Category Soviet and Russian Lunar Exploration


The descent of the Soviet lunar lander, called the LK (Luniy Korabl), to the lunar surface would be a steep one. The final lunar orbit would be 16 km by 85 km, the same as the final orbit of the later Ye-8-5 lunar sample return missions. Block D would fire at the 16 km perilune, bringing the LK to between 2 km altitude (maximum) and 500 m (minimum), ideally 1,500 m. If all went well, the LK pilot would set the LK down about 25 sec thereafter, but not more than a minute later. The LK would descend to 110 m, when it would hover: then the cosmonaut would take over for the landing. The instructors told the cosmonauts that at 110 m, they had three seconds to select a landing site, or return to orbit (‘as if returning at this stage was an option’, snorted Leonov). The standing cosmonaut, watching through his large, forward-looking window, would guide the LK lander with a control stick for attitude and rate of descent.

The engine, called block E, was designed by the Mikhail Yangel OKB-586 in Dnepropetrovsk. It was a well-equipped propulsion set. The LK module had:

• One 11D411 RD-858 main engine weighing 53 kg with a single nozzle with a specific impulse of 315 sec, chamber pressure of 80 atmospheres and duration of 470 sec.

• A 11D412 RD-859 57 kg backup engine with two nozzles.

• Four vernier engines.

• Two 40 kg thrusters for yaw.

• Two 40 kg thrusters for pitch.

• Four 10 kg thrusters for roll.

The descent and take-off engine was a throttlable, single-nozzle, 2.5-tonne rocket burning nitrogen tetroxide and UDMH. It could be throttled between 860 kg thrust and 2,000 kg. The engine held 1.58 tonnes of nitric acid and 810 kg of UDMH. The engine had four verniers to maintain stability. For attitude control during the nerve – wracking descent to the moon, eight low-thrust engines designed by the Stepanov Aviation Bureau fed off a common 100 kg propellant reserve. The system was both safe – it ran off two independent circuits – and sensitive, for thrust impulses could last as little as nine milliseconds. To land the LK, the cosmonaut had a computer-assisted set of controls, the first carried on a Soviet manned spacecraft. The S-330 computer was a sophisticated digital machine, linking the cosmonaut’s commands to the land­er’s gyroscopes, gyrostabilized platform and radio locator, with three independent channels working in parallel [18]. Four upward-firing solid rockets would ignite on landing, to press the LK onto the surface. The lander was designed to take a slope of 20°.

The LK was different from the Apollo lunar module (LM) in a number of important respects. These were a function of the much poorer lifting power of the N-1 rocket. First, it was much smaller, being only 5.5 m tall and weighing 5 tonnes (the LM was, by contrast, 7 m tall and weighed 16 tonnes). It had room for only one cosmonaut standing and the lower stage would have no room for the extensive range of scientific instruments carried by Apollo. Second, the LK had a single 2,050 kg thrust main engine which was used for both descent and take-off (Apollo’s LM had a descent motor and a separate one for the small upper stage). Like the LM, the LK would use the descent stage as a take-off frame. The LK was designed for independent flight of 72 hours and up to 48 hours on the lunar surface. The LK was a minimalist approach to a lunar landing. Although the method of landing on and take-off from the moon was broadly similar, there were some important differences:

• The American LM descent engine carried out the entire 12 min descent from PDI (powered descent initiation) to touchdown. By contrast, block D provided most of the thrust of the descent of the Soviet LK. Block D was dropped around 1,500 m above the surface and the LK’s descent stage took over for the final part.

• The American LM had two motors, one for descent and one for ascent. By contrast, the Russian LK had just one motor, which was used for descent and ascent.

What would the LOK-LK mission have been like? It would begin with the launching, from Baikonour Cosmodrome, of two cosmonauts on the N-1 rocket. The three stages


The LK

of the N-1 rocket would burn until the lunar stack was safely in an Earth orbit of 51.6°, 200 km. At the end of the first parking orbit, the fourth stage, block G, would fire for translunar injection. This block would then separate.

Unlike Apollo, there would be no transposition, docking and ejection of the lunar module. This would remain behind the command ship, the LOK, as they headed moonward. On the way to the moon, the fifth stage, block D, would fire for a translunar correction. Three days into the mission, block D would fire the stack into lunar orbit. The descent from lunar orbit would again be different from Apollo. First, a lone cosmonaut would enter the lunar module, the LK. Because there was no internal hatch, the cosmonaut would exit the hatch and climb down the side of the LOK along a pole before entering the access hatch. This would take place against the backdrop of the moon’s surface below and the spectacle would be stunning. Once on board the LK, the cosmonaut would then separate his lunar module and block D from the LOK mother ship. Here would come a fresh difference. The powered descent


LK hatch


LK inside


LK ladder


LK window

burn would be done by block D. It would be jettisoned a mere 1,500 m above the lunar surface, leaving the LK’s main engine to complete the descent to the lunar surface. This would be the same engine used for take-off.

Hover time was much tighter on the Russian LK than the American LM. The Russians had about a minute to find the landing site and put the spacecraft down. The pilot could, of course, use more than 1 min, since it was the same engine used for the ascent, but this would eat into the thrust required for ascent. The LM had a longer hover time, about 2 min. By the end of the 2 min, the LM would be out of fuel and the mission would have to abort. Below a certain altitude, the period of time for firing the ascent stage would be longer than the time taken to fall to the surface, so the LM would crash (this was called ‘dead man’s handle’). All but one of the Apollos were sufficiently well targeted not to present a problem. The most difficult landing was the first, Apollo 11, which landed with only 19 sec of fuel to spare. ‘Dead man’s handle’ did not operate on the LK, since the engine used for the ascent was already firing. Arguably, it was safer. The LK lunar lander, like Apollo, had four legs. The first Soviet moon landing would have been shorter than that of Apollo 11, without a sleep period.

Once on the surface, the sole cosmonaut would carry out a spacewalk. We do not know how long the first lunar stay was planned. A moonwalk duration of four hours has been suggested, so the surface stay time would have to be long enough to report back after landing, prepare for the moonwalk, carry it out, return and prepare for take-off and rendezvous.

After several hours on the surface, the cosmonaut would lift off from the moon in the upper stage of the LK, and conduct the type of rendezvous pattern tested by Cosmos 186-188, 212-3 and Soyuz 2-3 and 4-5 in which the LOK orbiter performed the active role. A backup two-nozzle engine was also available should the motor fail to light for the critical liftoff from the moon. On liftoff, the backup engine was actually fired simultaneously with the main engine, but turned off if the main engine lit up. The LK had five chemical batteries, three on the descent stage, two on the ascent. Cabin pressure was oxygen/nitrogen at 560 mm.

The return-to-Earth profile was quite like Apollo. The LK would lift off from the lunar surface, using the landing frame as a launching pad, like the American LM. The LK would link up with the LOK in lunar orbit and the cosmonaut would transfer to the LOK, though this would be by an external spacewalk (indeed, it would be his third that day). The LK would be dropped, and then the LOK would fire its main engine for trans-Earth injection. There would be a quiet coast Earthward, followed by a high­speed skip reentry over the Indian Ocean and a soft landing in Kazakhstan.

The LOK and L-1 spacecraft were expected to return to Earth in the standard recovery zone in Kazakhstan. Here, the Russians had extensive experience of the Air Force recovering spacecraft using helicopters, trucks, amphibious vehicles, adapted troop carriers and other vehicles able to traverse the flat steppeland. This experience had been built up during the Korabl Sputnik missions and the Vostok series and consolidated as the military photoreconnaissance Zenit series began making regular missions. The real problem was if the L-1 or LOK came down outside Soviet territory, either by choice or if the skip return failed and a ballistic path was followed instead. The Indian Ocean was the most likely maritime landing point. Here, in a decree issued on 21st December 1966, the Soviet Navy was made responsible for Indian Ocean recoveries. For Indian Ocean recoveries, ten naval and maritime research ships were involved, supplemented by three ship-borne helicopters, spread out at 300 km points along the ocean.

The LK

Weight 5,500 kg

Height 5.2 m

Diameter ascent stage 3 m

Span, descent stage 4.5 m

Habitable volume 4m3

Hover time 1 min

Weight, ascent stage 2,250 kg

Weight, descent stage 2,250 kg

Crew 1

Length of legs 6.3 m

Were Soviet computers up to the job? The Apollo 11 American lunar landing nearly aborted when the lunar module’s computer overloaded and flashed alarms in the LM cabin. The Apollo computers, though the most sophisticated of their day, would be regarded as laughably primitive nowadays. They were bulky, crude and had limited memory, but they played an important part in getting Apollo to the moon and back again. The popular assumption is that Soviet computers during the moon race lagged far behind American ones. This does not seem to be the case now. The Soviet Union had a long tradition in advanced mathematics and developed, in the late 1950s, its own silicon valley, partly assisted by two exfiltrated American electrical engineers, com­munists and friends of the Rosenbergs, Alfred Sarant and Joel Barr [19]. Taking on fresh names, Philip Staros and Josef Berg, they built up Special Design Bureau 2 (Spetsealnoye Konstruktorskoye Buro 2, SKB 2) which developed microcomputers for the Soviet aviation industry, military and space programmes. This included the Argon computer used on Zond. During the 1960s, SKB 2 developed a series of small, lightweight, sophisticated computers, from laptops to navigational devices to big calculating computers. Just because Soviet computers followed a different develop­ment path from the West did not mean that they were inferior, for they were not. The ability of the USSR to achieve automated rendezvous and docking in space (1967) went unmatched in the West until 1998 when the Japanese satellites Hikoboshi and Orihime met in orbit.


The success of Apollo 8 presented Soviet space planners with a double problem: how should they modify their programme in the light of America’s success; and how should these changes be presented to the world? A joint government-party meeting was held on 8th January, a week into the new year. Feelings among ministers and officials verged on panic and they must now have got an inkling as to how the Americans must have felt after the early Soviet successes. Thus, a new joint resolution of the party and the Council of Ministers, # 19-10, was passed on 8th January 1969. They agreed, in a bundle of decisions:

• The L-1 programme would continue, although the majority took the view that there would be little point in conducting a mission now clearly inferior to the achievement of Apollo 8.

• The programme for the N-1 would also continue, although it was apparent that it would fall short of what the Americans planned to achieve under Apollo, quite apart from running several years behind. Once successfully tested, the N-1 could be reconfigured for a mission that would overtake Apollo. Manned flights to Mars in the late 1970s were mooted – ironically the original mission for the N-1.

• Unmanned probes to the moon, Mars and Venus would be accelerated. The public presentation of the Soviet space programme would emphasize these goals.

• Ways would be explored of accelerating a manned space station programme, Vladimir Chelomei’s Almaz project.

Although they now realized that their chances of beating the Americans to the moon had now sharply diminished, there was no support for the idea of abandoning the

moon programme. Although this was nowhere written down, there was probably the lingering hope that America’s rapid progress might hit some delays. But, in their hearts they must have known that basing their progress on the difficulties of others was not a sound basis for planning. This was not how the Soviet space programme worked in its golden years.

Now came a new generation of unmanned Russian moon probes, following the first generation (1958-60, Ye-1 to Ye-5) and the second (1963-8, Ye-6 and Ye-7). These were substantially larger and designed to be launched on the Proton rocket and called the Ye-8 series, of which the programme chief designer was Oleg Ivanovski. There were three variants:

Ye-8 Lunar rover (Lunokhod) (originally the L-2 programme)

Ye-8-5 Lunar sample return

Ye-8LS Lunar orbiter

Although finally approved in January 1969, these missions had actually been in preparation for some time in the Lavochkin design bureau. Available first was the moon rover, or Lunokhod, the Russian word for ‘moonwalker’, and it was nearly ready to go. Although the Soviet Union portrayed the Lunokhod series as a cheap, safe, alternative to Apollo and although Lunokhods followed the American landings, the original purpose of the series was to precede and pave the way for Russian manned landings. Ideas of lunar rovers were by no means new and dated, as noticed earlier, to the 1950s. Design work had proceeded throughout the 1960s. The moon rover was intended to test the surface of the intended site for the first manned landing; later versions would carry cosmonauts across the moon. Indeed, they were endorsed in science fiction. The story of Alexander Kazanstev’s Lunnaya doroga (Lunar road) was how a Soviet rover rescued an American in peril on the moon [1].

At the other extreme, the lunar sample return mission had been put together at astonishingly short notice. By early 1967, the design of the Ye-8 lunar rover had been more of less finished. The Lavochkin design bureau figured out that it might be possible to convert the upper age, instead of carrying a lunar rover, to carry a sample return spacecraft. The lower stage, the KT, required almost no modification and could be left as it was. Now on top sat the cylindrical instrumentation unit, the spherical return capsule atop it in turn and underneath an ascent stage. A long robot arm, not unlike a dentist’s drill, swung out from the descent stage and swivelled round into a small hatch in the return cabin. The moonscooper’s height was 3.96 m, the weight 1,880 kg. The plan was for a four-day coast to the moon, the upper stage lifting off from the moon for the return flight to Earth. The mission was proposed as insurance against the danger of America getting a man on the moon first. At least with the sample return mission, Russia could at least get moon samples back first. The sample return proposal, called the Ye-8-5, was rapidly approved and construction of the first spacecraft began in 1968.

Sample return missions were designed to have the simplest possible return trajectories. Originally, it was expected that a returning spacecraft would have to adjust its course as it returned to Earth. In the Institute of Applied Mathematics,

Dmitri Okhotsimsky had calculated that there was a narrow range of paths from the moon to the Earth where, if the returning vehicle achieved the precise velocity required, no course corrections would be required on the flightpath back and the cabin could return to the right place in the Soviet Union. This was called a ‘passive return trajectory’. Such a trajectory was only possible from a limited number of fairly precise landing cones between 56°E and 62°E, and these were calculated following Luna 14’s mapping of the lunar gravitational field. Returning from one of these cones meant that Luna could just blast off directly for Earth and there was no need for a pitch-over during the ascent, nor for a mid-course correction. If it reached a certain speed at a certain point, then it would fall into the moon-Earth gravitational field. Gravity would do the rest and the cabin would fall back to Earth. On the other hand, the passive return trajectory limited the range of possible landing spots on the moon, meant that the actual landing spot must be known with extreme precision (±10 km), the take-off must be at exactly the right second and the engine must achieve exactly the right velocity, nothing more or less [2]. Sample return missions had to be timetabled backward according to the daytime recovery zone in Kazakhstan and the need to have the returning cabin in line of sight with northern hemisphere ground tracking during its flight back to Earth. Thus, the landing time on Earth determined the landing point and place on the moon, and this in turn determined when the probe would be launched from Earth in the first place.

The Ye-8 series all used common components and a similar structure. The base was 4 m wide, consisting of four spherical fuel tanks, four cylindrical fuel tanks, nozzles, thrusters and landing legs. Atop the structure rested either a sample return capsule, a lunar rover or an instrument cabin for lunar orbit studies. By spring 1969, the time of the government and party resolution, Lavochkin had managed to build one complete rover and no fewer than five Ye-8-5s and have them ready for launch. In the case of the ascent stage, a small spherical cabin was designed, equipped with antenna, parachute, radio transmittter, battery, ablative heatshield and container for moonrock.

The first Lunokhod was prepared for launch on 23rd February 1969 and was aimed at the bay-shaped crater, Le Monnier, in the Sea of Serenity on the eastern edge of the moon [3]. The timing of the Lunokhod missions was affected by the need to land in sufficient light to re-charge the rover’s batteries before the onset of lunar night. It had been arranged that when it drove down onto the lunar surface, a portable tape recorder would play the Soviet national anthem to announce its arrival. Proton failed when, 50 sec into the mission, excessive vibration tore off the shroud and the whole rocket exploded 2 sec later, the remains coming down 15 km from the launch site. For months, the military tried to find the nuclear isotope that should have powered the rover across the surface of the moon. Apparently, some local troops downrange on sentry duty found it and, clearly insufficiently briefed about the dangers of polonium radiation, used it to keep their patrol’s hut warm for the rest of that exceptionally cold winter. Parts of the lunar rover were found – wheels and part of the undercarriage – and were remarkably undamaged. Even the portable tape recorder was found, playing the Soviet national anthem on the steppe, not Le Monnier bay as had been hoped [4].


Lunokhod on top of Proton


Luna 17’s mission was, at least for its first six days, apparently identical to that of Luna 16 and 15. A four-day coast out to the moon was followed by lunar orbit insertion circular at 85 km, 1 hr 56 min, 141°. On the 16th, the onboard motor lowered the orbit to an altitude of 19 km. Luna 17’s target was nearly a hemisphere away from that of Luna 16. The entire western face of the moon is dominated by a huge, dark ‘sea’ which is called the Ocean of Storms. In its northwest corner is a semi-circular basin, the Sea of Rains.


After only two days in orbit, reflecting the bright sunlight of the setting sun, Luna 17 skimmed in low over the Jura Mountains. The retrorocket fired. Luna 17 came down as the radar checked the landing site. At 600 m, coming down at 255 m/sec, the final main engine burn was made. Down it came, as softly as a parachutist on a wind – free day. By the time it landed, Luna 17 weighed 1,836 kg. The long shadows of the structure stood out starkly toward the darkening east. For two hours, Luna 17 reported back its position. Russia coolly announced its fourth soft-landing on the moon. A return capsule would be fired back to Earth the next day – or so everyone


Lunokhod descending to the moon

Not so. On the upper stage rested the first vehicle designed to explore another world. It had eight wheels, looking like pram wheels, which supported a shiny metallic car, covered by a kettle-style lid. Out of the front peered two goggle-like television eyes. Above them peeped the laser reflector and two aerials. It was an unlikely-looking contraption – on first impression more the outcome of a Jules Verne or H. G. Wells type of sketch rather than a tool of modern moon exploration. But the wheels were ideal for gripping the lunar surface and less prone to failure than caterpillars. The lid could be raised backward to the vertical and then flat behind, exposing solar cells to recharge the batteries in the Sun’s rays. The exposed top of the car was a radiator, discharging its electronic and solar-baked heat. There was genius in its simplicity.

The most dangerous part of the vehicle’s journey was probably getting off the platform and onto the lunar surface. Two ramps unfolded at each end, so it could travel down either way if one exit were blocked. Still sitting on the landing platform, ground control commanded the dust hoods to fall off the television eyes. A picture came back at once, showing the wheel rims, the ramp down to the flat bright surface and the silhouette of the landing ramps. There was nothing for it but to signal to Lunokhod to go into first gear and roll down the ramp and hope for the best.

So it was that at 6:47 a. m. on the morning of 17th November 1970, carrying the hammer and sickle, a red flag and a portrait of Lenin, the moon vehicle edged its way down the ramp and rumbled 20 m across the lunar surface. Its tracks were the first wheel marks made on another world. Its television cameras showed its every move and at one stage Lunokhod slewed around to film the descent stage which had brought it there. On day 2 it parked itself, not moving at all, lying there so that its lid could soak


Lunokhod tracks across the moon

in solar energy for its batteries. On day 3 it travelled 90 m, 100 m the following day, overcoming a 10° hill. On the fifth day, with lunar night not long off, it closed its lid, settled down 197 m from Luna 17 and shut down its systems for the 14-day lunar night. At this stage, it had travelled a modest 200 m. A nuclear power source would supply enough heat to keep it going till lunar daybreak.

The Soviet – and Western – press took to Lunokhod with an affection normally reserved only for friendly robot television personalities. There was unrestrained ad­miration for the technical achievement involved, for it was a sophisticated automated exploring machine. The Times of London called it ‘a remarkable achievement’. ‘A major triumph,’ said The Scotsman. The Daily Mail, in a front-page editorial entitled ‘Progress on wheels’ gave Lunokhod’s designers an effusive message of congratulations. It was the main news story for several days.

The control centre for Lunokhod was, like much else in the venture, a scene straight from science fiction. It was located in Simferopol, Crimea, near the big receiving dishes. Five controllers sat in front of television consoles where lunar landscapes were projected on screens. The crew of five worked together like a crew operating a military tank. Signals were relayed to the drivers by the high-gain antenna which had to be locked on Earth continuously. The drivers operated Lunokhod with a control stick with four positions (forward, backward, stop, rotate), and they could make the rover go either of two speeds forward: 800m/hr or 2km/hr, or reverse. If the Lunokhod looked like crashing, either drivers or commanders could press a panic button to turn the electric engine off. Any one wheel could be disconnected individ­ually if it got stuck or there were a problem. Lunokhod was designed to cope with obstacles up to 40 cm high or 60 cm wide, but an automatic system would cut the engine out if it began to tilt. Average speed started at 2.3 m/hr but later increased to 4.8 m/hr. All the wheels ran at the same speed and they turned the rover like a tank by running the wheels faster on one side than the other, until the change of direction was achieved – skid-steering [5]. In reality, driving the Lunokhod proved to be quite a lot more difficult than the drivers expected. The drivers realized at once that the cameras were too low down – it was like being a human on all fours rather than upright. The television cameras were able to provide little contrast: the images were too white, and rocks and craters looked deceptively alike [6]. Driving the moonrover was strenuous and during the lunar days the teams alternated 9 hr shifts, catching up on sleep during the lunar nights.

So great was the excitement of the first Lunokhod that journalists, academicians and scientists flooded into mission control, apparently taking up a general invitation to do so by Mstislav Keldysh. Vistors were not supposed to crowd around the drivers, still less talk. But the situation got out of hand, especially when backseat drivers would exclaim: ‘He’s going to crash into that rock!’ or ‘Mind that crater!’ Between the natural stress, the heat coming out of the televisions and the backseat drivers, the drivers’ pulses crept up to 140 and the stress began to tell. Babakin had had enough. ‘Everyone out of here!’ he ordered and after that special passes were needed to visit the control room and then in a suitable state of humility [7].

Back on the moon, nighttime temperatures plunged to — 150°C and stayed at that level a full two weeks. Lunokhod, lid closed, glowing warmly from the heat of its own nuclear radio isotope, rested silently on the Sea of Rains. It was bathed in the ghostly blue light of Earth as the mother planet waxed and waned overhead. Even as it stood there, laser signals were flashed to Lunokhod from the French observatory in the Pic du Midi and from the Semeis Observatory in the Crimea. They struck the 14 cubes of the vehicle’s laser reflector and bounced back. As a result, scientists could measure the exact distance from the Earth to the moon to within 18 cm.

To the east of Lunokhod rose a ridge and the sharp rays of dawn crept slowly over its rugged rocks early on 9th December. Had the moonrover survived its two-week hibernation? This was an anxious moment and pulses began to race when the first command was sent to the Sea of Rains to open the lid. Nothing happened. They tried again and this time the rover responded. It raised its leaf-shaped lid and at once began to hum with life. Four panoramic cameras at once sent back striking vistas of the moonscape, full of long shadows as the Sun gradually rose in the sky. After a day recharging, Lunokhod set out once more. The Lunokhod got into big trouble straight


Lunokhod route-planning conference

away. On 10th December, Lunokhod got stuck in a crater and no matter what the drivers did – go forward, go back – it remained stuck. Eventually, after nine exhaust­ing hours, the rover suddenly came free.

The drivers on Earth soon got into their stride and they had the moon car in second gear, swivelling around, reversing and traversing craters and slopes at will. One day it travelled 300 m, more than it had achieved in its first five days in November. Lunokhod took a south-southeast path, skirting around and between craters and parked in December in a crater at the southernmost end of the route, 1,400 m from the landing stage. In January, swivelling round to head back north, the panoramic camera eyes spotted in the distance a range of mountains – the far peaks of the Heraclides Promontory, part of the vast bay encircling the Sea of Rains.

For ground control it was just like being there. From the cosy warmth of their control post they could direct at will a machine a quarter of a million miles away. This prompted romantic notions in the minds of the Earthbound. Radio Moscow promised ‘more Lunokhods, faster and with a wider range.’ Boris Petrov spoke of mooncars


Lunokhod tracks

that would collect samples and bring them to craft like Luna 16 for transporting home. Others would instal packages on the moon and carry telescopes to the farside where there was radio peace, free from Earthside interference. Other probes would reach the lunar poles.

It turned out that the drivers had been well selected for their mission. The drivers faced several challenges. First, the 20 sec frame transmissions were too slow. Although driving the lunar rover might seem simple enough to a modern generation reared on video games, in reality the crew had to memorize features some distance ahead. The 20 sec time gap between frames meant that Lunokhod could reach a feature – stone, rock, crater, obstacle – a full third of a minute before the crew saw visually that it had arrived. Second, the cameras were set in an awkward place: too low to see far ahead, yet set toward the horizon in such a way as to create a dead zone immediately in front of the rover that the drivers could not see. Third, the light contrasts of the lunar surface made driving difficult, the drivers having to cope with extremes of shadows and glare. Rather than risk driving across shadowless moonscapes, operations were normally halted for two days at lunar high noon. From time to time, Lunokhod would


Lunokhod returns to landing stage

stop to take panoramic pictures. For the drivers, these were good opportunities to orientate the rover and plan the next stage of the journey.


The engineers again set to work to tame this difficult beast. The volume of telemetry received probably assisted them greatly. This time, the following changes were introduced:

• New, much improved engines.

• Improved protection for propellant lines.

• Improvements to the fire extinguisher system.

[9] Faster performance of KORD.

Two new N-1s were built, the first set for launch in August 1974 and the second later that year, with the intention of making the N-1 operational by 1976 and then proceeding to the L-3M plan straight thereafter. A further four N-1s were at an advanced stage of construction and four more were being built. The flight plan was similar to the fourth mission, but this time a functioning LK would be carried. All the manoeuvres short of a lunar landing would be carried out and the LOK would return to Earth after four days of orbiting the moon. Again, hopes began to rise. Assuming the fifth and sixth flights were successful, the seventh would be manned.

Manned lunar flights were not the only missions scheduled. Approval was given for a large, 20-tonne spaceship to be sent to Mars using the N-1 on a sample return mission. This was called Project 5M, led by Sergei Kryukov, later director of OKB

[10] Proved, with Zonds 7 and 8, that it could send cosmonauts around the moon and recover them safely, using different return trajectories.

[11] It was a uniform, unstratified sample.

• Seventy different chemical elements were identified.

• The sample comprised a mixture of powder, fine and coarse grains.

• It had good cohesive qualities, like damp sand.

• The sample was basaltic by character.

• It included some glazed and vitrified glass and metal-like particles.

• The samples had absorbed quantities of solar wind.

[12] Sample return missions from remote areas, including uplands and the poles.

• Lunokhods to carry drills to obtain cores and analyze them in onboard labora­tories.

• Lunokhods to collect rocks and deliver them to sample return missions.


A special spacesuit was required for the moonwalk. The design requirements for a moonsuit were much tougher than for normal spacewalking, for they required:

• Long duration, so as to make possible a proper programme of lunar surface exploration.

• Spare duration, in the case of difficulty in returning to the LK.

• Tough soles and boots for the lunar surface.

• Durability, so it would not tear if the cosmonaut fell onto the lunar surface.

Russian spacesuits went back to Air Force pressure suits and balloon flights in the 1930s [20]. For the first manned orbital missions, a bright orange pressure suit was developed. The first suit for spacewalking was developed in 1963, called the Berkut. This was used by Alexei Leonov for the first ever spacewalk in March 1965. After this, in anticipation of similar manoeuvres on moon flights, requirements were issued for the testing of a spacesuit suitable for the external transfer between orbiting spacecraft. These refinements were tested by cosmonauts Yevgeni Khrunov and Alexei Yeliseyev in January 1969 and this suit was called the Yastreb. It was the first purely auton­omous spacesuit, without an air supply from the cabin, using a closed-loop life support system. In the course of a 1 hr spacewalk they transferred from Soyuz 5 to Soyuz 4, using a backpack strapped to their legs (the hatches were too wide for the packs to go on their backs).

For the lunar surface spacewalk, a special spacesuit was developed [21]. Chief Designer Vasili Mishin laid down the requirement for a special, semi-rigid spacesuit for the moonwalk, although the contrary view was expressed that it would have been easier to develop a version of the Berkut spacesuit used by Alexei Leonov for Voskhod 2. Design began in 1966. The suit was called Kretchet, though to be more precise Kretchet was the experimental model and Kretchet 94 the final operational version. Responsibility for the spacesuit fell to the Zvezda bureau of Gai Severin, the company which had made the previous suits. The design was finally agreed on 19th March 1968. During this period, the Zvezda bureau also designed and built a traditional soft suit called Oriol, but the higher performing Kretchet appears to have been the favourite all along.


Cosmonaut on the lunar surface

Unlike the American suit, or the earlier Russian suits, which were donned piece by piece, the Russian suit was a semi-rigid, single-piece design that the cosmonaut climbed into through a door at the back. This was a radical departure, making the Kretchet virtually a self-contained spaceship in itself. The idea was not a new one: it had been sketched in detail by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in 1920 in his science fiction novel Beyond the planet Earth. An important advantage of the suit was its one-size- fits-all approach: cosmonauts inside it were able to adjust its dimensions according to their size. By contrast, the American moonsuits were individually tailored. The Kretchet could be donned – or entered – quickly and it did not take up any more room in the cabin than a traditional suit.

The mission commander first donned the Kretchet in the LOK, before using it to spacewalk over to the LK for the descent to the lunar surface. The Kretchet was designed to work for up to 52 hours, up to six hours at a time and enable the cosmonaut to venture as far as 5 km from the lander. Surface time was estimated at four hours, with 1.5 hours contingency and a half-hour red line emergency (in fact, the designers provided up to ten hours at a time). The suit originally weighed 105 kg on Earth, about a fifth of that on the moon. The moonwalker monitored and controlled the functions of the spacesuit by a fold-down panel console on the front. The suit was designed to be tough, with ten layers of protection.

The Kretchet was designed so that it could be used independently or hooked up to the cabin of the LK and replenished from the LK’s own atmospheric supply. The 52 hr requirement was set down with a view to the suit keeping the cosmonaut alive


Orlan, descendant of the Kretchet

during takeoff and rendezvous should the LK fail to repressurize after the spacewalk. A bizarre feature of the Kretchet was that the designers put around it a kind of hula – hoop ring. The purpose was to ensure that if a cosmonaut fell over, something they worried about, he could use the ring to bounce back up. The Americans had no such system, probably because one astronaut could help his colleague pick himself up if he fell. Later, television viewers saw the later Apollo astronauts fall over many times, doing themselves little evident harm and presenting little danger.

A less rigid version of Kretchet was devised for ordinary spacewalking. This was called Orlan. This followed the same principles but did not carry the hoop, the heavier moonwalk boots nor as large air tanks (2 hr rather than 5 hr). Orlan relied on power supplied from the spaceship, rather than internal systems. It was lighter (59 kg), had only five layers of protection and no waste removal system. This suit would be worn by the flight engineer on board the LOK. In the event of the commander experiencing difficulty going down to the LK or returning therefrom, the flight engineer could venture out in the Orlan to retrieve him.

Twenty-five Kretchet suits were built for testing and training over 1968-71. They were given to the cosmonaut squad for testing. They were put through thermal and vacuum tests in a simulated moon park in the Zagorsk rocket engine test facility. The operation of the suit was checked in a Tupolev 104 aircraft, as were tools for use on the lunar surface. Work on the original Kretchet suit was suspended in 1972 and then, on orders from Valentin Glushko, terminated on 24th June 1974. Nine were in produc­tion at the time. In the course of 1972-4, when work was focused on the N1-L3M programme, the Zvezda design bureau began work on a more advanced version of the Kretchet in the light of the much more ambitious surface expeditions envisaged under the N1-L3M.

Unlike some of the hardware from the lunar landing programme, the Soviet moonsuit story has a happy ending. Kretchet-Orlan was a successful design and subsequently used on the Salyut space stations from 1977 onward and on Mir there­after. A new version, Orlan M, was introduced on the space station Mir and later became the Russian suit used on the International Space Station. It is reckoned to be one of the best spacesuits ever made. The experience gained in developing Oriol was also put to use in the development of the subsequent Sokol Soyuz cabin suit. So almost 40 years later, the successors of the Russian moonsuits are still in good use.

The Russian moon suit, Kretchet

Weight 105 kg

Duration (total) 52 hr

Surface 6 hr+

We know little of what the Soviet cosmonaut would have done on the lunar surface. Our only account comes from I. B. Afanasayev’s monograph Unknown space­craft (1991), one of the early histories of the Soviet moon programme. This is what he says:

The operations on the moon would consist in planting the USSR state flag, deploying the scientific instruments, collection of the lunar soil samples and photographing the terrain, as well as conducting television reportage from the lunar surface. The arsenal ofscientific instruments at the disposal of the Soviet cosmonaut would be extremely restricted by the low weight of cargoes that the LK could carry.

According to Mishin, the lander would have two deployable antennae, two sets of surface experiments and the possibility of a small rover [22]. The best information suggests that the moonwalk would take four hours, not more than 500 m from the cabin, but that the cosmonaut should be able to walk up to 5 km to a reserve LK which, in at least one plan, would be landed nearby. A shorter moonwalk time was also considered, using one of the earlier types of spacesuits (Yastreb), but Mishin held out for a full-length moonwalk using the Kretchet. No decision was taken, but granted that Kretchet was available it seems likely that a full-length moonwalk would have been undertaken.

Collecting the soil sample would have been the first task, as it was on Apollo, so that if the moonwalk had to be aborted, the cosmonaut would at least not return empty-handed. Just as President Nixon made a phone call from the White House to the Apollo 11 astronauts, Leonid Brezhnev would certainly have sent a similar message (he did during the Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975).

The LK was designed to carry a three-piece surface package. Details are sparse, but they have been assembled by the expert on Soviet space science, Andy Salmon. The main package comprised two seismometers, each with four low-gain aerials, shaped a little like a landmine covered in thermal blankets, to be positioned equi­distant from opposite sides of the LK. As was the case with the American LM, they were carried in the lower stage of the LK and then lifted to their chosen locations by the cosmonaut. The third item was a small crawler or micro-rover, to be deployed at the end of a cable supplying power and communications from the LK. Such a rover, called PrOP-M, was built for Mars missions at this time. Presumably, the rover would be remote-controlled from Earth once the cosmonauts had left the moon and then manoeuvred slowly across the lunar surface. The design has a number of similarities to cabled crawlers carried to the Red Planet by Mars 3 in 1971. Designer of the LK surface package is understood to have been Alexander Gurschikin of the Academy of Sciences.


The failure of the first Lunokhod was disappointing, for the year had otherwise started well. In mid-January, two spacecraft had been launched to Venus, Venera 5 and Venera 6, using the now-improved Molniya rocket. More important, Soyuz had flown again, rehearsing key techniques that would be used during the lunar landing mission: rendezvous, docking and spacewalking.

A rendezvous and docking of two manned Soyuz was a natural progression from Soyuz 2 and 3 the previous October and indeed the roots of the mission went back to the ill-fated Komarov flight of 1967. It was a mission absolutely essential for the manned moon landing and that was why it was in the programme. The spacewalk would simulate the transfer of the mission commander between the LOK and the LK lunar lander. However, mindful of the additional new objectives of the space pro­gramme, the mission would now be hailed as an essential step towards an orbital station instead. It was a convincing explanation for Soyuz 4 and 5 and it took in everyone at the time – except for the chiefs of NASA and one of the populist British dailies, the savvy Daily Express, which ran the headline ‘Moon race!’ the next day.

Soyuz 4 was launched first, on 14th January, with Vladimir Shatalov on board. The mission was carried out under exceptionally demanding weather conditions, in temperatures of —22°C and snow around the launchpad. During mid-morning on the 15th, Vladimir Shatalov turned his Soyuz 4 towards the launch site to try and spot


Yevgeni Khrunov, Alexei Yeliseyev prepare for mission, lunar globe beside

Soyuz 5 rising to reach him. The new spaceship blasted aloft with a full complement of three men aboard: Boris Volynov, Yevgeni Khrunov and engineer Alexei Yeliseyev.

The two spacecraft approached one other during the morning of the following day. Like seagulls with wings outstretched as they escort a ship at sea, Soyuz 4 inserted its pointed probe into 5’s drogue. Latches clawed at the probe, grabbed it tight, and sealed the system for manoeuvring, power and telephone. Moment of contact was 11: 20 a. m. over Soviet territory. Ground controllers listened with anxiety as the two ships high above came together and met. The Soviet Union had achieved the first docking between two manned spacecraft: a manoeuvre which, it was hoped, could one day soon take place when the LK returned to the LOK in lunar orbit.

No sooner had the cosmonauts settled down after their triumph than Khrunov and Yeliseyev struggled into their Yastreb spacesuits. This external crew transfer was an essential feature of the moon-landing profile, being required before the descent to the moon and again on the LK commander’s return. It was a slow process that could not be rushed. For his spacewalk, Leonov had already been dressed and ready to go,


Yevgeni Khrunov, Alexei Yeliseyev don spacesuits to rehearse lunar transfer

but Khrunov and Yeliseyev had to put their suits on in the orbital module cabin – as the moon-landing commander would. There was layer upon layer to put on, inner garments, outer garments, heating systems, coolant, helmets, vizors and finally an autonomous backpack. Valves were checked through, seals examined. It was not that they had not practised it enough, it just had to be right this time of all times.

Khrunov pulled a lever and the air poured out of the orbital compartment. Vladimir Shatalov had already done the same in his orbital compartment, from the safe refuge of his command cabin. The pressure gauge fell rapidly and evened off to 0. Khrunov described what happened next:

The hatch opened and a stream of sunlight burst in. The Sun was unbearably bright and scorching. Only the thick filtering vizor saved my eyes. I saw the Earth and the black sky and had the same feeling I had experienced before my first parachute jumps.

The spectacle of the two docked craft was breath-taking, he recalled. He emerged, Yeliseyev following gingerly behind, moving one hand over another on the handrails. They filmed one other, inspected the craft for damage and watched the Earth roll past below. Within half an hour they were inside Soyuz 4. They closed the hatch and repressurized the cabin. The hatch into the Soyuz 4 command cabin opened, turned like a ship’s handle on a bulkhead. Vladimir Shatalov floated through and it was hugs and kisses all round. Now the Soviet Union had tested external crew transfer.

Triumph nearly turned to tragedy two days later. Soyuz 4, its crew now swollen to three, returned to Earth the following morning, coming down on hard snow in whistling winds laced with fine icy particles. The following morning was the turn of Soyuz 5 where Boris Volynov flew on, alone. First, Volynov missed his first landing opportunity due to a problem orientating the spacecraft. This was only the beginning of what could have been a very bad morning for the Soviet space programme [5]. When he did fire his retrorockets, the service module failed to separate from the descent module and Volynov’s cabin instead began to go into reentry head-first, the worst possible way. Without the benefit of heatshield protection, Volynov could feel the temperature rising in his cabin. He could smell the rubber seals burning off at the top of the capsule. Knowing the end was near, he radioed details of his predicament to ground control and hastily scribbled some last notes in his log should any parts of the cabin make it to the ground. Mission control was appalled at what had happened and faced the prospect of a second Soyuz reentry fatality in less than two years. One man broke the ice a little by passing around his military hat to collect some roubles for his prospective widow, Tamara.


Awaiting his return, Tamara Volynova


Boris Volynov

Back in space, Volynov heard a sudden but welcome thump as the service module finally separated. His burning descent cabin quickly spun round and at last faced the right way, heat shield forward, for reentry. Because there had been no time to orientate the spaceship properly to use its heatshield to generate lift, he was making a steep, 9 G ballistic descent, far from the normal landing site in the southern Urals. He landed in the dark in snow, miles from anywhere, where the local temperature was —38°C. Spinning partly tangled his parachute lines and then the touchdown rockets failed to fire, so the Soyuz hit the ground with great force, breaking some of the cosmonaut’s teeth. Clambering out of his still sizzling cabin, Volynov was afraid of freezing there, so he set out across the snow in his light coveralls in the direction of smoke on the horizon. The helicopter rescue crews soon found the cabin, but to their alarm, the cosmonaut was now missing! Thankfully, they were able to follow the trail of blood from his broken teeth across the snow and located him in an outhouse of local farmers. He couldn’t walk for three days.

If Volynov thought his ordeal was over, he was mistaken. His next challenge was to survive a political assassination. When he and his colleagues were welcomed back to Moscow the following week in a motorcade, a young lieutenant in uniform brandish­ing a gun started firing at the cavalcade. He was aiming at Leonid Brezhnev, but so wildly was he firing that he got the cosmonauts’ limousine instead. Its driver slumped over his wheel, dead, bleeding profusely. Beregovoi’s face was splattered with blood and glass. Nikolayev and Leonov pushed Valentina Tereskhova down onto the floor to protect her. The lieutenant was grabbed by the militia and taken off to an asylum, and that was where he spent the following 20 years. The awards ceremony went ahead as planned. Putting the memory of the afternoon behind them, Russia’s scientists bathed in the glow of their achievement. Mstislav Keldysh promised:

The assembly of big, constantly operating orbital stations, interplanetary flights and advances in radio, television, and other branches of the national economy lie ahead.

A few Western reporters still needled him about the moon race. There was no plan to go to the moon at the moment, he said, but when asked to confirm that Russia had abandoned plans to go the moon altogether, the ever-honest Mstislav Keldysh would not. Soyuz 4 and 5 had successfully ticked off three key elements of the Soviet lunar plan – manned docking, external crew transfer and a new spacesuit – but adroit news management portrayed the mission as part of a plan for a space station instead. As for Volynov, he took a year to recover and the doctors told him he’d never fly again. But they midjudged this brave man: he was back in training by 1972 and he did fly again.

Подпись: Early Soyuz missions after 27 Oct 1967 Cosmos 30 Oct 1967 Cosmos 14 Apr 1968 Cosmos 15 Apr 1968 Cosmos 28 Aug 1968 Cosmos 25 Oct 1968 Soyuz 2 26 Oct 1968 Soyuz 3 14 Jan 1969 Soyuz 4 15 Jan 1969 Soyuz 5 SOYUZ 4-5 REHEARSE LUNAR DOCKING, SPACEWALKING
the first Sovuz






(Georgi Beregovoi)

(Vladimir Shatalov)

(Boris Volynov, Yevgeni Khrunov, Alexei Yeliseyev)


Scientists sat in an adjoining room watching the pictures and hearing the comments of the drivers, but were not allowed into the control room. This was quite different from American practice for, when American rovers explored Mars in 1997 (Sojourner) and 2004 (Spirit and Opportunity), the scientists were an integral part of the team. Eventually and Babakin’s edict notwithstanding, the principal lunar geologist, Alex­ander Basilevsky of the Vernadsky Institute for Geochemistry, could bear the sep­aration no longer, brought his chair into the control room and watched quietly from close quarters. There was quite a contrast between the way the Russians approached things on the moon and the way the Americans subsequently did on Mars. Whenever Basilevsky wanted to examine a rock, the drivers wanted to avoid it, for fear of collision or getting stuck – by contrast, the American Mars rovers spent extensive periods getting up close and personal to individual interesting rocks. Georgi Babakin, aware of thirst in Pravda for ‘how many kilometres did we do today?’ once told Basilevsky gently that this was a Lunokhod, not a Lunostop.

As time went on, it became apparent that Lunokhod was not just a playful bathtub on wheels but a sophisticated machine with advanced instrumentation. The soil analyzer RIFMA bombarded the surface with X-rays and enabled ground control to read back the chemical composition of the basalt-type soil. From time to time, the PrOP mechanical rod jabbed into the soil to test its strength. When it did so, it was able to measure resistance. Then, it was turned in the soil, this time to measure turning resistance. Once done, it was retracted and the vehicle moved on. Lunokhod did not only look moonwards: there were two telescopes on board – one to pick up X-rays beyond the galaxy and another to receive cosmic radiation. On 19th Novem-


Lunokhod tracks from landing stage


Lunokhod porthole view

ber, Lunokhod recorded a strong solar flare that could have injured cosmonauts had they been on the moon at the time. Lunokhod therefore contained within it several concepts: an exploring roving vehicle; a rock-testing mobile laboratory; and an ob­servatory able to capitalize on the unique air-free low-gravity environment beyond the Earth. The rocks were abundant in aluminium, calcium, silicon, iron, magnesium and titanium. The Sea of Rains had been selected because it was a typical mare area.

Come the new year, 1971, Lunokhod was back in action once more, heading back north to its landing site, whence it returned in mid-January. A spectacular photograph of the landing vehicle with ramps and wheel tracks all about reminded the world that Lunokhod was still there, prowling about the waterless sea of the Bay of Rains. The normal procedure was to lift the solar lid when the sun was 5° over the horizon. The first thing Lunokhod would do was radio back its condition (for the record: internal temperature 22°, pressure 753 mm (May)). Now Lunokhod headed north on a much longer journey from which it would not return. By the fourth lunar day, 8th February, scientists were able to compile a map of that part of the Bay of Rains adjacent to Luna 17. On 9th February, the mooncar survived a lunar eclipse when temperatures plunged from +150°C to —100°C and back to +136°C, all in the space of three hours. In March, Lunokhod explored around the rim of a 500 m wide large crater, venturing into smaller craters within the rim of the larger circle.

In April, Lunokhod ventured to a crater field full of boulders over 3 m across. Because of a nearby crater impact, all the black lunar dust had piled up against one side of the boulders as if a hurricane had swept through. Eventually, the geologists persuaded the control room supervisor to concentrate more on science and photo­graphing features of interest and less, as they saw it, on building up distance records for the pages of Pravda. Drivers wanted to avoid rocks that might endanger Luno­khod, but the scientists wanted to examine them at close quarters. On 13th April, Lunokhod became badly stuck in loose soil on a crater slope, but by applying full power on all engines it emerged out onto more solid, level ground. This nearly exhausted the system and the rover was parked for the rest of the month, simply

Подпись: Lunokhod’s journey

recharging. Lunokhod travelled only 197 m in May, concentrating on static experi­ments. The mooncar had appeared to be losing power and it was probably decided to concentrate on less energy-demanding experiments (Lunokhod was never expected to last more than six months).

Measurement of the strength of the lunar surface was an important aspect of the work of Lunokhod. The vehicle would stop and the penetrating cone would be lowered at the back of the vehicle. The penetrator, called PrOP, coned at an angle of 60°. First, it was forced into the surface to a depth of up to 5 cm to test force. Some pressure was applied, equivalent to a sixth of the weight of the rover. Then vanes inside the cone were rotated 90° for torque, again another measurement of surface strength. This was done 500 times. The results of penetration and trafficability tests were published in detail, finding that Lunokhod operated on surfaces that were
much weaker than the lunar roving vehicles driven by the Apollo 15-17 astronauts. In September, penetrometer stops were made every 65 m.

Whatever the power problems might have been, they lifted – for in June Luno­khod headed 1,559 m north-northeast to a further set of four craters, which were set to be its final exploration area. It explored this area thoroughly, and it would seem that Lunokhod’s power was really beginning to fail at this time. Total distances travelled were falling: 220 m in July, 215 m in August and only 88 m in September. Earlier, on 5th August, American astronauts David Scott, James Irwin and Al Worden flew directly over the mooncar in their Apollo 15 command module and Lunokhod’s magnesium alloy frame glinted in the Sun. As it drove slowly, plodding across the moonscape, the two different moon explorers stood in stark contrast to one other.

Then, suddenly, whilst at work on 4th October exploring a group of four craters far north of the landing site, Lunokhod’s ‘heart’ – its isotope power source – gave out. Telemetry reported a rapid drop in pressure inside the hermetically sealed cabin. The wheels halted, the TV pictures and signals ceased. It was the end.

Considering Lunokhod had been designed to function for only three months and had worked for nearly a year, its mission was a cause of much congratulation. It was the USSR’s most brilliant achievement in the field of automatic space exploration. Apparently primitive in design, superbly built, with a reliability the perfectionist buffs in NASA would have envied, it endeared itself to the public at large and became the most exciting robot of its day. In statistical terms alone, its achievement was impress­ive. It had travelled 10.54 km, covered an area of 80,000 m2, sent back 20,000 pictures including 200 panoramas and X-rayed the soil at 25 locations. Only later did the Russians reveal that in fact the braking system on Lunokhod had failed quite early in the ‘on’ position and all the time it was driving against the friction of its brakes. The driving team and the scientists were exhausted. For ten months, they had worked

Table 7.2. The journey of Lunokhod, 1970-1






17 Nov 1970

22 Nov 1970


First journey and charging up of battery

10 Dec 1970

22 Dec 1970


Journey to the southeast

8 Jan 1971

20 Jan 1971


Return to landing site

8 Feb 1971

19 Feb 1971


Heading north

9 Mar 1971

20 Mar 1971


The longest distance travelled

8 Apr 1971

20 Apr 1971


Power exhausted from period trapped in crater

7 May 1971

20 May 1971


Concentrating on static experiments

5 June 1971

18 June 1971


Resuming journey north

4 July 1971

17 July 1971


Power failing, decision to focus on static experiments

3 Aug 1971

16 Aug 1971


31 Aug 1971

15 Sep 1971


30 Sep 1971

4 Oct 1971

Loss of power, end of mission

ten-hour shifts, 14 lunar days at a time, punctuated by short breaks for the three days of lunar noon when they would enjoy the nearby seaside resort and longer 14-day breaks for the lunar night, when they flew back to Moscow to review their data.


To support the manned lunar effort, a fleet of maritime communication ships was constructed for the period when the manned lunar-bound or home-bound spacecraft would be out of direct line with the tracking stations in the Soviet Union. Initially, some merchant ships were converted to carry tracking equipment: the Ristna and Bezhitsa. Then some newly converted merchant ships were introduced: Kegostrov, Nevel, Morzhovets and Borovichi. Some small ground stations were set up in friendly states: in Chad, Cuba, Guinea, Mali and the United Arab Emirates.

Подпись: Tracking ship Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin

The big step forward was in May 1967, when a new class of large tracking ship was introduced, starting when the Vladimir Komarov was spotted making its way down the English Channel for its shake-down cruise. The Cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov displaced over 17,000 tonnes and had a crew of several hundred with large radar domes and antennae. Large though it was compared with its predecessors, it was small compared with the much larger tracking ships that followed: the Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (45,000 tonnes), which became the flagship and the Academician Sergei Korolev (21,250 tonnes). For Western observers, knowledge of the whereabouts of the tracking fleet was important in predicting Soviet lunar or manned missions. If the tracking ships were at sea, then missions could be expected (this became equally true of the Chinese manned space programme 30 years later).


By the time of these dramatic developments in Moscow, the N-l rocket was at last almost ready for launch. When rolled out in February, it was the largest rocket ever built by the Soviet Union, over 100 m tall and weighing 2,700 tonnes. The first stage, block A, would burn for 2 min on its 30 Kuznetsov NK-33 rocket engines. The second stage, block B, with eight Kuznetsov NK-43 engines, would burn for 130 sec and bring the N-l to altitude. The third stage, block V, would bring the payload into a 200 km low-Earth orbit on its four Kuznetsov NK-39 engines after a long 400 sec firing. Atop this monster was the fourth stage (block G), designed to fire the lunar complex to the moon. Block G had just one Kuznetsov NK-31 engine which would burn for 480 sec for translunar injection.

For the first-ever test of the N-l, a dummy LK lunar lander had been placed on top of block D and above it, instead of the LOK lunar orbiter, a simplified version. Called the L-1S (‘S’ for simplified), the intention was to place the L-1S in lunar orbit and then bring it back to Earth. The L-1S was, in essence, the LOK, but without the orbital module. It still carried the 800 kg front orientation engine designed for rendezvous in lunar orbit. Calculations for the mission show that with a launch on 21st February, the spacecraft would have reached the moon on 24th February, fired out of lunar orbit on the 26th and be back on Earth by the 1st March [6]. It is intriguing that this mission would have taken place simultaneously with that of the first moonrover. Indeed, the first moonrover would have landed five hours after the L-1S blasted out of lunar orbit. In a further coincidence, 1st March was the original date the Americans had set for the launch of Apollo 9. Had the USSR pulled both these missions off, assertions about ‘not being in a moon race’ would have to be creatively re-explained by the ever-versatile Soviet media.

The first N-1 went down to the pad on 3rd February. It weighed in at 2,772 tonnes, the largest rocket ever built there. It was fuelled up and the commitment to launch was now irrevocable. It was a freezing night, the temperature —41°C. At 00: 18 on 21st February the countdown of the N-1 reached its climax, the engines roared to life and the rocket began to move, ever so slowly, skyward. The launch workers cheered and even grisled veterans ofrocket launches watched in awe as the monster took to the sky. Baikonour had seen nothing like it. Safety decreed they must stand some distance away, so they could see the rocket take off several seconds before they could hear it. Seconds into the ignition, as the engines were roaring and before it had lifted off, two engines were shut down by the KORD system, but the flight was able to continue normally, just as the system anticipated. At 5 sec, a gas pressure line broke. At 23 sec, a 2 mm diameter oxidizer pipe burst. This fed oxidizer into the burning rocket stream. This caused a fire at 55 sec which had burned through KORD’s cables by 68 sec. This, shut down all the remaining engines and at 70 sec the escape system fired the L-1S capsule free, so any cosmonauts on board would have survived the failure. By then, the N-1 had reached an altitude of 27 km and, now powerless, began to fall back to Earth. The N-1 was destroyed and Alexei Leonov later recalled seeing ‘a flash in the distance and a fire on the horizon’. Some of the debris fell 50km downrange. The explosion blew windows out for miles around and Lavochkin engineers, then finishing



N-l on the pad

preparations to send two probes to Mars, had to work from a windowless and now frozen hotel.

Despite the failure, the engineers were less discouraged than one might expect. First mission failures were not unusual in the early days of rocketry – indeed, as late in 1996, Europe’s Ariane 5 was to fail very publicly and embarrassingly on its first mission. Following the report of the investigating board in March, a number of changes were made, such as taking out one of the pipes that had failed, improved ventilation and moving the cables to a place where they could not be burned. The root cause of many of the failures, though, was the high vibration associated with such a powerful rocket. This could have been identified through ground-testing, but it was too late for that now. Extraordinarily enough, American intelligence did not have satellites over Baikonour that week and completely missed the launch and the fresh crater downrange.


Chief designer Georgi Babakin lived long enough to see the triumph of Lunokhod. He died suddenly in August 1971, aged only 57 and at the very height of his powers. His replacement was N-1 rocket engineer Sergei Kryukov. Sergei Kryukov was born 10th August 1918 in Bakhchisarai in the Crimea, his father being a sailor and his mother a nurse. His mother was ill throughout his early years and died when he was eight. Young Sergei spent much of his childhood in an orphanage, but relatives eventually removed him and ensured he got an education. He caught up quickly, entered Stalingrad Mechanical Institute in 1936 and then its artillery facility, continuing to work there even as the city was under German siege. With the war over, he continued his education in the Moscow Higher Technical Institute while getting work in the # 88 artillery plant there. No sooner had he started than he was transferred to Germany, his task being to reverse-engineer the world’s first surface-to-air missile, the Schmetter – ling, which for the Russians was as important as the A-4 surface-to-surface missile. On his return, he transferred to work for Sergei Korolev in OKB-1, where he developed the R-3, R-5 and R-7 rockets, being number four in the design of the R-7 after Korolev, Tikhonravov and Mishin. His contribution was recognized by an Order of Lenin.

His experience with the R-7 was a useful base for working in Lavochkin. After the R-7, Kryukov went on to work on upper stages, principally the Molniya’s block I and block L. Assigned to develop the block D for Proton and the N-1, he fell out with Vasily Mishin in 1970, but then managed to transfer to NPO Lavochkin, never imagining that within a year he would become director. He had two deputies: one was responsible for moon probes (Oleg Ivanovsky), while the other was put in charge of planetary probes (Vladimir Perminov).

By the time the Luna 17/Lunokhod mission ended, another Ye-8-5 mission had been dispatched. Luna 18 was launched on 2nd September 1971. After a perfect journey to the moon, it entered a circular lunar orbit of 101 km, inclination 35°, 1 hr 59 min. This was lowered to a pre-descent orbit of 100 x 18 km and it fired its braking rockets over an area just north of the Sea of Fertility on 11th September. The small thruster rockets tried to guide it into a suitable landing site, but the fuel supplies gave out and it crashed. Not even Radio Moscow felt able or thought it worth its while to invent a cover-up story. Something like ‘testing new landing techniques’ may have been considered, but this time it admitted that the landing had been ‘unlucky’ in a ‘difficult and rugged’ upland area. Although the term ‘failure’ was not explicitly used, it was one of the few early occasions on which the Russians did not pretend that all mission objectives had been attained. Some scientific data were even obtained from the mission, for scientists were able to infer the density of the lunar soil from the altimeter system and the outcomes were published four years later.

The intentions behind Luna 18 became clear when its backup vehicle was sent aloft on 14th February 1972, entered circular lunar orbit of 100 km on the 18th, 65°, 1 hr 58 min. Luna 20 made a pre-descent orbital firing the following day, bringing it into a path of 100 x 21 km, 1 hr 54 min. The sharper inclination of 65° may have given Luna 20 a safer approach route to the landing site. Luna 20 fired its engines for 267 sec to come in for a landing late on 21st February. This was the critical stage and it had gone wrong twice before. Luna 20’s final orbit had a perilune of 21 km. Once this final engine deadstop blast finished, 1.7km/sec had been cut from velocity and Luna 20 made a rapid descent, coming down at 255m/sec, much faster than Luna 16.

Luna 20 was coming down right on the top of uplands. The Sea of Fertility lies on the right of the moon’s visible face and Luna 16 had landed on one of its flattest parts. To the north, hills rise and there are soon mountains 1,500 m high. It was in a small plateau between two peaks where Luna 20 was aimed, less than 1,800 m from where its predecessor had come to grief on a sharp slope. The area is called Apollonius. It was tougher than anything the American Lunar Module would have tried. Because of the much higher descent rate, the propulsion system fired sooner – at 760 m – and Luna 20 made it, whether through luck or skill we do not know.

And so it came to rest, straddled by towering mountain peaks. Signals at once indicated to relieved controllers that it was safe and secure. Within seven hours, aided by a small television camera, its drill was hard at work scooping up lunar soil. Unlike Luna 16, Luna 20 landed in daylight and a picture of the drilling was subsequently published in the Soviet press [8]. Two cameras were installed on the landing stage, with a viewing angle of 30°. The drill rotated at an anti-clockwise 500 r. p.m., cutting away with sharp teeth which put material into a holding tube. It had two engines: one for the main drilling, but a second to take over if it faltered. The drill was kept sealed until the moment of drilling began, for it was important to keep it lubricated right up to the moment of operation. If it were exposed to a vacuum too early, there was the danger that the lubricant would evaporate.


Luna 20 view of surface

The drilling operation took 40 min and was photographed throughout. The rig encountered stiff resistance at 10 cm and operations had to stop three times, lest it overheat. When it reached 25 cm, the samples were scooped into the return capsule to await the long journey home. The retrieval took 2hr 40 min in the end and was probably the most difficult of all the sample recovery missions. The conditions were undoubtedly tough and the sample probably much smaller than hoped for.

The cameras swivelled around to take an image of the surrounding moonscape, with Earth rising in the distance. The onboard computer fired the engines early on 23rd February and the return vehicle climbed away from the lunar peaks. Once again, the Kazakhstan landing site required a lunar liftoff when the moon was over the Atlantic. So, 2.84 days later it headed into reentry, the small cabin separating 52,000 km out. Amateur trackers picked up signals from Luna 20 growing in strength as it approached the Earth. Both the ascent spacecraft and the cabin came in quite close to one another, signals fading out only 12 min before touchdown [9].

Despite a steep reentry angle of 60°, twice that of Luna 16, only 5 mm of ablative material burned away. An appalling blizzard hit the recovery area that day. Heli­copters spotted the tiny capsule – parachute, antennae and beacon deployed – heading straight into the Karakingir River some 40 km northwest of Dzhezhkazgan at 48°N, 67.6°E. Would the precious samples be lost at this stage? Luckily, the capsule came to rest on an island in the middle of the river and in a snowdrift and trees. But getting it back was easier said than done. The gale was too severe for the helicopters to land. Four cross-country vehicles tried to get across on the ice but it cracked so they called it off for fear of falling in. Their crews eventually retrieved the battered and burnt capsule the next day when the wind abated. Its contents were opened at the Academy of Sciences. They were surprisingly small – between 30 and 50 g. But it was moondust all the same and the light ash-gray dust was 3bn years old. The records state it consisted mainly of anorthosite, with olivine, pyroxene and ilmenite. High-quality non-rusting iron was found, one of the most interesting findings. The colour was lighter and had more particles than the previous sample. Luna 20’s samples had the highest content of aluminium and calcium oxides of all the moon samples. Two grams of Luna 20 samples were exchanged with American Apollo 15 samples. The Amer­icans were able to provide accurate dating of the Soviet sample. Seventy chemical elements were found, with an average density of 1.15g/cm3.