Category Soviet and Russian Lunar Exploration


But what if Alexei Leonov had been the first man on the moon? The selection of Alexei Leonov as first man on the moon – and also to fly the first L-1 around the moon – is no surprise, for he was perhaps the leading personality of the cosmonaut squad after Yuri Gagarin himself [27].

Alexei Leonov was selected among the original group of cosmonauts in I960. A short, well-built man full of energy and good humour, he had demonstrated his personal qualities from his teenage years. Alexei Leonov came from Listvyanka, Siberia where he was born in 1934, only months after Yuri Gagarin. He was eighth in a family of nine. Listvyanka was so cold that temperatures fell to — 50°C, but the stars by night were so perfectly clear. When he was only three and in the middle of winter, his father Arkhip was declared an enemy of the people; neighbours came in and stripped their home bare and the family was evicted into the nighttime winter forest [28]. The family fled to his married sister’s home. Arkhip was cleared and later rejoined them there.

Most astronauts and cosmonauts will tell you that all they ever wanted to do in life was fly a plane or a spaceship. Not Alexei Leonov, who determined to be an artist, a painter. He enrolled in the Academy of Arts in Riga in 1953. But he was unable to afford it and applied for Air Force college. He flew MiG-15s from Kremenchug Air Force Base in the Ukraine and later flew planes along the border between the two Germanies. In 1959, he was asked to go for selection for testing new types of planes and when undergoing medical tests for this unspecified assignment he met his sub­sequent best friend, Senior Lieutenant Yuri Gagarin.

Even before his first mission, he had two brushes with death: once when his car plunged through ice into a pond (he rescued his wife and the taxi driver from under the water) and then when his parachute straps tangled with his ejector seat (he bent the frame through brute force and freed the straps). It was a surprise to no one that he was assigned an early mission and he was Korolev’s choice for the first spacewalk. To keep himself fit, in the year up to the flight he cycled 1,000 km, ran 500 km and skied 300 km. The mission, Voskhod 2, itself was full of drama. It started with triumphant success: television viewers saw him push himself away from the craft and turn head


Alexei Leonov’s spacewalk

over foot as he gave an excited commentary of what must have been a stunning spectacle. He had great difficulty trying to get back into his spaceship. Only by reducing the spacesuit pressure to danger level and by using his physical strength was he able to get back into his airlock. Then the retrorockets failed to fire so he and his pilot Pavel Belyayev had to light them manually on the following orbit. Instead of landing in the steppe, they came down far off course, their communication aerials burnt away, in the Urals. State radio and television played Mozart’s Requiem, preparing the Soviet people for the worst. Their hatch jammed against a birch tree and they could barely open it. They emerged into deep snow, tapped out a morse message calling for rescuers and drew their emergency pistol to ward off prowling wolves and bears. The cosmonauts spent two nights among the fir trees while rescue crews tried to find a way of getting them out. They lit a fire to keep warm and eventually used skis to escape their ordeal. No wonder they got a hero’s welcome when they returned. Definitely the Russian right stuff.

Alexei Leonov had an artistic bent and made many paintings of orbital flight, spacewalks, sunrises and sunsets, and spaceships landing on distant worlds. He edited


Alexei Leonov landed in a forest in the Urals

the newsletter of the cosmonaut squad, called Neptune, satirizing people and events with his cartoons. He maintained an extraordinary level of physical fitness and kept up his outdoor pursuits, like water skiing and hunting. He learned English and was inevitably popular with the Western media. Unlike Gagarin and Titov, he seemed to cause the commanding officers of the cosmonaut squad little trouble. Sergei Korolev praised him for his liveliness of mind, his knowledge, sociability and character. With that background and experience, he was ideally suited for the assignment of first man on the moon and, indeed, first man around the moon before that. Certainly, had he got there, the moon landing would have been well illustrated as a result. Even from his spacewalk he had generated a substantial repertoire of paintings, books and films. Unlike Neil Armstrong, who retreated for many years into academia, the extroverted Alexei Leonov would have done much to tell of his experience thereafter.

Even though Alexei Leonov did not make it to the moon, the rest of his space career was full of incident. In June 1971, he was slated to command the second mission to the Salyut space station. His flight engineer, Valeri Kubasov, was pulled only two days before the flight because of a health problem and the entire crew was replaced, despite Leonov’s voluble protests. His comments became muted when the entire replacement crew was killed on returning to Earth: a depressurization valve opened in the vacuum instead of during the final stages of the return to Earth. He had cheated death again. In 1975, Leonov was the obvious choice for the joint Apollo-Soyuz mission. Leonov was the star of the show, a gracious host to the Americans on board Soyuz, cracking jokes and presenting the Americans with cartoons and souvenirs. The


Alexei Leonov splashdown-training in the Black Sea


Oleg Makarov

Americans described him as ‘a really funny guy who also knows how to get us to work’. Alexei Leonov made general, was appointed commander of the cosmonaut squad from 1976 to 1982 and was a senior figure in Star Town until 1991. He still lives there, moving on to become president of one of Russia’s biggest banks.

What of his companion for both missions, Oleg Makarov? Oleg Makarov was born in the village of Udomlya, in the Kalinin region near Moscow, on 6th January 1933 into an Army family. Oleg Makarov graduated as an engineer from the Moscow Baumann Higher Technical School in 1957 and worked in OKB-1 straight after. Makarov was centrally involved in the design of the control systems for Vostok, Voskhod and Soyuz, including Vostok’s control panel. He was selected in the 1966 group of civilian engineers appointed to the cosmonaut squad by chief designer Vasili Mishin. Several members of this group were fast-tracked into mission assignments, and it shows that Mishin and the selectors must have thought much of him to appoint him straight away to the first moon crew with Leonov.

In the event, Oleg Makarov did get to fly into space a number of times. His first mission was to requalify the Soyuz after the disaster of June 1971. With Vasili Lazarev, he put the redesigned spaceship, Soyuz 12, through its paces in a two- day mission. The two were assigned to a space station mission in April 1975. This went badly wrong, the rocket booster tumbling out of control. They managed to separate their Soyuz 18 spaceship from the rogue rocket and after 400 sec of weight­lessness made the steepest ballistic descent in the history of rocketry, the G meter jamming when they briefly reached 18 G. Their spacecraft tumbled into a nighttime valley on the border with China and they waited some time for rescue. Soyuz came down in snow, in temperatures of —7°C, the parachute line snagging on trees at the edge of a cliff. The Western media alleged that the cosmonauts had died, so on his


Valeri Bykovsky parachuting

return Makarov was sent out to play football with them to prove he was still alive. Oleg Makarov returned to space twice more. In 1978, he participated in the first ever double link-up with a space station, Salyut 6. Oleg Makarov flew again on an uneventful two-week repair mission to Salyut 6 in a new spaceship, the Soyuz T, in 1980. He died on 28th May 2003, aged 70. His obituary duly acknowledged the role he had played in the L-1 and L-3 programmes over 1965-9. Of a quieter disposition than Leonov, his technical competence must have been very evident and he would clearly have been a good selection.

What about the second crew, Valeri Bykovsky and Nikolai Rukhavishnikov? They too were slated for the second around-the-moon mission. Valeri Bykovsky was drawn from the 1960 selection with Yuri Gagarin and was given the fifth manned space mission, Vostok 5. He flew five days in orbit, three in formation with the Soviet Union’s first women cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova. A quiet and confident man, the same age as Gagarin (born in 1934), he was a jet pilot and later a parachute instructor. He would often volunteer to test out training equipment and was the first person to try out the isolation chamber for a long period. Bykovsky left the moon group for a brief period to head up the Soyuz 2 mission, scheduled for launch on 24th April 1967, but cancelled when the first Soyuz got into difficulties. It took some time for Bykovsky to get another mission, not doing so until 1976, when he flew a solo Soyuz Earth observation mission (Soyuz 22) and then led a visiting mission to the Salyut 6 space station (Soyuz 31, 1978). After his last mission, he became director of the Centre of Soviet Science & Culture in what was then East Berlin.

Nikolai Rukhavishnikov was one of the best regarded designers of OKB-1. An intense, dedicated, serious-looking man, he came from Tomsk in western Siberia, where he was born in 1932. His parents were both railway surveyors, so he spent much of his youth on the move, living a campsite life. His secondary education was in Mongolia, and from 1951 to 1957 studied in the Moscow Institute for Physics and Engineering, specializing in transistors. Within a month of graduation, he had joined OKB-1, concentrating on automatic control systems. For the translunar mission, he


Nikolai Rukhavishnikov

planned experiments in solar physics. When the circumlunar and landing missions were delayed, he was assigned to the Salyut space station programme, being research engineer on the first mission there, Soyuz 10. Nikolai Rukhavishnikov was next selected for the Apollo-Soyuz test project, flying the dress rehearsal mission with Anatoli Filipchenko in 1974. Nikolai Rukhavishnikov was the first civilian to be given command of a Russian space mission, Soyuz 33. This went wrong, the engine failing as it approached the Salyut 6 station. Rukhavishnikov had to steer Soyuz through a hazardous ballistic descent. ‘I was scared as hell’, he admitted later. He later con­tributed to the design of the Mir space station and died in 1999.

And what about the others? The third lunar landing crew was Pavel Popovich and Vitally Sevastianov. The two of them had worked closely on the Zond 4 mission, their voices being relayed to the spacecraft in transponder tests. Pavel Popovich came from the class of 1960, an Air Force pilot based in the Arctic. He made history in 1962 when his Vostok 4 took him into orbit close to Vostok 3 on the first group flight. An extrovert like Leonov, extremely popular, he had a fine tenor voice and sang his way through his time off in orbit. His first wife Marina was also well known, being an ace test pilot. Later, he was given command of Soyuz 14, making the first successful Soviet occupation of an orbital station, the Salyut 3. Later he became a senior trainer in the cosmonaut training centre. Vitally Sevastianov was a graduate of the Moscow Avia­tion Institute and one of the teachers of the first group of cosmonauts, specializing in celestial physics. In between his own lunar training, he ran his own television pro­gramme, a science show called Man, the Earth and the Universe. He was one of the first of the moon group to get a mission once it became clear that there would be no early flight around the moon or landing. Vitally Sevastianov was assigned to Soyuz 9 in 1970 and later got a space station mission, 63 days on board Salyut 4 in the summer of


Pavel Popovich

1975, setting a Soviet record. Later, he became a leading member of the Communist Party in the Russian parliament, the Duma.

The fate of the Soviet around-the-moon and landing team makes for a number of contrasts with the American teams. For most of the American Apollo astronauts who went to the moon, the experience was the climax of their spaceflight careers and many retired from the astronaut corps soon thereafter. For the Russians, the lunar assign­ment was a brief period during their cosmonaut career. Although crews were named, formed and re-formed, none got close to a launch and the training experience seems to have been quite unsatisfactory. For them, the lunar assignment was short and the best of their careers was still to come. Most were quickly rotated into the manned space station programme where they went on to achieve much personal and professional success. Alexei Leonov would have made a dramatically different first man on the moon from Neil Armstrong.


Vitally Sevastianov

Return to the moon

The cancellation of Luna 25 in 1977 marked the end of the Russian programme of lunar exploration. Nevertheless, the chief designer of the Soviet space programme was not ready to give up completely on a manned flight to the moon, for Valentin Glushko persisted with dreams for lunar exploration, presenting his last set of ideas in 1986, just three years before his death.


Strangely enough, the suspension of the N-1 programme in 1974 did not mean the final end of the Soviet manned moon programme. The new chief designer, Valentin Glushko, announced that the whole space programme would be reappraised and a fresh start made in reconsidering strategic objectives. The only definite decision was that the N-1 would not fly for the time being, if at all. Glushko set up five task forces, one of which was headed by Ivan Prudnikov to develop the idea of a lunar base and another the idea of a new heavy-lift launcher. Glushko personally began to sketch a new series of heavy launchers called the RLAs, or Rocket Launch Apparatus, capable of putting 30, 100 and 200 tonnes into orbit respectively.

When the Politburo met in August 1974, it actually reaffirmed the general objective of Soviet manned missions to the moon. Ivan Prudnikov duly completed, by the end of that year, the plans for a lunar base. The base was called Zvezda, or ‘star’ and featured teams of cosmonauts working on the moon for a year at a time, supplied by the new, proposed heavy-lift rocket. Their proposals were formally tabled, along with the outcome of the four other task forces, in 1975. Design of a heavy-lift launcher appropriately called Vulkan, able to deliver 60 tonnes to lunar orbit, was sketched out. In an abrupt turnaround, Vulkan would be powered with hydrogen fuel, the one system Glushko refused to develop for Korolev. Glushko even designed new hydrogen-fuelled engines, the RD-130 and RD-135, the latter with a specific impulse

of no fewer than 450 sec. A lunar expeditionary craft or LEK was designed, not that different from the long-stay lander of Mishin’s N1-L3M plan.

Although Glushko put his full force behind Zvezda, it attracted little support overall and none from the military at all. Crucially, the president of the Academy of Sciences, Mstislav Keldysh, would not back it. He was never a close friend of Glushko and was wary of the extravagance of the project. The cost, estimated at 100bn roubles, was too much even for a Soviet government not normally shy of extravagant projects. Keldysh let the process of consideration of the project exhaust itself so that it would run out of steam [1]. Glushko tried to save some face with a scaled-down project, but this won little support either. The basic problem was that Glushko had replaced a real rocket (the N-1) and a real programme (N1-L3M), both with diminishing political support, with a theoretical rocket (Vulkan) and a programme (Zvezda) that had none. The Soviet leadership began to regard the Soviet manned moon programme as having been a failure, a waste, a folie de grandeur that the country could not afford. Leonid Brezhnev had a mild stroke in 1975 and decisions were taken ever more by a shifting group of ministers and generals. This was not a leadership that would take a big decision and see it through.

In the event, the most significant project to emerge from the strategic reconsidera­tion of 1974-6 was the Energiya-Buran heavy launcher and shuttle system, which was driven by military imperatives to match the American space shuttle. No one can point to a particular day or decision on which the Soviet manned moon programme died, but it withered in mid-1975 and was effectively gone by March the following year, 1976. Despite this, Valentin Glushko even once briefly returned to the moon base idea in the 1980s, outlining how a small base might be built using the Energiya rocket, but he won no support in a country entering ever more difficult economic conditions. Despite their declining political fortunes, the moon base projects reached a certain level of detail and are outlined here.


The next few months were difficult ones for the Soviet space programme. In March, the Russians could only watch as the Americans put the lunar module through its paces on Apollo 9. May 1969 saw the triumph of Apollo 10: Tom Stafford, Eugene Cernan and John Young had flown out to the moon, and Cernan and Stafford had brought the LM down to less than 14,400 m over the lunar surface in a dress rehearsal for the moon landing itself. Apollo 11 had been set for 16th July and the Americans had tested about all they reasonably could before actually touching down.

Summer 1969 was full of rumours of a last ditch Soviet effort to somehow upstage the American moon landing. By now, the first of the Lavochkin design bureau sample return missions of the Ye-8-5 series was ready. The first such moonscooper prepared for launch failed on 14th June 1969. The craft failed to even reach Earth orbit: an electrical failure prevented block D from firing. The Proton booster had now notched up eight failures in fourteen launches, nearly all of them mooncraft.

Time was running out for the Soviet challenge – whatever that was. In the West, observers realized there would be some challenge, though no one seemed sure exactly what. As July opened, the eyes of the world began to turn to Cape Canaveral and focused on the personalities of the three courageous Americans selected for the historic journey of Apollo 11 – Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin Aldrin.

At this very time, Mishin’s crews wheeled out the second N-1. An engineering model was also at the second N-1 pad at the time. Spectacular pictures show the two giants standing side by side just as the moon race entered its final days. Impressive though they must have been to the Russians gathered there, photographs of the two N-1s snapped by prying American spy satellites must have created near apoplexy in Washington where they panicked some American analysts to speculate on a desperate, last Russian effort to beat Apollo with a man on the moon.

As in February, the second N-1 carried another L-1S and a dummy LK. The intention was to repeat the February profile with a lunar orbit and return. Was consideration even given for a manned mission to lunar orbit to accompany the sample return mission from the surface? Assuming the same profile as February, the L-1S would have entered lunar orbit on 7th July, left for Earth on the 9th and been recovered on the 12th. Virtually all the officials concerned with the space programme converged on Baikonour for the launch. This was a heroic effort to stay in the moon race ahead of Apollo 11. One engineer later recounted that the frantic scenes reminded him of World War II in Stalingrad: ‘All that was missing was the German Stuka dive bombers.’

The second N-1 lifted off very late on the night of 3rd July, at 11: 18 p. m. Moscow time. Before it even left the ground, a steel diaphragm from a pulse sensor broke, entered the pump of an engine which went on fire, putting adjacent engines out of action, burning through the KORD telemetry systems and setting the scene for an explosion. KORD began to close down the affected engines: 7, 8, 19 and 20. Then an oxygen line failed, disabling engine #9. The cabling system once again disrupted, KORD shut the entire system down about 10 sec into the mission (though, for some reason, one engine continued to operate for as long as 23 sec). The N-1 began to sink back on the pad. As it did so, the top of the rocket, now 200 m above the pad, came alight at 14 sec, the escape system whooshing the L-1S cabin free just before the collapsing N-1 crashed into the base of its stand, utterly destroying the launchpad and causing devastation throughout the surrounding area. For the thousands of people watching, there was an air of surreality about it. They saw the rocket topple and fall, the fireball, the mushroom cloud but they didn’t hear a thing. Then they felt the ground shake, the wind gush over them, the thunderous deafening roar and the metal rain down on top of them. Although only a few had sheltered in bunkers, none of the others had been near enough to be injured. The explosion had the force of a small nuclear explosion, toppling cars over. The physical destruction was enormous, with windows and doors blown out for miles around and little left of the pad but smoulder­ing, gnarled girders. Part of the flame trench had even collapsed. Amazingly, the adjacent pad, with a mock N-1 rocket still installed, had survived. Even more miraculously, so had most of the crashed N-1’s own tower.

The explosion was so powerful that it triggered seismographs all over the world. Days later, an American satellite flew overhead, snapping the scorch marks and devastation. When the image was received by an analyst in Washington DC he took a sharp intake of breath, stood up and yelled at the top of his voice to all his colleagues to come over and see what he had seen.

Although a preliminary investigation had guessed the cause of the disaster within a few days, the search for further clues went on for some time and the definitive report was not released for a year. The gap between this launch and the next one would inevitably be longer, as facilities must be rebuilt. Again, the failure to go for full ground-testing had proved expensive.

To Soviet space planners it was clear that the game was nearly up. Foiled by the Apollo 8 success, frustrated by one Proton and N-1 failure after another, the past two years had been marked by one misfortune after another. Nothing seemed to go right. It was a dramatic contrast to the early days when they could do no wrong and the Americans could do no right. It was the other way round now and Apollo steamed on


What the CIA saw: the N-l pad after the explosion

from one brilliant achievement to another, dazzling the world like an acrobat who has practised a million times: except that as everyone know, NASA had not.


Preparations for the flight of Soyuz coincided with those of the Soyuz-derived L-1 cabin, which would fly a cosmonaut around the moon. The L-1 cabin was later called Zond, thus creating confusion with the engineering tests developed by Korolev as part of the interplanetary programme. Zond 1 had flown to Venus, Zond 2 to Mars, Zond 3 to the moon to test equipment for Mars and now Zond 4-8 would fill an important part in preparations to send cosmonauts around the moon.

From August 1964, the Soviet lunar programme had been divided between the around-the-moon programme (Proton, L-1/Zond) and the manned lunar landing (N-1, LOK, LK). When the State Commission on the L-1 met in December 1966, it set a date for the first manned circumlunar flight of 26th June 1967, to be preceded by four unmanned tests.

Zond was a stripped-down version of Soyuz. Its weight was 5,400 kg, length 5 m, span across its two 2 m by 3 m solar arrays 9 m, diameter 2.72 m and a habitable volume of 3.5 m3. It could take a crew of either one or two cosmonauts in its descent module. The sole engine was the 417 kg thrust Soyuz KDU-35 able to burn for about 270 sec, but it fired more thrusters than Soyuz. Its heatshield was thicker than Soyuz in order to withstand the high friction on lunar reentry at 11 km/sec. It carried an umbrella-like, long-distance, high-gain antenna and on the top a support cone, to which the escape tower was attached. Designer was Yuri Semeonov. The following were the main differences between Soyuz and L-1 Zond. Zond was:

• Smaller, without an orbital module.

• Maximum crew of two, not three.

• Instrument panel configured for lunar missions.

• Support cone at top.

• Long-distance dish aerial for communications.

• Thicker, heavier heatshield for high-speed reentry.

• Removal of docking periscope.

• Smaller solar panels.

Theoretically, Zond could take three cosmonauts; but, without an orbital module it would be tight enough for two for the 6-day mission. The mission profile was for Proton to launch Zond into a parking orbit. On the first northbound equator pass, block D would ignite and send Zond to the moon. Zond would take three days to reach the moon, swing around the farside in a figure-of-eight trajectory and take three days to come home. The spacecraft would have to hit a very narrow reentry corridor. It would use Tikhonravov’s skip technique to bounce out of the atmosphere, killing the speed and then descend to recovery. The designers decreed that there should be four successful missions out to the moon, or a simulated moon, before putting cosmonauts on board for the mission.

An important distinction between Apollo on the one hand and the Soyuz, L-1/ Zond and LOK on the other was the high level of automation on Soviet spacecraft. As noted above, the Soviet Union decided to pave the way for a manned flight around the moon with no fewer than four automatic flights that precisely flew the same profile as the intended manned spacecraft. A comparable regime would have been followed for the LOK and a series of wholly automatic tests were set for the lunar lander, the LK and the block D upper stage. The Soyuz system was designed to achieve entirely automated rendezvous and docking in Earth orbit. All this required a high level of sophistication in control and computerized systems, something the Russians were rarely given the credit for. From the start, Korolev had built a high degree of automation into spacecraft, a decision which seems to have gone unchallenged


Cosmonaut Valeri Kubasov in Zond simulator

and the early manned spaceship designs were finalized long before the first cos­monauts arrived. The head of cosmonaut training, General Kamanin, is known to have been privately critical of the high level of automation and the lack of scope given to cosmonauts to fly their own spacecraft. Zond carried the first computers used on Soviet spacecraft, the Argon series. Argon weighed 34 kg, light for its day and was the primary navigation system. It was assessed as having a reliability rate of 99.9% [12]. The Argon 11S was completed in 1968 in time for the Zond lunar missions. The cosmonauts would control the L-1 with a command system called Alfa, which had a 64-word read-write menu and 64 commands, with a choice of 4,096 words [13].

Although Zond was based on Soyuz, it had an entirely different control panel. As happened from time to time in the Soviet space programme, this came to light by accident. During the late 1970s, at a time when the Russians claimed ‘there had never been a moon race’, they released pictures of cosmonauts Vladimir Shatalaov and Valeri Kubasov in training, set against a background of what was presumed to be a Soyuz control panel. It must have escaped the censors that the control panel was entirely different from the Soyuz, with the Earth orbit orientation system taken out. The Zond control cabin comprised a series of caution and warning panels; cabin pressure, composition and electric meters; computer command systems; periscope; and translunar navigation systems.

The Soviet around-the-moon mission operated under a number of constraints, as follows:

• The moon should be high in the sky over the northern hemisphere during the outward and returning journey, so as to facilitate communications between Zond and the tracking stations, which were located on the Russian landmass.

• There should be a new moon, as viewed from Earth, with the farside illuminated by the sun. Zond should arrive at the moon when it was between 24 and 28 days old.

• The parking orbit must be aligned with the plane of the moon’s orbit.

• Reentry posed a real dilemma. Zond could reenter over the northern hemisphere, in full view of the tracking stations, but the long reentry corridor would bring the spaceship down over the Indian Ocean, where it would have to splash down. The cosmonauts would therefore be out of contact with the ground during this final phase, waiting for recovery ships to find them and pick them up.

• Alternatively, Zond could reenter over the Indian Ocean in the southern hemi­sphere, out of radio contact, but come down in the standard landing zone for Soviet cosmonauts in Kazakhstan. This offered a traditional landing on dry land, the prospect of being spotted during the descent and a quick recovery. Generally, this was the favoured approach and the one that would probably have been followed on a manned mission.

Opinions in the space programme were divided about the wisdom of splashdowns. Chief Designer Mishin was in favour, believing they presented no particular danger. Many others were against, arguing that the descent module was not very seaworthy,


The skip trajectory

was difficult to escape in the ocean and could take some time to find. They also argued against the expense involved in having a big recovery fleet at sea.

The timing for Russian around-the-moon missions around the sun-Earth-moon symmetries was therefore quite complex [14]. To meet all these requirements, there are only about six launching windows, each about three days long and a month apart, each year. There can be long periods when there are no optimum conditions. There were no optimum launch windows for Zond to the moon between January and July 1969, the climax of the moon race. The scarcity of these opportunities explains why several L-1s (e. g., Zond 4) were fired away from the moon. Although these missions caused mystery in the West, the primary Russian interest was in testing navigation, tracking and the reentry corridor. Having the moon in the sky was not absolutely necessary for these things and since it was not available anyway, they flew these missions without going around the moon.





2.7 m (base)




5,680 kg

Habitable volume



One KDU-35


AK27 and hydrazine


425 kg

Specific impulse

276 sec

Block D


13,360 kg


Oxygen and kerosene


8,500 kg

Specific impulse



5.5 m


3.7 m

Source: Portree (1995); RKK Energiya (2001)

When the L-1 Zond was wheeled out for its first test – Cosmos 146, set for 10th March 1967 – the three-stage UR-500K Proton stood over 44 m tall and must have been a striking sight. The first two tests were called the L-1P, P for ‘preliminary’ indicating that a full version of Zond would not be used and that a recovery would not be attempted. The first stage would burn for 2 min with 894 tonnes of thrust. The second stage would burn for 215 sec. The third stage would place Zond or the L-1 in low – Earth orbit in a 250 sec burn. Finally, the Korolev block D fourth stage would fire 100 sec to achieve full orbit. One day after liftoff, the fourth stage, block D, would relight on the first northbound pass over the equator to send Zond out to a simulated moon [15].

Cosmos 146 was the fifth flight of Proton and the first with a block D. The block D’s single 58M engine had 8.7 tonnes of thrust and burned for 600 sec, enough to accelerate the payload to 11km/sec. In the event, block D successfully accelerated the cabin to near-escape velocity, with Cosmos 146 ending up in an elliptical high orbit reaching far out from Earth (though its ultimate path was not precisely determined). Signals and communications tests were carried out. This was an en­couraging start to the L-1 programme, setting it on course for the first lunar circumnavigation by the target date of June 1967. Then the landing missions could get under way [16].

Cosmos 154 on 6th April 1967 was designed to repeat the mission to a simulated moon. This time the BOZ ignition assurance device failed during the ascent to orbit and was not in a position to control the block D stage for the simulated translunar burn, which could not now take place. This was a setback, now made worse by the crash of the related Soyuz spacecraft 20 days later and which raised questions about Zond’s control and descent systems. Zond’s parachute system was retested. When two such tests took place in Feodosiya in the Crimea, in June, the parachute lines snarled. Modifications took all summer. The programme underwent a thorough safety review in early September, being reviewed by an expert commission with nine working groups. Although Russia would have loved to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the revolution with a flight around the moon that November, the chances of doing so safely slipped further and further into the distance.

Working overtime, the designers and launch teams got the third L-1 Zond out to the pad by mid-September 1967. The countdown began for a launch on 28th Sep­tember. The aim was to fly the L-1 Zond out to the moon and return for recovery at cosmic velocity, 11 km/sec, coming down 250 km north of Dzhezhkazgan on 4th October (or failing that in the Indian Ocean). The huge red-and-white Proton booster, weighing a record 1,028,500 kg, Zond cabin atop, tipped by a pencil spear of an escape tower, was taking with it Russia’s moon hopes. It sat squat on its giant pad, shrouded by its gantry, as engineers fussed with one technical problem after another. Yet it all went wrong. One of the six engines in the first stage of Proton failed to operate when a rubber plug was dislodged into the fuel line. At 60 sec the rocket veered off course and impacted 65 km downrange, but the Zond cabin was dragged free by the escape system. The cabin was found intact the next morning, though recovering it was difficult, for the toxic burning remains of Proton were all round about.

For the anniversary of the Revolution, the Russians were left with carrying out the mission that had been intended for Soyuz that April, but now without cosmonauts on board. What happened was important for the lunar programme, but not the kind of event that would bring throngs of excited crowds out onto the streets. Cosmos 186 was first to appear, beginning a series of flights that would requalify Soyuz for manned flight once more. It went up on 27th October and was followed three days later by Cosmos 188. Using totally automatic radar, direction-finding and sounding devices, Cosmos 186 at once closed in on 188 in the manoeuvre Komarov was to have carried out in April. The rendezvous and docking manoeuvres that followed went remarkably smoothly, although the double mission was plagued with other difficulties later. At orbital insertion, 188 was only 24 km away from its companion. Cosmos 186 closed rapidly, within two-thirds of an orbit. One hour later, over the South Pacific, they clunked together to form an automatic orbiting complex and 3.5 hours later they separated. Cosmos 186 was recovered the next day and 188 was deorbited on the 2nd November (it was blown up when it came down off course). Although not visually impressive to a spectacular-weary public, it was a display of advanced robotics. It proved the feasibility of first-orbit rendezvous, the viability of Soyuz-style docking and took some of the fears out of lunar orbit rendezvous when all this would have to be done a third of a million kilometres away.

However, the elation surrounding the Cosmos 186-188 mission was followed by a disheartening experience three weeks later. The next attempt to launch Zond, the fourth, was made very early on 23rd November and was aimed at a lunar flyby and recovery. The first stage behaved perfectly, but four seconds into the second-stage burn, one of the four engines failed to reach proper thrust. The automatic control system closed down the other three engines and the emergency system was activated. The landing rockets fired prematurely during the descent and the parachute failed to detach after landing, but the scratched and battered cabin was recovered. Proton itself crashed 300 km from where it took off.

The next L-1 Zond, the fifth, got away successfully on 2nd March, 1968. This time the UR-500K Proton main stages and block D worked perfectly. Zond 4 was fired 354,000km out to the distance of the moon, but in exactly the opposite direction to the moon, where its orbit would be minimally distorted by the moon’s gravitational field. The primary purpose of the mission was to test the reentry at cosmic velocity, so going round the moon itself was not essential. Cosmonauts Vitally Sevastianov and Pavel Popovich used a relay on Zond 4 to speak to ground control in Yevpatoria, Crimea.

The Zond 4 mission was not trouble-free and the first problems developed out­bound. The planned mid-course correction was aborted twice because the astro – navigation system lost its lock on the reference star. When the correction did take place, it was extremely accurate and no more corrections were required. Zond 4 was supposed to dive into the atmosphere to 45 km, before skipping out to 145 km before making its main reentry. The tracking ship off West Africa, the Ristna, picked up signals from Zond indicating that the skip manoeuvre had failed and that it would make a steep ballistic descent, bringing it down over the Gulf of Guinea. On the insistence of the defence minister, Dmitri Ustinov, who was afraid that it might fall into foreign hands, the spacecraft was pre-programmed to explode if it made such a descent. Accordingly, Zond 4 was blown apart 10 km over the Gulf of Guinea. Not everyone was in agreement with this extreme approach to national security. It transpired that Zond 4 was actually 2 km from dead of centre in its reentry corridor (the tolerance was 10 km), but that a sensor had failed, preventing the skip reentry.

Some consolation could be drawn from a repeat of the Cosmos link-up of the previous winter. On 15th April 1968, Cosmos 212 (the active ship) linked to Cosmos 213, this time in a record 47min. Television showed the last 400m of the docking manoeuvre as they aligned their wing-like panels one with another. Millions saw the separation 3 hr 50 min later over the blue void of the Pacific.


Rendezvous in Earth orbit

By the end of April 1968, the problems experienced by Zond 4 had been cured and the time was ready to try the first circumlunar flight to a ‘real’ moon this time. Launch took place on 23rd April. Unfortunately, 195 sec into the mission, the escape system triggered erroneously, shutting down all the Proton engines and flinging the Zond capsule clear, saving the cabin which came down 520 km away, but thereby wrecking the mission in the process. A replacement mission was planned for 22nd July, but in a bizarre pad accident in which at least one person died, block D and the L-1 toppled over onto the launch tower. Extracting the stages without causing an explosion took several nail-biting days. Further launchings were then postponed till the autumn.

The early L-1 Zond missions

10 Mar 1967 Cosmos 146

8 Apr 1967 Cosmos 154 (fail)

28 Sep 1967 Failure

23 Nov 1967 Failure

4 Mar 1968 Zond 4

23 Apr 1968 Failure

Requalification of Soyuz

27 Oct 1967 Cosmos 186

30 Oct 1967 Cosmos 188

14 Apr 1968 Cosmos 212

15 Apr 1968 Cosmos 213


By the 21st, Luna 16 had spent a full day on the moon. There was still no official indication as to its purpose. Jodrell Bank reported still more strong signals. In fact, what Luna 16 was doing was checking out its exact landing coordinates so as to give the best possible return trajectory. Luna 16 had landed at the lunar equator at 56°E, the perfect place for the direct return to Earth on Dmitri Okhotsimsky’s passive trajectory. The return system would now be put to the test.

All was now set for the return of the ascent stage to Earth. The top stage of Luna 16 weighed 520 kg, with the recoverable cabin. There was one engine on the ascent stage, the KRD-61 of the Isayev design bureau. Burning 245 kg of UDMH and nitric oxide, the ascent stage had a specific impulse of 313 sec and could burn just once for 53 sec, sufficient to achieve a velocity of between 2,600 m/sec and 2,700 m/sec. A complication of the 2.9 day return flight was that – to recover the spacecraft in the normal Kazakhstan landing site – liftoff would take place out of sight from Yevpatoria: the moon would be over the Atlantic, where it could be followed by a Soviet tracking ship offshore Cuba.

Twenty-six hours after landing, explosive bolts were fired above the Luna 16 descent stage. On a jet of flame, the upper stage shot off and headed towards the white and blue Earth hanging in the distance. It headed straight up, motor still purring, building up to lunar escape velocity, its radio pouring out details from the four aerials poking out the side. The Sea of Fertility returned to the quiet it had known for eons. The descent stage was the only forlorn reminder of the brief visit. The lower stage on the moon continued to transmit signals for a couple of days until the battery ran out. Only two instruments seem to have been carried: a thermometer and radiation counter.

The returning rocket – capsule, instrument container, fuel tanks and motors – reported back from time to time as it headed for a straight nosedive reentry. These coordinates had to be as precise as possible so as to best predict the landing spot on Earth. At 48,000 km out, the tiny capsule separated from the instrument and rocket package, plunged into the upper atmosphere, glowed red and then white as tempera­tures rose to 10,000°C as it hit forces of 350 G. Helicopters were already in the air as a parachute ballooned out at 14,500 m. The capsule hit the ground and beacons began sending out a bright beep! beep! signal as rescuers rushed to collect the precious cargo. The mathematicians had done their job well, for Luna 16 came down 30 km from the middle of the intended recovery zone, 80 km southeast of Dzhezhkazgan, Kazakhstan.


Luna 16 stage left on the moon

The small capsule was transferred to a plane and flown at once to Moscow to the Vernadsky Institute of Geological and Analytical Chemistry for analysis. The person in charge of assessing the lunar soil was Valeri Barsukov (1928-92), subsequently to become director of the institute (1976-92). How the scientists ever got the soil container open is a mystery for the entire outer skin of the capsule may well have been welded by the intense heat of the fiery return. Once open, the grey grains of moon dust poured out – loose lumps of dark grey, blackish powder like very dark, wet beach sand. It had small grains at the top and large grains at the bottom where it had begun to encounter rock.

The sample, although small (105 g), provided a considerable amount of scientific information [2]. The following were the main features: [11]


The Luna 16 cabin back on Earth

It was a tremendous triumph. The Luna 16 mission had gone perfectly from start to finish. The tricky stages of soft-landing, drilling and take-off were just like the book said they should be. ‘It’s the decade of the space robot!’ heralded the Soviet press. The USSR made great play of how such flights were cheaper than manned flights like Apollo, how they did not expose humans to danger and how versatile space robots could land just about anywhere.


Luna 16 recovery


Luna 16 moonrock

For NASA and Western observers the real significance of Luna 16 lay elsewhere: it confirmed what many, but not all of them, had suspected was Luna 15’s real purpose, namely that it was a real challenge to Apollo 11a year earlier. Russia did have good grounds to celebrate Luna 16. Some of the remarks about its low cost and versatility were exaggerated and Luna 16’s sample of 105 g was tiny com­pared with Apollo, each mission of which brought back well over 20 kg. Luna 16 did not have the same capacity to search around for and select samples as the men of Apollo, for the arm would set the drill into the nearest piece of adjacent surface regardless. The Russians later exchanged 3g of Luna 16 samples for 3g each from Apollo 11 and 12. Many years later, the Russians sold 2 mg of soil at Sotheby’s in New York, fetching an out-of-the-world price of $442,500. The results of the soil analysis were published in a number of scientific papers over the following years.


When Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins returned from the moon, television viewers were amazed to see the returning heroes wrapped up in biological suits with masks and unceremoniously ushered into what looked like a camper caravan. The purpose was a serious one: to ensure that they were not contaminated with lunar soil that might in turn affect other Earthlings. The caravan was transferred to Houston where the astronauts spent the rest of their three-week quarantine.

The USSR developed a similar series of precautions and its own isolation unit. Lunar soil samples were to be received in the Vernadsky Institute of Geological and Analytical Chemistry, but a small lunar isolation unit was built in Star Town. In the Vernadsky institute, a two-floor room was set aside with two cylindrical glovebox units, each with four large viewing ports.

The opportunity to use the Soviet isolation unit came in 1970, following the mission of Soyuz 9. This was a two-man spaceflight designed to push back the then Soviet endurance record of five days and pave the way for the first Soviet space station, Salyut, due in 1970. The cosmonauts chosen, veteran Andrian Nikolayev and new­comer Vitally Sevastianov, spent 17 days in the small Soyuz cabin in June 1970.

Soon after landing, the cosmonauts were transferred to the isolation unit in Star Town by way of Vnukuvo Airport and not let out till 2 July, two weeks later: the same period of isolation as a moon journey would require. Flight debriefing was carried out behind glass partitions: telephones and microphones were used. The isolation complex had probably cost a lot to build and this was the only use it was to get. Soviet Weekly tried to explain:

The isolation isn’t because offears that Nikolayev and Sevastianov may have brought back strange diseases from outer space! Indeed the precautions are for the opposite reason. Doctors consider it possible that protracted space flight may lower normal immunities and they are therefore making sure that the spacemen are protected from earthbound infection until they have acclimatized.

Although Soviet spaceflights subsequently grew longer and longer, the facility was never used again. In reality, there was an element of farce about the whole episode. The Soviet Weekly explanation was the exact opposite of the truth, for the ultimate purpose of the unit was precisely to prevent infection from space-borne diseases. The real aim of the unit was never publicly revealed and we do not know what became of it subsequently. The theory behind the need for Soyuz 9 isolation had already been


Mstislav Keldysh welcomes Vitally Sevastianov home after Soyuz 9

completely undermined anyway at the point of landing. Nikolayev and Sevastianov were in weak condition when they touched down and had to be assisted from their cabin. Pictures released many years later showed them being helped and comforted, and if there had been any plans to rush them into biological protection suits, they must have been quickly abandoned. Had they indeed carried the cosmic plague with them, the entire recovery team would have been quickly infected.


Moon bases had been part of Soviet thinking for some time. For Glushko, a moon base had a number of attractions. With Apollo over and the shuttle in development, there was no prospect now of the Americans establishing a moon base. By contrast, the world might be impressed by a permanent Soviet settlement on the moon. What would it have looked like?

A considerable amount of homework had already been done on moon bases. Design for a Soviet lunar base dated to the Galaktika project, approved by the government in November 1967. This mandated the study of the issues associated with lunar and planetary settlements [2]. The work was done not by one of the normal space design bodies but instead by the bureau associated with the construction of the cosmodromes, Vladimir Barmin’s KBOM. Work began in March 1968. Within the broader Galaktika programme, whose broad remit was the solar system as a whole, KBOM designed a full lunar base called Kolumb, or Columbus, constructed a full – scale habitation model and built a number of scale models, making its report as

Principles of the construction of long-term functioning lunar settlements in late 1969. KBOM designed a moon base for between four and twelve cosmonauts, working on the lunar surface for up to a year at a time. Up to nine modules might be delivered, telescoping out in length after their arrival. The study calculated that establishment of a moon base required the delivery, to the lunar surface, of about 52 tonnes of modules and equipment. Its key elements were:

• Pressurized habitation modules, buried under the regolith for protection from radiation, including a control centre.

• Construction equipment.

• Power supply centre, which could be solar, chemical or nuclear.

• Greenhouse to enrich oxygen, provide food and offer recreation.

• Logistics facilities for oxygen, water, waste disposal.

• Astronomy laboratory.

• Lunar rover, able to carry three cosmonauts across the lunar surface for up to three days to a distance of 250 km.

• Equipment for lunar exploration, such as drills and laboratory devices to examine rocks.

The western edge of the Ocean of Storms, already selected as the prime Soviet manned landing site, was nominated as the best possible location. Barmin was thanked for his work, for which he was paid 50m roubles, but cautioned that it was unlikely to be accomplished until the next century. The existence of this project was not eventually revealed until November 1987, when details were given on the Serbo-Croat and standard Chinese service of Radio Moscow’s overseas service.


Landing a cabin on the moon proved to be much more difficult than either the United States or the Soviet Union imagined. The USSR made twelve attempts, succeeding only twice. With Ranger, the Americans made three attempts, not succeeding until Surveyor 1 in June 1966. For the Russians, the main problems turned out to be the upper stage of the rocket, the translunar course and the navigation systems more than

Table 4.1. Key events in the programme of Luna 13.

No. Date Time Event

Подпись: 1 24 December 21: 01 2 24 December 21: 05.30 3 24 December 21:06-21:18 4 25 December 15:15-16:53 5 26 December 16:00-18:23 6 27 December 16:46-19:55 7 27 December 20:30-21:32 8 27-28 December 23:02-00:21 9 28 December 00:41-01:06 10 28 December 02:23-02:48 11 28 December 07:05-09:13 Landing First signal

First communication session Second communication session Third communication session Fourth communication session Fifth communication session Sixth communication session Seventh communication session Eighth communication session Ninth and last communication session

the actual landing phase itself. The Ye-6 landers were more sophisticated than the Ranger landers, being able to carry out a broader range of experiments and observa­tions. They achieved the function of determining that the soil would bear a manned spacecraft and that radiation levels on the moon were acceptable. They returned detailed close-up pictures of the moonscape.

The Ye-6 design was later put to good use when the Soviet Union came to soft – land spacecraft on Mars in 1971 (Mars 3). When the American Pathfinder successfully soft-landed on Mars in 1997, it used the airbag technique developed by the Russians in the 1960s (not that this was remembered at the time). Airbags were used for the later American Mars probes Spirit and Opportunity in 2003-4. The difficulties the Americans experienced with their Mars probes also echoed some of the frustrating difficulties experienced by the Russians in the 1960s.

Ye-6, Ye-6M series

4 Jan 1963


2 Feb 1963


2 Apr 1963

Luna 4

(missed moon)

21 Mar 1964


12 Mar 1965


(Cosmos 60, but some science data)

10 Apr 1965


9 May 1965

Luna 5


8 Jun 1965

Luna 6

(missed moon)

4 Oct 1965

Luna 7


3 Dec 1965

Luna 8


31 Jan 1966

Luna 9


21 Dec 1966

Luna 13 (Ye-6M)


Luna 13 silhouettes

Ye-6, -6M: scientific outcomes

• Density of lunar regolith similar to medium-density Earth rock, little dust, 0.8gm/cm3.

• Well able to receive a manned lunar landing vehicle.

• Radiation level of 30mrad/day, acceptable to humans.

• Moon absorbs three-quarters of cosmic radiation.

• Characterization of local landscape in two locations.

• Temperature of lunar surface, 117°C.


With the failure of the N-l, Russian hopes of mounting an effective challenge to Apollo were sinking fast. The first sample return mission in June had failed and now the second N-l. Now the gambler had only one card left to play. The second Ye-8-5 was prepared and hustled to the pad in early July. The scientists may well have expected that the Proton booster would let them down again, and it was probably to their surprise that it did not. As if to scorn the earlier run of failures, it hurtled Luna 15 moonwards at 02: 54 gmt on l3th July 1969. As had been the case the previous December, the celestial mechanics of the respective launch windows gave the Russians a slight advantage and enabled a launch ahead of Apollo. Once the launch was successful, preparations were put in train for a triumphant parade through Moscow, probably for the 26th or 27th July. An armoured car, covered in the Soviet flag and bedecked with flowers, would bring the rock samples from Vnukuvo Airport into Moscow, through Red Square, past the west gate of the Kremlin and on to the Vernadsky Institute where they would be displayed to a frenzy of the world’s press before being brought inside for analysis [7].


The Ye-8-5

Luna 15 was the first of the third-generation Ye-8 spacecraft to succeed in leaving Earth orbit. Because it was pushing the performance of the Proton rocket to the limit, it took a fairly lengthy trajectory to the moon, in the order of 103 hours, much longer than previous moon probes. It was a tense outward journey, for telemetry indicated that the ascent stage fuel tank was overheating, threatening an explosion. Only when they turned the tank away from the sun did temperatures stabilize.

The mission profile was for a four-day coast to the moon, followed by entry into a circular 100 km lunar orbit. After a day, the orbit would be altered to bring the low point down to 16 km, right over the intended landing point. After another day, the inclination would be adjusted – probably a small manoeuvre – to ensure the lander came in over its landing site at the right angle. Sixteen hours later, after 80 hours in lunar orbit, an engine dead-stop manoeuvre would take place, after which Luna 15 would be right over the landing spot and then make a gentle final descent. After touchdown, the 90 cm long drill arm would engage. Cameras would film the scene for television. After drilling down, the arm would pop the samples back in the ascent stage. After a day on the moon, at 20:54 gmt on 21st July, Luna 15 would blast Earthward for a three-day coast to Earth. Although Luna 15 would leave the moon three hours after the American lunar module, it would fly direct back to Earth. The Americans would still face several difficult hours of rendezvous manoeuvres, transfer­ring equipment, jettisoning the LM and then blasting out of lunar orbit, while all this time Luna 15 would speed Earthward. The Russians still faced a problem, for the return trajectory still took longer than Apollo 11 and would not get the moonrock back to Earth until 20: 54 on the 24th, more than two hours after Apollo would land in the Pacific. Presumably, creative news management would have been called in to present a suitable account of the return to Earth.

Appointed to direct the mission was Georgi Tyulin. Tyulin had played an important role in the early days of the Soviet space programme. A military man, he had directed the Red Army’s Katyusha rocket units in the war. In 1945, he was one of only four people to go to Cuxhaven, Germany, on a military delegation to watch the British fire a captured German V-2 over the North Sea, in the distinguished company of Sergei Korolev, Yuri Pobomonotsev and Valentin Glushko. He had masterminded the transfer east of the V-2 equipment to the launch base at Kapustin Yar on the Volga. Since then he had worked in military institutes, developing launch ranges and tracking systems, rising to lieutenant general.

Luna 15 produced the expected level of consternation in the West. Most observers thought Luna 15 could be a moon sample return mission, but doubted whether the USSR had the technological ability to pull it off. A typical view was this in the British Daily Telegraph.

While the moonshot is regarded as a last-minute attempt to detract from the American effort, it is not thought the Russians can land and bring back samples. The technical complexities are thought to be too great.

But as the Apollo 11 launching drew near – it was now only three days away – one absurd idea rivalled another. Luna 15 wouldjam Apollo 11’s frequencies. It was there to ‘spy’ on Apollo 11 – like the Russian trawlers during NATO naval exercises, presumably. It was there to report back on how the Americans did it. It was a rescue craft to bring back Armstrong and Aldrin if they got stranded. With Apollo 11 already on its way to the moon, excitement about the forthcoming moon landing reached feverish levels. Scientists, experts, engineers, anyone short of a clairvoyant was called in to the television studios to comment on every change of path or signal. Cosmonaut Georgi Beregovoi, who could always be counted on to be indiscreet, let it be known that ‘Luna 15 may try to take samples of lunar soil or it may try to solve the problem of a return from the moon’s surface.’

By 15th July, Luna 15 was exactly halfway to the moon. Jodrell Bank – invariably tracking it – said it was on a slow course to save fuel. There was more speculation as to the ulterior motives of choosing a slow course to the moon to save fuel. Sinister implications were read into the tiniest details.


The Ye-8-5 return cabin

At 10:00 on 17th July, Luna 15 braked into lunar orbit, but entered a much wider orbit than the 100 km circular path planned, one ranging instead from 240 km to 870 km. In most subsequent official accounts of the mission, the parameters of the initial orbit were not published, although the subsequent ones were. This path was far more eccentric than what had been intended, suggesting a considerable underburn at the point of insertion into lunar orbit, one in the order of 700 m/sec rather than the 810 to 820 m/sec of all its successors [8]. There was intense radio traffic from the probe, which beamed back loud signals within 20 min of coming out from behind the moon. Jodrell Bank reported back that its signals were of an entirely new type, never heard before.

Although Moscow news sources reported that everything was normal, in fact ground control was engaged in a desperate struggle to measure the unplanned orbit and find a way to get Luna 15 into its intended path. In other circumstances, this might not have presented problems, but Apollo 11’s well-publicized landing schedule was uppermost in people’s minds. On 18th July, on or around the 10th orbit, ground controllers did manage to bring Luna 15 out of its highly elliptical orbit into one of 220 km by 94 km. This was still more eccentric than the 100 km orbit intended, but the perigee was close enough. The Russians had agreed to relay details of its orbit to the Americans who were worried about its proximity to Apollo 11, and they used Apollo 8 commander Frank Borman as an intermediary. Interestingly, Mstislav Keldysh told him that Luna 15 would remain in this orbit for two days (which was what had indeed been originally intended at orbital insertion), giving an orbital period of 2 hr 35 min

(the one achieved after major orbital adjustment), but left it to NASA to calculate the altitude. Even today, there is a lack of a commonly agreed set of tables for Luna 15.

Manoeuvres of Luna 15

17 July Lunar orbit insertion: 240-870km, 2hr 46min, 126°

18 July First course correction, orbit 10: 220km by 94km, 2hr 35min, 126°

19 July Second course correction, orbit 25: 221 km by 85 km, 2hr 3.5min, 126°

20 July Third course correction, orbit 39: 85 km by 16 km, 1 hr 54min, 127°

21 July Descent, orbit 52: 16: 50 loss of signal

On 19th July, tension rose. Apollo 11, with the Apollo astronauts on board, had now slipped into lunar orbit. The world’s focus shifted to the brave men on Apollo 11 carrying out their final checks before descending to the surface of the moon. Now on its 39th orbit, Luna 15 fired its motor behind the moon to achieve the pre-landing perigee of 16 km. This was its final orbit, for at 16 km there was barely clearance over the mountain tops and was about as low as an orbit could go. The probe could only be preparing to land. The perilune was known to be over the eastern edge of the moon, not far from the Apollo landing site in the Sea of Tranquillity, but farther to the northeast, over a remarkably circular mare called the Sea of Crises. The Luna 15 mission was back on course.


02:54 Launch


13:32 Launch


10: 00 Lunar orbit insertion


13: 00 Apolune lowered to 220 km


13: 08 Perilune to 85 km

17: 22 Lunar orbit insertion


14: 16 Final orbit, perilune 16 km

[19: 00 Original scheduled landing]

20: 19 Landing on moon


15: 50 Loss of signal on landing

[20: 54 Original scheduled lunar liftoff]

17: 54 Take-off from the moon


04: 57 Leave lunar orbit



[20: 54 Original scheduled landing]

16: 50 Splashdown

Luna 15 and Apollo 11: timelines

Luna 15

Apollo 11

Note: times are gmt.

In reality, Luna 15 was now in fresh trouble. When the engineers turned the radar on at the low point of the orbit, 16 km, to verify the landing site, they got problematic readings. Although the Sea of Crises has a flat topography – some of the moon’s flattest – the radar instead indicated quite an uneven surface. Luna 15 was scheduled to land at 19: 00 that evening, the 20th, only an hour before Apollo 11’s Eagle, coming into the Sea of Crises from the north. Tyulin decided to delay the landing for 18 hours in order to retest the radar, try and get a clearer picture of the terrain and calculate the precise moment for retrofire as carefully as possible. This must have been a difficult decision for, by doing so, there was no way that Luna 15 could be back on Earth before Apollo 11. This was the first time that Russia had attempted a soft landing from lunar orbit (indeed, the same could be said for Apollo 11’s Eagle). The retrofire point had to be precisely set in altitude and location: 16 km above the surface, not more than 19 km, not less than 13 km, so as to match the capacity of the engine.

Few people gave much thought to Luna 15 for the next day as they listened in wonder to the descent of Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin to the lunar surface, agonized through the final stages of the descent and then watched the ghostly television images of the two men exploring the lunar surface. On the early evening of 21st July, Armstrong and Aldrin stood in their lunar module going through the final checks before take-off from the moon, a manoeuvre that had never been done before. Just as they did so came a final newsflash from Jodrell Bank. It was to serve as Luna 15’s epitaph:

Signals ceased at 4.50pm this evening. They have not yet returned. The retrorockets were fired at 4.46 pm on the 52nd orbit and after burning for four minutes the craft was on or near the lunar surface. The approach velocity was 480 km/hr and it is unlikely if anything could have survived.

Jodrell Bank identified the Sea of Crises as the landing spot. The dramatic conclusion to Luna 15, just as the lunar module was about to take off, made for great television drama. Imagine, though, if Luna 15 had been able to follow its original schedule, land just before Eagle and take off just afterwards: this was a script beyond the imagination of Hollywood.

Despite his caution and giving the landing his best shot, Tyulin’s Luna 15 impacted 4min into a 6 min burn when it should have still been 3,000 m above the surface. Official explanations ventured that it hit the side of a mountain. Granted that the Sea of Crises is one of the flattest maria on the moon, this seems implausible. More likely, there was a mismatch between the low point of the orbit, 16 km and the imagined surface point (a surface reference point can be difficult to calculate when there is no natural marker, like sea level on Earth). A navigation error was most likely responsible. Another explanation is that the landing motor was late in firing [9]. American military trackers kept a close watch on Luna 15, and their analysis indicated that the Russians had difficulty controlling the pitch axis on Luna 15. Thirty-five years later, their reports strangely remained ‘top secret’.

Many, mostly unconvincing reasons were advanced by the Soviet press to explain away Luna 15. One publication even had the nerve to claim that ‘if it hadn’t happened to coincide with the dramatic Apollo lunar flight, it would hardly have received a mention at all.’ So what was Luna 15 then? Just a new moon probe. A survey ship that was highly manoeuvrable. Indeed, it had a flexibility that the American moonship did not have because it could manoeuvre freely, unlike Apollo which was stuck in narrow equatorial orbit. One wonders if the author – one ‘Pyotr Petrov’ – even believed this himself.

Following the first moon landing, the original Apollo lunar exploration programme was cut back and redirected. The Russian programme, for its part, went through a prolonged and painful reorientation before eventual cancellation. The programme of unmanned lunar exploration was the only substantial part salvaged from its pro­tracted demise. The redirection of the Soviet moon programme may be divided into several phases:

• Winding down of the L-1 Zond around-the-moon programme, 1969-70.

• Testing the LK and the LOK, 1971-2.

• Cancellation of the original N-1 moon-landing programme in 1971.

• Replacement by a revised scheme of lunar exploration, 1971-4, the N1-L3M.

• Suspension of the N-1 in 1974, with its final cancellation in 1976.


The Soviet moon ship was the LOK (Luniy Orbitalny Korabl). Unlike the L-1 Zond, the LOK had a direct point of comparison with American hardware – the Apollo command-and-service module. Sixteen began construction, seven were completed and parts of four can still be found in museums. The LOK flew only once, on the fourth N-1 launch in November 1972, when it was destroyed, although the descent module was saved by the escape system. The traditional engineering view of the LOK is that it was a beefed-up Soyuz able to fly to the moon, but it was much more capable than that – a versatile lunar spaceship in its own right, a worthy contemporary to Apollo [17].

The descent module was the same as the normal Soyuz – but designed for a crew of two, not three; and with a thicker heat shield for the high reentry speed. The LOK weighed more, 3,050 kg, rather than 2,850 kg. The orbital module was similar to the normal Soyuz, but with different instrumentation, controls and many additional portholes for lunar orbit observations. The spacesuit for the moonwalk would be housed here, and it was from this module that the spacesuited cosmonaut would leave on his moonwalk to climb into the lunar module (LK) and begin the descent to the lunar surface. The orbital module had a large hatch, 90 cm, sufficiently wide to permit the cosmonaut to exit in the Kretchet lunar suit. The orbital module had a control unit for masterminding the link-up in lunar orbit after the landing and a forward-looking porthole. Rendezvous and docking would be controlled from there, not from the descent module.

Compared with Soyuz, it had a much larger skirt at the base, an additional small forward module and a docking system at the front, called Kontakt. A series of antennae and helices were used to zone in on the returning landing module, the LK, for rendezvous and docking. The LOK’s probe, called Aktiv, would penetrate an aluminium plate on the top of the LK. It had 108 recessed honeycomb hexagons on a plate 100 cm across and entry to only one of these would be sufficient to achieve a firm capture.

The most visible differences from Soyuz were in the instrument-and-propulsion module at the rear and the small extra module at the front. The 800 kg front module contained six fuel tanks, each with 300 kg of UDMH, four engines for attitude control in lunar orbit, an orientation engine and the Kontakt docking unit. On Apollo, there was a small conical docking unit on the front of the command module, but the other elements were made an integral part of the service module. For rendezvous, the LOK closed in on the LK in lunar orbit, the flight engineer peering through the forward­looking porthole, using television and handling an adjacent control panel. The front module of the LOK had four attitude control thruster units, each with two main nozzles and two small ones. The engine system was made by the Arsenal Design Bureau in Leningrad.

At the rear, the LOK carried two propulsion sets. The biggest was the main engine for the return to Earth, the equivalent of the Service Propulsion System of Apollo. The LOK’s engine had a thrust of 3,388 kg and a specific impulse of 314 and its primary purpose was to make the trans-Earth injection burn out of lunar orbit. The engine, called the S5.51, was built by the Isayev design bureau. The LOK also carried the standard Soyuz engine, to be used as a rendezvous motor, with a thrust of 417 kg, a specific impulse of 296 and capable of 35 restarts. The LOK carried 2,032 kg of nitrogen tetroxide and 1,120 kg of UMDH. The LOK was the first Soviet spacecraft to carry the fuel cells pioneered by the Americans in the Gemini programme: 20 Volna cells, weight 70 kg, able to supply 1.5 kW for ten days. They were made by the Ural Electrochemical Enterprise. The only other Soviet spaceship to carry fuel cells was the Buran space shuttle in 1988. The rear section carried radiator shutters to shed heat. At the junction with the descent module were star trackers.

LOK’s arrival in lunar orbit followed a different procedure from Apollo. The mid­course manoeuvre and lunar orbit insertion were done by block D, not by the LOK’s main engine. Block D would again be used to lower the orbit of the LOK and LK over the lunar surface to its final orbit dipping to 16 km and, finally, for all but the final part of the powered descent of the LK. On Apollo, the Service Propulsion System carried out the mid-course correction moonbound, lunar orbit insertion and lunar orbit corrections.

With the LK down on the surface, the profile of the LOK now closely approxi­mated that of the Apollo command-and-service module. The LOK would orbit the moon, a sole cosmonaut flight engineer aboard, like the single astronaut on the Apollo. For half of each orbit, it would be around the farside of the moon, out of contact with the Earth. Once the LK blasted off from the lunar surface, it was the task of the LOK to locate the rising LK, close in and dock. The Kontakt system was designed in such a way that a simple contact would join the spacecraft together, so there was no question of hard and soft dockings. Unlike Apollo, the LK cosmonaut would transfer externally back to the LOK by spacewalk. The LK would, like the American LM, then be jettisoned. The LOK would then make the crucial burn out of lunar orbit, make the three day coast back to Earth, carry out two mid-course corrections (one at mid-point, one just before reentry) and then make a Zond-type skip reentry.


Weight (at LOI)

9,850 kg

(at TEI)

7,530 kg

(on return)

2,804 kg




2.93 m

Habitable volume




Max. flight time (days)


Descent module length



2.2 m

Source: RKK Energiya (2001)