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‘s 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.

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.

Apollo LM&SS: Mapping the Moon and the Earth (Apollo Applications Program, Part III)


The later design of the LS&MM. Unlike the earlier, larger module based on the KH-7 satellite, this one’s mapping module (right) was designed by Martin Marietta. As well as the crew compartment shown, an open truss containing the mapping cameras and sensors would be attached where the “End Airlock S016″ can be seen—retrieving the film from the cameras would require depressurizing the compartment and a suited astronaut reaching into space to get it. The section on the left is the usual Apollo CM. Public domain image from NASA document Technical Data AAP Mission 1A 60-Day Study. Click for a larger view.

What it was:  A tiny space station consisting of a photo reconnaissance module docked with an Apollo CSM in place of a regular LM. In return for being unable to land on the Moon, the LM&SS would become the first lunar-orbit space station, its mission to take high-quality photographs as the CSM was orbiting, and do it in a variety ways such as in regular light or infrared. It was originally targeted at the Moon, at first to survey Apollo landing sites and later for a more comprehensive scientific mapping mission. After cancellation and rebirth it turned into an Earth observation mission, partly for scientific study of the globe and partly to test the equipment for what had become a more hypothetical mid-to-distant-future Apollo lunar mapping mission.

Details: One of NASA’s earliest goals was to survey the Moon; there’s not much point in sending out a manned Moon lander if you don’t even know where they can put down safely. This goal was met by five very successful unmanned probes, Lunar Orbiter 1 through Lunar Orbiter 5, launched between August 1966 and August 1967. The first three of these specifically surveyed potential Apollo landing sites, while Lunar Orbiter 4 mapped almost the entire near side and Lunar Orbiter 5 almost the entire far side. Altogether they covered 99% of the Moon’s surface, and the last of the probes even photographed some of the surface down to a 2-meter resolution.

Before they were launched, though, NASA was worried that they might not accomplish what they were built to do—and rightfully so: the Lunar Orbiter’s predecessor, the Ranger program, had become a laughing stock after the first six attempts to get a probe to the Moon had failed. Even though the Rangers had the comparatively simpler goal of crash-landing (and photographing the impact region on the way down), from August 1961 to January 1964 they had done nothing but produce a sorry list of launch failures, camera failures, and outright misses of a target 3475 kilometers in diameter. Ranger 7 finally pulled off the trick on July 28, 1964, smacking into the Moon 69 kilometers from the eventual Apollo 11 landing site on the Sea of Tranquility, but NASA was still nervous about getting the quantity and quality of images they would need to keep an LM from accidentally landing on a boulder or on a steep slope.

So while they pinned their hopes on the Lunar Orbiter program, they also developed a backup plan they could use if they needed it: the Apollo Lunar Mapping and Survey System (LM&SS). At the time the new National Reconnaissance Office, after several years of teething problems themselves, had been building and flying the KH-7 spy satellite successfully since 1963. In the same year the Department of Defense, NASA, and the NRO agreed to share their technology and Kodak, Lockheed, and General Electric were contracted to build a variant of the KH-7 which had its station-keeping engines and film re-entry vehicle deleted but a small docking port added. So modified, one could be lofted into orbit in the part of a Saturn V that would normally house an LM.


The camera of a KH-7 satellite, and so a close analog of the original LM&SS. The re-entry vehicle for the film (left) would have been removed and replaced with a docking adapter. Public domain image from the NRO. Click for a larger view.

As with the regular Apollo missions, this one would have been sent on its way to the Moon by the upper stage of the Saturn V and then a short way into that journey the CSM would have undocked, moved away a short distance, rotated 180°, and then returned to dock nose-first—the difference being that it would be docking with the LM&SS, not a more-usual LM.

Upon arrival at the Moon, the LM&SS (which was also the name used for the entire craft) would enter a polar orbit, slicing the Moon up photographically as it rotated beneath. The entire mission would take 35 days, 28 of them in lunar orbit so that the Moon could make one complete turn on its axis and the LM&SS cover the entire surface; this would have required a change to the CSM’s life support systems so it could handle a journey that long.

The film in the camera would be retrieved periodically and then once all the photographs were taken the LM&SS would have been ejected to crash into the Moon (as it would do sooner rather than later because of the way lunar mascons wreak havoc on stable lunar orbits) and the CSM would return to Earth following the usual Apollo mission profile.

This variant KH-7 would have been about five meters long and enclosed entirely in a near-featureless cylinder about a meter and a half in diameter. When docked to the CSM it would have looked, appropriately enough, as if the CSM was sporting an enormous telephoto lens on its nose.

By 1967 an internal battle at NASA between those who felt that the Lunar Orbiter survey was sufficient and those who wanted the higher-resolution LM&SS pictures ended with the former in the ascendant. Four LM&SS modules were at various stages of completion by then, but this particular version of the lunar mapping mission was cancelled.

Among the factors contributing to this was the fact that the mission would have needed a precious Saturn V launch just at the time when NASA were discovering that Congress wouldn’t pay for as many of those rockets as they would have liked. That explains in part the second variant of the LM&SS program, the Apollo Applications Program launch that was designated AAP-1A.

As the name suggests, this would have been an early Apollo Applications Program mission—the third, confusingly enough, after AAP-1 and AAP-2 which would have launched the proto-Skylab Orbital Workshop space station and its first crew. AAP-1A would have originally brought the LM&SS equipment to the OWS, but after the OWS’ mission planners became concerned that the first crew already had too much to do they decided not to go ahead with installing the LM&SS on the station. AAP-1A became a standalone mission more like the LM&SS’ original conception: a CSM and the LM&SS docked to one another to make a miniature space station of its own.

Whether attached to the OWS or the LM&SS, AAP-1A’s goal was Earth observation, but also to put the LM&SS through its paces for a nebulously planned Lunar observation mission that would get back on the schedule as a pure science mission sometime in the future. The basic problem this mission looked to address was interpreting the photographs of that hypothetical lunar mission. Observation missions during wartime had shown that it was actually quite hard to figure out what an aerial photo was trying to tell you if the enemy wasn’t about to let you look at what you were photographing with a later visit on the ground. With the Moon there was no enemy other than distance and cost, but establishing the “ground truth” was equally difficult. It was entirely possible that the LM&SS photos would be misinterpreted in critical ways because there was no way to cross-check those interpretations.

So somebody came up with the idea of launching the LM&SS on top of a Saturn IB. It couldn’t go to the Moon that way, but it could stay in Earth orbit and image parts of the United States that could be reached easily. Follow-up field trips on the ground would then go and look at what was imaged and learn how what was on film compared with the view on terra firma.

Somewhere along the way (and for reasons we’ll examine shortly) NASA decided not to use the full KH-7 module. Instead they commissioned Martin Marietta to develop a stripped-down version consisting of a small manned module with a small airlock to the film compartment; the astronaut using it would have to suit up, depressurize the LM&SS manned compartment, and then reach out through the lock into space to retrieve the reels. In return for the smaller size of the main camera arrangement, it was now possible to add a large suite of other sensors and cameras to the LM&SS as well as a few unrelated experiments. Martin Marietta designed an open tetrahedral truss made of aluminum, and wrapped it around the module to support the instruments. The module in turn was then docked to the CSM. While the truss-supported instruments were open to space and so generally intended to be self-sustaining, the LM&SS did have a second man-sized airlock so that an astronaut could go on a spacewalk to fix or retrieve one.

AAP-1A was planned out quite thoroughly and aimed to launch in either late 1968 or early 1969, just prior to Apollo 11 and as the Earth-orbiting mainstream CSM/LM tests Apollo 7 and 9 were underway.

What happened to make it fail: The Lunar Orbiter program was a roaring success: five out of five launches did what they were supposed to do, in contrast with the poor, benighted Rangers. The complementary Surveyor probes worked well too: seven landers and seven landings, though two did crash rather than coming down softly as designed. Apollo 12 even visited Surveyor 3 thirty-one months after it had proved its target to be a suitable landing site. Even so, as mentioned previously some NASA personnel thought that the Lunar Orbiter photos weren’t enough, and that something higher resolution would be needed. Nevertheless, the consensus emerged that what they’d got from the Orbiters was good enough, and that the LM&SS didn’t need to fly.

What may have tipped the balance that way was another pressure on the LM&SS mission. For many years it was believed that the LM&SS module was a modified LM, not a KH-7; only a little information about the program leaked out from industry insiders. Why? The KH-7 may have been obsolete (it was being replaced with the KH-8 just as NASA starting working on theirs), but it was still classified and it stayed classified until September 2011. While the NRO as a whole was willing to supply NASA with the equipment they needed, they  were nervous about even officially disclosing the existence of American spy satellites. If Apollo had absolutely needed it, they were would go along with putting one of their birds in the halogen-lamp glare of the Space Race in the hopes that no-one would look at it too closely and believe the cover story that it was a piece of NASA equipment.

So the first iteration LM&SS was cancelled because of the clandestine nature of the equipment they would have had to use. The radically less-open culture of the NRO that was supplying that equipment made it certain that it wouldn’t move forward once the primary goal of protecting the astronauts (or, more to the point, preventing American propaganda disaster) could reasonably have been said to be reached.

This is what morphed the LM&SS module into its new shape. Even though it was using the same camera, the module was heavily redesigned so as to make it less obvious where the camera came from. Even then the NRO was also apparently unhappy even to reveal that the US had the capability to image the Earth at high resolution, as would become obvious once AAP-1A’s photos were made available to the public; a document declassified in December 2011 named presidential science advisor Donald Hornig as the higher-up who pushed the issue. With their budget shrinking quickly NASA probably would have cancelled AAP-1A anyway, but certainly the concerns of the NRO were another straw on that particular camel’s back

What was necessary for it to succeed: Each of the variants of the LM&SS program failed for different reasons, so let’s take them in order.

For the initial one, using the KH7 to examine the Moon for Apollo sites, there’s the obvious possibility that Orbiters would have proven to be a second run of the Rangers. Alternatively, the faction of NASA that felt the images from the Orbiters still weren’t good enough and that the LM&SS module should fly might have come out on top. Having a rocket they could have used would have helped there. While the Saturn V wasn’t formally put aside until 1968, NASA had to have seen the writing on the wall, as they had been requesting funding for the sixteenth and seventeenth Saturns since 1966, and never could get it. If one or more of those had come through, the Lunar mapping program would have been right near the top of the list to be perched on one.


Apollo 15’s Endeavor with its scientific instrument bay open, photographing the Moon. Its camera was located at to the right of the white rectangle that can be seen near the centre of the bay. Public domain image from NASA.

The second proposal for lunar mapping, the scientifically oriented one that was to follow at an indeterminate point after the Earth Sciences test, fell by the wayside with the decision to do lunar mapping from CSMs of the regular Apollo missions. People often don’t realize that while two astronauts from each Apollo did their work down on the lunar surface, the third astronaut wasn’t idle while in orbit in the CSM above. Among the things he’d do while circling the Moon, at least during the J-class Apollo 15, 16, and 17, was photograph it using a 24-inch panoramic camera based on those used by the KH-7’s predecessors in the CORONA spy satellite program.

The difference that made flying one of those easier than an using an entire LM&SS was the nature of the camera. It wasn’t very hard to cover it up as a bespoke piece of equipment made for NASA, since in essence that was what it was, and its presence wasn’t as obvious because it was small enough that it could be stuck in the section of the Service Module (the SM being subdivided internally into six radial compartments) that was reserved for scientific equipment. Contrast that with the KH-7 module, which was obviously a piece of surveillance equipment, and one that massed 2000 kilograms and had to be docked to the front end of a CSM for the lack of anyplace else it would fit. There was no hiding that. The CORONA cameras may not have been as capable, but they were a lot more politically palatable. NASA’s willingness to take the CORONA cameras as “good enough” would have had to change before they would have pushed back against the NRO and tried for the full KH-7 LM&SS on this mission.

The Earth Sciences version of the LM&SS fell to several nibbling problems. By 1969 NASA’s budget was shrinking rapidly, so being able to shrink down to a cheaper Saturn IB was now not good enough—it was no longer even clear that the money to build the extra CSM and then support the mission would be there. On top of this the NRO continued to have concerns about what the capability of the LS&MM’s cameras would reveal to the world about their spy satellites, and weren’t keen to waste that secrecy on something as trivial as better maps of the world’s resources.

Next, by the time AAP-1A was planned to go in mid-1969, it had become clear that unmanned satellites were close to being able to map the Earth to the same level of fidelity (and in fact would start doing so with Landsat 1, which launched in 1972). And finally, even NASA had to accept that “testing Moon mapping systems” was putting the cart before the horse; it was far from obvious that they were going back to the Moon at all once the main line of Apollo missions had ended, as of course they haven’t in the years since. So what was the point of that? As there were so many things running against it, this is the version of LM&SS that was least likely to ever fly.

As a final aside it’s worth mentioned that NASA once again has their hands on some high-quality spy satellite cameras. In June 2012, the NRO donated two surplus telescopes to them, with media reports saying that their main mirrors were comparable in size to that of the Hubble Space Telescope. While it’s still unclear at the time of this writing what they’re going to do with them, NASA is believed to be considering plans to use them in a replacement for that aging orbital observatory sometime after 2020.

Soyuz L3: The Chief Designer’s Moon Landing


The full L3 craft leaves Earth orbit. The lunar orbiter is the green portion to the right, while the lander is covered by a fairing to the left of the gold-coloured portion until reaching the Moon. Image by Eberhard Marx and used under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license. Click for a larger view.

What it was: The Big One. This was the Soviet Union’s main response to the US’ Apollo program, running from Sergei Korolev and OKB-1 formally wresting the Moon landing from Vladimir Chelomei in 1965 until after the landing of Apollo 11. It would have sent two men to the Moon aboard a customized Soyuz, one of whom would then enter the purpose-built LK lunar lander and descend to the surface. Apart from the smaller crew, it was similar in many ways to the Apollo approach.

Details: For a period of about a year beginning in August 1964 the composite Soyuz craft originally intended for the Soviet Moon mission, the 7K/9K/11K, languished as responsibility for landing a cosmonaut on the Moon was given instead to Vladimir Chelomei. Recognizing that his original conception was not moving forward, in February 1965 Sergei Korolev re-oriented his approach to work solely on the 7K and Earth-orbital docking maneuvers, a variant called the 7K-OK. This version of the Soyuz was approved in February 1965.

At the same time, Korolev had no intention of giving up the Moon mission. The 7K/9K/11K would have required multiple launches to build and fuel in Earth orbit, so at least partially for the purpose of making the mission simpler and cheaper OKB-1 switched proposals to a Lunar Orbit Rendezvous profile that would need just one N1 launch. Then Korolev went back to work on the Soviet leadership; by February 1965 he’d convinced them to at least let him look at the manned mission, and by October he had managed to kill most of Chelomei’s programs. The other designer was left with only the UR-500K booster (which would become the Proton) for the manned circumlunar flight, but with a Soyuz derivative (the Zond) as the capsule. For the next several years the manned Moon landing would be in the hands of Korolev and his successors as they worked to develop the L3—a Soyuz 7K-OK variant called the LOK (Lunniy Orbitalny Korabl or “lunar orbital ship”)and a lunar lander, the LK (Lunniy Korabl, or “lunar ship”)—to sit on top of the N1 rocket that would be developed at the same time.

The work was primarily that of his successors, as Korolev died in January of 1966, his lieutenant Vasili Mishin took over OKB-1, and the bureau was re-organized as TsKBEM. The N1-L3 project became the deceased Chief Designer’s legacy to the Soviet space program.

What they came up with was a remarkable arrangement. Due to the lower payload capacity of the N1 (95 tonnes as compared to 120 for the Saturn V) and the tendency for 60s-era Soviet hardware to be on the heavy side anyway all else being equal, the LOK and the LK had to be smaller than the equivalent Apollo craft—9850 kilograms for the former and 5500 kilograms for the latter. By contrast the Apollo CSM by itself massed 30,322 kilograms even before getting to the LM. Accordingly the mission would carry only two cosmonauts, one of whom would go down to the surface. Three teams of two were selected as the best for this mission: Alexei Leonov and Oleg Makarov were considered the likeliest, with Leonov being the one to walk on the Moon. The other two teams were Valeri Bykovski and Nikolai Rukavishnikov, and Pavel Popovich and Vitaly Sevastianov—the former in each pair being the Moon walker.

The surprisingly large difference in weight between Apollo and L3 was necessary because not only were the three stages of the N1 necessary the L3 into orbit, the craft that left Earth had another two (compare Apollo, which got sent on its way by the third stage of the Saturn V, which was only partially spent by the climb to orbit). Having been lifted to LEO, after one orbit the first stage of the L3 would perform the translunar injection burn and start the cosmonauts on their long journey to the Moon; having performed the burn, it would be jettisoned and the remainder of the L3 would carry on.

Upon arriving at the Moon, the second stage was the one that did the most work. It would first get the L3 into a circular parking orbit, and then when the descent began it would fire to get the whole craft down to a perilune of only 16 kilometers.

This leads to another difference between Apollo and the L3. Shortly after leaving Earth orbit, the Apollo stack would reconfigure itself by having the CSM move away from the rest of the craft a short distance, rotate 180 degrees, and then return to dock with the LM nose-first. This opened up an internal transfer tunnel between the two before the trip to the Moon. The L3, by contrast, stayed in one piece during its journey. Once the ship was in its low-flying lunar orbit, the cosmonaut who would be making the trip down to the surface would leave his fellow traveller in the LOK’s descent module, put on his Kretchet-94 spacesuit in the orbital module, seal off the hatch between the two, and then exit the Soyuz out the main hatch. He would then spacewalk to the LK along the side of his ship using a variety of handholds including a pole connecting it to the LOK.


A comparison of the LK lander with the Apollo LM. For obvious reasons, the LK could carry only one cosmonaut. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons. Click for a larger view.

Once aboard the LK, the cosmonaut would disconnect the lander and the second rocket stage from the rest of the craft and fire the latter to begin the final descent. Now burning for the third time, the rocket would actually get him down to 1500 meters before being jettisoned to crash on the surface nearby; at this point the LK’s engine would kick in. From that moment the pilot had one minute to find a landing spot—half the time an Apollo LM had. It’s worth pointing out that, unlike for the American astronauts, the Soviet pilot had the option of going longer if he needed to: the LK had only one rocket motor, and so his final descent engine was actually his ascent engine too. If he wanted to, he could eat into the fuel he needed to get back into lunar orbit to extend his landing time. Though obviously it wasn’t a good idea to keep this up for long, it made the LK a little more flexible and arguably safer than the American LM. The US’ lander had two motors, one for landing and one for return, and if the landing engine ran out of fuel while still in the air there was a height below which it wasn’t possible to start up the ascent engine in time to prevent a crash (this largely explains why Mission Control had “a bunch of guys about to turn blue” as Neil Armstrong coasted a few meters above the surface hunting for a landing spot in Eagle).

How long the LK would stay on the Moon was never determined, but it couldn’t have been too long as it’s known that there would have been no sleep period for our lone cosmonaut. The EVA on the surface would have been about four hours, during which he would obtain samples and set up the mission’s weight-limited experiment suite. As well as two seismometers, this would have included a mini-rover attached to the LK’s landing gear by a cable for power and telemetry—after the explorer left to go home, Soviet scientists back on Earth could drive it around and continue exploring the site by remote control.

Once the EVA was completed, the cosmonaut would reboard the lander and blast off for the LOK in orbit, leaving behind the LK’s landing legs as dead weight. The LOK’s pilot would home in on him and dock by means of a near-foolproof arrangement that simply required a spike-like probe on top of the LOK to punch out any one of 108 hexagonal cells contained in a large “shade” on top of the lander for solid contact. Having joined back up the moonwalker would then spacewalk a second time, back to the LOK.

From then on the L3’s mission profile was very similar to the Apollo landings. The LK would be jettisoned, and the LOK’s engine would perform a trans-Earth injection burn to get them home. Upon arrival at Earth the Soyuz would make the usual three-part separation of its type, the propulsion and orbital modules being allowed to burn up while the re-entry module made a more controlled descent. If possible, it would skip off the atmosphere to land somewhere in the Soviet Union (preferably the Kazakh SSR), but if not it would land in the Indian Ocean to be picked up by Soviet naval units strung all across its basin.

Before sending out the mission, the LOK and LK were tested a number of times. The LK proved to be quite successful: on November 24, 1970 one was launched into Earth orbit, left for three days to simulate the journey in vacuum to the Moon, and then run through the various burns it would need to land, wait while its hypothetical cosmonaut walked on the surface, and then take off again. It did so, and then remained in orbit until re-entering uncontrollably over Australia in 1983. Interestingly, the USSR felt it diplomatically necessary to explain to the Australian government that it was just a lunar lander and not a nuclear-powered satellite like Cosmos 954, which had come down over Canada in 1978 strewing radioactive waste in its wake. This was the first crack in the Soviet post-Apollo 11 cover-up and denial of their manned Moon landing program.

Three more LKs would be launched and tested in orbit by August 1971 and so it was ready to go, but circumstances make the LOK’s readiness more of a mystery.

What happened to make it fail:  The L3 was part of the larger N1-L3 program and so the decision to go for a single-launch, LOR mission was fateful. Many of the N1’s problems came about because now it needed to be upgraded from its initial design of 75 tonnes to low Earth orbit. This wasn’t enough to lift the LOK, the LK, and the craft’s two fuelled rocket stages, and so every method possible was used to squeeze another 20 tonnes out of the rocket, much to its detriment. A dummy 7K-LOK made it into orbit on top of a Proton on December 2, 1970, but two other attempts (one dummy and one real one) were aboard the final two tries at launching an N1, and so failed when those rockets exploded—though both times the LOK was recovered by their emergency escape system.

Even beyond the N1’s troubles there were a number of places where the Soviet Union made time-wasting mistakes as compared to Apollo. For one, they were very late in starting: Korolev had been pushing for a manned mission to the Moon since Kennedy made his challenge, yet formal approval for the project didn’t come until August 1964.

Even then the Soviet Moon program was split between two designers. In August 1964 it was Vladimir Chelomei who was given the assignment because he’d had the political savvy to give Khrushchev’s son an engineering job. After Khrushchev fell from power it took another year for Korolev to get the Moon program assigned to him instead. Essentially real work on the L3 couldn’t begin until the end of October 1965.

Chelomei’s continuing presence in the lunar flyby program was a problem too. Unlike Apollo where the same craft was used for both flybys and landing missions (the CSM), using a Proton for the flyby forced the Russians to develop two related-but-different craft, the 7K-LOK and the much stripped-down Zond. This duplication of effort wasted time and resources.

Korolev’s death and replacement with Vasili Mishin also hurt. While his contemporaries generally say that he was comparable to his predecessor as an engineer, they also say that he didn’t have Korolev’s people skills—including the political skills to impose his ideas on 1960’s-era Soviet leadership. Some even say that they believe that, given more time, Korolev would have eventually managed to cut Chelomei out of the picture entirely and ended up with a proper, single effort to get the USSR to the Moon.

This led to the final problem. As the other approach to saving weight was downgrading the spacecraft, even to the casual eye it was an inferior craft to the Apollo CSM/LM, not only in crew size but in the relatively primitive way the LK’s pilot had to spacewalk from the LOK just to get to his craft. The L3 would have been a triumph if it had got the Soviet Union to the Moon prior to Apollo 11, but once Neil Armstrong put foot to the Sea of Tranquility it was obviously second best. The Soviet Union’s leadership lost interest in the L3 mission for fear that it would look like a weak response to the American triumph. It sputtered along for a while (note the various post-May 1969 dates mentioned for the tests above), but Mishin’s TsKBEM was instead directed to work on the more ambitious three-man L3-M instead and told that only that would be acceptable for the actual mission.

What was necessary for it to succeed: Essentially they needed to pick something and stick with it, and continue on even if they “lost” to the US.

The infighting between Korolev and Chelomei left the Soviet manned space program in disarray, and even when it was supposedly settled it was with a solution that satisfied no-one. Korolev needed that extra year that was wasted in 1964-65, while simply letting Chelomei get on with it might have produced a Moon landing too—he was slow but talented, so while he may not have put a Russian on the Moon before about 1975, he would have done it.

This all assumes that the Soviet leadership put any value on the Moon program beyond its propaganda value, or could be convinced that there were still accomplishments to trumpet after the Americans beat them to the Moon. This is very difficult to see, as the leadership was right—given the amount of money they were going to have to spend, the returns of a manned Moon landing were very weak without some prestige to squeeze out of it too. The Soviet Union needed to get there first or else there was no point in going.

This is actually the real problem, since it’s unlikely that the USSR was going to get to the Moon before the US with the four-year head start they gave their competitors. The Soviet Union’s successes in space depended on getting the jump on the US, as they certainly weren’t going to beat them in resources or technical savvy. Ultimately once the Americans got going on the project, control of the race was out of the Soviet Union’s hands—they needed the Apollo team to make mistakes that let them catch up, and as we know the US made only one serious mis-step, with Apollo 1. It wasn’t enough.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Almaz: The Russian Battle Station

Almaz and TKS

As a secret military station, it’s not that easy to find good pictures of an Almaz. This small and blurry image shows a Phase 2 Almaz (a type never flown) on the left docked with a TKS ferry craft on the right. Copyright status and image source unknown, believed to be Russian: if you know the source of this picture, please contact the author.

What it was: A Soviet two-man experimental military space station. It was designed to blaze a path to a full-fledged military station by testing various technologies and homing in on what worked best in orbit. Among the items used were a reconnaissance camera attached to a telescope with a one-meter aperture and a recoilless gun that could be used to defend the station if it were attacked.

Details: The 1967 Outer Space Treaty banned all military use of the Moon and other celestial bodies, but space itself is less restricted: weapons of mass destruction aren’t allowed, but conventional weapons are. As a result the US, China, and the USSR have all conducted military tests in Earth orbit with varying degree of secrecy. In the case of the former two countries we have only a vague idea of what’s been done, but in the case of the USSR the fall of the Soviet government cracked open their archives in a variety of ways to reveal a surprising amount of work.

Before 1991 the history of the Soviet space program recorded that there were seven Salyut space stations launched between 1971 and 1982. They were a rightful source of pride, the best of the Russian responses to the manned Moon landings in the years prior. Not all of them were actual Salyut stations, however, or at least not exactly.

Salyut 1 was exactly what it appeared to be: a science station in Earth orbit, in fact the very first long-duration space station and so deserving of a major place in the history of space exploration. Salyut 2 was something different. Though we didn’t know at the time, the Soviet Union had a second complementary space station program, Almaz. Much like the American Manned Orbiting Laboratory of the previous decade, it explored the possible role of human beings on military outposts in space. Unlike the US station, it flew—three times. The Russians didn’t want to talk about it, and so they hid it behind Salyut.

As a result much of the Almaz stations’ clandestine nature stems from deliberate obfuscation, but another part of it is because of their tangled history. The decision to build a military station was made in October 1964, when the Soviet space program was in the middle of some heavy politicking between Sergei Korolev’s OKB-1 and the upstart agencies of Valentin Glushko and Vladimir Chelomei. Chelomei had the ear of Nikita Khrushchev because he had hired Khrushchev’s son. On the grounds that OKB-1 was too busy with the Moon race, Chelomei’s OKB-52 was given control of the space station project two days before Khrushchev was removed as leader of the Soviet Union.

While he kept control of the program for years yet, Khrushchev’s removal left the Almaz station starved for funds—it didn’t help that Chelomei was also enemies with Dmitri Ustinov, who became de facto minister for the Russian space program under Leonid Brezhnev. OKB-52’s work on Almaz did slowly advance until February 1970 when the Soviet leadership decided that placing a Russian space station into orbit before Skylab could be lofted by the Americans would be a good way to regain some of the prestige lost after Apollo 11. Chelomei’s group had made good progress on the structure of the station but was having problems with the many of its individual subsystems, so the eight Almaz frames he had built were taken away from him and given to OKB-1 (now headed by Vasili Mishin). OKB-1 outfitted the Almaz hull with Soyuz subsystems and then fired the result into orbit. Voila: Salyut 1.

Unfortunately, the first crew to live on Salyut 1 died on return to Earth when their Soyuz depressurized. When a second non-military Salyut crashed after failing to reach orbit, Chelomei was given another chance. Two more stations were soon sent up and they were very much more Almaz as originally envisioned, as Almaz-specific systems replaced the Soyuz components as fast as OKB-52 could finish designing and building them.  Salyut 2, known internally as OPS-1, failed not thirteen days after reaching orbit and was never manned, but the second Almaz (Salyut 3/OPS-2) was launched on June 25, 1974 and was a success, orbiting for seven months. The third Almaz (Salyut 5/OPS-3), sent into orbit three days short of two years after OPS-2, was even more successful, housing two different two-man crews (a third was launched but failed to dock, then proceeded to accidentally splash down in frozen Lake Tengiz, a body of water the size of Los Angeles in northern Kazakhstan). It stayed in space for more than thirteen months.

An Almaz station was composed of three main parts. On one end was a docking port where a crew-carrying Soyuz capsule could connect after the station was launched first. Small attitude rockets protruded from either side of the airlock here. This airlock led to a large-diameter working compartment which, in the three flown stations, was largely taken up with a three-meter long telescope with a one-meter aperture (by comparison, even the Hubble Space Telescope has an aperture of only 2.4 meters, so this was quite a large instrument for the mid-1970s). A variety of other reconnaissance equipment and an operating station for the remainder took up the rest of the compartment. Important images could be scanned and sent by radio back to Earth.

On the other hand if the image was not so urgent, or when the cosmonauts were not on duty, they would pass further aft into a smaller-diameter habitation area where there was a small shower, exercise equipment, one foldaway bed, and a standing sleeping area where a cosmonaut could Velcro himself to a wall and take a nap. An earth-return capsule here could be loaded with film and, when full, be shot back to Earth for development. The flown stations only had one of these capsules, so normally it would only be sent when the station was about to be de-orbited. One of these, rather dented because its parachute failed, was sold by Sotheby’s in 1993, and is now on display in the National Air and Space Museum. The habitation compartment ended with a hatch for EVA purposes, which ultimately was to be replaced with a second docking port so that crews could be rotated in and out.

What particularly distinguished the Almaz, however, was its offensive capability. Sources vary, but the best information is that OPS-1 was armed with a repurposed NR-23 short recoil cannon, a type that was used in Soviet bombers until the 1960s. On the day OPS-1 was ordered to de-orbit (its crew having left previously) it was triggered remotely and test-fired. Some cosmonaut sources say it was successful at shooting down a test satellite. Ultimately the Almaz was supposed to be armed with a purpose-built gun and two small missiles, but these appear to have not been developed by the time the Almaz program was cancelled. Though what actually flew was less impressive than what was planned, it still made OPS-1 the only military space station ever flown (so far as we know).

Of the first five so-called “Salyut” stations, only Salyut 4 was another hybrid of Almaz hull and Soyuz inner workings making up a non-military habitat. Ultimately the plan was for the Almaz to become a full-fledged military reconnaissance station in space, supplied by a Chelomei-designed rival to OKB-1’s Soyuz. Launched on Chelomei’s greatest success, the Proton rocket, the so-called TKS would deliver crews to the fully operational battle station while its nose (the vaguely Apollo capsule-like VA, more commonly known as Merkur) would be used as a return capsule—again, a case of Chelomei doing all he could to avoid the taint of OKB-1 technology, in this case the Soyuz’s distinctive acorn-shaped re-entry capsule.

None of this actually came to be.

What happened to make it fail: The Soviet military slowly came around to the same decision made by the United States about the Manned Orbiting Laboratory—reconnaissance can be done by unmanned satellites at a fraction of the cost of a manned station.

That still left Almaz’s offensive role, but in this case the USSR went in the opposite direction from their counterparts across the Atlantic. The announcement of the Space Shuttle rattled the Soviet military as they looked at the cross-range ability of that craft and came to the conclusion that the Shuttle had a military mission (to wit, that the Shuttle would carry a nuclear weapon in its cargo bay, bomb Moscow, and then return to Vandenberg Air Force Base on the same orbit—which to be fair, the Shuttle could actually have done if the American military had been planning on using it for that. They weren’t.)

As a result, the Soviet space program was ordered to work on a booster and spaceplane that could perform the same maneuver on the United States’ cities. This led to the Energia rocket and Buran shuttle clone, as well as other, lesser projects like the OK-M space interceptor—which was specifically tasked with anti-satellite and other in-orbit offensive operations. All of the program’s resources were poured into them, leaving neither missions nor money for Almaz. The USSR stuck to non-military stations, eventually leading to Mir.

What was necessary for it to succeed: It certainly would have helped if the Soviet Union hadn’t put all of its money behind Energia and Buran. But like the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, it simply couldn’t overcome a poor bang-to-buck ratio.

Nevertheless, the Almaz keeps popping up in the oddest places. OKB-52’s hull design was used as the basis of the non-military Salyut 6 and 7, and since Salyut 7 was a modular prototype for Mir, the greatest of all Soviet space stations owes a great deal to its defunct military ancestor. On top of this it’s worth remembering that a large chunk of the International Space Station is based on Russian modules intended for Mir-2—and since the plan was for Mir-2 to be based on a copy of Mir’s core block, that means that the ISS’s life support module, Zvezda, was a direct descendant of Almaz.

Two more Almaz hulls were turned into large unmanned radar satellites that were flown in 1987 and 1991 (confusingly, these were named Almaz-1 and Almaz-2), and a third would have been built and orbited if the fall of the Soviet Union hadn’t disrupted its funding.

Furthermore, while the TKS spacecraft that was intended to supply Almaz stations and bring their crews never actually became a manned spacecraft it was used for unmanned missions. And Zarya, the first module of the ISS, is one of these unmanned craft sans VA capsule.

Finally, a company named Excalibur Almaz (based in the Isle of Man and owned by Art Dula, the literary executor of Robert Heinlein) owns two Almaz craft and says they’ll be getting into space tourism by 2015. One of the products on offer is a lunar flyby, which if it were to actually happen would be Vladimir Chelomei’s posthumous last laugh on Sergei Korolev—his rival never did manage to send people to the Moon.

N1: The Soviet Moon Rocket

The final N1

The fourth N1 launched, as configured. The N1 itself is the angled portions to the left as far as 65 meters. To the right is the L3, the Russian lunar spacecraft, and an escape tower that could pull the craft free of the N1 in case of a launch emergency. Public domain image derived from an image created by NASA. Click for a larger version.

What it was:  A Soviet super-heavy orbital launcher with three stages, designed to take a manned spacecraft and lander to the Moon and back. It was a behemoth, comparable to only a few other rockets like the Saturn V, and the twice-flown Russian Energia. It was designed to lift to low Earth orbit more than four times the payload of the largest currently operational rocket, the Delta IV-H. It was never discussed by the USSR during its lifetime, though it was known to the West through espionage—particularly spy satellite photos of the Russian launch facilities at Baikonur. Official recognition of its existence didn’t come until 1989.

Details: If you are going to the Moon, you need a capable spacecraft. The more capable your spacecraft, though, the heavier it will be: getting it to the Moon and back is a problem.  In theory you could spread the weight over multiple launches and assemble your craft in orbit, but space docking was in its infancy in the 1960s and the fewer the maneuvers, the better.

Both the Americans and Russians independently came to the conclusion that the best way to pull off the trick was by Lunar Orbit Rendezvous: send a craft out in one piece, then leave the lunar lander portion behind and return in the other half. This reduces the weight that has to be lifted back off of the Moon and also reduces the weight returning to Earth, and so they could radically reduce the amount of fuel needed to get the whole works off the ground during the initial launch. With this in mind, the magic number for a rocket needed to pull this off could be calculated: it had to be able to lift about 100,000 kilograms to low earth orbit.

This was a problem, as the rockets developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s were far less powerful than that. The Russian launchers based on the R-7 topped out at about 6500 kilograms, while even the most capable American rocket in 1965, the Air Force’s Titan IIIC, could loft only 13,100.

Faced with this the US began work on a much bigger rocket as far back as 1959, which would eventually lead to the successful Saturn V that took Apollo spacecraft to the Moon. Russia’s answer to this was the N1, which they began in earnest in 1964.

The most unusual thing about the N1 was its first stage, which was very wide at its base—the rocket more closely resembled a flying cone than the sharp spire of its contemporaries. In the Saturn V there were only five engines used to give the entire stack its initial boost, and accordingly they had to be monsters by previous standards (and even by today’s: the F-1’s, as they were called, are still the most powerful liquid-fuelled rocket engines ever built). The designers of the N1 didn’t think they could pull off an engine that big and so approached the problem from another angle. Their rocket was so broad in the beam because they used a smaller engine, the NK-33, but more of them: 24 of them in the initial design, to be precise, though as we will see even that needed to be changed.

The difficulty was that with so many engines, there was a much higher chance that one or more of them would fail on every launch, as opposed to the American launcher where at least there were only five of them to keep happy. To overcome this, the N1’s lowest stage was designed with more thrust than was necessary: 50,655 kilonewtons of force, as compared again with the Saturn V’s 38,703. Even if as many as four engines cut out, there would still be enough strength left to reach orbit. The only wrinkle with this approach was that if the failed engine was off-centre from the rocket’s main axis (as it almost certainly would be) the N1 would start listing toward that side and go off course. The engineered solution to this problem was to place the engines symmetrically. A system named KORD—the acronym for “Engine Operation Control”, in Russian— would detect an engine failure and then automatically cut off the mirror-image engine on the other side, thus restoring balance.

More cleverness was required when it became clear that the Russian spacecraft capable of going to the moon (the Soyuz 7K-LOK mated with the LK Lunar Lander) was going to ring in at 95,000 kilograms instead of what the N1 was originally designed to loft, 75,000. Rather than go back to the drawing board, the N1’s designers tried a variety of tricks to come up with the extra 20 tonnes. Its fuels were supercooled, each engine was revved up to 2% over its design specs and, most fatefully, the already extreme number of engines in the first stage was upped from 24 to 30.

The Russians first looked to fly the N1 in May 1968, but cracks were found in the first stage after the whole thing had been assembled on the launch pad. The only solution was to pull it back down and repair the cracks, and this took much longer than expected. 1969 rolled around before they were ready to go again.

The N1’s first flight took place on February 21, 1969, and at first looked OK. It got off the pad and flew correctly for almost a minute, but as it turned out there were tiny bits of metallic debris in the turbine of one of the engines, fouling it, and the rocket started oscillating rapidly. The extra stress on the rocket’s components caused a fuel leak, which caused a fire, and then the KORD sent an incorrect signal that shut down all the engines. Seventy seconds into the flight, the N1 was dead in the air 30 kilometers up, and had to be destroyed by remote control from the ground to prevent it from crashing back into the launch site.

This flight was actually the N1’s first full-scale test; usually a few of a new rocket’s stages are clamped to the ground and static-tested first before you let one loose into the air; the Saturn V’s first stage had been tested this way as far back as 1965. So even though the N1 was “flying” some six months before Neil Armstrong stepped on the Moon, the Soviets were actually well behind the Americans. On this basis the Russian space program’s leadership had come to the conclusion that, barring some kind of accident happening to the Apollo program, they were going to lose the Moon race. So when the first N1 blew up it was a disaster for any further progress and morale dropped through the floor. More N1’s would be sent up, but the Soviets’ already-spotty standard for quality control slipped even further.

The second N1 flight sealed the Russian space program’s fate for some time. An unmanned version of the Russian lunar landing craft was to be launched on July 2, 1969, and sent into a looping orbit around the Moon. This was a bit more than two weeks before the Apollo 11 landing and would give the Soviets some kind of laurels prior to that event, but instead it just made things far worse. Something—either a piece of slag in the fuel tanks or debris from a faulty fuel pump that disintegrated—was ingested by one of the engines a quarter of a second after launch and the rocket caught fire just as it cleared its launch tower. 200 meters up the KORD decided to shut off all of the engines, except one. The second N1 collapsed back onto the launch pad at a 45-degree angle—tipped by the one remaining engine. The fully fuelled rocket then exploded, destroying the launch pad and damaging the second N1 pad nearby. It would take 18 months to rebuild, and the Russians were forced to wait until June 26, 1971 for the next test flight.

The third N1 had filters attached to the engine intakes so as to prevent the problems of the first two flights, and this time all the engines worked correctly. Unfortunately the exhaust from the engines began interacting with the slipstream of air passing the rocket and it began twisting as it rose. This rotation became so bad that the rocket began breaking up from the centrifugal force, so once again the N1 was blown up by remote to prevent another pad disaster. This time the flight lasted 50.2 seconds.

The relative success of the third launch showed that the N1’s designers were getting a hold of the rocket’s problems even if it had failed in the end. Now they were in a race to fix them all before their program was cancelled. As it turned out, there was just one more flight and one more chance.

The launch on November 23, 1972 would be the most successful of all of the N1’s flights. The first stage burned for 106.9 seconds, only seven seconds short of its scheduled burnout. Though early, if the first stage had simply been shut down and cut loose so that the second stage had ignited, the mission could have continued. But while KORD did its job, something after the main stage shutdown led to an explosion—this time no-one ever determined what, as the investigation became embroiled in politics between the rocket’s designers and the designers of its engines.

The N1 was done. The Soviet lunar landing program had been cancelled a few months previously, on June 1, and no-one in power had any interest in a proposed space station or an automated Mars soil sample mission that would re-establish Russian prestige in space. After a period of infighting further launches were cancelled on May 19, 1974, and then development as a whole on June 24 of the same year. A fifth rocket, heavily upgraded and which its engineers reportedly felt was finally finished, was dismantled rather than launched as planned in August.

What happened to make it fail: Putting aside the sloppy construction techniques that caused two of the crashes, the proximate reason was its innovative lowest stage. The pipes needed to get fuel to the many engines had to be numerous and so small and less robust than turned out to be necessary. As the N1 rumbled and vibrated through the ascent to orbit, something was bound to break. This was compounded by the too-clever plan to automatically counterbalance one failed engine by turning off another—as the launches proved, KORD had a nasty habit of turning off all the engines in short order. The various cheese-paring techniques used to get the N1 from a 75,000 kilogram payload to a 95,000 kilogram payload also meant that it was skirting disaster in a variety of other ways. Too many things could go wrong, and did, even when the first stage otherwise worked as it should.

More generally the N1 had a problem in leadership and technique. After the death of Sergei Korolev his lieutenant Vasili Mishin proved unequal to the task of continuing Korolev’s work—most of the major projects he headed failed dramatically, which is to say not only the N1, but the first Soyuz capsule and the first Soviet space station (with both failures costing the lives of cosmonauts). Essentially he kept his job only because by the time it became obvious he needed to be replaced (1967 or 1968) no-one was willing to take over from him when it was also obvious that the Americans were going to win the race to the Moon. He was the perfect fall guy while others maneuvered behind the scenes to take over once the Soviet space program was ready to regroup from that psychological blow.

When Mishin was finally replaced by Valentin Glushko, Glushko took revenge on him and Korolev for past slights. Both had worked tirelessly to centralize the Soviet space effort in their department, OKB-1, and Glushko’s alternative rockets were driven out of the picture. So before taking over Glushko had convinced the Soviet leadership (particularly Dmitri Ustinov, the Russian minister in charge of the space program) that the N1 was a white elephant—admittedly not hard. With their blessing, Glushko’s first official act was to cancel the N1 that had been so dear to his predecessors, notwithstanding that there were already two others ready to fly and four more in various stages of completion behind them. A new super-heavy launcher was begun, which would eventually lead to the Energia—the third of the three most powerful rockets to ever fly along with the Saturn V and its ill-starred Russian counterpart.

What was necessary for it to succeed: Better quality control and more money.

Peak annual spending on the N1 was about US$1.5 billion, as compared with Saturn V at $3 billion, and the contrast in total spending on the two rockets was worse, about 4:1 in favour of the Americans. Furthermore the N1 was competing for money, time, and personnel with no less than three other Moon programs (the Zond orbiter, a proposal to build the UR-700 rocket with its associated lander, and the Luna robotic sample return mission). As a result, the N1’s design and testing facilities were much less extensive than Saturn’s. Literally the first time the first stage was fired as a unit was for the rocket’s first flight, which was beyond foolish if somewhat typical of the Soviet space program at times.

With more money, they could have afforded static tests on the ground like the Saturn V got to its benefit. With better quality control, they’d likely have worked out the kinks with the fuel pipes and the temperamental KORD system. The N1 was also due to have upgraded engines on its next launch before it was cancelled, which would have made the various other shortcuts to extra lift less necessary.

That also leads to another possible route to success: more time. Unlike a lot of other items on this blog the N1 was approaching completion; what really killed it was the quickly waning interest of the Soviet government in the wake of their loss of the race to the Moon—they had no more patience for it when that was what it needed. Mishin needed to go, but if Glushko had supported the N1 in 1974 and given it a few more years, it likely could have been turned into a workable launcher.

Evidence for this can be gleaned from the fate of the NK-33 engine. While 30 of them may have been problematic in tandem, the engine itself has been suggested for several rockets since—including the Space Launch System which is being developed by the United States to replace the Space Shuttle. The fate of the Russian Proton-K, a smaller contemporary of the N1, is also informative. It too had bad teething problems (though nothing can match its big sister’s four-for-four failures), but it eventually became one of the most reliable launch vehicles in history. A variation of it is still being used in the modern day.

Video of the final N1 flight

Google Maps satellite images of the remains of the two N1 launch pads, in modern-day Kazakhstan