TMK-1/MAVR: Red Planet

MAVR sketch schematic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chief Designers 4: Sergei Korolev

Monument to Korolev in Baikonur

Sergei Korolev was unknown in his lifetime, and under-reported until glasnost. This monument to him is in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, Public domain image.

For many years, Wernher von Braun was lauded as the father of manned space travel, but to a large extent this was an artifact of Soviet secrecy. The USSR was the first to most early spaceflight goals, but the the man in charge was unknown in the West and even to a very large extent within the Soviet Union too. Only after his death did his name become known. Until then he was referred to only as “Chief Designer”, a term the author has expanded to include the other giants being profiled. But Sergei Korolev was the most important and influential of them.

Sergei Pavlovich Korolev was born in Zhitomir in what is now Ukraine on January 12, 1907. His parents separated while he was very young, and he was raised by his grandparents in his mother’s home town of Nizhyn. He became interested in aeronautical engineering as he grew older, and joined an aviation society in Odessa after his mother and her new husband moved there. He began concentrating on the study of engineering at the Kiev Polytechnic Institute followed by the Bauman Moscow State Technical University, from which he graduated in 1929.

He began working at the 4th Experimental Section design bureau and soon became interested in rockets as a way to accelerate planes. He then helped to found the first professional rocket-design organization in the world, GIRD, in 1931, and soon became the director of the group. A few years later GIRD was amalgamated with a second group based in Leningrad to form RNII; the second group had as a member the man with whom Korolev would do most of his important work in the 1950s, Valentin Glushko.

Sergey Korolev, age 30

Sergei Korolev, age 31, just prior to his arrest in the Great Purge. Public domain image.

Korolev became chief engineer of RNII, but in 1938, during the Great Purge, he was arrested on the testimony of three fellow engineers. Two of them were executed during the purge, but the other was Glushko. Despite Korolev’s later protestations to the contrary and their periods of cooperation, there is reason to believe that he never forgave him for this.

He certainly had a lot to forgive. Korolev was tortured in Lubyanka Prison, found guilty in a show trial, and sent to work in a gold mine in the notorious Kolyma region of far north-eastern Russia. Conditions were brutal and the period of over a year that he spent there had effects on his health for the rest of his life.

Thankfully for the eventual Soviet space program he was sent back west to Moscow at the end of 1939 and put to work in a sharaska, one of the organized prison camps in the gulag system aimed at research and engineering for the Soviet Union. While still a prison camp, conditions there were considerably better than in Kolyma.

He was first assigned to work with famous Russian aircraft designer Andrei Tupolev, but in 1942 was moved to a project under Glushko that worked on rocket-assisted takeoff units for aircraft. Its success was enough that he was released from prison on June 27, 1944 as part of a larger amnesty for engineers in the sharashka system.

His decisive turn towards ballistic missiles may have taken place in 1945-6, when he was one of the team sent from the USSR to the newly conquered Germany to examine that country’s rocketry program. Upon his return to the Soviet Union, he became the chief designer of long-range ballistic missiles for the newly formed OKB-1 design bureau. It was there that he started to show his organizational and leadership abilities, and OKB-1 quickly developed the R-1, R-2, and R-5 missiles.

The culmination of this work was the R-7 Semyorka, the first intercontinental ballistic missile. More interesting from the standpoint of space history, though, was the fact that an ICBM can very easily serve as an orbital launch vehicle. Capitalizing on the favour that his missile work had brought him in the eyes of Nikita Khrushchev—Stalin and his purges having thankfully died in 1953, Korolev had had his previous sentence expunged in April 1957—he adapted the R-7 to lift a satellite into orbit. The intended payload was heavy and late in coming, so Korolev arranged for a small improvisation dubbed Sputnik 1. With it he inaugurated the Space Age on October 4, 1957.

For the next few years the successes came fast and thick, culminating in Yuri Gagarin’s flight on April 12, 1961. By 1964, however, an alliance between one of his allies and one of his rivals had attacked Korolev’s program. The rival was Vladimir Chelomei, who worked his way into Khrushchev’s favour by developing the UR-100 ICBM—a considerably better missile than the R-9 with which Korolev tried to counter. The ally was the aforementioned Valentin Glushko, who had designed the rocket engines used by the R-7 and its manned launching derivatives. His working relationship with Korolev came apart over a disagreement about which propellants were best for rocketry: cryogenic LOX and LH2, or storable-but-toxic N2O4 and UDMH. History has judged Korolev right, as even Glushko came around to cryogenics when it was his turn to develop a large launcher in the 1980s. Only China launches people with N2O4 and UDMH. Even so, at the time Glushko defected to Chelomei’s camp and took all his skill at developing rocket engines with him.

From 1964 to early 1966 Korolev’s political skills came to the fore as he worked to wrest back complete control of the Soviet space program from Chelomei, a task in which he was largely successful. But in that time the Russians’ manned space program foundered, partly from this internal confusion and partly because of the fall of Nikita Khrushchev and his replacement with the much-less interested Leonid Brezhnev.

Whether or not Korolev would have been able to put the program back on track is an open question. He entered hospital on January 5, 1966 for surgery on a bleeding intestinal polyp and never came back out. While under the knife, his surgeon—the Russian Minister of Health, Boris Petrovski, which shows how important Korolev had become—apparently discovered a large, malignant tumour in Korolev’s abdomen (there are contradictory reports from various sources, but this is likeliest). The surgery dragged on far longer than it should have as the surgeon attempted to deal with the unexpected development and Korolev’s poor health post-Kolyma either caused him to have a fatal heart attack or bleed out due to a sudden hemorrhage. He died on the operating table on January 14, 1966 at the age of 59.

The USSR’s manned space program came apart at the seams for a while after this, either because Korolev’s successor Vasily Mishin was incompetent or the USSR was not yet able to deal with the additional complexity of a Moon mission—opinions vary. The years from 1966 to 1974 were fraught with exploding N1s and deaths during the first Soyuz and Salyut missions. A resurgence would have to wait until the mid-1970s. Korolev was at least known by name during this time period, but observers in the West still underestimated his importance. Only the onset of glasnost in the USSR let him step out of the shadow and assume his central position in Soviet space history.

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.

MKBS: Mir’s Giant Ancestor


The Multirole Space Base Station (MKBS), Sergei Korolev’s envisioned nerve centre for Soviet operations in space. Note the rotating booms for artificial gravity modules (centre left), and the nuclear reactor and ion engine at the end of the three booms stretching to the right. Image © Mark Wade of Encyclopedia Astronautica, used with permission.

What it was: A large nuclear-powered space station, in the 220-250 tonne range, that would be the main part of a “cloud station”—a set of orbital installations that would define the USSR’s presence in space during the late 1970s and into the 80s.

Details: Sergei Korolev was surprisingly uninterested in landing on the Moon (an attitude he shared with his counterpart Wernher von Braun). Doing so was just a small step in a chain that ran orbit-space station-lunar flyby/landing-Mars landing. He got the laurels on the first link, and of course no-one got the last link, so that leaves the station in low Earth orbit.

Korolev sketched out his first space station in the late 1950s. By 1961 this had grown into the TKS (the acronym for “Heavy Space Station” in Russian) and was to have been lifted by the N1 as that rocket was conceived at that early stage. This station was built around 50-ton modules, a core feature that would last through various redesigns and upgrades for more than a decade to follow.

As an attempt to get the Soviet military on his side, the first redesign came in spring of 1962, when TKS became the OP (Orbitalnky Poyas, or “Orbital Belt”), a name which hints at where Korolev’s thinking was going. Yes, it would be a military station, supporting spaceplane strikes on an enemy during wartime, but it would also be part of a belt of space stations—rather than being an independent piece, the Chief Designer was coming around to the idea that a large space station could be the headquarters of Russian orbital operations. From this point on Korolev’s stations became more and more embedded in a group of hardware and procedures that would make an integrated whole.

While OP was too ambitious, Khrushchev became interested in the general idea and approved the nuclear-armed, Soyuz-serviced, single-module OS-1 in September 1962. It had reached the mock-up stage by 1965 when the 1964-65 shakeup of the Soviet space program resulted in the USSR’s commitment to a lunar landing. The N1 was repurposed to that end and work on a large Soviet station stopped. Vladimir Chelomei got his (much smaller) Almaz instead.

OKB-1 never did give up, though, and after Vasili Mishin took over following Korolev’s death in early 1966 they kept pushing forward proposals. By then the OS-1 had evolved even further into what is sometimes called the TOS, once again based around a single 50-ton module. It’s unclear how far the station itself got—it seems not to have got off paper this time, though there are some hints that the final two N1 test flights had an aerodynamic mockup of the station’s main module on it (a borderline conspiracy theory has it that they were working modules). Whatever they were, they were both blown to pieces when their boosters failed.

Somewhat more interestingly from a long-term perspective, the TOS was part of an ambitious plan called MOK—the “Manned Orbital Complex”. Its intention was to amalgamate all the lines of Soviet space development, rationalizing them and defining their purposes closely so that as much as possible could be squeezed out of the hardware they’d already developed while keeping costs down by avoiding new hardware as much as possible. The station was the keystone of this arch, but there were other commitments. Among these were Soyuz derivatives for ferrying crews and supplies, semi-autonomous manned stations for scientific research (including one called Aelita for infrared astronomy and one called Gamma for gamma-ray astronomy), and eventually a single-stage-to-orbit spaceplane perched on an N1 lower stage called the N1-MOK. Work began on all of these in 1969 under Vitaliy Bezverby and really got underway in 1972.

While the complex evolved, the space station was swapped out one more time and replaced with a more ambitious one called MKBS (“Multi-Module Orbital Base”). Weighing in at about 250 tonnes (which is to say, twice the size of Mir, and about 60% of the size of the ISS), the station would have consisted of two main modules lifted by an N1 apiece, and several smaller components launched aboard smaller Proton rockets. It would have eight docking ports for Soyuz crew and supply craft and to act as berths for spacecraft headed elsewhere on semi-autonomous missions; essentially the MKBS was intended to be the first orbiting spaceport. Anywhere from six to ten cosmonauts would live aboard, with three at a time swapping in and out in overlapping schedules.

The MKBS had a number of unusual details that top even the ISS. First, it would have had a section equipped with artificial gravity: two Salyut-like modules attached to the end of long booms that would rotate around the central axis of the station. Second, it would have been nuclear powered, with a small (200 kW) reactor located at the end of three long pylons trailing aft of the main body of the station. This is quite a lot of power, especially considering that the MKBS would have also had two solar panels providing about 14kW of additional electricity; the ISS gets by on about 30kW in total. While some of this would have been used to power an electric ion engine that would have helped with station keeping, it’s worth pointing out that the most powerful ion engines are only just reaching 200kW in the early 21st century. This excess capacity of the reactor led some sources to suggest that the station would have a third remarkable detail: it would be armed with a particle beam weapon for defense, though it’s difficult to see how one would aim something large enough to be useful without rotating the entire station.

Its orbit was never quite settled. One option was to put it at about 51 degrees inclination, somewhat like the ISS, so that it could be accessed easily from Baikonur. The other was to put it in a polar orbit so that it would pass over every part of the earth, thus making it particular useful for reconnaissance. That orbit’s height and exact inclination could also be selected so that the station would precess around the Earth once per year (and so be able to keep its solar panels in the sun 24/7 every day of the year).

What happened to make it fail: Like so many Russian plans of the late 60s and early 1970s, it depended on the success of the N1. When OKB-1 was taken away from Vasili Mishin and given to Valentin Glushko in 1974, the N1 was cancelled and so it became impossible to lift the MKBS’ two main modules. Soviet space station efforts would be focused on the DOS-based Salyut and Almaz, which would eventually lead to the small-module method used to build Mir.

What was necessary for it to succeed: First it needed the N1. But even if the N1 had successfully flown, the MKBS would have had to make it through the other major watershed in Soviet spaceflight during the 70s: the start of the Tenth Five-Year Plan in 1976. That time was used as an opportunity to shake up and refocus the USSR’s space program on military uses. The MKBS would have avoided being folded into Chelomei’s already-flying Almaz station only if the initial stages of the MKBS had made it into orbit by then—and to make it by that year there would have had to be no delays. As it was, even that alternative work got put on the backburner: Mir was authorized in 1976 but ended up underfunded and shunted into the background until Energia and Buran were well underway. It took until 1986 for the smaller Mir, based on technology that was already underway by 1970, to make it into the skies. If MKBS had been selected over Mir, it would have taken years more than that to build and eventually run up against the economic collapse of the Soviet Union.

So MKBS had a tough row to hoe even with a working heavy launcher. Any delay at all would have had Chelomei’s approach validated and a pathway to Mir and then Mir-2 beckoning to the Soviet leadership. Its only chance for existence would have come down to flying through the tiny hole bounded by a successful N1 starting in, say, 1975 and the spring of 1976.

That’s not to say that the MOK as a whole failed, however. The Gamma station was eventually flown as an unmanned satellite in concert with the French in 1990. Soyuz ferry craft were designed and flown according to plan, and so were Almaz-derived Progress supply ships—they just flew to Mir and ISS. Only the N1-MOK never made it anywhere near completion, and even today Energiya still tries to get Kliper, a spaceplane not a little like it, up and running despite a severe shortage of funds. In a sense, MKBS was just arrived at by a different route, following Chelomei’s space station path after it was chopped off and grafted to the stationless MOK plan. That in turn was then grafted on to the ISS’ development, and goes a long way to explaining why what is largely an American station has its crews arrive in Russian spacecraft.

The Soyuz Complex: the USSR’s First Manned Moon Plan

Soyuz A/B/V complex

The Soyuz A/B/V complex, AKA the 7K/9K/11K. This three-part craft would be assembled in Earth orbit and, after fuelling, the tank on the right jettisoned. The remaining two thirds would then fly-by the Moon. The left-most section is the famous Soyuz capsule making its first-ever appearance, though the crew cabin is cylindrical rather than round as the built versions were to use. Image provenance unknown, presumed to be from Soviet archives. Please contact the author if you know who owns this image,

What it was: An early Soviet manned lunar mission plan, arguably the first. Three elements would be launched into Earth orbit, docked with one another, and then launched on a  figure-8 lunar flyby and return.

Details: The Russians were planning for a manned Moon mission from very early on. In 1959 they studied using a Vostok capsule to send one man on a loop around the Moon, but realized that it wasn’t feasible. The Vostok could only hold one person, which was problematic for a six-day mission, and its round shape meant that its ballistic return from the Moon (which implies an 11 km/s re-entry speed instead of the 7 km/s of low Earth orbit) would be hard to handle. It would also have to return somewhere near the equator rather than on land in the Soviet Union as preferred.

As a result, Sergei Korolev’s OKB-1 got to work on a new capsule with two cabins. One would be cylindrical and used to house three cosmonauts, while the other would be used to return to Earth. This second cabin was acorn-shaped, which allowed a skip trajectory: it would come in over the Indian Ocean and bounce once off the atmosphere, bleeding off speed and pushing the craft north over the Kazakh SSR. Taken together these two components were dubbed the Soyuz A, also known as the 7K, and it was the ancestor of the very successful Soyuz capsule still used today.

From the standpoint of alternative space races, it was the rest of the plan proposed in March 1962 that catches the eye. As well as the Soyuz A, two other components were planned at the same time, the whole making up a Lunar flyby craft.

The Soyuz B/9K was a rocket block. It would be launched unfuelled to save weight, and placed in Earth orbit. Then another launch would send up a Soyuz V/11K, which was a tanker. Remotely controlled from the ground, the Soyuz B would dock with the Soyuz V and receive its fuel load. The tanker would then be cut loose. Three launches of three Soyuz Vs would fill up the rocket block completely, at which point the Soyuz A and its two astronauts would be launched to dock with the ready-to-go Soyuz B. Once mated, the combined Soyuz A/B would ignite its engine for a journey around the moon and back.

The plan was approved by Soviet leadership on December 3, 1963. Construction of the craft began a few weeks later, with first test flights scheduled for late 1964.

What happened to make it fail: Sergei Korolev became concerned that five launches and four docking maneuvers in orbit would be too hard to pull off. In 1962 he decided that a better approach would be a Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR), which would reduce the weight of the spacecraft to the point that it could be achieved with one launch with a larger rocket—not only for a flyby mission but a lander mission too. This was the same decision reached by the Apollo program.

At the time, these two missions were to be a follow-up to the Soyuz Complex missions, but that eventually changed. Political infighting with Vladimir Chelomei had the Soyuz A/B temporarily replaced with his LK-1 in mid-1964. Nikita Khrushchev fell not long after and, as he was Chelomei’s ally, Korolev managed to get the lunar orbiter and lunar lander mission returned to him a year later. By then there was no time for the Soyuz Complex flybys as well as the later LOR flyby and landing. To make up for the lead the Americans now had, the former was jettisoned from the program and efforts switched to getting the latter two done more quickly. Soyuz A would be used in the single-launch plans, but the other two modules were cancelled altogether.

What was necessary for it to succeed: Korolev coming up with a way to keep Khrushchev off his back.

In retrospect, the Soyuz Complex may have been the Soviet Union’s best bet to beat the Americans to the Moon. All other Moon missions they came up with required either a Proton rocket (which had growing pains until 1970 or so) or an N1 (which had the same but squared); this mission called for the tried and true R-7 derived Soyuz launcher that had been going up since Sputnik. The Soyuz capsule was made relatively safe quite quickly too, so all the eventually-built components that the Complex used have been proven workable. Whether the same is true for the hypothetical 9K and 11K modules is another question, but they were not particularly byzantine in their designs so prospects there were good too.

Against the relative simplicity of the mission hardware we have to place the complexity of the mission profile. While an Earth Orbit Rendezvous is admittedly more involved than a Lunar Orbit Rendezvous, the Soyuz Complex had two more things going in its favour. First, automated docking turned out to be a Soviet strength: they managed to perform history’s first docking between two spacecraft in October 1967 and another in April 1968. They then did so with manned Soyuz capsules in 1969. If anyone was going to pull off the necessary dockings, it was them. At worst they would have had to make several attempts at doing it, but the mission profile was unlikely to kill any cosmonauts so they could have just kept at it until one series of dockings worked out.

The available slack time is the 7K/9K/11K’s other big advantage: it had time to get its bugs worked out before Apollo, or at the least before the post-Moon landing letdown in funds and interest. Its plan was finalized in December 1962, at which point in time the American program was still six months away from finishing Project Mercury. While NASA did at least consider using a Gemini for a Moon mission, they decided to focus on Apollo and getting three men to Lunar orbit.

This opened a window for the Russians as they were content with the two that the lighter Soyuz A would carry, but they squandered it with the bickering between Korolev and Chelomei that saw Khrushchev back the latter until his fall. Korolev and OKB-1 ended up not having a finalized plan until the middle of 1965, and by then Korolev had made the justifiable mistake of switching to a single-launch, no-docking profile that left him at the mercy of Valentin Glushko’s Proton and that rocket’s initial problems.

On top of that Korolev’s OKB-1 design bureau, which constantly verged on oversubscription, was distracted by Khrushchev’s insistence on an earlier multi-man craft. They ended up having to work on the dead-end Voskhod craft in 1964 and 1965. As a result the design, construction, and testing of the Soyuz capsule was heavily delayed; the first successful Soyuz flight wasn’t until October 1968. By then it was all over except for the shouting.

Sputnik to the Moon (1957-1969): What Actually Happened

The Space Age came into focus during the mid-1950s as it became more and more well-known that a ballistic missile could reach orbit.  In the United States this can be pinned on a series of articles published in Collier’s magazine from 1952 to 1954 under the general title “Man Will Conquer Space Soon!” With the aid of Willy Ley, Fred Whipple, Heinz Haber and journalist Cornelius Ryan, Wernher von Braun presented his vision of space exploration to the American public.

While there wasn’t an enormous amount of official interest in United States space exploration, the concept seeped into the American consciousness just in time for the International Geophysical Year (IGY). In 1952 the International Council of Scientific Unions called for a worldwide push of geophysical research from July 31, 1957 to December 31, 1958. The death of Stalin in 1953 led to a mild thaw in the Cold War and the possibility of some scientific cooperation between the capitalist West and the USSR and its clients, and the IGY was a great success.

As part of the lead-up to the IGY, the United States announced Project Vanguard, which was to launch a satellite some time before the end of 1958. The US Army, Navy, and Air Force—all of which were developing rockets for their own use—each tried to snag this plum and its associated funding. The Air Force had little to offer as their Atlas rocket was still in relatively early development: it would not make its first orbital launch until December 1958, and even that was only possible because of a massive increase in funding and personnel during the “missile gap” that couldn’t have been foreseen at the time.

The Army and Navy each made their cases more plausibly. Wernher von Braun’s Hunstville team proposed modifying a Redstone nuclear missile into the Jupiter C as a launcher. It was quite close to completion but suffered from two political problems: it had been designed primarily by German engineers, many of them former Nazis, and it was derived from a weapon at a time when the US was interested in establishing space exploration as a peaceful endeavor. If nothing else, President Dwight Eisenhower wasn’t interested in potentially ratcheting up tensions with the Soviet Union by launching what could be reasonably seen as a nuclear missile; his balancing of the American budget depended on military cuts.

Meanwhile the Navy had worked with Glenn L. Martin (later part of Martin Marietta, in turn now part of Lockheed Martin) to develop the successful Viking sounding rocket and proposed extending it with another two smaller upper stages so it could act as an orbital launcher. While less far along than the Redstone, it contrasted favorably for political purposes: it had been developed primarily for scientific research and by American engineers. In the absence of any great time pressure, the choice was obvious. The Navy proposal was selected, and their prospective rocket named Vanguard.

Von Braun didn’t take this lying down and engaged in a stealth campaign to give his Huntsville team the laurels he’d long chased. On September 20, 1956 they test-launched a four-stage version of the Jupiter C that was quite capable of putting a satellite into orbit. Unfortunately for him the powers-that-be were quite aware of his dissatisfaction and watched the launch preparations to the point that there was an observer on site to ensure that the final stage of the rocket was unfuelled and loaded with sand. Von Braun was not going to be allowed to launch anything into orbit “accidentally on purpose”.

This attitude changed radically on October 4, 1957, where to the shock of the world the United States was beaten to space by the Soviet Union. Using an R-7 nuclear missile as a launcher, examples of which had been launched successfully twice before in August and September, the USSR put Sputnik 1 into space.

Von Braun was furious and soon announced that, if asked, he could put an American satellite into space within 60 days. American governmental officials were sanguine, though, even congratulatory and let Vanguard continue. Political pressure mounted as a second Sputnik (this one carrying the dog Laika) was orbited in November and then December’s attempt at launching the Vanguard satellite exploded two seconds after launch. The United States made it into space on February 1, 1958, when the Huntsville team and the Jupiter C were given their chance and they launched the IGY satellite Explorer 1.

Both the Americans and Russians then moved forward on a manned space program, starting with the one-man Vostok launching on an R-7 for the former, and the one-man Mercury capsule on top of the Mercury Redstone that was derived from the Jupiter C for the latter. Though the Mercury was smaller than the Vostok (1355 kilograms compared to 4726 kilograms) and less-capable (Vostok could stay in orbit for a week, while a Mercury astronaut had to return after a day at most), the Russians once again beat the American effort by placing Yuri Gagarin in Earth orbit on April 12, 1961. The Americans made two suborbital Mercury flights, which did nevertheless qualify as “Men in Space” by clearing 100 kilometers in height, before placing John Glenn in orbit on February 20, 1962.

Both programs then focused on multi-astronaut spacecraft, with the Russians launching a variant of the Vostok, the Voskhod (once again on an R-7) with first three men then two. After Glenn the Americans stepped up development of the three-man Apollo they had begun working on as early as 1959 then, realizing that there would be several years before it was ready which could be used to explore orbital docking and maneuvering, developed the two-man Gemini capsule for the interim. The Saturn I and V, derived from the Jupiter C, were created at the same time to be used as launchers for Apollo.

The three-man Voskhod 1 launched on October 13, 1964 and Voskhod 2 chalked up the first spacewalk on March 18, 1965. The first multi-man American trip, Gemini 3, was overshadowed when it took off five days later, while a spacewalk didn’t follow until Gemini 4 in June. But despite the Russians apparently continuing their lead in the space race, for all intents and purposes they were done. The Russians were still using essentially the same equipment they had used to launch Sputnik and Gagarin and anything new was still a ways down the pipeline. Tellingly, the first manned Gemini had gone up on a Titan, a new launcher from the Air Force.

The transition was punctuated by the death of Sergei Korolev on January 14, 1966. Until his funeral his name was essentially unknown, partly so that the successes of the Russian space program could be credited to the State as a whole and partly out of fear that he might be assassinated. Cryptically referred to as “Chief Designer” instead, Korolev was the USSR’s counterpart to Wernher von Braun, having headed the programs to design the R-7 as well as the Vostok and Voskhod capsules. He had even directly intervened to start a crash project that built Sputnik 1 when it became apparent that the initially intended Object D (which would eventually become Sputnik 3) was not going to be ready in time. With his death the Soviet space program passed on to his lieutenant Vasily Mishin, who would prove to be incompetent.

From then on the Americans began scoring firsts. In 1965 and 1966 they achieved the first-ever rendezvous between two spacecraft (Gemini 6 and 7), the longest flight (14 days, with Gemini 7), the first docking between two spacecraft (Gemini 8).

The USSR’s main highlight in the late 1960s was the development of the Soyuz capsule, which as of December 2011 is still in use and is the most reliable and successful spacecraft in history, numbering 112 manned launches. Unfortunately political pressure made its first use necessary before it was ready and the Russians chalked up a dubious first—the first death on a spaceflight as Vladimir Komarov died on April 24 1967 in the crash landing of Soyuz 1 after a mission in which his spacecraft repeatedly malfunctioned around him.

The United States had had their own tragedy a few months earlier, when a fire during the testing of an Apollo capsule on the ground killed three astronauts. The never-flown mission retroactively named Apollo 1, their deaths would keep another Apollo from flying with a crew on-board until October 11, 1968. But from then on it was smooth sailing for the Americans as the next mission, Apollo 8, launched on December 21, 1968 and memorably had its crew greet the Earth on Christmas Day from their position in lunar orbit.

Two more tests (including Apollo 10, which descended to with 10 kilometers of the moon’s surface as a final dress rehearsal for the next mission) led up to the end of this era of manned spaceflight. In arguably the single most famous event of the 20th century, Apollo 11 took three people to the moon, with Neil Armstrong becoming the first person to walk on its surface on July 21 1969.

The Soviet government claimed for decades afterward that they had never had any intention of sending men to the moon, though they twice launched an unmanned probe that would return a lunar rock sample in the period just before Apollo 11 in an attempt to upstage the American accomplishment (both failed). Since the collapse of the USSR and the opening of their archives it’s become clear that this was far from the case, as we shall see.