Category Soviet and Russian Lunar Exploration


In early 1964, Russia’s plans were still to fly around the moon using the Soyuz complex. With the construction of Soyuz already under way, the R-7 rocket already available and the first group flights showing remarkable promise, there was a real prospect that this could be achieved over 1966-7 or so.

There was still considerable uncertainty about the future medium – and long-term direction of the Soviet space effort. The death of John Kennedy had now eliminated the prospect of a joint mission. In 1963, Jodrell Bank Observatory director Bernard Lovell had visited the Soviet Union as a guest of Mstislav Keldysh and learned, to his surprise, that the Soviet Union had no plans to race the Americans to the moon (exactly as Khrushchev had told the United Nations). Instead, they would build an Earth-orbiting space platform. Indeed, designs of Soviet cosmonauts spacewalking around such platforms soon found their way to the West. Bernard Lovell’s remarks were disputed by some Soviet scientists, but his visit created some considerable doubt about the nature of Soviet intentions.

Although the Soyuz complex had made considerable progress during 1962-3, this slowed down during 1964. However, it is important to stress that the Soyuz complex was no mere study. Not only did the design progress to an advanced stage, but initial flight models were in construction. The slowdown was not because of an action on the part of government, but due to gross overwork in OKB-1. Concerned with the complexities of the Earth orbit rendezvous manoeuvres required, Korolev now began to revise the concept. The weight of the complex to be assembled in Earth orbit would be about the same, 18 tonnes. Under the new plan:

• Only three spacecraft would be involved.

• The rocket block would use the much more powerful hydrogen fuel.

• The Soyuz spacecraft would, for the lunar journey, be shortened and lightened to five tonnes: the orbital module would not be carried. This would now be called the Soyuz 7K-L-1 (L for Luna, Luniy or moon).

Learning about this, a rival design bureau, OKB-52 of Vladimir Chelomei, came up with a rival proposal. Using the new Proton rocket which he was building, he said that he could send such a spacecraft directly to the moon. Only one rocket would be required and there was no need for orbital rendezvous or the transfer of fuels in Earth orbit. He persuaded the government that the plans for Earth orbital rendezvous were too cumbersome. Korolev was so busy with other projects and Chelomei managed to get government approval before he realized what was going on and could stop him.

The arrival of a competitor to Korolev was an important development. Until 1964, Korolev had, as chief designer, ruled supreme over the Soviet space programme. Vladimir Chelomei was a slightly younger man than Korolev – he was born in 1914 – and when Korolev had developed the German V-2 after the war, Chelomei had built derivatives of the V-1 flying bomb. Prom 1944 to 1954, Chelomei had developed pulse jet engines, cruise missiles and sea-borne rockets. His style was quite different from Korolev, being smartly dressed, with a polished manner and he was a great com­municator. All who met him paid tribute to his ambition and powers of persuasion. Chelomei was a professor of the Baumann Technical School, a member of the Academy of Sciences from 1958 and full academician from 1962. He was able to offer the Kremlin a viable military space programme: new military rockets (SS-9, Tsyklon, Proton), anti-satellite weapons (Polyot), radar observation satellites and was even working on a manned platform for space surveillance (Almaz). Nikita Khrush­chev’s son Sergei worked for him.

Chelomei was not the only challenger to Korolev’s hitherto undisputed promi­nence. Korolev’s former collaborator, Valentin Glushko, ran a large engine design bureau, OKB-456, and as we saw in 1958 the two had already quarrelled over the upper stage for the R-7 used to fire the first cosmic ship. In Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, another large design bureau had grown up under Mikhail Yangel. He built military missiles for the Soviet rocket troops by the hundreds in his sprawling factory there.


Vladimir Chelomei

Some of the missiles were adapted as satellite launchers and by 1962 his design bureau was building small military satellites.


These setbacks led to a major shakeup in the moon programme. Korolev’s OKB-1 was now heavily overcommitted and the manned space programme was using up his full energies. Korolev approached the Lavochkin Design Bureau. This was, at first sight, a strange thing to do, for Lavochkin was an aircraft design bureau that had languished since the death of its founder, Semyon Lavochkin. This design bureau dated to 1937, being founded as Plant #301 by aviation designer Semyon Lavochkin. During the 1940s the plant made fighter aircraft and during the 1950s, cruise missiles. Plant # 301 was named the Lavochkin Design Bureau on the death of its founder in 1960. The deputy director then was Georgi Babakin but he had since gone to work for Korolev’s rival, Vladimir Chelomei.

Georgi Babakin is to become a central person in our story. Fifty-year-old Georgi Babakin was an unusual man, self-taught, with a healthy suspicion of formal educa­tion. Born in Moscow on 31st August 1914 (os), he developed an early passion for radio electronics, becoming senior radio technician with the Moscow Telephone Company in 1931. He was drafted into the Red Army’s Proletarian Infantry Division in 1936 where he was radio operator for six months before being dismissed for ill


Georgi Babakin

health. He returned to school, where he completed his exams, joining the old Lavoch­kin Design Bureau during its plane-making days, rising to deputy chief designer. He eventually took a university degree in 1957 [2].

March 1965 saw a shakeup in the unmanned lunar programme in which the Ye-6 missions, as well as the interplanetary programme, left OKB-1. OKB-301 was effec­tively reconstructed, with its former deputy director Georgi Babakin returning as chief designer. Specifically, Korolev asked Georgi Babakin to ask him to take over the Ye-6 programme once the current OKB-1 production run was complete, but he knew that this would mean the entire set of programmes going to Lavochkin from then on. In April 1965, Sergei Korolev made his first and only visit to the Lavochkin Design Bureau. He met all the senior design staff, formally handed over the OKB-1 blueprints to them, made clear the heavy duty now incumbent upon them and warned them that he would take the projects back if they did not perform. Lavochkin’s experience of producing military aircraft stood to its advantage, for the company put much emphasis into ground testing and cleaning bugs out of the system beforehand.

Few people seem to have moved across from OKB-1 to Lavochkin. One who did was Oleg Ivanovsky. Another radio enthusiast, he was a cossack cavalryman during the war but was so badly wounded that at war’s end he was registered permanently disabled, facing a grim future without work or, more importantly, worker ration cards. An old friend managed to get him work in OKB-1 where his radio skills were quickly appreciated. Korolev gave him a key role in the radio instrumentation for Sputnik, the 1959 moon probes and then the Vostok, personally accompanying Yuri Gagarin to his cabin. When the new Lavochkin company was set up, Korolev found him a post as deputy chief designer, second only to Babakin [3].

At the same time, the Isayev bureau also improved the KTDU-5 engine system. A new version, called the KTDU-5A, was introduced. Using amine as fuel and nitric acid as oxidizer, it had a specific impulse of 278 sec, a thrust of 4,640 kg and a chamber pressure of 64 atmospheres. It was designed to burn twice – the first time for the mid-

course correction (up to 130m/sec) and then a second time for the landing (2,630 m/ sec) and had a total burn time of 43 sec [4]. The decision was also taken to upgrade the launcher and replace the unreliable 8K78 and block L by an improved version. The lower stages, the 8K78, were replaced by the 8K78M by the end of the year and the old block L by the new block MVL by 1968.


Spacecraft design was only one part of the jigsaw required to put the moon project together. The other crucial part was an upper stage able to send the probe toward the moon. The rocket that had launched Sputnik, Sputnik 2 and 3 – the R-7 – was capable of sending only 1,400 kg into low-Earth orbit, no further. A new upper stage would be required. Back in April 1957, Mikhail Tikhonravov had suggested that it would be possible to send small payloads to the moon, through the addition of a small upper stage to the R-7.

Chronology of the early Soviet lunar programme

4 Oct 1957 Sputnik.

28 Jan 1958 Proposal to government by Korolev and Keldysh.

10 Feb 1958 Agreement with OKB-154 (Kosberg) for upper stage.

20 Mar 1958 Approval by government of proposal for moon probe.

5 Jul 1958 Most promising works in the development of outer space.

Korolev considered two options for an upper stage. First, he turned to the main designer of rocket engines in the Soviet Union, Valentin Glushko. Glushko had designed the main engines for the R-7, the kerosene-propelled RD-107 and RD-108 (RD, or rocket engine, in Russian Raketa Digvatel). Since then, though, he had discovered UDMH, or to be more correct, it had been discovered by the State Institute for Applied Chemistry. UDMH stood for unsymmetrical dimethyl methyl hydrazine and it had many advantages. When mixed with nitric acid or one of its derivatives, this produced powerful thrust for a rocket engine. Unlike liquid oxygen – which must be cooled to very low temperatures – and kerosene, UDMH and nitric acid could be kept in rockets and their adjacent fuelling tanks at room temperature for some time and for this reason were called ‘storable’ fuels.

They were hypergolic and fired on contact with one other, saving on ignition systems. The great disadvantage was that they were toxic: men working on them had to wear full proper protective gear. The consequences of an unplanned explosion did not bear thinking about and Korolev labelled the fuel ‘the devil’s own venom’. Glushko proposed the R-7 fly his new upper stage, the RD-109.

Korolev had his doubts as to whether Glushko could get his new engine ready for him in any reasonable time. He learned that an aircraft design bureau, the OKB-154 of Semyon Kosberg in Voronezh, had done some development work on a restartable rocket engine using the tried-and-tested liquid oxygen and kerosene. Semyon Kosberg was not a spacecraft designer: his background was in the Moscow Aviation Institute, he built fighters for the Red Air Force and his interest was in aviation. Korolev, wary of Glushko’s engine and skeptical of his ability to deliver on time, persuaded Kosberg to build him a small upper stage and they signed an agreement on 10th February 1958, even before government agreement for the moon programme. The new engine, later called the RD-105 (also referred to as the RD-0105 and the RO-5), was duly delivered only six months later, in August 1958. It was the first rocket designed only to work in a vacuum. This new variant of the R-7 was given the technical designation of the 8K72E (a more powerful version of the upper stage later became the basis of the first manned spaceship, Vostok, and was known as the 8K72K).

Подпись: E for lunar missions (8K72E) 33.5m 10.3m 279.1 tonnes 26.9 tonnes 256.2 tonnes 407.5 tonnes Подпись:Подпись: 125 kg 5.04 tonnes LOX and kerosene 46 atmospheres 316R-7 rocket, with upper stage block


Diameter (blocks ABVGD) Weight

of which frame propellant Thrust at liftoff

8K72E upper stage (block E)






RD-105 engine





Specific impulse

Burn times

Подпись: 320 sec 120 sec 790 secBurn time block A Burn times blocks BVGD Burn time block E

Source: Varfolomeyev (1995-2001)

A suborbital flight of the new moon rocket took place on 10th July 1958. The aim was to test the control system for the ignition and separation of the upper stage, but the mission never got that far, for the rocket blew up a few seconds after liftoff.


The Soviet decision to land on the moon was not made until August 1964, more than three years after Kennedy’s address to Congress. Examination of the Soviet documen­tary record in the 1990s suggests that as 1963 turned to 1964 there was a dawning realization of the scale of the American commitment under Apollo. Soviet intelligence reported on the burgeoning American effort, though there was no need to rely on spies, for the American programme was enthusiastically publicized in the open literature. Soviet designers put it up to their own leadership that they had to respond. Again, the decision was taken as a result of pressure from below, rather than because

of a government diktat from on high. Until spring 1964, the Soviet space programme had largely been shaped by goals set by Korolev, Tikhonravov and others in proposals and memoranda outlining a step-by-step Russian approach to space exploration. Now, a subtle shift occurred, with Soviet goals now determined in respect of American intentions.

The process of reappraisal began in the course of 1963. That autumn, Korolev restated and revised his approach, presenting a fresh set of plans to government in which he outlined how Soviet lunar exploration should progress. This was Proposal for the research and familiarization of the moon, by Sergei Korolev on 23rd September 1963. They were all labelled L – after the Russian word for moon:

L-1 Circumlunar mission using the Soyuz complex.

L-2 Lunar rover to explore landing sites.

L-3 Manned landing.

L-4 Research and map the moon from orbit.

L-5 Manned lunar rover.

What is interesting here is the prominence given to a manned landing, which had hitherto not featured at all in Soviet planning. Khrushchev received representations from Chelomei, Yangel and Korolev that each one of them had the project that could respond to Apollo:

• Korolev offered the latest version of the Soyuz complex for a round-the-moon mission. He also had a powerful, heavy-lift N-1 booster under development, which could put a man on the moon. The project had developed only slowly since 1956 and was now languishing.

• Chelomei proposed his UR-500 Proton rocket for a direct around-the-moon mission and a much larger derivative, the UR-700 for a direct ascent lunar landing.

• Mikhail Yangel’s bureau offered a third rocket, the R-56.

Siddiqi has chronicled how the Soviet approach changed in the course of 1964 [4]. The first American hardware had begun to appear and the Saturn I had begun to make its first flights. The various design bureaux saw the moon programme as a means of keeping themselves in business – and making sure that rivals did not rise to promi­nence at their expense. Korolev even made a blatant appeal to Khrushchev to the effect that it would be unpatriotic and unsocialist to let the Americans pass out Soviet achievements. Khrushchev eventually gave in and by this time the leading members of government, the party, the military and the scientific establishment had come round to the view that it would be wrong not to beat the Americans to the moon. A final contributory factor was that the Soviet Union had coasted through the successes of Gagarin, Titov and the two successful group flights. At some stage, the political leadership realized that complacency was no match for some serious forward planning.

Whatever the mixed circumstances, the government and party issued a resolution on 3rd August 1964, called On work involving the study of the moon and outer space. This resolution:

• Formally committed the Soviet Union to a moon-landing programme.

• Charged the task to Korolev’s OKB-1, with the objective of landing a man on the

moon in 1968. The N-1 heavy lift rocket, now eight years in design would be used.

• Committed the Soviet Union to continue to pursue the around-the-moon project.

This would be done by Chelomei’s OKB-52, with the objective of sending a man

around the moon in 1967. This plan replaced the Soyuz complex.

This is one of the most important government decisions in our story. It was a joint party and government resolution, # 655-268 to be precise. It gave the two bureaux the authority to requisition resources to bring these programmes to fulfilment. A word of caution though: although the party and government issued the decree, it was a secret one. Whilst known to the senior ranks of party, government and industry, it was not on the evening television news and indeed it was not uncovered until the Soviet Union had ceased to be.

The resolution was problematical for a number of other reasons. First, it came more than three years after the American decision to go to the moon, so the Russians were starting from far behind and also committed themselves to the finishing line sooner. Second, they divided the project into two distinct tasks, unlike the Americans who aimed to circle the moon on the way to a landing. The two tasks were given to two different design bureaux, meaning two different sets of hardware. The decision was a political compromise, giving one project to Korolev (at the expense of Yangel) and one to Chelomei (at the expense of Korolev). This might have been acceptable if the USSR had considerably more resources than the United States, but the very opposite was the case. Third, as we shall see, the Russians had a lot of difficulty in even keeping to the plans that were formally agreed. Fourth, it meant that Soviet methods of space exploration were determined less by the setting of objective goals and methods, but by reference to American intentions and the need to reach acceptable compromises between the ambitious design bureaux within the Soviet Union itself. Indeed, under Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet system became less and less able to take hard choices, less able to say ‘no’, permitting and funding the many rival projects of the competing military-industrial elites simultaneously [5]. So the 1964 resolution was a pivotal, but problematic decision.

The original Soyuz complex was now gone from the moon plans, with the danger that four years’ design work would now go to waste. Korolev saved the 7K spacecraft and made the case to the government that it should be adapted for Earth orbital missions and to test out rendezvous and other techniques that would be required for the moon landing. The 7K was now renamed the 7K-OK (OK standing for orbital craft, Orbitalny Korabl). The spacecraft was now called Soyuz, even though it had been one part of a much bigger project called the Soyuz complex. As such, it became the basis for the spacecraft still operating today. The intention was that the 7K-OK follow as soon as possible from the Vostok programme. In the event, Soyuz was delayed, had a difficult design history and did not make its first unmanned flight until 1966.

Thus in August 1964, the Soviet Union:

• Abandoned Earth orbit rendezvous as a means of flying a cosmonaut to the moon, scrapping the Soyuz complex.

• Matched President Kennedy’s challenge to land an American on the moon by a commitment to land a Soviet cosmonaut there in 1968.

• Set the objective of sending a cosmonaut around the moon first, using the new Proton rocket and the skills of the Chelomei design bureau, in 1967.

With an economy half the size of the United States, the Soviet Union had set itself some daunting goals. Not only was it beginning the race three years after the United States, but it set itself an extra circuit to run – and still win both races a year earlier than its rival.

As part of the shake-out of 3rd August 1964, Tikhonravov’s Department #9 in OKB-1 was disbanded. All the work it had done on orbital stations was transferred to the Chelomei OKB-52 for his programme for space stations, called Almaz. Little more was heard of Mikhail Tikhonravov, the father of the Soviet lunar programme, from there on. He was 64 years old then and appears to have retired at this point. Mikhail Tikhonravov eventually passed away aged 74 on 4th March 1974. His prominent role had been obscured by Korolev. It probably should not have been, for the Soviet state did honour this shy man with the Lenin Prize, two Orders of Lenin, ‘honoured scientist of the Russian Federation’ and the title ‘Hero of socialist labour’. In a space programme dominated by giant egos, Mikhail Tikhonravov had been content to labour in the background, though he was never afraid to put forward proposals if that would advance the concepts and ideas he believed in so greatly. He never attracted or sought attention the way others did, but his influence on the Soviet lunar programme can only be considered profound, shaping all its early stages.


To what must have been enormous relief in OKB-301, the next moon probe sailed smoothly away from Earth orbit on 9th May 1965. This date marked Victory in Europe Day, 20 years from the end of the war and hopefully this would augur well for the new probe, Luna 5. Maybe the guidance systems had at last been corrected. Nine communications sessions took place en route to the moon. During the first five, the probe radioed back its exact position as accurately as possible so that the thrust for the mid-course correction could be calculated. The fifth session issued the commands. Things began to go wrong now. The 1-100 was unable to control the probe properly and it began spinning. Ground control brought it back under control and tried again. The command instructions were issued wrongly, so the burn did not take place. By now it was too late to carry out the burn. Thankfully, Luna 5’s original path was sufficiently accurate to hit the moon, although far from the area intended, so an embarrassing repeat of the Luna 4 could be avoided. Ground control positioned the spacecraft for retrofire, aware that the spacecraft would come down about 700 km off course and that it would not be the intended direct, vertical descent but an oblique one instead. The 1-100 again failed to stabilize the probe, so retrofire did not take place. Soviet scientists in the control room listened helplessly to Luna 5’s signals as it crashed unaided on the moon at great speed, way off course. Its precise impact point has never been determined and the original Soviet announcement suggested the Sea of Clouds, a location of 30°S, 8°W being later suggested. Some subsequent analysis gave an impact point to the northwest and nearer the equator (8° 10’N, 23°26’W), but well away from the Sea of Clouds [5].

Luna 5 exploded and sent up a cloud of dust measuring 80 km wide and 225 km long. It was the second Soviet probe to impact on the moon, the first since the Second Cosmic Ship seven years earlier. The announcement of the unhappy outcome was not made until twelve hours later: whether this was in the forlorn hope that the probe might have survived, or to give time to put news management into operation, is not known.

The idea that Luna 5 had created a big impact cloud was ridiculed at the time and subsequently. The cloud was seen by observers at Rodewitsch Observatory in the German Democratic Republic until ten minutes after impact when it faded and the details given in Izvestia on 16th May. The claims were treated nowhere more seriously than in the United States, where Bellcomm Inc. was commissioned by NASA to investigate. Bellcomm’s report was done by J. S. Dohnanyi, who concluded that August that if Luna 5 impacted into a basalt surface and if the fuel of the landing rocket exploded on impact, then such a cloud was indeed possible [6].


Luna mid-course correction

Luna 6 on the 8th June set off for the moon with the same promise as Luna 5. There was a sense of apprehension as the mid-course manoeuvre approached. Although the rocket switched on correctly, it would not turn off! The engine continued to blast away remorselessly, sending Luna 6 away in the opposite direction. It missed the moon by no fewer than 160,935 km, what must have been a record. Trying to salvage something from another disappointment, ground control commanded a separation of the lander and inflation of the airbags, a manoeuvre that apparently worked.


The moon programme required a tracking network. To follow Sputnik, a government resolution had been issued on 3rd September 1956 and authorized the establishment of up to 25 stations [1]. By the time of Sputnik, about 13 had been constructed, the principal ones being in Kolpashevo, Tbilisi, Ulan Ude, Ussurisk and Petropavlovsk, supplemented by visual observatories in the Crimea, Caucasus and Leningrad.

For the moon programme, systems were required to follow spacecraft over half a million kilometres away. For this, a new ground station was constructed and it was declared operational on 23rd September 1958, just in time for the first Soviet lunar probe. Yevgeni Boguslavsky, deputy chief designer of the Scientific Research Institute of Radio Instrument Building, NII-885, was responsible for setting up the ground station. It was located in Simeiz, at Kochka Mountain in the Crimea close to the Crimean Astrophysical Observatory of the Physical Institute of the USSR Academy of Sciences. His choice of the Crimea was a fateful one, for all the main subsequent Soviet observing stations came to be based around there, including the more substantial subsequent interplanetary communications network. Boguslavsky obtained the services of military unit #32103 for the construction work and it was sited on a hill facing southward onto the Black Sea. Sixteen helice aerials were installed, turning on a cement tower. A backup station was also built in Kamchatka on the Pacific coast.

Although the station was declared operational, the people working there might have taken a different view, for the ground equipment was located in trailers, ground control was in a wooden barrack hut, many of the staff lived in tents and food was supplied by mobile kitchen. All of this cannot have been very comfortable in a Crimean winter.

The Soviet Union also relied on a 24 m parabolic dish radio telescope in Moscow and the receiver network used for the first three Sputniks. Pictures of the first missions – which indicated a location ‘near Moscow’ – showed technicians operating banks of wall computers and receiving equipment, using headphones, tuners and old-fashioned spool tape recorders, printing out copious quantities of telex. Presumably, they didn’t wish to draw the attention of the Americans to their new facilities on the Black Sea and this remained the case until 1961, by which time it was guessed, correctly, that the Americans had found out anyway.


Early tracking dish, Crimea