiter it didn’t need a landing strip, and in fact didn’t need a prepared landing site at all. As long as the ground was flat—a common condition in much of the former Soviet Union—it could land pretty much anywhere.

The first flight of the MTKVP was proposed for 1980.

What happened to make it fail: The Soviet leadership—even Dmitri Ustinov, who had been one of his main supporters in his push to take over TsKBEM and transform it into NPO Energiya— made it abundantly clear to Glushko that they were not going to give him his Moon base, and that furthermore that they would not accept anything less than a close copy of the Space Shuttle.

The psychology of the second part of this decision is interesting. Interviews with the various players since the fall of the Soviet Union have established that in the years following the Moon race the Russians had a bit of an inferiority complex toward American space technology. Though their spacecraft designers could see no advantages to the Space Shuttle as compared to expendable systems like Soyuz and Proton, there ensued a battle between those who felt that their analysis should be read at face value and those who were sure that they were missing something.

While the first of these approaches held the field for a while, the political and military people calling the shots became progressively more paranoid about what the Shuttle would be able to do and that the USSR was simply failing to see. Dmitri Ustinov in particular changed his tune after hearing from a shuttle enthusiast at NPO Energiya and from KGB Chief Yuri Andropov—one of the key believers in a hidden military purpose for the US’ orbiter.

For their part, the spacecraft designers had realized there were a number of problems with MTKVP that they were not sure they could solve. Many of them could have been cracked: for example, it would have had to withstand 1900 Celsius on re-entry rather than the maximum 1500 of the Shuttle, but the tiles they later developed for Buran were within striking distance of this. Nevertheless two issues seem problematic even today.

First, as it was designed to land virtually anywhere flat, there was always going to be the problem of how to get the MTKVP back to Baikonur for the next launch. Its low cross-range capability meant that it couldn’t always make it to an airstrip where railways or roads could be used to transport it, let alone something like the enormous Antonov An-225 used to carry Buran: it was by many measures the largest aircraft ever built and needed long, special-purpose runways.

Furthermore the lack of cross-range capability made it hard to get the MTKVP back to Soviet territory in case of an emergency. The Space Shuttle could, if absolutely necessary, land in places as widely scattered as Gander in Newfoundland, Banjul in Gambia, and Guam. Russian insistence on secrecy ruled out this sort of emergency landing. Paradoxically, the USSR was both too big and too small—there wasn’t the necessary infrastructure in many places up-country where the MTKVP might land, and it was unable to be underneath every possible place where a crippled mission might want to land.

Accordingly even as the MTKVP was being designed there was a portion of NPO Energiya working on something much closer to the Shuttle, the OS-120—which even had on-board rocket engines, meaning it was an even more slavish copy of the US orbiter than Buran turned out to be. It seems to have begun as a “due diligence” project, with Glushko far more interested in MTKVP because that approach would allow him his big booster. As pressure from the Shuttle advocates in the military increased, however, Igor Sadovksy (one of Korolev’s long-time engineers going back to the 1950s, and the man in charge of the OS-120) synthesized the two approaches by moving the engines off the orbiter and onto the rocket stack: in other words, the Energia superheavy launcher and the Buran shuttle.

This gave Glushko his big booster and a way to satisfy the military and political forces pushing for a winged shuttle. On January 6, 1976 he approved the proposal, and work on MTKVP and the RLA-130V stalled and eventually stopped; in the future he would refer to this day as “Bloody Sunday”, as he realized it also meant the death of his Moon base plans for the foreseeable future. Buran’s huge costs would see to that. Glushko’s Zvezda base was allowed to move forward in a desultory fashion until 1978, but were cancelled outright then when Buran fell behind schedule and NPO Energiya was forced to work on it almost exclusively.

What was necessary for it to succeed: There are actually a few different avenues that could have led to the MTKVP flying.

A somewhat less-successful US Space program would have helped assuage the Soviet inferiority complex at the time and given them the confidence to go ahead with something more different from the American shuttle, rather than quite literally building an orbiter in which they did not see (but merely suspected) an advantage.

The other way to keep it a going concern is to note one of the reasons Glushko submitted to “Bloody Sunday”. A movement was afoot by engineers who had worked on the N1 to propose the revival of that rocket to the Soviet leadership, and they were preparing to make their pitch in February of 1976. The MTKVP was relatively agnostic about the rocket on which it could be perched: there’d be no real difficulty in designing it to sit on top of an N1. Glushko’s pride couldn’t allow the resurrection of his rival Korolev’s dream booster after having advocated against it for more than a decade, so in part he chose to scrap the top-mounted orbiter in favour of a laterally-mounted Shuttle analog because there was no way to attach one to an N1.

Give Vasili Mishin a successful flight of an N1 (perhaps due to a little more luck with the last failure in November 1972) and Mishin probably could have headed off the coup of 1974. The switch away from a Moon base and toward a Shuttle-of-sorts would have probably happened anyway, and the same engineers who developed MTKVP under Glushko would have been in place in this scenario. All other things being equal, they’d have ended up with a similar design, and would have had a boss who wasn’t beholden to the military people who wanted Buran. Under those circumstances we could have seen an MTKVP (or something quite like it) flying on Korolev’s superheavy instead of Glushko’s mooted replacement.

Project Horizon (Part III): Landing Soldiers on the Moon and Keeping Them There


A depiction of the construction of the second, larger part of the 12-man Moon base proposed as the end goal for Project Horizon. The initial part of the base, shown covered in lunar material at left, was to be built within two months of the first manned landing. The proposed Lunar Landing Craft can be seen soft-landing in the background. Public domain image from Project Horizon: Volume I. Click for a larger view.

What it was: The culmination of the US Army’s Project Horizon proposal of 1959: sending a direct descent/ascent spaceship to the Moon, then building and populating a twelve-man Moon base shortly thereafter.

Details: Having taken off from Christmas Island Launch Facility in the Pacific aboard a Saturn I to the Minimum Orbital Station (MOS), two Army astronauts would receive further fuel launches and then finally an unloaded Moon craft perched on top of a Saturn with a specialized third stage. The third stage has already burned through its fuel to get the heavy direct descent ship into orbit, so after matching orbits with the MOS the Moon crew and the other men living longer-term on the station refuel it. Then the two men bound for points further afield climb aboard and use the stage to burn for their trans-lunar trip.

As well as the TLI stage, the proposed Horizon lunar craft consisted of two more stages. One soft-landed the spaceship on the Moon, and the other would detach from that one (leaving it behind) and return its astronauts to Earth directly. It in turn would separate from a crew return capsule used for re-entry into the atmosphere and splashdown into the ocean.  Altogether this two-stage vehicle would have been some 16 meters long and weighed 64 tonnes. This is huge: the Apollo CSM/LM combination was 45 tonnes, and even at that carried three men instead of two. Even a Saturn V (which was still in its early development during the times of Project Horizon, and is only roughly spec’ed out as a “Saturn II” here) wouldn’t be able to lift that off of Earth, and so the need for refueling in orbit.

To make up for this, there were actually two different types of landers suggested, one of which could be launched directly from Christmas Island on a Saturn I. To meet that requirement, this second type would have been relatively small: 12 tonnes with a payload to the Moon of 2.5 tonnes, a figure made possible only by the fact that they didn’t have to return to the Earth. One would be sent before the first two astronauts started on their journey to the Moon, carrying construction materials for the base. By the end of 1966, there would be four in all sent on their way.

The first manned lunar landing, of two men, would be in April 1965, guided into the site where the base is to be built. In the 1959 report, the Army even had three possible sites picked out: “the northern part of Sinus Aestuum, near Eratosthenes, in the southern part of Sinus Aestuum near the Sinus Medii, and on the southwest coast of the Mare Imbrium, just north of the Appennies”; the last of these is actually not far from where Apollo 15 landed. The Army astronauts’ job would be to explore the immediate area and make sure that the site was acceptable for building a base. They would live in their landing craft until the construction crew arrived in July 1965 (ninety days or so, as compared to Apollo 11’s 21 hours and 34 minutes) at which point they would head home.


A cross-sectional view of the initial two compartment quarters that would house nine to twelve men while they built the larger remainder of the base. Public domain image from Project Horizon, Volume II. Click for a larger view.

This construction crew would consist of nine men, and they would get to work using explosives and tools to dig a deep trench in which they would build their own quarters within fifteen days (or at least no more than thirty) and then cover them with lunar material for protection; a ramp at either end would allow entry and exit from their quarters’ airlock. These accomodations would necessarily be Spartan, but when done the crew would have a small underground base with a cylindrical cross-section (double-walled with vacuum between for insulation), while leftover cargo pods and the like would be buried nearby to hold LOX/nitrogen tanks and waste. The crew would also set up two nuclear reactors to power the base and erect communications equipment so they could stay in permanent contact with Earth.

Now enhanced to twelve men by another landing, the construction crew would get down to building a second, larger cylindrical section at a right angle to the first. When completed the living quarters would be moved here, and it would also contain an office and a sickbay. The original cylinder would be fitted out as two labs, one for biological studies (the proposal charmingly suggests it could be used to check for life on the Moon) and one for physical experiments. The sections of the base wouldn’t link up, but the ramps on one end of each would touch for relatively easy access between them, or as easy as having to put a spacesuit on to walk a few feet can be. A diagram of a remarkably odd-looking spacesuit is included for reference in the report; it has mechanical hands (the astronauts’ real hands were to be cocooned inside the sleeves), and large plates attached to his feet to support him if the lunar dust turned out to be thick.


A diagram of the Horizon spacesuit. Note the odd mechanical hands and “lunar dust walking” plates. Public domain image from Project Horizon: Volume I. Click for a larger view.

By the end of 1968 there would have been ten manned missions in all to the Moon, and eight returns, meaning that the Horizon base would still be inhabited into the indefinite future after that.

What happened to make it fail: The first part of Horizon that we discussed, the launch facility, was perfectly well laid out and not overly different from what ended up being built at Cape Canaveral (though it was bigger and had more pads). The second part is more speculative and is fairly different from what actually happened, but this is mostly because of the change to a Lunar Orbit Rendezvous mission by NASA a couple of years after Horizon was proposed. Still, in retrospect it looks as if they didn’t quite think their station through.

When we get to this third part, though, the speculative nature of what the Army wants to do is front and center. The ways they propose to build and maintain a Moon base are bizarre to modern eyes, mostly because they literally didn’t know the extent of the problems they would face. A close read of the relevant documents reveals a large number of weasel words embedded in every attempt to describe the way things would be done on the Moon if Horizon got the go-ahead. Even Horizon’s summary report admits that the Army wanted another eight months and US$5.4 million dollars just to nail things down before moving on to starting the hardware development for the program.

Having a Moon base was a possible ultimate goal for an American space program, but planning one down to the point of having dates and proposed sites was very premature. Ultimately Project Horizon didn’t fool enough people into thinking that the Army knew what they were doing. Even looking past the previously-discussed antipathy that President Eisenhower had for the military in space, he was known to have used the words “Buck Rogers” more than once to describe the nebulous plans he got from the Army and others, and he was justified in saying so.

What was necessary for it to succeed: The Project Horizon proposal wasn’t actually about how to get to the Moon. It was an attempt by the US Army to establish precedence over the other armed services and, later, the upstart NASA. With Horizon filed away in various Washington bureaucracies, they could point at their long-standing work on manned space travel and plausibly say “Why give money to these newcomers? They’d be starting from scratch and you’d have to pay for that! Give it to us; it’s the wise course to take”.

Then, if anybody bought what they were selling, the way they actually went about it would conform to Horizon only incidentally as they got around to determining how to build this part of their empire. They could always go back and get more money and more time if they needed it, once the US committed to doing it through them.

So Horizon Base was never going to get built. It’s not an appropriate way for housing 12 men on the Moon because when it was designed the proper ways to do it were literally unknown, and would remain unknown for some time. But all it needed to succeed at its actual goal was to fend off Eisenhower long enough for someone in Congress to step up for them and ram through a bill giving the Army control of manned space exploration. It was a decent bet, just one that didn’t pay off.

X-15B: Shortcut to Space?


A cutaway diagram of the X-15B. While the shape of the plane was the same as the original, a large number of changes would have been necessary to send it into orbit. Space was carved out for a second crew member, who also had a canopy of his own. A small payload bay was put directly behind him. Image from the NASA publication SATURN/X-15 Flight Research Program Report. Click for a larger view.

What it was: A North American Aviation proposal to build an orbital spaceplane based on the same aerodynamic shape as the X-15 and boosted by leftovers from the cancelled Navaho cruise missile program or a Saturn. Initially proposed as a single-orbit craft in 1956-57, in the short period post-Sputnik I but before the responsibility for manned space exploration was given to NASA it was one of three ideas seriously considered by the US Air Force to get a man into space before the Soviet Union.

Details: In February 1956 the US Air Force’s Air Research and Development Command (ARDC) began work on a follow-up to the X-15 research craft, Project 7969, with a specific goal of putting a man into space. As this was pre-Sputnik I progress was leisurely, but before long there were two main lines of approach being studied: the Manned Ballistic Rocket Research System, which would work on a ballistic capsule (probably to be launched on an Atlas missile), and the Manned Glide Rocket Research System, which was to work on a rocket-boosted spaceplane. There were no funds for any of this research, so contractors were enlisted to work on it themselves and were paid with the hope that it might lead to lucrative contracts

North American Aviation was one of those that responded to the Glide Rocket specifications. Their work on the X-15 was already well underway, so they suggested an interesting shortcut to getting something into orbit. The aerodynamic properties of the X-15’s shape were already understood from wind tunnel work, and within a few years there would be a plethora of data from the actual flights it would make, so why not build on that? The X-15B would need no further aerodynamic testing—NAA could proceed right to redesigning the craft for orbit.

Once built, this iteration of the X-15B would be launched on a bundle of four G-38 Navaho missiles—also a product of NAA. The X-15B would make a single orbit (and no more: while its apogee was 120 kilometers its perigee was only 75, and that would force re-entry whether they wanted to stay up for a second orbit or not), and then the pilot would parachute to safety while his craft crashed into the Gulf of Mexico. Total cost? US$120 million over thirty months.

While not entirely keen on the specifics of this mission, the Air Force realized that there might be something there worth investigating. Work on the X-20 Dyna-Soar had already started but it was still years away from flight. Why not slot the X-15B into the space between the end of the regular X-15 flights and the start of the X-20’s in order to slowly build up to the latter?

The level of the Air Force’s interest rose radically in the months following Sputnik I. Project 7969 morphed into Man in Space Soonest (MISS), and proposals were once again solicited. There were eleven in all, but three were picked as likeliest to succeed: one of the ballistic capsules proposed by six of the defense contractors, accelerating the Dyna-Soar, and building the X-15B.

The general consensus, though, was that a ballistic capsule was the way to go. Man in Space Soonest was an entirely political exercise: beat the Russians to the punch by getting a man into space as quickly as possible. Whether there was any more practical reason for him to be up there was irrelevant. The Dyna-Soar and X-15B would have uses like reconnaissance and bombing, but that didn’t matter in context. The former would take too long no matter how many resources were thrown at it, and the X-15B suffered from the problem that it needed to be piloted: learning if an astronaut could function as a pilot in the conditions of space would take extra time. In a ballistic capsule, he’d just have to sit there.

Their preference was confirmed in October 1958 when MISS was absorbed by the newly created NASA. It became Project Mercury, and NASA focused on its Mercury capsule.

That didn’t mean that the X-15B would not be built at all, though. Returning to the idea that it could fit between the regular X-15 (which was now NASA’s baby) and the X-20, NAA continued to pitch it to the new agency. In the past this phase of the X-15B’s existence has been overlooked, mostly because it was classified Secret in 1959 and dropped out of sight. NAA’s final 1961 reports to NASA did come out a few years ago though, and gives us a clear idea of how it might have flown.


Diagram of the unusual materials needed for the X-15B’s structure so that it could resist re-entry temperatures. The skin would have been even more exotic. Click for a larger view.

Like the original X-15B proposal, the next iteration of the craft would have had the same shape as the plain X-15. The biggest difference between the two planes was the materials used to make them. While the X-15 could get by with aluminum and steel for its frame, the X-15B’s orbital re-entry would have caused it to deal with much higher temperatures: as high as 2700 Celsius on the leading wing edges. Regular structural metals would sag and melt when subjected to that.

As a result the nickel alloy Inconel X, which was used only for the heat-resistant skin of the X-15, was restricted to the area of the plane’s frame behind the nose and above the belly. Those other two areas, as well as the wings and tail fins, had to use more exotic refractory materials like graphite, molybdenum, and beryllium oxide. Where the heat was worst, NAA planned on using thorium(IV) oxide, which means that—like its predecessor the Douglas Model 684—the X-15B would have been somewhat radioactive. Unlike the Douglas plane only structural elements for the tail fin edges and the roots of the wing edges would have used the stuff, not the whole skin.

The skin of the plane would have been even more exotic, including molybdenum, tungsten, the René-41 alloy used for the shell of the Mercury capsule, and niobium. The last of these was a particularly interesting call as at the time the Dyna-Soar was also looking as if it were going to made out of the same metal, and together they would have used up more than the world’s annual production of the metal for a few years.

Inside the plane was rather different too. Space was carved out for a second crew-member, who was also given a canopy, while instrumentation was stuffed into an area behind him (in the X-15 you could have instrumentation or a second crew, not both, and if you went with the latter he couldn’t see out). Behind that the X-15B’s oxidizer tank could be accessed through a payload door on the top of the craft; the tank could either take up the whole space for missions where more fuel was needed, or a smaller tank could be fitted and part of the space be used for a small satellite payload.

The extra space for this arrangement was available because while the X-15B was to have the same shape as the X-15, it would have been somewhat bigger. Oddly enough, how much bigger is not clear—two figures are 57’ 4” and 52’ 4”, and one presumably incorrect NAA illustration even shows it as taking up approximately 42 feet of a Saturn/X-15B stack even though the original X-15 was seven feet longer than that. However much it was, this extra space would also have been used for one more purpose: instead of bringing oxygen bottles as was done on the short flights of the basic X-15 or as would have been done for the earlier single-orbit X-15B, the final X-15B plan had a regenerative oxygen system.


Saturn/X-15 stack for the first mission. In later missions to higher altitudes, the S-IV would be swapped out for the more-powerful S-II. Click for a larger view.

They couldn’t carry bottles because the weight of them needed for the final plan’s missions was too great: even the first X-15B launch was going for 32 orbits over the course of two days (thus giving the 90-minute orbit that was ubiquitous in early space mission designs). The craft would be perched on top of two-thirds of a Saturn V rocket stack and would be launched to 150 kilometers. For the first mission the second stage would be deleted, but for later, higher missions would have taken out the smaller third stage instead. Using equipment stowed in the payload bay, they would engage in some optical and radio telescopy, measure the Earth’s gravitational field, and study the planet’s surface with infrared and radar.

Once their two-day mission was done, the crew would retro-fire the X-15B’s rockets to get them down to 105 kilometers where the residual atmosphere would cause them to re-enter. Though they’d have to bleed off 28,000 kilometers per hour of speed, before too long they’d be back to velocities more typical of the original X-15 and glide back to base like that more-staid craft did. Unlike the original X-15B proposal, this version of the craft was almost fully recoverable—no parachutes and dips into the Gulf of Mexico now. The only blemish was the need to jettison its ventral tail fin so that the plane’s aft landing skid could touch the landing strip.

North American Aviation promised that if they started work in December 1959, the first manned orbital flight in the X-15B would take place in June 1964.

What happened to make it fail: It turned out that the time-saving of re-using the X-15’s shape wasn’t nearly enough to turn the X-15B into a useful program. Once NAA worked it all out and came up with that target date of June 1964, it meant that the X-15B wasn’t going to fly until nearly two years after the X-20 Dyna-Soar was supposed to make its first suborbital flight. The idea of using it to build up to the X-20 was a complete impossibility.

What was necessary for it to succeed: At first blush it seems like the X-15B might have had room to fit into the gap between the X-15 and the X-20 anyway, once delays are worked in The Dyna-Soar didn’t fly in mid-1962 like it was supposed to, and didn’t even come close. When it was cancelled in December of 1963, Boeing hadn’t even begun building it, and the first flight had been pushed back until January 1, 1966.

The X-15B still wouldn’t have been able to catch up. What was delaying the X-20 was the work needed to develop the materials for its frame and skin; exactly the same work would have been needed for the X-15B; its worked-out aerodynamics and the time saved there were irrelevant to the problem, so all the real-world delays that affected the more advanced craft would have affected its hypothetical predecessor too.

Ultimately the X-15B was an interesting idea, but it couldn’t fill any of the niches it was supposed to fit—first orbital craft or interim test-bed—and so there was no reason for it to get built.

It did give history one interesting legacy, though. Astronaut selection for MISS was completed on June 25, 1958. Nine astronauts were selected and several would be pilots for the vanilla X-15 instead (one, Joe Walker, would reach space that way), and a couple would be selected for the X-20. But more important from a historical standpoint is the one who moved on to NASA from MISS via the X-15: Neil Armstrong.

Energia: The Last Big Rocket


A rendering of the Energia rocket launching its primary payload, Buran. Unlike the American shuttle stack, the rocket could be launched on its own, and was in the same class as the Saturn V. Image source and copyright status unknown. Please contact the author if you know of its origins. Click for a larger view.

What it was: A Soviet super-heavy lift launcher. It was one of the three most powerful rockets ever built, in the same class as the Saturn V as well as the ill-fated N1 it was partially intended to replace. Its other main role was to act as a booster for the Soviet space shuttle, unlike the American one which got itself to space using its own engines fed by its large external fuel tank. Though it did go to space twice in 1987-88 it qualifies for this blog because it didn’t fly any more after that, despite being intended as the heavy-lift backbone of the Soviet Union for well into the 21st century.

Details: For about twenty months after taking over TsKBEM (the former OKB-1) from the disgraced Vasili Mishin, Valentin Glushko worked toward a lunar base centred on a derivative of the Proton rocket, a design of Vladimir Chelomei’s using hypergolic engines designed by Glushko.

By early 1976, however, Glushko had been told by Soviet leadership to stop work leading to the Moon and instead focus on a Soviet space shuttle in response to what they perceived as the military threat posed by the US’ own Space Shuttle. While the eventual Buran shuttle would bear a strong resemblance to the American orbiters, Glushko made one major change that let him keep his Moon base alive surreptitiously.

In the American Space Shuttle, two strap-on boosters helped pushed the shuttle stack to 46 kilometers high. But some of the thrust up to that level, and all of it from the moment of booster separation, came from engines on the aft end of the Shuttle. In other words, the Shuttle was at least partly its own launch vehicle, while the external tank to which it was attached was not in any way a rocket. It existed solely to carry fuel for the Space Shuttle’s main engines.

Glushko chose instead to build Buran with no engines at all. It was solely a glider for returning to Earth, while it was lifted into orbit by engines on the end of what superficially appeared to be a copy of the US Shuttle’s external fuel tank—but was actually the Energia rocket. In other words, the Soviet Union’s chief designer hid a Saturn V-class booster, potentially useful for his beloved Moon base, in his space shuttle system.

Energia began when Glushko took over TsKBM (in fact the name “Energia” was applied to the newly reorganized department as NPO Energiya long before it was given to the rocket) and brought with him his new RLA (“Rocket Flight Apparatus” in Russian) rocket designs. In the early 1970s the Soviet Union had no less than three active launchers, discounting the N1—R-7 derivatives, the Tsyklon, and the Proton. All three were different from one another in design and construction, and the cost of running them were accordingly high. For the third generation of Soviet launch vehicles the requirement was to build light, medium, heavy, and super-heavy launchers from one common set of components, and the RLA was Glushko’s proposal to meet this. Of the various designs, the super-heavy RLA-135 is the one that interests us.

The RLA series was passed over in favour of the Zenit rockets of the Yangel Design Bureau but Yangel didn’t have a super-heavy solution, stopping instead at the “medium” level and leaving an opening for Energia. Glushko took his RLA-135 design, which had a large core rocket and strap-on boosters, and proposed it again with a modular version of the Zenit as the boosters and the core being a new rocket designed by his bureau. His suggestion was accepted and the Energia was born.

Glushko did have to take one other hit to his ego, though. For years the Soviet space program had been hampered by the fact that he refused to go along with Sergei Korolev’s judgment that LOX and liquid hydrogen were the best fuels to use on a large rocket. The N1 accordingly had engines built by a far less experienced designer, Nikolai Kuznetsov, while Glushko focused on nitric acid and dimethylhydazine.

But while those propellants have the advantage of being dense and storable, they’re also not as powerful by weight and have the disadvantage of being a toxic disaster to clean up if a rocket fails. Furthermore, the Soviet leadership were interested in catching up with the United States in LOX/LH2 engines—the USSR had never built a large one, while the second and third stages of the Saturn V used them, as would the Space Shuttle Main Engine. Partly of his own accord but also because of this political pressure, Glushko had to concede in his ongoing argument with the eight-years-dead Korolev.

That said, he pulled it off. Over the course of the next ten years (which is long, but not too long: the Saturn V took a bit less than seven years from proposal to first launch) NPO Energiya developed the massive core stage of the rocket. The side boosters were relatively easier, being smaller and using the kind of LOX/kerosene engines that the USSR had plenty of experience with, so the entire rocket stack was ready to fly for the first time by October of 1986.

Unfortunately they didn’t have a payload for it. While there had been some problems developing the Energia, the Buran shuttle was having a far worse time of it and wasn’t anywhere near completion. Up to this point the name “Energia” had been applied to both the booster and the spaceplane taken together, but Glushko’s earlier misdirection came back to the forefront. The rocket didn’t need to wait until its other half was ready. As it entered its last year of development, the decision was made to launch it first without Buran.

Between the fall of 1985 and fall of 1986, a new payload was quickly whipped up named Polyus. It was one of Vladimir Chelomei’s Functional Cargo Blocks, repurposed from a space station module and closely related to the Zarya module of the ISS. Polyus carried a wide variety of experiments, but its main purpose was to test the Skif-DM, a 1-megawatt carbon dioxide gas laser weapon that the USSR had been working on since 1983. Retrospectively this is less alarming than it seems, as the USSR had been hammering the US over the Strategic Defense Initiative and Mikhail Gorbachev was less than keen to risk the Americans finding out that his country was countering militarily; the Reykjavik Summit had ended in October 1986 with the two countries close to radical nuclear weapons reductions, and they would conclude the INF treaty in December of 1987. Various components of the laser were deliberately left out, leaving it with only the ability to track targets, and Gorbachev is reported to have banned testing of even that during a visit to Baikonur a few days before launch. From the standpoint of the rocket, however, Gorbachev’s visit is most interesting as it led finally to the formal naming of the launcher (as distinct from the shuttle it was supposed to launch) as Energia: it was painted on its side just prior to his tour.

The General Secretary’s misgivings notwithstanding, the first launch of Energia went ahead on May 15, 1987. During the first few seconds of its flight, before it cleared the launch tower, it tilted noticeably to one side but then corrected itself when the rocket’s attitude control system kicked in at T+3 seconds. From then Energia flew beautifully, watched only by a sole Soviet MiG as from the standpoint of the ground it quickly disappeared in low-hanging cloud. Its boosters were seen to separate correctly (though for this flight and the next they were not fitted with the parachutes that would make them recoverable), and then the core stage flew out of range of even the jet watching it. Upon burning out, it released Polyus and re-entered into the Pacific Ocean, as planned.

Polyus weighed 80 tons, and so to reach its useful orbit it had to fire a small rocket engine of its own after being released. To do so it had to rotate 180 degrees, and unfortunately for it a programming error made it continue to rotate as the engine fired—deorbiting it instead of pushing it higher. It too crashed in the Pacific.

While this was an embarrassing result, the rocket itself was a complete success. Work continued on Buran and the largely completed shuttle (while flyable, at the time it could generate only enough power for one day in orbit) was mated to another Energia and launched on an unmanned mission on November 15, 1988. Again, the rocket performed admirably (with a change in its own programming to prevent the alarming blast-off tilt) and this time its payload did too: Buran landed automatically at Baikonur after two orbits, three hours and twenty-five minutes later.

So by the beginning of 1989 the Soviet Union had itself what was at the time the most powerful rocket in production, and one that hasn’t been approached closely ever since. It could launch a space shuttle with a payload similar to that of the US’ orbiters, and if used as a rocket on its own could lift 88 tonnes into low Earth orbit or 32 tonnes to the Moon (compare to 118 and 45 for the Saturn V, and 92.7 and 23.5 for the N1 it replaced). Further development was expected to push this to 100 tonnes, and work moved forward to build a dedicated cargo pod rather than the cobbled-together Polyus to lift. A smaller version of the rocket dubbed the Energia-M, with one engine and two boosters, was underway too so that smaller payloads up to 34 tonnes could be lifted more cheaply.

What happened to make it fail: Clearly the collapse of the Soviet Union was the major cause. Just as the launcher was finding its legs the security concerns of being a superpower evaporated, as did money for any large-scale scientific missions it could have supported. There was also the problem that the Zenit-derived strap-on boosters were built by a company that was now in the independent Ukraine.

Even before that, though, Energia was already suffering from a lack of missions—if you’re not going to the Moon, lifting 100 tonnes to orbit is a bit superfluous. The shuttles it was primarily designed to lift had the same flaws as the American shuttle, and didn’t have the advantage of being the country’s sole launcher of note (as the US Shuttle did prior to the Challenger explosion in 1986).

NPO Energiya’s desperation comes through when you examine some of the missions they proposed:

  • Orbiting massive lasers to deconstruct oxygen in the upper atmosphere, for the purpose of rebuilding the ozone layer over the course of several decades.
  • Using it to build a Helium-3 mining base on the Moon—bearing in mind that Helium-3 is only useful in fusion power plants being developed by an international consortium that believes they’ll be ready to go in 2050.
  • Launching spent nuclear fuel waste into “graveyard” heliocentric orbits.

Ultimately it came down to a question of what it was supposed to do that couldn’t be done by smaller, cheaper rockets—each launch of an Energia cost $US240 million, even at the more favourable black market rate of the rouble to dollar in the late 80s. Even if launches were reserved for situations where only it was capable enough, just keeping the plant in place to build it would have cost a not-so-small fortune, which the Soviet Union didn’t have and post-1991 Russia most definitely didn’t have.

What was necessary to succeed: Keep the Soviet Union a going concern. This is difficult if one subscribes to the theory that the Soviet Union collapsed primarily because of financial pressures, because you can also reasonably say that Energiya/Buran was one of the main straws breaking the camel’s back. It was representative of the unchecked spending that killed the USSR and if the only way they could have continued would have been to not do this sort of thing.

On the other hand, one can reasonably argue that it was Mikhail Gorbachev’s reaction to the country’s finances that did the worst damage, and that the USSR could have limped along into the present day if the Politburo had come up with someone other than Gorbachev as leader following Konstantin Chernenko.

That solves the major problem with a large booster—that it’s not economically feasible to run one for anything other than special purpose missions. The Soviet leadership got the USSR into financial trouble by ignoring costs when it suited them, so Energia probably would have flown every now and then until the belated collapse of this postulated Soviet Union did finally occur.

Putting aside the more radical missions mentioned above, what would Energia been used for? Likeliest would be a space station built around one or more large modules, with other smaller ones being lifted by the Energia-Buran combination. Mir-2 was redesigned to be built solely from 30-ton modules as late as 1991.

Also possible was a smaller shuttle, OK-M2, which would have perched on top of the Energia stack rather than on the side. If the USSR’s leaders had reached the same conclusion about their space shuttle as many people did about the American one, it’s entirely possible they would have scrapped Buran and its follow-up orbiters, flown Energia as a cargo rocket for a while, and developed this smaller proposed shuttle as a replacement.

Glushko’s bet that the Soviet space program would go through a future shake-up, as it had several times before, was probably a good one too. While it’s obviously more efficient to design a launcher around proposed missions, past history shows that once a system is designed people start figuring out ways to use it. With a super-heavy launcher at hand, it seems likely that the Soviet Union would have eventually got around to a Moon landing, and only somewhat less likely that they’d have moved on to a Moon base. It really would have come down to a race between deteriorating Soviet finances (assuming that they couldn’t have come up with a softer landing at some later point than actually happened ) and the time when someone with power in the Politburo and Secretariat came to champion it. It would have been expensive and somewhat pointless, but that was the USSR’s modus operandi in any number of megaprojects. As it happened, Glushko died on January 10, 1989, less than two months after the Energia’s second, and last, flight, and before his bet had a chance to pay off.

Though none of this ever came to pass, Energiya does have a continuing legacy down to the present day. The Zenit rocket that shares so much technology with the Energia’s strap-on boosters became the cheapest of all current launchers (at about US$2500 to $3600 per kilogram). In 2010 NPO Energiya bought out its partners in the Sea Launch consortium that uses them, and is now in charge of firing them from their ocean platform as well as from Baikonur in Kazakhstan.

The RD-170 engine developed for the Zenit and the Energia strap-ons have also proven to be one of the best rocket engines ever developed. Its derivatives are still used on the Zenit, on a South Korean rocket called the Naro-1, the upcoming Russian Angara rocket family, and surprisingly even on the American Atlas V, which not only launched scientific missions like the Curiosity rover and the New Horizons probe to Pluto but also is used by the US military. Such is the difference between 1988 and the present day.

YouTube video of the first Energia launch, including its alarming tilt away from the launch tower before its attitude control system kicked in, can be seen here.