LKS: The Buran Alternative

LKS spaceplane on Proton rocket

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Light Space Plane, LKS“, Anatoly Zak.

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

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

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

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

TKS: Chelomei’s “Soyuz”

TKS spacecraft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

TKS“, Anatoly Zak.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Almaz: The Russian Battle Station

Almaz and TKS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

None of this actually came to be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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