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.

LKS: The Buran Alternative

LKS spaceplane on Proton rocket

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Light Space Plane, LKS“, Anatoly Zak.

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

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

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

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

TKS: Chelomei’s “Soyuz”

TKS spacecraft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

TKS“, Anatoly Zak.

“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.

Sidebar: Alexeyev/Sukhoi Albatros


A conjectural diagram of the Albatros launcher, by Mark Wade of Encyclopedia Astronautica. Click for a link to the associated article. Used with permission.

Rostislav Alexeyev built the latter part of his engineering career on ground effect, which is the demonstrable fact that a wing generates more lift and experiences less drag when it’s in close proximity to the ground than it does while high in the air. In general aircraft don’t take advantage of it when cruising because of the increased risk—the ground is right therein the event of something going wrong, but Alexeyev was an expert on hydrofoil design and felt that the problem was sufficiently mitigated by flying over water to be worth attacking. Between the Khrushchev era and his death in 1980 he built his largest ekranoplan (“screen plane”), the so-called “Kaspian Monster” (KM: korabl maket, “test vehicle”) which met a watery fate in an accident not long after Alexeyev’s demise.

If you’re the sort of person who’s interested in Soviet crewed spaceflight you’re probably the sort of person who finds Russian ekranoplans and hydrofoils interesting too, but you may be wondering where the connection is between the two that would cause the latter to show up on a  blog devoted to the former. The intersection of this particular Venn diagram is the Albatros, outlined in a remarkable letter to the British Interplanetary Society’s Spaceflight magazine, published in 1983.

Long-time readers will recall that the Soviet space program was in disarray for much of the early 1970s, with 1974 being the year of crisis. Vasili Mishin was replaced by Valentin Glushko as the man in charge, and officials higher than him forced a change in focus from Moon missions to a space shuttle and space stations. For a period of time everything was in the air, and as was endemic to the Soviet space effort various other empire builders tried to get themselves a piece of the pie.

The design bureau of OKB-51 lurked on the edges of the Russian space program right from the very beginning, but never managed to convert its expertise in high-performance aircraft into any concrete projects. In 1974 they teamed with Alexeyev’s Central Hydrofoil Design Bureau to make a claim on the shuttle project, as at the time it was not yet settled that the Soviets would emulate the American Space Shuttle closely to produce Energia/Buran (consider, for example, Glushko’s MTKVP, which also dates to the same time). Their proposal was named Albatros, and it’s, so long as the source, space historian and writer Neville Kidger, got his Cold War information right, the only triphibious spaceplane ever proposed, requiring both water and air to get into orbit and land for its return.

One can see what, perhaps, they were thinking: margins are punishing on space vehicles, and it takes only a little inefficiency to turn a potentially useful craft into something that lifts a uselessly small amount of mass to orbit. Using aircraft as airborne launchers has been mooted a few times, why not use a ground effect “aircraft” to squeeze a little more oomph into your package?

The result was a three-stage vehicle, the first of which would have been a roughly 1800-ton, 70-meter long, Alexeyev-built, hydrofoilnot a full-fledged ekranoplan, alasthat could be thought of as a maritime version of the Space Shuttle’s external fuel tank. It would carry 200 tons of LOX and LH2 to feed the initial boost of the second stage’s motors.

Mounted on top of the hydrofoil, the estimated 210-ton second stage would use the first’s fuel to get up the whole arrangement up to 180 km/h over the course of 110 seconds, using the Caspian Sea (or the Aral or Lake Baikal) as a runway. Then it would disconnect and launch itself off the now-empty barge to consume its own propellants. This stage would be a high-speed reusable winged rocket plane/booster from Sukhoi that would lift the third stage—the actual spaceplane, also from Sukhoi—to a high altitude. There the latter would kick itself into orbit while the booster coasted into landing, possibly under pilot control; sources don’t say if the booster was to be manned, but with Sukhoi’s background it likely was.

The final stage was a tail-less rocket plane, about 80 tons in mass and 40 meters in length, so comparable to the American orbiter. It was estimated to have 30 tons of payload to LEO and a crew of two. It would have been larger than but was otherwise similar in appearance to some iterations of the Hermes shuttle, or to a lesser extent the later Russian/European Kliper. It was the most run-of-the-mill part of the whole vehicle, its design actually being closer to the American shuttle than the MTKVP. The air-based launcher was a radical approach, if not unique, but the underlying hydrofoil was the truly surprising suggestion.

It’s not difficult to see why the idea never went anywhere. Even putting aside the two partners’ inexperience with designing spacecraft, their proposed setup is ludicrous on its face, with tons of volatile propellant skimming over the water at triple-digit speeds, regardless of what its engineers might have actually calculated and put to paper. The likes of Dmitri Ustinov would have blanched if asked to sign off on it, as the country’s internal politics made Soviet decision makers inherently conservative. If they were eventually driven to insist on a close analog to the Shuttle over other proposals, one can only imagine what they thought about this one.


“Albatros”, Mark Wade, http://www.astronautix.com/a/albatros.html.

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 as 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, disinterest 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.