Sidebar: The Langley Water Lander


A diagram of the Water Lander if it were full sized, as opposed to the one-eighth scale model that was built. Note the curvature of the wings as seen from the front, not coincidentally like the hull of a boat. Public domain image via NASA from Model Investigations of Water Landings of a Winged Reentry Configuration having Ourboard Folding Wing Panels. Click for a larger view.

There are two fundamental dichotomies in spacecraft design (or three, if you count the types of fuels used for their rockets). You have ballistic capsules in opposition to winged craft/lifting bodies, and you have water landings as opposed to coming in on solid ground. Three of the four possible combinations have been used by crewed spacecraft but one hasn’t: a water landing of a winged vehicle.

That’s not to say it hasn’t been examined, though. NASA studied the ramifactions of an emergency ditching of a Shuttle Orbiter (conclusion: a lot of damage to the underside, but it would stay afloat for a while as long as the wings weren’t badly holed), and the Australians famously photographed the USSR retrieving a BOR-4 test article from the Indian Ocean in 1983. Even earlier, the American ASSET, originally conceived for testing the alloys earmarked for the X-20’s heat shield, splashed down off Ascension Island after a suborbital jaunt from Cape Canaveral.


The Water Lander model in its tank. Public domain image from same source as previous. Click here for a larger view.

As far back as 1959, NASA was testing the concept using a water tank at Langley Research Center in Virginia. They had a chicken-and-egg problem, though. How do you build a water-landing spacecraft without tests to tell you what it will look like? But then how do you do the necessary tests without having it built first? Ultimately they had to just go ahead and build it based on first principles and common sense. What they came up with never had a name, so for convenience’s sake we’ll call it the Langley Water Lander.

The re-entry vehicle they posited was a light one, just 3600 pounds (1.6 tonnes), which is only a few hundred pounds more than a Mercuty capsule. Given that much of it was wings, it would have definitely seated only one astronaut, perched in a slim fuselage.

And it really was a lot of wing for its size, 27 feet from tip to tip and with an area of 263 square feet (7.0 meters and 24.4 square meters); it had no tail at all, though it did have a large vertical fin. The wing was gently curved, making a cross-section something like a boat so that the craft could rock from side to side on the surface of the water without the tips of the wings dipping below the surface. This was made even more unlikely by the fact that the wingtips were designed to fold up once the craft had gone subsonic.

On its underside were two retractable 4.7-foot × 0.67-foot (1.4m × 0.20m) water skis and a smaller triangular skid aft, roughly a foot to a side, for drag; this was found to be more stable during the final run-out than anything involving a single nose ski.

Thus configured, a one-eighth scale model was built and tested, with the conclusion that the landings were not so bad at all. The Water Lander wasn’t too sensitive to a little yaw in the touch-down, and even with small waves (eight inches high and fifty feet long, or 20 cm and 20 meters,to scale) the run-out was only three to four hundred feet with a maximum of 5.1 g deceleration. On smooth waters, it came in at under 3.0 g and 100 feet further travel after touchdown.

The Water Lander was never intended to be built for actual use, but rather was a reflection of where NASA was in late 1959. They examined a great many basic possibilities for the crewed space program, many of which have fallen into obscurity. In the case of winged water landers, the reason likely was that there’s no advantage to them. A ballistic capsule, almost uncontrolled, can benefit from a target as big as the South Pacific Ocean. But the whole point of a winged re-entry vehicle is that it can be directed once in the atmosphere, and if you can do that you might was well direct it towards a runway.


Model Investigations of Water Landings of a Winged Reentry Configuration having Ourboard Folding Wing Panels, William W. Petynia. Langley Research Center. December 1959.

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

Myasishchev M-19 Gurkolyot schematic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The R-56: “Yangel Works for Us”

Thre possible arrangements of the R-56 rocket

Three possible arrangements of the R-56 rocket. The one on the right is the “4-4-1” module arrangement initially favoured, while the one at centre is close to the monoblock version finally settled on (it is missing the flared skirt necessary to house all of its engines). Original source unknown.

What it was: A four-stage rocket proposed by OKB-586 in the early 60s. It was aimed at the Moon, despite having a payload of 40 to 50 tonnes, making it much lighter than any of the Saturn V, N1, or Energia. It still would have lifted more than any rocket being flown in 2016.

Details: In February 1962 Nikita Khrushchev organized a meeting of the USSR’s Defense Council with the main missile designers in the Soviet Union at his dacha in Pitsunda (a resort town in the Georgian SSR) for the purpose of rationalizing their missile and space programs. The main players were Sergei Korolev with OKB-1 and Vladimir Chelomei with OKB-52, but a third invitee was Mikhail Yangel, the head of OKB-586.

While Korolev had surged to the head of the Soviet space program post-1957 and initially stood first in ICBM development, all based on variations of the R-7 rocket, by 1962 he had lost leadership in the latter to Yangel. The previous November his R-16 had become operational, and its use of storable propellants made it more militarily desirable than the liquid oxygen-using R-9 that was OKB-1’s response. Though the R-9 could be fuelled and fired in roughly the same amount of time, the feeling among almost everyone but Korolev was that storable fuels were the way forward when it came to developing a nuclear strike capability that could be used with little notice.

Meanwhile a fourth man and his bureau was working behind the scenes. Valentin Glushko had been trying to make large engines that used LOX for oxidizer. The tremendous vibration in his prototypes led to combustion instabilities that caused, as they say, “rapid disassembly”. Convinced that the problem could not be cracked, he had come around to storable propellants, and this had become a problem between him and Korolev. OKB-1 was pushing ahead with the N1 and, while storables were considered for that project, the writing was on the wall: Korolev wanted LOX and kerosene, or LOX and liquid hydrogen. A few years previous Glushko could have pushed back effectively, but Khrushchev had been downsizing the USSR’s military aviation efforts, and underemployed bomber-designing bureaus had been growing new departments devoted to rockets—the N1 would end up flying, for sadly abbreviated distances, using engines developed by Nikolai Kuznetsov’s OKB-276.

Glushko hedged his bets by teaming up with Chelomei on the UR-700 and the UR-500, which were aimed at the 70+ and 20-tonne payload targets set by Khrushchev. The former was to be a super-heavy interplanetary space launcher and the latter was a combination heavy LEO space launcher and ICBM. The smaller of the two figures was apparently selected due to the test of the RDS-220 hydrogen bomb (better known by the name given to it in the West, the “Tsar Bomba”) a few months earlier. This 100-megaton demonstrator had come in at just under 27 tonnes, and it was thought that refined versions with about half the yield would come in several tonnes less than that.

These two rockets were OKB-52’s proposal to the Defense Council meeting. OKB-1 countered with the already-underway N1 and, for the smaller launcher, the N2, which was essentially the N1 with its tetchy first stage removed. Seemingly out of worry that OKB-1 would still prevail, Glushko had arranged for another card in his hand—Yangel.

A relative newcomer to the space side of missile work, Yangel had earned a reputation as someone who listened to the military with the R-12 and R-16 missiles, in contrast with Chelomei and Korolev, who were viewed to varying extents as prima donnas, or at least less than entirely focused on military applications of their rockets. Yangel parleyed this approval into an unmanned satellite launch that was to go ahead the next month: Kosmos-1, the very first mission of the soon-to-be-ubiquitous Kosmos program that represented the large majority of Soviet launches from 1961 until the fall of the USSR. Yangel was interested in extending his nascent space work into manned programs, at least to the extent of designing the rockets for them, and he and Glushko had initially worked on creating a rocket, the RK-100, using the same storable propellant engines that OKB-52 was designing for Chelomei. If Glushko failed to unseat Korolev through Chelomei, then teaming with Yangel would give him another bite at the apple.

The RK-100 was a clustered rocket and Yangel was reportedly displeased with the particular design that his OKB-586 came up with. In any case the first comprehensive space policy statement by the Soviet government, made in 1960, ruled out any possibility of it going forward. At this point the focus shifted to another Yangel-Glushko collaboration. Once again a clustered approach was used. Working on the base of a booster “module” resembling the smaller rockets with which OKB-586 had had success, this new rocket consisted of four modules on the first stage, four on the second, and then a core booster being the third and final stage. This proposal was dubbed the R-56, and Yangel brought it and another design, the R-36, to the conference.

What he didn’t do was go head-to-head with Korolev and Chelomei. As initially conceived the R-56 would slot into the space between the 20 and 70 tonne launchers, lifting 30-40 tonnes or so, while the R-36 was much smaller than any of the other rockets mentioned, aiming for a sweet spot in automated satellite launches around 1-2 tonnes to LEO.

The meeting did not go well for Yangel’s crewed space ambitions as by April a turgidly named decree called “On the most important projects of intercontinental ballistic and global missiles and carriers of space objects” was issued. It instructed the bureaus involved to go for the N1 as a space vehicle, the UR500 (which would eventually become the Proton) as both a space vehicle and ICBM, and the R-36 solely as a missile—though it too would become a satellite launcher one day, the Tsyklon. However, in the few weeks of space between the original meeting and the decision, Glushko began lobbying the Strategic Rocket Forces and Dmitri Ustinov about not only the “4-4-1” module version but one with a “7-6-1” configuration that he said would lift 70 tonnes—obviously the direct challenge to the N1 and UR-700 that Yangel did not make himself. His efforts paid off. While not authorizing the R-56, OKB-586 were given permission to at least study the “4-4-1” configuration.

A year later, in 1963, the order for the R-56 was revised to specify that it should lift 40 tonnes to LEO. While Yangel’s bureau studied modular rockets that could handle this new requirement, for all intents and purposes they went back to the drawing board and settled on a completely different approach: a four-stage “monoblock” arrangement, to use the Russian term. This is the familiar, boosterless approach where each stage is singular and is merely put on top of another singular stage—the Saturn V being the most famous example of this. The first two stages of this R-56 did the heavy work of getting a payload into orbit, while the third was used to get it to geosynchronous orbit, if that was the intended destination. The optional fourth stage would be for the extra push needed on lunar and planetary missions.

The first stage would be outfitted with sixteen RD-253 engines, the same one to be used on the UR-500 (which had six) and which was ready to fly in July, 1965. This cluster of engines was actually wider than the intended 6.5-meter diameter of the first stage, so it was installed with a short skirt which enclosed 8.2 meters at the base. The second stage had one of the same engine, equipped with a modified bell tuned for operations in vacuum, as well as a small steering engine that produced 15% of that stage’s total thrust. The third stage tapered from 6.5 meters down to 4 meters in diameter, which was the gauge of the rocket up to the top of its 67.8 meter tall stack. Loaded up with Glushko and Yangel’s preferred N2O4 and UDMH, it would weigh in at 1421 tonnes. Compare this with the Saturn V’s 110.6 meters and 2970 tonnes, or the Energia’s 2270 tonnes (not counting Buran) and 58.765 meters. While not in their class, this new R-56 was heading in their direction. If it had been built to spec, it would have been able to lift a little over 46 tonnes to a 200-kilometer orbit when launched from Baikonur, or 12.6 tonnes to the Moon.

What happened to make it fail: All the meetings and decrees regarding the Soviet space program failed to straighten out the USSR’s lunar program. At the end of 1963, multiple boosters and spacecraft were still in play, and the Soviet leadership had still not even formally authorized an attempt by their country at the Moon landing. In an effort to finally settle things, in March 1964 Yangel proposed to the Military-Industrial Commission that Soviet space efforts be split three ways: OKB-1 would work on the lunar spacecraft, Chelomei’s group would get the automated probes to the Moon and the planets, and he would build the rockets.

The Commission turned him down, reasoning that too much work had been put into the N1 already for it to be replaced now. There was reportedly also some discomfort with the fact that the R-56 would need two launches (at minimum) for a Moon mission, which implied a docking in orbit at a time when the first Soviet docking was more than three years in the future.

Yangel then petitioned in succession both Dmitri Ustinov and Leonid Brezhnev (seven months from becoming leader of the USSR, but then in charge of the space program and a native of Dnepropetrovsk where OKB-586 was based). Neither would back him, and the R-56 was formally cancelled by another decree, “On speeding up work on the N1 complex”, that was made on June 19, 1964.

After the Moon program was finally approved in August of 1964, Yangel’s bureau was assigned to work on the terminal descent/ascent engine for the LK-1, the program’s lunar lander. It thus had the distinction of being one of the few pieces of the Soviet Moon landing craft to make it into space, as it was tested successfully in orbit three times in 1970-71.

What was necessary for it to succeed: The main problem with the R-56 program seems to have been Yangel’s willingness to let go, as opposed to the on-rushing bulls that were Korolev and Chelomei. If he’d been willing to push harder or been a little luckier during the 1962 meeting he might have won the day—Sergei Khrushchev specifically says that he thinks his father would have picked the R-56 at that time if Yangel had presented first rather than last.

On the other hand, even down to 2016 no-one has ever built a rocket with a payload capacity in the 40-50 tonne range (SpaceX’s under-development Falcon Heavy is closest, at 54.4 tonnes). Smaller is fine for almost all launches, and crewed missions absolutely require more if going to the Moon or beyond (barring the construction of a larger craft using multiple launches, which has also never been done). There’s good reason to believe that even if it had flown, the R-56 might have ended up not being good for much of anything.


“Heavy Launch Vehicles of the Yangel Design Bureau, Part 1”, Bart Hendrickx. Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, vol. 63, Supplement 2. 2010

“Heavy Launch Vehicles of the Yangel Design Bureau, Part 2”, Bart Hendrickx. Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, vol. 64 Supplement 1. 2011.

Nikita Khrushchev and the Creation of a Superpower, Sergei Khrushchev. Penn State University Press. 2001.

“Barmingrad”: The KBOM Lunar Base

KBOM Lunar Base, "Barmingrad"

A simple schematic of the KBOM lunar base, showing nine of the base module arranged in the proposed figure-8 pattern. Click for a larger view. Based on a blueprint diagram printed in Russia in Space.

What it was: An extensive late-60s/early 70s study of a Soviet lunar base to follow up on the N1-L3 lunar landing.

Details: American lunar base designs, and most Soviet/Russian ones, have generally been quite conservative. They usually consist of upgrades to lunar landers that allow astronauts to stay on the Moon for weeks or months, often with the aid of logistics landers that are more of the same. Detailed study of the construction of something more like a permanent settlement or an Antarctic base is actually quite rare. On the US side we have premature examples like Project Horizon, but in the USSR we had what was probably the most developed of the entire Space Race: Barmingrad.

OKB-1 was swamped with work by the mid-60s, a side effect of Sergei Korolev and Vasili Mishin’s instincts to hold on to as many crewed and automated programs in the aftermath of Vladimir Chelomei‘s grab for control in Khrushchev’s latter days. When in November 1967 the Soviet government launched the Galaktika program to study the exploration of the Moon, Mars, and Venus, they had already informally farmed off study of a lunar base to KBOM, headed by Vladimir Barmin. By March of 1968 this had crystallized into the Columb sub-study and KBOM really set to work developing what was informally dubbed “Barmingrad”.

The choice of KBOM was a bit surprising in that they were the bureau assigned to designing rocket launch facilities for the USSR—the moon base was their first non-terrestrial assignment. Even so, Barmin, his chief A. Chemodurov, and the people assigned to the work took the project with enthusiasm, probably extending far beyond what they were expected to design. Ultimately their work stopped only because the N1-based Moon program was cancelled in 1974.

What they came up with was an ambitious plan based around a multi-use module, which they studied in a variety of configurations before settling on one as the best. The module was 3.5 × 8.5 meters consisting of a rigid section and an expandable section. The expandable section would allow the module to be shipped as roughly a cube and then, once on the Moon, would double the module’s length. At each end as well as on one side of the rigid section was an adapter that  would join two modules together and serve as an access point between them, or allow the attachment of a specialized section, such as the airlock that was to serve as the base’s “front door” for EVA.

Nine of the basic modules would be shipped to the Moon and arranged as two rows of three, with the remaining three serving as “crossbeams”, altogether forming a figure eight. Excepting the aforementioned airlock, this section of the base would be surrounded by berms of regolith and covered with a layer of the same to a depth of 40 centimeters (16 inches), all in the name of radiation protection.

The base was to house 12 cosmonauts, with connections to X-ray and optical telescopes for scientific study, a power source (either a nuclear fission reactor or solar panels), three radiators to dump the base’s waste heat, a unit for cracking oxygen from lunar regolith, and a deep drilling rig. The cosmonauts could get around by walking or, if they needed construction equipment or wanted to travel longer distances, using one of several rovers based around a Lunokhod-like six-wheel chassis. The base would be resupplied by landing craft carrying a logistics module which could be docked to the base, unloaded, and then discarded. By 1974, the base module had reached the mockup stage and KBOM were exploring the ergonomics of their work.

That said, “Barmingrad” took on a life of its own, and KBOM carried on expanding their base design well in to the far future, ultimately using it as the core of a full-fledged Lunar colony with a population of 200, the radical increase of necessary living volume being accommodated by inflatable domes.

What happened to make it fail: When Mishin was replaced as head of TsKBEM (previously OKB-1) in May 1974, Valentin Glushko swept away all of the N1-L3 program in favor of his own ideas. This included a moonbase of his own, LEK, and so Barmingrad was cancelled as part of the coup.

What was necessary for it to succeed: Glushko in turn had his moonbase cancelled along with much of his proposed program about 18 months later, as the Soviet space effort pivoted towards Energia/Buran and space stations. If he’d not cleared the board when taking over from Mishin, that was an 18-month window in which to produce some success with the N1 that might have convinced the Soviet leadership to carry on—and there’s some reason to believe that the success would have come in that timeframe, even if a change in heart is more dubious. At the end of that line was the KBOM moonbase.


Zak, Anatoly. “Going to the Moon…to stay”, Russia in Space: The Past Explained, the Future Explored. Apogee Prime, 2013.

LK-700: The Soviet Union’s Other Road to the Moon

LK-700 spaceship

Three views of the mockup of the LK-700 built before the program’s cancellation. On the left the craft as it would be at TLI, with its three lateral rockets. In the centre, a close-up view of the VA capsule, and on the right as the craft would appear on the trip back from the Moon (the lattice supporting it is not part of the craft). Image source unknown.

What it was: Vladimir Chelomei’s plan for a direct-descent lunar lander. While never the forerunner for a Soviet Moon landing, it was always a strong alternative that Chelomei and his supporters kept pushing forward whenever they could get a step up on Sergei Korolev or Vasili Mishin.

Details: For a very short period of time Vladimir Chelomei was on the verge of becoming the top man in the Soviet space program, and used his influence to cut Sergei Korolev’s OKB-1 out of the USSR’s manned lunar flyby mission and replace it with his OKB-52. He never did manage to gain control of the manned lunar landing, which was always officially going to be the N1-L3 or a derivative, yet it’s clear that if Nikita Khrushchev had not been ousted from power October 1964 he would have pushed to take it over too—and very possibly would have got it. While strictly speaking the LK-700 didn’t come until after Khrushchev’s fall, it’s what we would have seen as the Soviet effort at a lunar lander if Chelomei had remained on top.

The LK-700 began as the LK-3, and was first formally proposed after Chelomei and Valentin Glushko had thoroughly studied their alternative to the N1, the UR-700. Unlike OKB-1’s rocket, which was repurposed from designs for a Mars mission, OKB-52’s proposed launcher had been built with the Moon mission in mind and though the LK-3 was not formally approved until October 1965—after Khrushchev’s fall— the two had apparently been worked on in lockstep since about 1962.

This meant that it had one intrinsic advantage when the N1-L3 program ran into weight issues. It had become clear in late 1964 that the first few N1 rockets were not going to be powerful enough to perform a single-launch Moon mission, and that OKB-1 was going to have to evolve their launcher into something that could do the job. As the UR-700 and what was now the LK-700 were designed for each other, they would have been able to go on an earlier flight and so—all else being equal—get to the Moon first. The October 1965 decision to stick with the N1 but also move ahead with Chelomei’s plan, albeit at a much lower level of funding, was specifically intended as a backup if the N1 turned out to be a failure. From then on the advancement or retardation of the LK-700 tracked the N1’s highs and lows.

The LK-700 also had the advantage of being quite conservative. It was a direct-descent lander, which meant no dockings in space, whether in Earth orbit or around the Moon; as that profile needs more mass the rocket itself had to lift a larger payload, about 150 tonnes, but would be based on the tried-and-true storable propellants nitrogen tetroxide and UDMH. So would the LK-700—the highly toxic nature of the fuel was glossed over.

A Moon mission on the LK-700 would see two cosmonauts (or three in later missions) be launched into a 200-kilometer parking orbit by Glushko’s proposed booster. There they would spend five orbits checking out the craft’s systems before committing to a trip to the Moon. The fully-fuelled craft would weigh some 154 tonnes, as mentioned, and be about 13 meters long (not counting its abort tower, which brought the length up to 21.2 meters during launch). This is immense compared to the L3 proposed by OKB-1, and would have even been larger in mass than the Apollo CSM and its S-IVB injection stage at trans-lunar injection if fuel is included.

The Apollo craft was considerably longer than the LK-700 would have been, though. Rather than use Apollo’s linear arrangement with one engine and tank on the injection stage and the actual spaceship perched on top, the LK-700 would have used a laterally clustered arrangement. Three of a proposed new engine, the 11D23, would be attached to tanks of propellant arranged in a trefoil around another 11D23 and tank attached to the aft end of the LK-700’s crew capsule (the VA) and lunar landing stage/ascent stage (the Block 1V). The three engines would fire to add another 3.1km/s to the LK-700’s speed and send it on its way to the Moon, at which point they would be jettisoned.

The fourth engine and its propellant (Block 11), still attached to the outbound craft, would be used for course corrections during the 80-hour journey to the Moon. Upon arrival the Block 11 would fire again to slow the craft down to about 30 meters per second somewhere between three and five kilometers above their destination—notionally the Mare Fecunditatis, though Chelomei’s bureau never got anywhere near actually picking a landing site.


A view of the Block 111 landing gear. The rest of the craft sat on top, with the landing/TEI engine protruding out the bottom. It would remain behind on the Moon. Image source unknown.

At that height the Block 11 would run out of fuel and be ejected, exposing the Block 1V engine. The LK-700’s landing platform and gear (AKA Block 111) enclosed the Block 1V cylindrically, but let the rocket fire downwards to bring the craft to a soft landing on the Moon. The ship would have been designed to stay on the Moon for 12 to 24 hours, during which time the two cosmonauts it carried would make two surface excursions between two and two-and-a-half hours long.

When it was time to leave the Block 1V would fire again and launch the LK-700 back toward Earth while leaving the Block 111 behind. This would be a direct injection towards home, meaning that unlike the Apollo landings or the N1-L3 there would be no orbiting of the Moon either on landing or takeoff. This had the advantage of opening up a much larger fraction of the Moon’s surface for exploration, as there was no need to stay within the belt around the Moon’s equator where an orbiting mother ship would fly over the landing site with regularity.

The return journey would be somewhat slower than the outbound, taking four days, and after re-orienting the craft for re-entry at 150 kilometers above the Earth, the VA crew capsule would separate from the rest of the ship at 100 kilometers. The LK-700’s capsule was quite similar in shape to the Apollo CM, though considerably smaller: 3130kg as compared to 5809kg, and an interior volume of 4.0 cubic meters as compared to 6.17. Having the same outline and comparable small thrusters gave the VA the same rough steerability as an Apollo CM, and the crew aboard the last remaining component of the LK-700 could aim for a particular spot in the Soviet Union with about 11,000 kilometers of downrange and 300 kilometers of cross-range performance. Like other Soviet manned spacecraft, it was designed for a soft landing on land.

What happened to make it fail: Even though Chelomei was never able to get enough of the Soviet leadership to support his program over the N1-L3, the LK-700 trundled along at a low level for quite some time. The Central Committee of the Communist Party (at that time in the ascendance because of its support for Leonid Brezhnev’s takeover) re-authorized continuing work on it in September 1967. In the wake of the second N1 explosion in 1969, Chelomei even felt confident enough to push for the cancellation of the N1-L3 and its replacement with an LK-700/UR-700 based mission, making the good argument that re-designing and re-certifying the N1 so that it would stop blowing up on the pad would cost just as much as building the UR-700 anyway. Perhaps unfortunately for the USSR’s lunar landing ambitions that effort also failed to get enough backing and the N1 continued.

In the real world the LK-700 reached the mockup and early testing phase when it was killed definitively in 1975, along with all other Soviet Moon landing and flyby plans, by that shift in viewpoint towards space stations, Energia, and a Soviet space shuttle.

What was necessary for it to succeed: The LK-700/UR-700 was a very creditable attempt to make a Moon mission and certainly could have succeeded if technical skills were all that were necessary. Vladimir Chelomei had notable successes in his future, while the UR-700’s Valentin Glushko is arguably the greatest rocket engine designer of all.

Instead it never came to pass purely because of the poisonous politics of the Soviet space program from 1964-1975 (though of course if they hadn’t been like that it’s unlikely Chelomei would have been able to work on it at all once the decision was made to go with the N1-L3 in 1965). So at first the obvious answer to this question is “Vladimir Chelomei has to be able to maintain his remarkable drive to the top of the Soviet space program, rather than fall even more quickly than he rose”. To that end the continuing rule of Nikita Khrushchev would work very well, though it isn’t strictly necessary.

The main difficulty with this answer is Chelomei’s speed in developing his ideas. He had a strong tendency to go his own way and come up with unusual, if plausible, ways of solving problems. As a result his programs often required considerable fundamental work and testing as compared to more conservative approaches to the same problem. To his credit he took that time whenever it was politically possible to do so, but it meant long waits before missions were ready to go. While he would have been able to move considerably faster if OKB-52 had had the funds that OKB-1/TsKBEM had for the N1-L3 program, his deliberate pace on his other more successful projects strongly suggests that he would not have been able to beat the United States to the Moon by July 1969.

At that point the question becomes one of the Russian leadership’s attitude to a Moon landing after losing the race. It’s likely that the UR-700/LK-700 combination would have been less accident-prone than the N1-L3 (it hardly could have been worse), and so it seems that the Kremlin might have been greater tolerance for it if it ran late. Ultimately the success of the program would have come down to a race between Chelomei’s dream and a cancellation brought about by a desire to save money or (as in real-life) a re-orientation of the USSR’s space program toward military objectives. If the dream won the contest, a cosmonaut would have set foot on the Moon sometime around 1975-1980, with a likely Soviet Moon base to follow; if not, then we’d have seen an outcome rather similar to what happened in the real world, with only the doomed technology being different.

The Armstrong Whitworth Pyramid: For an Empire on the Up


A diagram of the Pyramid re-entry vehicle as presented to the British Commonwealth Space Flight Symposium in August 1959. The basic design with is on the left, while the variant with caret wings is on the right. The crew would have resided in the small cylinder outlined with dashes in the centre of the craft. Click for a larger view.

What it was: A proposal put forward in 1959 by Armstrong Whitworth, a British aircraft manufacturer, to build a pyramidal spaceplane to put on top of a two-stage rocket composed of a Black Knight rocket poised on a Blue Streak missile (this latter arrangement actually becoming official less than a year later, as the Black Prince launch vehicle).

Details: The UK is the only country in the world to have developed a space launch capability and then give it up (one could make an argument for France as well, as the Ariane is technically European, but that rocket is clearly France’s baby). That said, at the end of 1945 the UK was one of the few countries on the cutting edge of rocketry—like the US and Soviet Union they benefited from the ransacking of the German rocket programs. For a period of roughly twenty-five years after that up to 1971 the UK did try to keep within striking distance of the pace set by their two rivals, and in the period immediately following Sputnik there were grand plans to get men into space too, plans only struck down by Britain’s poor economy as compared to the US and an inability to shoot dissenters as the USSR had in its favour. To paraphrase Dean Acheson, it was all part of Britain losing an empire and trying to find a role.

The ultimate expression of this was the Pyramid. The basic idea behind the craft actually dates to 1951, when as we’ve discussed previously the University of Belfast’s Terence Nonweiler invented the concept of waveriding: increasing lift by riding the shockwave generated by a hypersonic aircraft. By 1956 the British had begun slowly working on this; after Sputnik I was launched they greatly increased their pace.

In 1957-58 Armstrong Whitworth, part of the Hawker Siddeley aircraft consortium (which also included Avro Canada, of Avro Arrow fame) worked out a shape that would be able to waveride back to Earth from orbit and, more importantly, orbital speeds. At that time the equations used to model hypersonic aerodynamic flow were crude, and the answers they gave had to be calculated by hand, so the shape was as simple as possible: take a regular tetrahedron and push its top point down to produce a squat pyramid. Then take one of the base points and pull it out by about half until you have something resembling the platonic ideal of an airplane. For simplicity’s sake, the underside stays completely flat. The only wrinkle is the addition of two rudders on horizontal tail structures at the aft end of the craft, and in one variant two small caret wings (the designers also realized that the real Pyramid would have to have rounded edges and a blunted nose to keep sharp edges and points from burning off during re-entry).

As designed, the Pyramid would have weighed 1876 kilograms, somewhat larger than a Mercury capsule’s 1104 kilograms, but in the same range (a Gemini capsule weighed 3396kg). It would have been 7.7 meters long and 5.2 meters wide, with a height at its point of 2.8 meters—though as it was a flat pyramid much of its length was considerably lower than that. Under the point and the rear facet of the pyramid was the crew capsule itself, which would be cylindrical and contain two men. As was typical for very early spacecraft designs, its engineers were overly optimistic about how many astronauts could be crammed into a small space.

The craft would have been launched on a proposed launcher involving a Blue Streak missile (an IRBM being developed by the UK for their nuclear weapons) as the first stage and a Black Knight rocket as the second. This was actually proposed more formally a few months later by the British government and given the name Black Prince, and so while it’s slightly anachronistic to call it that in the context of Pyramid, we’ll use that name here.


A view of the Pyramid on its rocket (though this one looks more like a US Titan than the Black Prince). The “mirror Pyramid” added to the Pyramid-proper for aerodynamic stability can be seen here. Originally published in Flight magazine, August 1959, and so believed to be in the public domain. Click for a larger view.

The Black Prince wouldn’t have been capable of getting very much into orbit (it would have been hard-pressed with a payload of 100kg), so Armstrong Whitworth suggested killing two birds with one stone. The Pyramid would also be much too wide to fit into an aerodynamic fairing on top of its rocket, and as it generated lift at low altitudes it would try to push the rocket off course and make the climb into orbit all that more difficult. So the Pyramid would have been paired with an identically shaped fuel tank mated to its underbelly, balancing its aerodynamics and supplying more propellants to the first stage. Once the first stage had lifted the whole arrangement as high and as fast as it could take it, it and the mirror-Pyramid would be jettisoned and the second would carry the real Pyramid into a 130 by 650 kilometer orbit.

Once the mission was done, the Pyramid carried just enough fuel (only a few kilograms) to perform a retro-rocket burn at perigee, which would knock it down to 100 kilometers and allow it to re-enter. Here the waveriding aspect of the craft would kick in. At a high angle of attack a lifting shockwave would form on the flat underbelly and let the Pyramid guide its path; it could even perform a sinusoidal flight following successive great circle paths to minimize the amount of heat the underbelly had to absorb.

The designers were concerned that their original design was unstable at speeds below 130 km/h, and they didn’t know enough to make it so, so the plan was for the crew to eject out of a hatch in the rear of the Pyramid once they were low and slow enough to parachute to safety. The ship would then crash, obviously reducing its reusability. Armstrong Whitworth believed that after harvesting data from a few flights, though, they would have learned how to proceed so the future Pyramids could land safely. Then the hatch would serve for emergency exits only.

Long term planning-borderline-dreaming for the Pyramid was to upgrade the Black Prince with a cruciform set of ten engines and then stick a nuclear second stage on top of it. With that booster, the Pyramid could be given a landing engine and head for the Moon. As seems surprisingly common for early proposale, they even had a landing site picked out: Piazzi Smyth Carter near the eastern edge of the Mare Imbrium. After a few unmanned cargo launches, the manned mission would consist of several Pyramids landing their crew simultaneously nearby and getting to work on a Moon base.


An image of a Pyramid on the Moon, from “Surface Exploration of the Moon” in Spaceflight magazine, August 1961. Image believed to be in the public domain. Click for a larger view.

What happened to make it fail: The Pyramid can be broken down into two pieces, the re-entry vehicle and the rocket on which it was perched.

The crewed section failed for the usual reason: it was a paper proposal looking for government funding and it didn’t get it. The window for it to get that funding was particularly small too, as it was a primitive design and would have been completely obsolete based on what had been learned the previous few years if it had got underway by, say, 1963. That said, there were some wind tunnel tests on it, and Hawker Siddeley did study another, more sophisticated waverider in 1971; that system was radically different, being lofted by a winged booster and having an on-board ramjet.

The 1959 Pyramid’s rocket was more successful, bearing in mind that “successful” here is a relative term. As mentioned earlier, the Black Prince was actually given the go-ahead a few months later, but the reason for this was complex. The UK had been pouring money into the Blue Streak missile and, out of embarrassment at its cancellation with no return on that investment, allowed it to go ahead as a civilian rocket. Political embarrassment or not, the Treasury was uninterested in funding space, and repeatedly tried to cancel every ballistic missile and space launcher project until an attempt stuck—and in the case of the Black Prince and its follow-ons, no-one was actually interested in sticking up for it. Ultimately it came down to a struggle between expensive British independence and prestige, or cheaply relying on the US for technology.

What was necessary for it to succeed: The Pyramid re-entry vehicle had a lot going against it. First of all, waveriding has never been well-developed, not even in the 21st century: only one craft has ever used it, the American XB-70, and that plane never went much above Mach 3. Furthermore, the Pyramid’s design was too small for the two men it was supposed to carry, so it would inevitably have had to undergo a radical redesign. It also became obsolete very quickly as manned space travel took several great leaps forward in 1960-65. The Pyramid also wasn’t an official government project, being a proposal from private industry that Armstrong Whitworth then had to convince the UK government to fund. With the Treasury opposing everything to do with space, it wasn’t going to get that. Altogether it was never going to fly, either because of money problems or because the design was not going to work as planned.

The rocket had a chance, though. The turning point there was probably the Nassau Agreement of 1962. After the cancellation of the Blue Streak, the UK had been planning to use the American Skybolt missile and when that was cancelled as well they were left in a dire situation as far as nuclear deterrent was concerned. Expensive or not, it looked for a while as if the UK was going to have to spend their way out of the problem and uncancel the Blue Streak. If so, the British would have had a much easier (and much better funded) path to the Black Prince that they could have taken.

Instead PM Harold Macmillan convinced John F. Kennedy to sell Polaris missiles to the UK. The Blue Streak stayed dead, and all of the UK’s independent space plans went with it over the course of the next few years. Change the course of history there and you might get the UK in space using Pyramid’s launcher

The Blue Streak cancellation notwithstanding, the launcher half of the Pyramid system did move ahead for a while. The embarrassment-driven Black Prince derivative proceeded until the end of 1960. The British couldn’t convince Australia or Canada to help finance it, though, so it too was cancelled, signalling the end of Britain’s large-scale ambitions in space.

It still stumbled along for several more years, morphing into two different projects, the British/French/German European Launcher Development Organization’s Europa (which was cancelled and replaced with Ariane in 1971-3) and the Black Arrow—both of which suffered from lack of support from the UK to the point of deliberately being set up for failure. Nevertheless the latter of these was launched four times, with the last being the first successful British launch of a satellite, Prospero, in October 1971. It was also the last: the Black Arrow program had already been cancelled in July, and the launch had only gone ahead because the final rocket had already been built and shipped to Woomera in Australia for its flight.

M-46/M-48 (VKA-23): The First Soviet Spaceplane


The VKA-23’s two designs, Vladimir Myasishchev third attempt in the 1956-60 period to propose a small spaceplane to Soviet leadership. The one on the left was based on his second try, the M-48, while the second design, on the right, was the ancestor of several other Soviet attempts at a lifting body re-entry vehicle in future years. Based on two images of unknown source, believed to be from the USSR–if you know of their source, please contact the author. Click for a larger view.

What it was: Four interrelated, but different, designs for a small Soviet spaceplane. While almost all Russian spacecraft descend from Sergei Korolev’s R-7 and Vostok, they began as an independent line of approach pre-dating 1957, building up to orbital operations by creating ever more extreme airplanes. Only after Korolev’s crowning achievement of orbiting Yuri Gagarin in a ballistic capsule was it definitively folded into the main line of Soviet space exploration. Even after that its descendants repeatedly threatened to split back off again right up until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Details: We’ve previously discussed Eugen Sänger’s Silbervogel and how it was the first serious attempt to build a spacecraft by an alternative means to ballistic rocketry—building a plane so extreme that its speed and height qualified it for orbit. After WWII ended there was some interest in his work in the United States, but as designing a spaceplane is relatively difficult as compared to a ballistic capsule, it never went anywhere interesting until the development of the X-15.

In the Soviet Union, however, airplane designers kept their eye on the possibility starting as soon as they discovered Sänger and Bredt’s work. Stalin is reported to have been very interested in the possibility of an orbital bomber, and in 1947 tried to have a Soviet rocket engineer, Grigoriy Tokayev, convince Sänger to come to the Soviet Union or, failing that, have the NKVD kinap him (Tokayev chose to defect to the UK instead). Before this, though, in November 1946 Stalin directed Mstislav Keldysh—arguably his most talented plane designer and one of the three men (along with Sergei Korolev and Mikhail Tikhonravov) who suggested in 1954 that the Soviet Union launch an artificial satellite—to build something like the Silbervogel.

Keldysh concluded that the Silbervogel was entirely too advanced for Russian industry to build any time soon. Nevertheless he went for a somewhat less-extreme ramjet-and-rocket-powered craft that kept the same basic suborbital boost-glide approach suggested by Sänger. What he comes up with is still too sophisticated for Russia to make, so it’s not hard to conclude that it wasn’t a serious proposal and more just a way of getting Stalin off his back.

In the years immediately following this, Vladimir Myasishchev was the most serious of early Russian spaceplane designers. Well before Sputnik I his design bureau, OKB-23, was working on radical weapons like supersonic bombers and the Buran cruise missile. When Korolev demonstrated to the Soviet leadership’s satisfaction that ballistic missiles were the best delivery system for nuclear weapons, Buran was cancelled in November 1957, but Myasishchev was still interested in going faster and higher with his planes. So he continued working on an idea he’d had while working on his missile for a suborbital reconnaissance spaceplane called the M-46. Note the date: he was already working on it prior to the launch of Sputnik I, which makes it one of the select few spacecraft seriously considered before the dawn of the Space Age.

Not a lot is known about the M-46 other than its existence, as the work was done entirely on Myasishchev’s own accord; when he was found out he was sanctioned and told to pay back the funds he had spent. Archive materials on it were apparently destroyed some time thereafter. Nevertheless, there’s reason to believe that it would have been a manned version of the Buran missile, which is to say a ramjet-driven, delta-winged craft some 23 meters long, boosted up to speed by four nitric acid/kerosene rockets. The ramjets would have gone out for lack of oxygen long before it reached space, but it would have had enough speed for a suborbital hop above 100 kilometers with an intercontinental range.

Two years after being slapped down for his initiative, Myasishchev’s situation changed. Early reports of the US Air Force’s Dyna-Soar inspired the Russian military to counter with a spaceplane of their own. Korolev’s OKB-1 worked with Pavel Tsybin to develop one possibility, the PKA, while Myasishchev’s OKB-23 was given the go-ahead to develop a new one of his own, which he called the M-48. Both were designed to be boosted by Korolev’s R-7, just like the Vostok spacecraft for which they were considered an alternative. As it’s much easier to build a ballistic re-entry capsule, Yuri Gagarin made his historic flight in the relatively unsophisticated Vostok 1, but work continued on both the PKA and the M-48 until October 1959 and October 1960 respectively.

Myasishchev’s first attempt at this commission produced the M-48 proper, about which again not very much is known. One day the Soviet archives may open enough to give us more details, but for now our best idea is that it was long, flat-bottomed, triangular craft (with the two forward sides of the triangle much longer than the other one,) with a relatively simple faceted crew cabin for one attached to its upper surface. Its flat underside is particularly interesting, as it makes the M-48 one of the first waveriders, which is to say it took advantage of the shockwave on the belly of the craft to provide lift. The whole concept of doing this had only been discovered in 1951, and its discoverer (Terence Nonweiler) was only just developing a plan to use it (in the never-built British Nonweiler Waverider re-entry vehicle) as OKB-23 was doing the same. Waveriding is a difficult and sophisticated technique, and even in the 21st century only one aircraft has ever been built that used it, the 60s-era XB-70.

Perhaps it was that sophistication, as well as the general audacity of designing a spaceplane, that got the M-48 into trouble. When Myasishchev submitted his design for approval, it was savaged by governmental engineer/bureaucrats, and he had to head back to the drawing board. This time he came up with two designs. Though technically still the M-48, they’re sufficiently different from the original (and from each other) that they’re usually referred to by their alternate designations: VKA-23 design 1 and VKA-23 design 2.

The first of the two designs was similar to what he had done with the M-48, but with changes intended to address the objections to the previous design. It would have been 9.4 meters long and built of steel and titanium, which would then be covered with ceramic foam tiles embedded in a frame made of silicon and graphite. It would have been able to carry one pilot and 700 kilograms to orbit, with the entire loaded and fuelled craft weighing an additional 3500 to 4100 kilograms. This is very small, smaller than even SpaceShip One and only a few hundred kilograms heavier than the unmanned X-37 spaceplane. This size was dictated by the fact that it was to be lifted by one of Korolev’s R-7 boosters, which would do most of the work of getting it into orbit.

The second design is the particularly interesting one, though. In contrast with the first design’s faceted appearance, this one was a rounded lifting body, recognizably like almost every small winged re-entry vehicle developed since then. On the Russian side this is not coincidental. The chain of proposed Soviet mini-spaceplanes running from Raketoplan to Spiral to LKS to MAKS are all dependent in one way or another on the work done on it, or the engineers who developed it. Like design 1, it had to be light to go up on an R-7, and so it rang in at 3600 to 4500 kilograms, and its payload was the same—700 kilograms. It likewise used the same ceramic tiles and silicon/graphite frame as a heat shield. It was slightly shorter than its brother, at 9.0 meters.

Both would have been fitted with a small turbojet engine for maneuverability once they had reached the lower atmosphere during re-entry.

Despite its numerous descendants, the VKA-23 was still quite primitive. In both designs its one astronaut actually had to take a trick from the similarly basic Vostok and parachute out from it to safety once he dropped below 8 kilometers (but before getting to 3 kilometers); the plane itself would have had landing skids (design 1) or had a parachute to bring it safely to ground (design 2).

What happened to make it fail: In 1959-60 Khrushchev starting reducing the size and complexity of the Soviet military establishment. OKB-23 was dissolved in October 1960, and many of the VKA-23 engineers were re-assigned to Vladimir Chelomei’s OKB-52, where they became an important part of his Raketoplan spaceplane design team. When that too was cancelled, they were moved to Mikoyan, where they worked on Spiral.

What was necessary for it to succeed: None of the original four designs was ever going to fly. Spaceplanes have turned out to be considerably harder than anyone ever suspected, and even the United States was far away from building one in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Soviet Union was even less able to do so.

But In a sense, Myasishchev’s little plane came very close to succeeding in the long run. During all their travels through various Soviet design bureaus, a variable group of Myasishchev engineers kept a recognizable core of VKA-23 design 2 knowledge moving forward. A scale testing model of Raketoplan was launched on a suborbital re-entry experiment in 1961, and another model tested the design’s hypersonic maneuverability in 1963. The Spiral spaceplane got to the point of a full-scale subsonic version, the MiG-105, which was used to study its low-speed handling. Two sub-scale versions of Spiral, BOR-2 and BOR-4, were launched into orbit. Even the larger-scale Soviet shuttle that did finally fly in 1988 had its cockpit designed by the Myasishchev bureau, which was reconstituted in 1967. It had the name Buran, which was a nice callback to the manned Buran cruise missile plans that started it all in 1956-7.

Incredibly, the Myasishchev design bureau was still chugging along on their own distant descendant of the VKA-23 (after a long fallow period) as late as 2009—this time with the aim of using the result for space tourism. That dream finally died when they were acquired by the Russian government’s United Aircraft Corporation in that year.

LESS: The Lunar Escape System

LESS-CM docking

The final moments of the open-to-space LESS rescuing two astronauts stranded on the lunar surface by a faulty lunar module. Getting to this point would have been difficult, but the alternative was death by suffocation within a few hours. Image from the NASA document Lunar Escape Systems, Volume I: Summary Report. Click for a larger view.

What it was: A proposed emergency booster from North American Rockwell that could be used by Apollo astronauts in the case that they were stranded on the Moon. It was built around the assumption that the stricken crew would be safe on the ground but with an LM that couldn’t take them back to the Command/Service Module in lunar orbit. Using fuel siphoned from the ascent stage of the lunar lander they would sit in open space, using their space suits for life support, and manually guide themselves into orbit for a rendezvous with the CSM.

Details: Under the influence of the USAF, NASA studied various ways of escaping a stranded ship in orbit. The Apollo program took a different tack, partly because of the difficulty of coming up with an escape system that would work to return the astronauts from such a distance and partly because weight on the lander was at such a premium. Serious work didn’t begin until NASA started planning for the long-duration missions that would lead up to an Apollo-technology lunar base.

The Apollo landings were divided into two phases. Apollos 11 through 14 were of relatively short duration, while Apollo 15, 16, and 17 were “J-Class” missions using the Extended LM to allow longer stays. The Extended LM also had a higher cargo capacity (which is why the final three Moon missions had a Lunar Rover to drive around in). Once the J-Class missions were done, later missions were to use two LMs, one of which (the “LM Truck”) launched unmanned from Earth solely to carry more equipment. With that in mind NASA looked into equipment that could be carried to make landing on the Moon safer.

Neil Armstrong said later in life that he’d had nightmares for two years prior to launch that he’d get back into the LM to begin the trip home and the engines would fail to start; apparently he wasn’t the only one, because one of NASA’s suggestions for the extra equipment tried to deal with the issue. In June 1970 North American Rockwell sent a first-stage feasibility report to NASA for the Lunar Escape System (LESS), based on a flying rover they’d already been working on (the Lunar Flying Vehicle, or LFV). By September of the same year they’d fleshed it out further, including some initial lab and engineering work.

The LESS was very bare-bones, but bear in mind that until something like it was added to the lunar lander the astronauts were facing certain death by suffocation if the LM failed on them. In that dire situation, the stranded men would take two hours to unload the LESS from the side of the LM (where it had been stored in a configuration looking for all the world like an IKEA flat pack) and then siphon fuel from the lander’s ascent stage tanks; the theory here was that if the LM was dysfunctional due to a landing hard enough to crack those, the astronauts weren’t going to be in any shape to rescue themselves anyway.

LESS Schematic

A schematic diagram of the LESS from Lunar Escape Systems, Volume II: Final Technical Report. Click for a larger view.

Having fuelled the LESS, the astronauts would not get in it, but rather sit on it, exposed to open space. The pilot would give them an initial kick skywards to 3000 meters (a trip that would take about sixty seconds), then heel the LESS over to thirty degrees so that they’d continue rising while also starting to make headway horizontally. At about 6 minutes they’d be high enough and have enough vertical velocity that they’d then turn over the rest of the way and head for the CSM completely horizontally. The LESS was to be equipped with three gyros to help determine the attitude of the ship.

Once they were in what they hoped was a 110 kilometer orbit, the LESS crew would make observations of the sun angle and (if launching during the day) the angle to the lunar horizon and their apparent speed over passing landmarks below. Using these they could calculate their actual orbit–by hand, as the LESS had no on-board computing ability and the astronauts spacesuits didn’t have enough air for ground control back on Earth to give them the figures they needed. While too high was obviously a problem, as the orbit was very likely to be elliptical rather than the ideal circular, too low at perilune was the main issue. After testing with simulators, Northern Rockwell blandly states that LESS rescues would obtain “marginally acceptable orbital accuracies in terms of avoiding lunar impact.”

The CSM pilot would likewise be trying to figure out where the LESS was going to be. The launch of the rescue craft would be timed so that as it reached its height (and assuming it was on target) it would pass within 20 kilometers before they started to diverge. Using a sextant to observe a flashing beacon on the LESS and using a VHF rangefinder, the CSM pilot would use his onboard computer to calculate an intercept with the LESS. Unfortunately the LESS not very visible to the CSM pilot if the LESS was too far from where it should be: only to a maximum 90 kilometers by eye. The North American Rockwell report says “Visibility and acquisition of the target with the CSM optics was found to be a problem” and suggests no solutions. Ultimately it came down to hoping that the LESS astronauts hadn’t missed their correct orbit by too much.

The CSM’s orbit would take it around the Moon, during which he’d execute a burn that would put him at the same place at the same time as the LESS before the end of its first orbit. If absolutely necessary he could bring his craft as low as 80 kilometers above the surface. The stranded astronauts would have at best a couple of hours of air left, so a second chance on the next orbit was out of the question.

It was very likely that the two would miss each other by some distance, anywhere up to one kilometer and with somewhat differing speeds, so as they got close it was necessary for the CSM to start a new maneuver to lessen the gap. Meanwhile the LESS crew would be changing the orientation of their craft so it pointed towards the nose of the CSM. The Command/Service Module actually flown to the Moon had a VHF transponder and flashing light beacon of its own for use with LM docking, and these would be turned on for a LESS flight, giving the astronauts on it a target to aim for.

Assuming all went well the LESS would dock with the Command Module using a special docking attachment on the latter’s nose. Once there was a firm connection, the astronauts could climb onto the CM and enter its hatch, opened from within by the CSM pilot.

At that point the CM’s cabin would be repressurized and the presumably relieved crew could begin the process of returning to Earth used by a regular Apollo mission.

What happened to make it fail: The late dates at which the feasibility studies came back to NASA are a clue. While the space agency was still planning for expanding the United States’ presence on the Moon, Apollo was shrinking quickly. The same month as the second report came out, budget cuts forced NASA down to just three extended LM missions, and there was no sign of funding for the longer missions they wanted after that. In fact it never came, and there was no need for the LESS to rescue astronauts because no-one was going to the Moon anyway.

What was necessary for it to succeed: It was part and parcel of the Apollo program’s continuation according to its initial plan. If Apollo had kept going, or been revived fairly quickly after going into abeyance for a while in the early 1970s, something like it would have been desirable until stranded astronauts had a long-term Moon base to return to in case of emergency. As long as the CSM was the only place to go to, LESS would have been a plausible addition to the astronauts’ equipment.

The difficulty here is that the Apollo program relied on the Saturn V, and the Saturn V stopped production in August 1968. The ability to start it back up again disappeared very quickly, and it’s estimated that NASA would have needed an extra billion dollars to keep it going after 1970. Without Saturn the entire Apollo program falls apart as nothing else is powerful enough to launch the heavy Apollo Lunar CSM/LM combination. Ultimately the success of the LESS comes down to avoiding the US’ budget crunch in the late 1960s, like so much else did in the American space program of the time.

MTFF/Columbus: Europe’s Space Station

Columbus docked to Hermes

The initial module of Columbus, the MTFF, docked with the proposed mini-shuttle Hermes. At this point the space station would be unpressurized and unmanned except when astronauts were retrieving its experiments, but the APM (which eventually evolved into the ISS module Columbus) would be attached later to add a small living space. Image source unknown, believed to be the ESA; if you know the source of this picture, please contact the author. Click for a larger view.

What it was: A European effort to turn their contribution to the American space station Freedom into an independent space station of their own, hoisted into orbit by ESA rockets and serviced by an ESA shuttle.

Details: The European Space Agency signed on to Ronald Reagan’s suggested internationalization of the Freedom station right from the moment he made the offer in 1984. They had been developing the pressurized Spacelab module for use in the Space Shuttle’s cargo bay since the early 1970s, and now pushed for the new space station to build on components derived from their work. As part of this they started the Columbus project, which among other goals would have them make one such component—the Attached Pressurized Module (APM)—on their own for inclusion in the completed Freedom.

Another part of the project was to be semi-autonomous right from the initial planning, though. The Man-Tended Free Flying Platform (MTFF) was to have been a two-segment unmanned Spacelab module which would detach from Freedom and move to a nearby orbit. This would allow for sensitive, teleoperated microgravity experiments away from the noisy, manned Freedom and, a round of experiments completed, it would return for maintenance at the main station.

During the mid- to late-1980s, though, Freedom had a rough ride in the US Congress and the ESA started developing contingency plans for what to do with Columbus if the American station was cancelled. Couple this with massive increases in prices to use the Space Shuttle—then the Challenger disaster temporarily making its cargo bay unavailable at any price—and from 1989-92 these plans culminated in an entirely autonomous station that the Europeans would try if remaining part of the now downsized and re-named Alpha (AKA “Space Station Fred”) became too unpalatable.

The initial station would have been the unmanned MTFF, but now the experiments would have been retrieved by the ESA’s Hermes shuttle, which along with the Ariane-5 rocket had been approved as an unrelated project in 1987. In 1991 the three were melded into one big project.


Two suggested expansions of Columbus beyond its initial two modules. Image source unknown, believed to be the ESA. Click for a larger view.

The MTFF, Hermes, and the French launcher were to be joined by a fourth piece of the puzzle: the APM, now divorced from Alpha. Once the unmanned MTFF-based station was proven, the APM would be completed and launched on an Ariane-5 (or possibly in an US Shuttle’s cargo bay, if renting it turned out to be cheaper and more convenient). It would then dock with the MTFF to produce an entirely European manned facility, Columbus. The long-term, if somewhat nebulous, plan was then to add more and more modules as time went by.

Statistics on the Columbus are surprisingly hard to come by. Based on the actual ISS module that was derived from it, though, we can presume that its two working modules would totaled about 14 meters in length, with the power module and station-keeping ion engine at the MTFF end adding about another 5 meters.  Its total mass would have been in the range of 25 to 30 tonnes, which would have made it a bit bigger than the Soviet Salyut stations, but less than 25% the size of Mir and about 6% the size the ISS. Accordingly it probably would have had the same sort of missions as the Salyuts, involving two or three astronauts for a few days up to several months.

The budget for the station was calculated at US$5.3 billion, including operations for five years.

What happened to make it fail: Two trends pulled the APM back to where it started: attached to the ISS.

First, the United States got its act together. The Space Station passed through another session budget shrinkage and soul-searching under Bill Clinton in 1993, but finally stabilized into what is recognizably the ISS that got built. As uncertainty over the American contribution faded away, and the Russians signed on to ISS rather than build Mir-2, it became clear that it would be safe to co-operate rather than go it alone—though the ESA did keep contingency plans for Columbus in place as late as 2001.

The ESA itself was also running into budget difficulties. The collapse of the Soviet Union did open up another possibility, as there was talk for a while of perhaps attaching the APM to Mir-2, but a related event back down on Earth proved to be more important. The costs of German reunification made Germany scale back its contributions to the ESA by nearly a fifth, which brought a budget crunch to the agency as a whole. With Hermes already over-budget, it was cancelled entirely, as was the MTFF, and the APM’s costs were scaled down by committing to the American station project after all—the name Columbus was co-opted for it alone rather than the entire project, and it became the Columbus science laboratory module that was attached to the ISS in February 2008. Only the Ariane-5 launcher managed to emerge from the crisis unscathed. As it turned out, the late 80s and early 90s were something of a Golden Age for European manned space exploration. Not only has the over all ESA budget been declining slowly since then, the percentage of it devoted to manned space travel has dropped precipitously. The ESA’s focus has shifted to more commercial uses of space such as telecommunications satellites and the Galileo satnav system.

What was necessary for it to succeed: The main necessity is the stillbirth of the ISS, which isn’t too hard to engineer. The Challenger disaster had called it into question, repeated budget cuts hit it in 1989 and 1990, and in June 1993 a bill to cancel its immediate ancestor Alpha had failed by only one vote in the House of Representatives.

Given that event, the budgets floated for MTFF even after the Germans had run into reunification money problems had it flying by 1999 so long as the ESA doesn’t make the real world turn into budgeting more for commercial applications that it did. This gives us the first component of the station.

If MTFF did get off the ground, the next component of the program was still very likely to have changed. Hermes was not going to fly on a reasonable budget in a reasonable timeframe, which kicks out one leg of the station’s autonomy. However if the MTFF had gone ahead it’s likely that the ESA could service it with an (relatively) quick upgrade to the simpler Automated Transfer Vehicle they had begun developing in the mid-1990s. It flies in the real world on unmanned missions to the ISS, and its manufacturer EADS Astrium has been floating a proposal to turn it into a manned capsule since 2008. British Aerospace had actually suggested manning and supplying the station using a capsule of their own design in the mid-80s, only to have it squelched in favour of the French mini-shuttle.

The combination of an MTFF serviced by a manned ATV would likely have worked, leading to the attachment of the APM and a completed, manned ESA station Columbus sometime in the middle to late 2000s.

Douglas Model 671/684: The X-15’s Shadow

Model 684

A schematic diagram of the Douglas Model 684. It was submitted to NACA in 1954 as part of the X-15 design competition. Though evaluation suggested it would be the superior suborbital spacecraft, it lost to North American Aviation’s bid. Image from “USAF Project 1226, Douglas Model 684 High Altitude Research Airplane”. Click for a larger view.

What it was: Douglas Aircraft’s 1954-55 attempt at a suborbital spaceplane, with support from the US Navy and eventually NACA, intended for testing high Mach numbers in the atmosphere. Launched from a bomber, it would use a ballistic flight to get as high as 344 kilometers and then use the drop back down into the atmosphere to build up speed.

Details: NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aerospace (NACA), was devoted to basic aerospace research programs whose results could be used by industry to make better aircraft. By the 1950s hypersonic travel was in the cards and they resolved to develop a research aircraft that could reach Mach 7, solely for the purpose of studying the aerodynamic and heating problems of moving through the atmosphere at that speed. Interestingly, they were not interested in studying spaceplanes or re-entry, as they considered manned space travel something for the 21st century, but the speeds involved were creeping up on those issues regardless of their intentions. With that in mind engineers at their Langley Research Center roughed out a basic design that is recognizably the X-15.

A lot of NACA’s work was done in conjunction with the US Air Force and Navy, partly because they were the groups most interested in cutting-edge aviation and partly because the Department of Defense had a budget roughly 150 times larger than NACA did. Accordingly, basic design in hand, NACA met with the other two organizations on June 11, 1954 to discuss where to go next.

The Air Force had been working with Bell Aircraft—builders of the X-1 and X-2—but the Navy had been working with Douglas Aircraft on two successive planes, the D-558-1 and the D-558-2. At the meeting they revealed that they were in the early stages of getting Douglas to work on what the manufacturer called the Model 671 (informally known as the D-558-3 in years since, though that name was never actually assigned to it).

Unlike the NACA idea, the Model 671 was designed for height as well as velocity. Although the work done on it was still preliminary, Douglas had already come to the conclusion that they could make it reach 1,130,000 feet—or, in more modern terms, 344 kilometers. The International Space Station is actually allowed to drop as low as this before being boosted again, so this is well into space; Douglas did admit that the pilot would probably not survive the G forces of that flight and so recommended nothing higher than 770,000 feet (237 kilometers). The plane’s downrange capability was 850 kilometers for both high and low flights, which is suborbital, but for both in height and distance this is considerably farther than Alan Shepard went in Freedom 7.

Given that NACA and the Air Force were now looking at similar programs, the Navy cancelled the Model 671 and joined up to launch a design competition. On December 30, 1954 twelve contractors were invited; only four came up with proposals, probably because of the risk involved and the minimal profits that would stem from the two airplanes that NACA wanted built. Three of the replies were from Bell Aircraft, North American Aviation, and Republic Aviation.

Douglas replied with the Model 684. Their proposed craft would hit a maximum of 7300 kilometers per hour, and reach heights of 114 kilometers—in other words, they had to tone down the Model 671 just to meet the NACA requirements. Even at that, this is still the edge of outer space: the Model 684 would have been the first suborbital spaceplane.

As it was headed for space, the pilot compartment was completely pressurized, and could carry two if the research instrumentation was removed. Anyone onboard would wear a pressure suit (the X-15 program would actually develop the space suit used by Mercury astronauts), and in case of a dire emergency the entire forward fuselage would cut loose, push away from the main body of the craft on a small jet, and drift down to Earth under a parachute.

The Model 684 would have been lifted to about 30,000 feet by a B-50 Superfortress bomber where it would be dropped. At that point it would have ignited its liquid oxygen and ammonia engine and taken off on a trajectory for either speed or height. After reaching its apogee it would glide back to Earth, eventually landing at a long conventional airstrip at about 300 kilometers per hour.

Like the other proposals this was a “hot structure” craft, which is worth explaining. The Space Shuttle’s fuselage, for example, is built mostly of aluminum. As a result it’s completely incapable of standing up to the heat of re-entry and must be kept cool. In the particular case of the Space Shuttle this was done by covering it with ceramic heat tiles, but other cold structure options include ablative coverings (which the Model 671 would have used) or cooling using some sort of liquid inside the skin that would be allowed to boil off.

A hot structure, on the other hand, approaches the problem head on: build the fuselage out of a material that holds up to high temperatures. NACA had suggested to the design competitors that they might want to look at Inconel X, a nickel-chromium alloy that doesn’t begin to soften until very high temperatures. Three of the bidders took the hint.

The Model 684 would have used HK31, an alloy of magnesium, thorium, and zirconium which is no longer in use since the three percent that is thorium makes the alloy radioactive. At the time its relatively low radioactivity was not considered much of a problem, though, and it had the advantage of being much lighter than Inconel X. This meant that the Model 684’s skin could be much thicker, which would reduce costs and would dramatically increase the heat capacity of the plane and keep it from pushing 1000 Celsius on re-entry. The leading wing edges would be made of copper, which would conduct heat away quickly into the rest of the plane.

The total estimated cost for research and development, then the production of three planes, came to US$36.4 million, with the first flight anticipated by March of 1958.

What happened to make it fail: This one actually came quite close to existing, as it was a strong second in the NACA competition to the North American Aviation ESO-7487; in the formal evaluation it actually outscored its rival 152 to 150. Essentially the decision came down to unhappiness with the choice of the HK31 alloy for its fuselage over Inconel X. As a research craft, they wanted the X-15 to be subjected to the heat of hypersonic travel. Inconel X would go up over 800 Celsius when at the heights and speeds NACA wanted; HK31’s higher heat capacity would have kept the Model 684 to about 300 Celsius during the relatively short flights the X-15 would undertake. It was a better solution if one were just making this aircraft, but not if the whole point was to study high temperatures in flight for future aircraft.

Basically it came down to what NACA was looking to build. They didn’t want a spaceplane, they wanted a regular, if extreme, aircraft. The NAA ESO-7487 may not have been able go as high as the Model 671, but that was OK. In looking to make something that would be relatively easy to develop into something the Navy would want to buy later for service, Douglas was too ambitious for their own good. The ESO-7487 would become the X-15.

What was necessary for it to succeed: North American Aviation actually asked to withdraw from the X-15 competition in October 1955, after it had informally been awarded the contract but before it was official. A slew of new design work had come their way and they no longer thought they could make the 30 month deadline for first flight that the contract would impose.

NACA, the Air Force, and the Navy mulled over two options. Either they could award the contract to the Model 684 if it was switched to an Inconel X skin, or they could give NAA an eight-month extension. They decided on the latter course, but if they hadn’t the Model 684 would have flown.