Mir-2: The Once-and-Future Station


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Chief Designers 2: Vladimir Chelomei

Vladimir Chelomei late in life. Image source and copyright status unknown; if you know, please contact the author.

Vladimir Nikolayevich Chelomei was perpetually the second-most important designer of Soviet spacecraft and rockets, yet by the end of his life his Proton rocket had become a workhorse of the Soviet (and later Russian) space program and he was the godfather USSR’s ultimate achievement, the space station Mir.

Chelomei was born on June 30, 1914 in Siedlce, which is in Poland in the present day but was part of the Russian Empire at the time. Shortly thereafter, on the outbreak of World War I, his family relocated to the Ukraine. He grew up there and by his early twenties he was one of the rising stars of Soviet engineering.

His involvement with rockets began with his development of a pulse jet engine in 1942. While it was too inefficient to be useful it established him as a person to call when the USSR received a downed V-1 from the British in June 1944. After the death of Soviet missile designer Nikolai Polikarpov six weeks later, Chelomei was made head of OKB-51 and told to reverse engineer the V-1 and build a Russian version. This he did, the 10Kh.

In 1953 he lost OKB-51 to aircraft designer Artem Mikoyan, who wanted to build his own cruise missiles and had made the politically astute move of hiring as an engineer Sergei Beria—son of the infamous NKVD leader. A few weeks later, however, Stalin died and Georgi Malenkov became for a time the leader of the USSR, With Malenkov’s aid, Chelomei rebuilt his department as OKB-52 and set to work developing a next generation cruise missile, the submarine-launched P-5.

In both the USSR and US cruise missiles were falling into the shadow of ballistic missiles by the mid-1950s, and so after Sergei Korolev’s massive increase in prestige following Sputnik 1, Chelomei sought to enter the field himself. To this end, and perhaps remembering what had happened with him and Mikoyan, he made a point of hiring Nikita Khrushchev’s son Sergei as an engineer in March 1958. With Khrushchev’s blessing other Soviet aircraft manufacturers with space ambitions such as Myasishchev, Tsybin, and Lavochkin were incorporated into OKB-52, and Chelomei set to work on Kosmoplan, his alternative to Sergei Korolev’s vision for the Soviet space program. At the core of the plan was his “Universal Rocket” system, which would build up to progressively larger boosters: the UR-100, the UR-200 and UR-500, and then the enormous UR-700), while the LK-1 and later LK-700 would be used for manned lunar missions. Korolev’s OKB-1 remained the main Soviet space program, OKB-52 (soon reorganized as TsKBM, which is confusingly not the same as TsKBEM, the name later given to OKB-1 under Valentin Glushko) became a parallel effort—albeit one with less financial support.

Chelomei’s moment came after successfully developing the UR-100 ICBM, which was the USSR’s answer to the Minuteman missile. Using storable propellants gave the missile a nominal three-minute turnaround time, far better than Korolev’s R-9 with its LOX and kerosene could give. The UR-100 became the most numerous ICBM in history and Khrushchev rewarded its designer with control over the Lunar flyby program on August 3, 1964. The LK-1 would proceed, and the UR-500 would be developed to launch it. OKB-1’s N1L3 was still the primary contender for a Moon landing, but it seemed only a matter of time before the UR-700/LK-700 would replace it.

Korolev began fighting to have that decision overturned immediately, and barely two months later Khrushchev was ousted from power. Chelomei’s star began to descend again, and in the confusion Korolev managed to reclaim some of his former domain: the LK-1 was essentially cancelled in October 1965 although work continued on the UR-500. Only when Sergei Korolev died in 1966, Chelomei was finally able to move ahead clearly on his booster as part of the Zond mission, as no-one remaining at OKB-1 had the power or political savvy to change it.

Zond failed in large part because of the UR-500’s initial problems: its first two flights were successful, but of the 23 launched before 1970 thirteen failed in one way or another—and it had a nasty habit of failing on its more important missions. Since then, however, under the name Proton it has gone on to become one of the world’s workhorse launchers.

This would set the pattern of Chelomei’s remaining career: starved of funds and support he would develop his programs very slowly to avoid failures. If something did go wrong, it was usually because of control getting mixed up with OKB-1 under Vasili Mishin or Valentin Glushko.

While he continued to work on Moon programs and other spacecraft when he could, Chelomei’s focus switched to space stations. His first was Almaz, a military-purpose station which was partially taken away from him and used as the DOS framework for the first civilian Salyut stations (though it was still launched on Protons). Salyut 1 led to disaster for reasons unrelated to his work on it, but as that program went on and produced a string of successes some of the missions became progressively more and more his.


Chelomei in the 1970s. Source: NPO Mashinostoyenia

It was this way that the Indian summer of his career came in the mid-1970s. He had been able to continue with the crew capsule of his proposed LK-700 lunar lander by repurposing it as the VA crew capsule of the TKS craft he built for resupply of his Almaz stations.  They never flew for that purpose, but the support module that made up the other part of the TKS in turn took on a new life as the FGB, or in English the Functional Cargo Block.

This piece of equipment led to the modular DOS-7 based Salyut 7, which near the end of its lifetime in 1985 gained an experimental attachment: the so-called Kosmos 1686 module, which was actually a heavily modified FGB. After this success, the USSR began constructing their Mir space station in February of 1986. Of that space station’s seven modules, only its docking module was unrelated to the FGB or the Almaz in some way.

Even the ISS benefited from Chelomei’s space station development. The very first ISS module, Zarya, was an FGB as will be the upcoming Nauka. The Zvezda module is DOS-8 and so, while more distantly related, ultimately goes back to his work on Almaz.

Unfortunately Chelomei didn’t live to see the final vindication of his work. He died on December 8, 1984 shortly after an accident with his car: it slipped into gear while he was working near it and it badly injured him causing an eventual fatal stroke. At the time Mir was only just coming out of financing doldrums due to the Buran shuttle program, and the ISS was still years in the future

Soyuz L3: The Chief Designer’s Moon Landing


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MTKVP: Glushko’s Opening Gambit


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The first flight of the MTKVP was proposed for 1980.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chief Designers 1: Valentin Glushko

(This is the first in a set of profiles I’ll be mixing in with the usual material every now and then. In the history of space missions that never happened about a dozen names appear over and over: a half-dozen Soviets, three or four attached to the American program, and a couple elsewhere in the world. Most of them have one or more character flaws worthy of the best fictional characters. Two are quite famous—Wernher von Braun and Sergei Korolev—but the rest are of varying degrees of obscurity. If you want to know about what might have been, you need to know about them, and as the USSR called theirs “Chief Designers” that’s what I’ll call them here.)


Valentin Glushko as a younger man.

Valentin Petrovich Glushko was the pre-eminent Soviet rocket engine designer of the 20th century and, from 1974 until his death in 1989, the head of NPO Energiya—de facto head of the Soviet space program.

Glushko was born on September 2, 1908 in Odessa (part of what was then the Russian Empire and is now Ukraine). Inspired by the novels of Jules Verne he became interested in space as a teenager and started a seven-year correspondence with Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. After attending Leningrad State University, he began work with their Gas Dynamics Laboratory. In 1932, the GDL was melded into Sergei Korolev’s Group for the Study of Reactive Motion (GRID, the first professional rocketry group in the world) to form the Reaction Engine Scientific Research Institute (RNII).

In 1938 Stalin’s Great Purge swept across the USSR and Glushko was one of the millions of people caught up in it. While under interrogation by the NKVD he was made to denounce his co-workers, including Korolev. Glushko was sentenced to eight years in prison, but was sent to a relatively benign engineering work camp to continue with his rockets. Korolev was sentenced to the infamous Kolyma slave labour mines and nearly died from starvation and torture. He was released more than a year later and sent to work in a similar engineering camp, and even managed to work professionally with Glushko until the mid-1960s, but it’s likely that their later falling out—and its effect on the course of the Soviet space program—was at least in part due to these events.

During World War II Glushko continued his imprisonment and work on rockets, primarily ones to assist airplanes on short takeoffs. He was formally released in August 1944, and in December of the same year he was named the head of a new design bureau, OKB SD (soon renamed OKB-456).

As one of the Soviet Union’s foremost experts on rockets he was sent to Germany at the end of the war to investigate their rocketry program, which had shot far ahead of any other in the world in the preceding few years. While in Germany he helped to get the German V-2 engine factories back to work—under Soviet control—and was part of a small official Russian delegation observing Operation Backfire, a test firing of a British-seized V2 at Cuxhaven (Korolev came along unofficially, hidden amongst the Russian soldiers who accompanied them).

In October of 1946, the Soviet Union all but kidnapped all Germans in the Soviet Zone involved with the V-2 and brought them to the USSR. There they were sent to work on a Russian copy of the V-2 (the R-1)and—more importantly—teaching their captors how to develop this kind of rocket indigenously. Glushko was put in charge of building the Russian version of the V-2 engine, the RD-100.

By 1951 the Germans were sent home and under Glushko the Russians built the next stage in V-2 engine development, which the Germans had designed: the ED-140. This in turn led to the RD-105 and RD-106 (neither of which was very successful) and then, from the standpoint of history the most important, the RD-107.

This engine was developed and working properly by the end of 1955. Since 1950 Sergei Korolev had been coordinating a project to build and fly the world’s first ICBM, the R-7, and Glushko’s RD-107 (and the related RD-108) was the engine selected for its three stages. After two failures, the third launch of an R-7 was successful on August 21, 1957. Six weeks later Sputnik I was on top of one and the Space Age began. An R-7 derivative using Glushko’s engine was not only later used for putting Yuri Gagarin in orbit, it’s still being used to put people into space on Russian rockets more than fifty years later. Every manned Russian spacecraft has been pushed into orbit by Glushko’s RD-107s or a derivative of it.

This period of triumph came to an end in late 1961. Bearing in mind that the R-7 was a missile first and a satellite launcher second, it wasn’t very good for what was supposedly its primary job. It used liquid oxygen as a fuel oxidizer, and since that needs to be stored at cryogenic temperatures the time it took to launch one was too long. Against the R-7 Vladimir Chelomei had put up the UR-100 missile, which used the room-temperature propellants nitrogen tetroxide and UDMH; these could be loaded in a missile and left for months, and let one be launched on a few minutes’ notice. Soviet leaders considered it more successful than what Korolev and Glushko came up with to counter it, the R-9, and built far more of them.

As a result, Glushko came around to the anti-LOX, storable propellant camp just as OKB-1 were settling the initial design of the N1 and refused to go along with Korolev’s intention of using liquid oxygen with kerosene and liquid hydrogen for the fuel. Glushko felt that it would be impossible to develop large engines that used those propellants, while Korolev was of the opinion that nitrogen tetroxide and UDMH were too toxic—they were dangerous for personnel to handle, and a pad explosion involving them would make for an environmental disaster. The two fell out completely over the disagreement and never worked together again. The N1 went ahead (arguably to its detriment) with engines by Nikolai Kuznetsov’s OKB-276, while Glushko went ahead with his own ideas.

For Vladimir Chelomei he developed the engine for the UR-500 ICBM, a variation of which became the Proton launch vehicle. This was tapped for Chelomei’s abortive moon program in 1964-65, and for the longer-lived Zond program; it helped contribute to its failure by going through some terrible reliability problems until 1971. After that, though it became the satellite launcher of choice for the Soviet Union and even Russia in the present day.

Besides that success, though, Glushko’s remaining career became a wonderland of alternative launchers, spacecraft, space stations, and even a lunar base. When the N1 began drifting into trouble, he started developing the massive RD-270 engine for Vladimir Chelomei’s alternative Moon rocket, the UR-700. It never went anywhere due to lack of funding, and Glushko evidently decided to solve the problem by political decapitation.

Korolev had died at the start of 1966 and been replaced by his lieutenant, Vasili Mishin, OKB-1 being renamed TsKBEM at that time. Fairly or not, Mishin was blamed for the long series of failures in the Soviet space program from 1966-1974, and Glushko finally managed to convince the relevant Soviet officials (Leonid Brezhnev, Minister of Defense and Politburo member Dmitri Ustinov, and the Minister directly responsible for TsKBEM Sergei Afanasyev) that Mishin should be relieved and his bureau and Glushko’s amalgamated under him.


Glushko near the end of his life, after successfully turning around the Soviet space program.

From 1974 to 1989 Glushko was the top man in the Soviet space program, and it can fairly be said that he got it back on track in the late 1970s and mid-80s, but even then the political gyrations and declining finances of the USSR kept many of his projects in the realm of fantasy. In the eighteen months between his takeover and early 1976 he proposed the Zvezda program to begin a Soviet Moon base, backed with a super-heavy derivative of the Proton called Vulkan that could lift an astonishing 230 tonnes to orbit.

When told to stop this and work on a copy of the American space shuttle, he switched over to the Energia rocket (and planned to work back up to the Vulkan by adding more strap-on boosters to it) and the associated Buran shuttle. Paradoxically, to do so he had to back down from earlier insistence on storable propellants: Energia used LOX, liquid hydrogen, and kerosene much as Korolev had wanted two decades before Glushko’s biggest rocket flew. Some sources say that the 1973 death of nine people in the explosion of a Kosmos rocket (which uses similar, but not identical, fuel as a Proton) ultimately changed his mind at a time when he was under pressure from his own bosses to make the switch.  True to form, the RD-170 engine he developed to burn those fuels for Energia led to derivative engines still being used today.

Also in the plus column, the Mir space station was arguably the Soviet Union’s biggest achievement in space after Yuri Gagarin, but the Mir-2 follow-up fell to the same problem as Energiya/Buran: the economic and then political collapse of the Soviet Union.

He passed away on January 10, 1989, in Moscow, at the age of 80.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Energia: The Last Big Rocket


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

MKBS: Mir’s Giant Ancestor


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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