Category Soviet and Russian Lunar Exploration


The Soviet space programme before Sputnik was the coming together of a number of diverse bodies, people, institutes and traditions. Going to the moon, Earth’s nearest celestial neighbour, had always been a part of this idea.

The Soviet space programme actually stretched back into Tsarist times. Its chief visionary was a deaf schoolteacher, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935). He was a remarkable man who carried out space experiments in his home, drew designs for interstellar spacecraft, calculated rocket trajectories (Tsiolkovsky’s formula is still taught in mathematics) and wrote science fiction about the exploration of the solar system. Rocketry was little encouraged under the tsars – indeed, another early de­signer, Nikolai Kibalchich, was executed in 1881 for turning his knowledge of explosives to use in an assassination plot.

The 1920s became the golden age of theoretical Soviet cosmonautics. Popular societies blossomed, exhibitions were held, science fiction was published, an encyclo­paedia of space travel issued. It was rich in theoretical, practical and popular work. Friedrich Tsander and Alexander Shargei (AKA Yuri Kondratyuk) outlined how spacecraft could fly to the moon and Mars. Popular societies were set up to popularize space travel and exhibitions were held. In St Petersburg, the Gas Dynamics Labora­tory (GDL) was set up in the old St Peter and Paul Fortress. It attracted the brightest Russian chemical engineer of the century, Valentin Glushko and here the first static Russian rocket engines were developed. Glushko, born 20th August 1908 (os), was a precocious young engineer who had built a toy rocket at age 13, corresponded with Tsiolkovsky in 1923 and wrote his own first contributions on spaceflight in 1924. He joined the original rocket engine design bureau in Russia, the Gas Dynamics Labora­tory, in 1925 and was given his own subdivision in 1929, when he was just over 20 years old. The following year, Glushko began his first experiments with nitric acid fuels and developed new ways of insulating rocket engines through exotic materials like zirco­nium. 1931 found him working on self-igniting fuels, swivelling (gimballing) engines and high-speed turbine pumps.

Alexander Shargei addressed some of the key questions of lunar missions in The conquest of interplanetary space (1929). He put forward the notion that, in landing on the moon or planets, the landing stage should be left behind and used as a launching


Valentin Glushko, chief designer

pad for the returning spacecraft. He suggested that it would be more economical to land on a moon or planet from an orbit, rather than by a direct descent. He outlined how explorers from the moon and planets could return by using the Earth’s atmo­sphere to break their speed through reentry. In 1930, the elderly Konstantin Tsiol – kovsky was advisor to a film called Kosmicheskoye putechestviye (Space journey), a Mosfilm spectacular in which spacesuited Soviet cosmonauts travelled weightless to the moon (the actors were suspended on wires to simulate zero gravity) and then walked its surface.

This flourishing of theory, practice and literature came to an abrupt and gro­tesque end in 1936 with the start of the great purges. The head of the army’s rocket programme, Marshal Tukhachevsky, was seized, charged with treason and shot, all within a matter of hours. Sergei Korolev was sent off to the gulag and Glushko was put under arrest for six years. The leaders of GDL, Langemaak and Kleimenov, were shot. Most other engineers were put under house arrest and very few escaped the wrath of Stalin in some shape or form (lucky Tikhonravov was one of them). The amateur societies were closed down. Fortunate was Tsiolkovsky not to see all this, for he died in old age in 1935.

The survivors of the Gulags were let out – or kept under a relaxed form of arrest – to contribute to the war effort. Rocketeers now put their talents to work in aircraft design to win the war against Germany. Their real shock came in 1944 when they learned of the progress made by Germany in rocket design. Mikhail Tikhonravov was one of a team of Russian scientists to visit Poland in August 1944 behind then rapidly retreating German lines. They went there on foot of intelligence reports sent to Britain which indicated that Germany was developing a rocket weapon. Following the RAF attack on the main German launch site at Peenemunde, Germany had moved testing to an experimental station in Debica, Poland, near the city of Krakow. Polish agents had found the launch and impact sites there and had managed to salvage the remains of the rocket, including, crucially, the engine. British prime minister Winston Church­ill asked Stalin to facilitate access by British experts to the site, though this meant of course that Stalin’s experts would benefit equally from what they found. They found that Germany had stolen a march on them all and under the guidance of their chief designer, Wernher von Braun, had launched the world’s first real ballistic rocket, the A-4, on 3rd October 1942. A month after Tikhonravov’s visit to Poland, the first A-4s were fired as a military weapon. Over 1944-5, the A-4, renamed the V-2, was used to bombard London and Antwerp. The Germans had also moved ahead with sophis­ticated guided missiles (like the Schmetterling) and anti-aircraft missiles (like the Wasserfall) and were far advanced in a range of related technologies. In early 1945, the Red Army swept into the development centre of the A-4, the Baltic launch site of Peenemunde.


The 3rd August 1964 resolution On work involving the study of the moon and outer space should have settled the Soviet moon plan. On the surface of things, it not only set the key decisions (lunar landing, around the moon) but the method all in one go. By contrast, the Americans had decided how to go to the moon in two stages, taking the decision in May 1961 and settling on the method, LOR, in autumn 1962.

In reality, the decision of August 1964 settled much less than it appeared. Many of the parties involved continued to fight for the decisions of August 1964 to be remade. Korolev would not accept the allocation of the around-the-moon project to Chelomei and spent much of 1965 trying to win it back to his own design bureau, with some success. For his part, Chelomei began to present the UR-700 as an alternative to the rocket designated for the moon landing, Korolev’s N-1.


Mikhail Tikhonravov at retirement

Whereas the Americans had debated between Earth orbit rendezvous, lunar orbit rendezvous and direct ascent, the debate in Russia was over which rocket to use: Korolev’s N-l; Chelomei’s UR-700; or Mikhail Yangel’s R-56. Despite the govern­ment decision of August 1964, these were still in contention.

Russia’s three ways to go

Korolev design bureau (OKB-1) N-l

Chelomei design bureau (OKB-52) UR-700

Yangel design bureau (OKB-586) R-56

Korolev’s N-l

Korolev had originally planned the N-l as a rocket which would send large spaceships unmanned, then manned, on a flyby of Mars. The concept of the N-l dated to the period 1956-7 and was refined over the next number of years by Mikhail Tikhon­ravov, Gleb Yuri Maksimov and Konstantin Feoktistov. Whereas the R-7 could lift four tonnes into Earth orbit and was a huge advance in its day, the N-l was designed as a great leap forward to put 50 tonnes into orbit. Early designs assumed that the N-l would be used for the assembly of a manned Mars expedition in Earth orbit. This would be for a Mars flyby, rather than a landing, much like Korolev’s early designs for the moon. The 50 tonnes were gradually revised upward to 75 tonnes. Several such Mars proposals were developed in OKB-1 over 1959-67, based first around the assembly of 75-tonne interplanetary spaceships in Earth orbit [6].

N-1 was now adapted for a manned flight to the moon, though designers kept, in their bottom drawer, plans to redevelop the N-1 for a Mars mission, the N-1M. Korolev completed his design for the lunar N-1 on 25th December 1964.

The N-1 concept was reshaped around lunar orbit rendezvous, the same tech­nique as that used by the Americans, although there were some differences in the precise detail. In the early stages, a double N-1 launch was considered necessary, with Earth orbit rendezvous preceding the flight to the moon, but this was seen as too complex, not essential and was eventually dropped. The tall N-1 was similar in dimensions to the American Saturn V, being almost exactly the same height. Unlike the Saturn V, the N-1 used conventional fuels (liquid oxygen and kerosene), which required a large number of engines of modest thrust, 30 altogether. The performance of the N-1 was inferior, able to send only two men to the moon and put only one on its surface.


Neither the Russians, Americans, British nor French were under any misapprehen­sions about the achievement of von Braun and his colleagues. Each side dispatched its top rocket experts to Germany to pick over the remains of the A-4. For one brief moment in time, all the world’s great rocket designers were within a few kilometres of each another. Von Braun was there, though busily trying to exfiltrate himself to America. For the Soviet Union, Valentin Glushko, Sergei Korolev, Vasili Mishin, Georgi Tyulin and Boris Chertok. For the United States, Theodor von Karman, William Pickering and Tsien Hsue Shen (who eventually became the founder of the Chinese space programme). Later in 1945, Britain was to fire three V-2s over the North Sea. Britain’s wartime allies were invited to watch. The British admitted one ‘Colonel Glushko’ but they refused admittance to another ‘Captain Korolev’ because his paperwork was not in order and he had to watch the launching from the perimeter fence. The British were not fooled by these civilians in military uniforms, for they could give remarkably little account of their frontline experience (or wounds) in the course of four years’ warfare.

Korolev and Glushko returned to Russia where Stalin put them quickly to work to build up a Soviet rocket programme. The primary aim was to develop missiles and if the engineers entertained ambitions for using them for space travel, they may not have kept Stalin so fully informed. The rocket effort was reorganized, a series of design bureaux being created from then onwards, the lead one being Korolev’s own, OKB-1. Glushko was, naturally, put in charge of engines (OKB-456). In 1946, the Council of Designers was created, Korolev as chief designer. This was a significant development, for it included all the key specialisms necessary for the later lunar programme: engines (Valentin Glushko), radio systems (Mikhail Ryazansky), guidance (Nikolai Pilyugin), construction (Vladimir Barmin) and gyros (Viktor Kuznetsov). In 1947, the Russians managed to fire the first of a number of German A-4s from a missile base, Kapustin Yar, near Stalingrad on the River Volga. The Russian reverse-engineered version was called the R-1 (R for rocket, Raket in Russian) and its successors became the basis for the postwar Soviet missile forces. Animals were later launched on up-and-down missions on later derivatives, like the R-5.

The significant breakthrough that made possible the development of space travel was an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). In the early 1950s, as the Cold War intensified, the rival countries attempted to develop the means of delivering a nuclear payload across the world. The ICBM was significant for space travel because the lifting power, thrust and performance required of an ICBM was similar to that required for getting a satellite into orbit. In essence, if you could launch an ICBM, you could launch a satellite. And if you could launch a satellite, you could later send a small payload to the moon.

Approval for a Soviet ICBM was given in 1953. An ICBM in the 1950s was a step beyond the A-4, as much as the A-4 of the 1940s was a step beyond the tiny amateur rockets of the 1930s. Korolev was the mastermind of what became known as the R-7 rocket. It was larger than any rocket built before. It used a fuel mixture of liquid oxygen and kerosene, a significant improvement on the alcohol used on the German A-4. Its powerful engines were designed and built by Valentin Glushko, whose own design bureau, OKB-456, was now fully operational. The real breakthrough for the R-7 was that in addition to the core stage with four engines (block A), four stages of similar dimensions were grouped around its side (blocks B, V, G and D). This was


called a ‘packet’ design – an idea of Mikhail Tikhonravov dating to 1947 when he worked for NII-4. No fewer than 20 engines fired at liftoff. Work began on this project over 1950-3.

The new rocket required a new cosmodrome. Kapustin Yar was too close to American listening bases in Turkey. A new site was selected at Tyuratam, north of a

bend in the Syr Darya river, deep in Kazakhstan. The launch site was called Baiko- nour, but this was a deliberate deception. Baikonour was actually a railhead 280 km to the north, but the Russians figured that if they called it Baikonour and if nuclear war broke out, the Americans would mistakenly target their warheads on the small, undefended unfortunate railway station to the north rather than the real rocket base. Construction of the new cosmodrome started in 1955, the labourers living and work­ing in primitive and hostile conditions. Their first task was to construct, out of an old quarry, a launch pad and flame pit. The first pad was built to take the new ICBM, the R-7.

Scientific direction for the space programme was provided by the Academy of Sciences. The Academy dated back to the time of Peter the Great. Following the European tradition, he established a centre of learning for Russia’s academic com­munity in St Petersburg. This had survived the revolution, though now it was renamed the Soviet Academy of Sciences. For the political leadership’s point of view, the Academy provided a visible and acceptable international face for a space programme that had its roots in military imperatives. The chief expert on the space programme within the Academy of Sciences was Mstislav Keldysh, a quiet, graying, mathematical academician. Mstislav Keldysh was son of Vsevolod M. Keldysh (1878-1965), one of the great engineers of the early Soviet state, the designer of the Moscow Canal, the Moscow Metro and the Dniepr Aluminium Plant. Young Mstislav was professor of aerohydrodynamics in Moscow University, an academician in 1943 at the tender age of 32 and from 1953 director of the Institute of Applied Mathematics. Following Stalin’s death, he had introduced computers into Soviet industry. He was on the praesidium of the Academy from 1953, won the Lenin Prize in 1957 and later, from 1961 to 1975, was academy president. He was the most prestigious scientist in the Soviet Union, though he made little of the hundreds of awards with which he was showered in his lifetime. His support and that of the academy for Korolev and Tikhonravov was to become critical.

In the 1950s, the idea of a Russian space programme enjoyed discussion in the popular Soviet media. The golden age of the 1920s had come to an abrupt end in 1936 and talking about space travel remained dangerous as long as Stalin ruled the Kremlin. When the political environment thawed out, ideas around space travel once again flourished in the Soviet media – newspapers, magazines and film. Soviet astronomers resumed studies that had been interrupted by the war. A department of astrobotany was founded by the Kazakh Academy of Sciences and its director, Gavril Tikhov, publicized the possibililities of life on Mars and Venus. His books were wildly popular and he toured the country giving lectures.

By 1957, the key elements of the Russian space programme were in place:

• A strong theoretical base.

• Practical experience of building engines from the 1920s and small rockets from the


• A council of designers, led by a chief designer.

• A lead design bureau, OKB-1, with a specialized department, #9.

• Specialized design bureaux for all critical support areas, such as engines.

• An academy of sciences, to provide scientific direction.

• Launch sites in Kapustin Yar and Baikonour.

• Popular and political support.

• A large rocket, completing design.


[1] Gorin, Peter A: Rising from the cradle – Soviet public perceptions of space flight before Sputnik. From: Roger Launius, John Logsdon and Robert Smith: Reconsidering Sputnik – 40 years since the Soviet satellite. Harwood Academic, Amsterdam, 2000.

[2] Siddiqi, Asif: Early satellite studies in the Soviet Union, 1947-57. Part 2. Spaceflight, vol. 39, #11, November 1997.

[3] Siddiqi, Asif: The decision to go to the moon. Spaceflight,

– vol. 40, # 5, May 1998 (part 1);

– vol. 40, #6, June 1998 (part 2).

[4] Varfolomeyev, Timothy: Soviet rocketry that conquered space. Spaceflight, in 13 parts:

1 Vol. 37, #8, August 1995;

2 Vol. 38, # 2, February 1996;

3 Vol. 38, #6, June 1996;

4 Vol. 40, #1, January 1998;

5 Vol. 40, #3, March 1998;

6 Vol. 40, # 5, May 1998;

7 Vol. 40, #9, September 1998;

8 Vol. 40, #12, December 1998;

9 Vol. 41, #5, May 1999;

10 Vol. 42, # 4, April 2000;

11 Vol. 42, #10, October 2000;

12 Vol. 43, #1, January 2001;

13 Vol. 43, #4, April 2001 (referred to as Varfolomeyev, 1995-2001).

[5] Harford, Jim: Korolev – how one man masterminded the Soviet drive to beat America to the moon. John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1997.

[6] Khrushchev, Sergei: The first Earth satellite – a retrospective view from the future. From: Roger Launius, John Logsdon and Robert Smith: Reconsidering Sputnik – 40 years since the Soviet satellite. Harwood Academic, Amsterdam, 2000.

[7] Matson, Wayne R: Cosmonautics – a colourful history. Cosmos Books, Washington DC, 1994.

[8] Siddiqi, Asif: The challenge to Apollo. NASA, Washington DC, 2000.


The full designs of the UR-700 and the R-56 have not been fully revealed, though it is now possible to speculate with accuracy what they may have been like [7]. Like the N-1, the R-56 offered a minimalist lunar mission, with a lunar-bound payload of 30 tonnes. Chief designer was Mikhail Yangel. Born in Irkutsk on 25th October 1911 (os), he was a graduate of the Moscow Aviation Institute and after the war worked in Korolev’s OKB-1. In 1954, he was given his own design institute, OKB-586 in Dnepropetrovsk. A model of the R-56 now appears in the company museum and sketches have been issued. The R-56 was a three-stage rocket, 68 m long, each cluster 6.5 m in diameter. To get from the Ukraine to Kazakhstan, it would be transported by sea – but this could be done on barges from the Dnepropetrovsk factory on the inland waterway system of the Soviet Union via the Syr Darya to Tyuratam.

The principal difference between the N-1 and the R-56 was the use of engines. For the R-56, Valentin Glushko’s OKB-456, the old Gas Dynamics Laboratory, devel­oped large, high-performance engines called RD-270. For many years, it had been assumed that the Soviet Union had been unable to develop such engines, but this was not the case. Unlike the American engines, which used liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, Glushko used storable fuels. His engines used unsymmetrical dimethyl methyl hydrazine (UDMH) and nitrogen tetroxide, producing a vacuum thrust of between 640 and 685 tonnes, a specific impulse of 322 sec and a pressure of 266 atmospheres in its combustion chamber. Each RD-270 weighed 4.7 tonnes, was 4.8 m tall and could be gimballed. Valentin Glushko managed to build 22 experi­mental models of the RD-270 and 27 firings were carried out in the course of October 1967 to July 1969, all showing great promise. Three engines fired twice and one three times.

Подпись: RD-270 engine Length Diameter Pressure AY Specific impulse Weight

Подпись: Mikhail Yangel

4.85 m 3.3m

266 atmospheres


322 sec

4.77 tonnes (dry) 5.6 tonnes (fuelled)

In the event, the R-56 did not turn out to be a serious competitor. There is some suggestion that Yangel saw the damage being done by the rivalry within the Soviet space industry and did not wish to press a third project that would divert resources even further. Authority to develop the R-56 seems to have been given by the govern­ment in April 1962, but a subsequent government decision in June 1964 ordered a cessation of work.

The first moon probes

Sputnik changed everything. Most of the great historical events of our time make an immediate impact that fades over time. Sputnik was different. When the first Earth satellite was launched, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev calmly took the call from Baikonour Cosmodrome, thanked Korolev courteously and went to bed. Pravda did report the launching the next day, but well down the page, blandly headed ‘Tass communique’. In the West, the British Broadcasting Corporation announced the launching at the end of its late news bulletin, a certain vocal hesitancy indicating that neither the station nor the announcer knew exactly what to make of this strange event.

Whatever the political leadership, ordinary people knew. As Korolev and his colleagues took the long train journey back from Baikonour Cosmodrome, people came onto the platforms to stop the train and meet the engineers concerned. There was a palpable, rising air of excitement as they drew close to Moscow. By this stage, people throughout the Soviet Union were talking and chattering about this extraordinary event. The next day, Pravda made the satellite the only front-page story. Khrushchev was soon bragging about its achievements to foreign leaders.

But this was as nothing compared with the pandemonium in the United States, which ranged between the hysterical and apoplectic. There was admiration for the Soviet achievement, but it was couched in the regret that America had not been first. The Americans had been publicizing their plans to launch an Earth satellite for a number of years. Because America was the world’s leading technological country, nobody had ever suggested that the United States might not be first: the very idea was unthinkable. In fact, the Russians had also been broadcasting, very publicly and in some technical detail, their intentions of launching an Earth satellite. Although the first Sputnik was a surprise to the American people, it was not a surprise to the Soviet people, who had been expecting it and for whom space travel had achieved an acceptance within popular culture from the 1920s, renewed in the 1950s.

The first moon probes


The first Sputnik made a deep impact on ordinary Americans. The rocket body of the Sputnik entered orbit and could be seen tracking across the cooling night autumn skies of North America. The long aerials on the back of the spacecraft transmitted beep! beep! beep! signals that could be picked up by relatively simple receivers. Within months, polling found that almost all Americans had heard of the Sputnik and nearly everyone had comments to make about it.


More is known of the UR-700 [8] and in recent years the managers of the Konstantin Tsiolkovsky Museum in Kaluga helpfully put a model on display. The UR-700 would
have a thrust of 5,760 tonnes, able to put in orbit 151 tonnes, a much better per­formance than the Saturn V. It would have been a huge rocket at take-off: 74 m tall, 17.6m in diameter and a liftoff weight of 4,823 tonnes [9].

The UR-700 combined a mixture of strap-on rockets and fuel tanks (like the Proton) clustered around the core stage, with the three strap-ons jettisoned at 155 sec and the three core engines burning out at 300 sec. It was a typically ingenious Chelomei design, one building on the proven engineering achievement of the Proton. As for power, the engine in development for the R-56, the RD-270, was transferred from the R-56 to the UR-700. Chelomei’s UR-700 had a single third stage, an RD-254 engine based on the Proton RD-253.

The UR-700 was a direct ascent rocket, which Chelomei believed was safer than a profile involving rendezvous in lunar orbit. Outlines of the UR-700 moonship are available. These were for a 50-tonne cylindrical moonship with conical top entering lunar orbit, 21 m long, 2.8 m in diameter, with a crew of two. The moonship would descend to the lunar surface backwards, touching down on a series of six flat skids. The top part, 9.3 tonnes, would blast off directly to Earth, the only recovered payload being an Apollo-style cabin that Chelomei later developed for his Almaz space stations. In his design, Chelomei emphasized the importance of using multiply redundant systems, the use of N2O4/UDMH fuels, exhaustive ground testing and the construction of all equipment in the bureau before shipping to the launch site. One reason for its slow pace of development was Chelomei’s concentration on intensive ground testing [10].

Like the R-56, the UR-700 was proposed as a moon project before the decision of August 1964. The N-1 was made the approved man-on-the-moon project in August 1964 and so, in October 1964, the UR-700 was cancelled and, as we saw, work on the R-56 was also terminated. Never one to give up, Vladimir Chelomei continued to advocate his UR-700 design, even getting approval for preliminary design from the Space Ministry in October 1965, much to Korolev’s fury. The following year, Chelomei got as far as presenting designs showing how the N-1 pads at Baikonour could be converted to handle his UR-700. Chelomei formally presented the UR-700 to a government commission in November 1966 as an alter­native, better moon plan than the N-1. The government politely agreed to further research on the UR-700 ‘at the preliminary level’ (basic research only) and this was reconfirmed in February 1967. Unfazed by this, Chelomei’s blueprints for the UR-700 were signed on 21st July 1967, approved by party and government resolution # 1070­363 on 17th November 1967, three years after the N-1 had been agreed as the final moon design!

Designs for the UR-700 moonship were finalized on 30th September 1968. First launch was set for May 1972 and after a successful second unmanned flight, the third would have a crew (similar to the American Saturn V) with lunar landings in the mid- 1970s. Although a certain amount of work was done on the project in 1968, it is unclear if much was done thereafter and it does not seem as if any metal was cut. The programme was not finally cancelled until 31st December 1970. In fairness to Chelomei, he never claimed, at least at this stage, that his UR-700 could beat the Americans to the moon. It is possible he saw the UR-700 as a successor project to the

Подпись: UR-700 1st stage Length Diameter at base Weight (dry) Engines 2nd stage Length Weight (dry) Engines 3rd stage Length Engine Burn time Weight (dry) 4th stage Length Diameter Engines Weight (dry) UR-700

N-l, or one that could later be adopted if the N-l faltered. The UR-700 plan certainly had many fans, quite apart from Chelomei himself, believing it to be a much superior design to the old and cumbersome N-l. However, its reintroduction into the moon programme in late 1967 was yet another example of the rivalry, disorder, waste and chaos enveloping the Soviet moon programme.

Contrary to Western impressions that the Soviet space programme was centralized, in fact it operated in a decentralized, competitive way. Thus, in the period after the government decision of 1964, three design bureaux were at work not only designing but building rival moon projects. Again, this marked a key difference from the American programme. In the United States, rival corporations submitted proposals and bids, but only one was chosen to develop the project and build the hardware (the company concerned was called the prime contractor).

In the Soviet Union, by contrast, rival design institutes not only designed but built hardware. Decisions about which would fly were taken much later. As a result, the Soviet moon programme, and indeed other key programmes, contained several rival, parallel projects. This was something neither appreciated nor imagined to be possible in the West at the time. The rivalry between designers was at a level that could not have been conceived on the outside. At one stage, no less a person than Nikita Khrushchev

The final route decided 65

tried to mediate between Sergei Korolev and Valentin Glushko, inviting the two to his summer house for a peace summit (he was not successful).