Category Soviet and Russian Lunar Exploration


Conventional wisdom about why the Russians lost the moon race is that their technology was inferior and simply could not match the sophistication of Apollo. During the 1970s and 1980s, most Western observers took the view that the Soviet Union never had the technical capacity to send cosmonauts to the moon or land them on it.

Examination of the two paths taken to the moon by the space superpowers shows that this is not the case. The Soviet Union: [10]

• Successfully tested out its lunar lander in Earth orbit (T2K: Cosmos 379, 398, 434).

• Built and flew a manned spacecraft for the moon mission that continues to fly to the present day (Soyuz).

• Tested out the key manoeuvres for landing on the moon (Cosmos 382).

• Built high-performance first-stage rocket engines, the RD-270; and the hydrogen – powered upper stages developed by the Lyulka and Isayev bureaux.

• Flew a sophisticated programme of unmanned lunar exploration, with three sample return missions (Luna 16, 20, 24), two rovers (Lunokhod 1, 2) and two orbiters (Luna 19, 22).

• Developed and tested (Soyuz 4/5) a successful spacesuit, now the Orlan.

• Built a worldwide land – and sea-based tracking network.

• Pioneered the sophisticated high-speed skip reentry technique.

It is true that the N-1 was not flown successfully. However, the balance of probability is that it would have flown successfully in 1974. The N-1 was the first rocket to have a fully digital computer control system, far ahead of its time. The engine developed for the N-1, the NK-33, was tested in the 1990s and shown to be one of the best in the world, not just then but 30 years later. There are very few rocket programmes where a rocket has not been eventually tamed. Ironically, one of the few others was Europa, cancelled at almost the same time as the N-1 (April 1973) after six failures in a row. Likewise, the roots of that cancellation were political rather than technical.

Students of history therefore cannot explain the Soviet failure in terms of techno­logical shortcomings alone, but must look deeper. The failure of the Soviet Union to reach the moon was, at its heart, a political and organizational failure, not a technical one. Writing about these events years later, Chief Designer Vasili Mishin blamed under-investment, lack of financial control, the dispersal of effort between design bureaux and poor management of the 26 government departments and 500 enterprises involved. The investment was only 2.9bn roubles or $4.5bn compared with Apollo’s $24bn. ‘They underestimated the technical difficulties involved and should have done ground-testing,’ he said.

These judgements, although some might criticize them as self-serving, probably come quite close to the mark, and it may be useful to deal with each in turn. First, the Soviet Union probably had only half the national resources to draw on in mounting a moon expedition than those of the United States. Throughout the moon race, the Soviet Union’s gross national product (GNP) was about half that of the United States. In 1957, the United States’ GNP was $450bn, the Soviet Union’s $210bn, 46.6% of the former. In 1969, the year of the moon landing, the United States’ GNP was $930bn, the Soviet Union’s $407bn, a slight relative disimprovement at 43.7% [25]. Even if the Soviet proportion of GNP spent on space was more, it was still much less than the American spending, on a dollar-for-dollar basis. American estimates are that the USSR spent about 1.25% of its GNP on the space programme during its peak years, 1966-70. Central Intelligence Agency estimates are that Russian spending rose from $1bn in 1962 to $5bn in 1966, levelling off at $5.5bn during the peak of the moon race [26]. Of this, the N-l accounted for about 20% of spending, or $4.8bn (quite close to Mishin’s figure).

A lower rate of spending was not necessarily an overwhelming problem, if those smaller resources had been very carefully spent. During the early days of the space programme, later and romantically called ‘the golden years’, the Soviet Union had clearly punched far above its weight through the astute deployment of limited resources. From the early 1960s, the Soviet Union began to squander its limited resources. The decision of 1964 authorized not one, but two moon programmes, the N-l and Chelomei’s UR-500K. It was actually much worse than that, for by the mid-1960s Russia was not only running two moon programmes, but – if space station, spaceplane and other military programmes are taken into account – no fewer than seven manned space programmes at the same time. As so many of these programmes were being run by different bureaux, few economies of scale could be achieved. The dispersal and duplication of energies was something which the Soviet economy could afford even less than the American.

The squandering of resources was exacerbated by the rivalry of the different design bureaux and the inability of the Soviet political system to cope with them. Whilst Western analysts imagined a space programme run by a centrally directed command system in which orders were given and bureaux snapped to attention, the opposite was the case, with rival bureaux relentlessly seeking the patronage and support of networks of party and government coalitions. Not only that, but the warring factions constantly sought to have decisions revised and remade, like the UK-700 project which managed to get back on the agenda several times after it was supposedly killed off. The command economy was unable to overcome these problems and command its participants to work effectively together. The spectacle of Khrush­chev trying to get his designers Korolev and Glushko into his dacha to make peace – and failing – was one never contemplated in Western understandings of how the Soviet system worked. Although its effects can never be measured, the diversion of energies into such rivalry must have exerted a huge toll on the programme.

A further political failure was the gross misjudgement of American intentions. There is no doubt that the Soviet Union failed to appreciate the significance of President Kennedy’s speech in May 1961. The documentary record shows that its implications only began to dawn on the Soviet decision-making system from mid-1963 onward. Even then, the Soviet decision to go to the moon was not made until August 1964, three years after the American one. The actual method was not confirmed until the meeting of the Keldysh commission in November 1966 and the subsequent government decision of February 1967 – when the Americans were less than 30 months away from a landing. It was ironic that the Russians, who had provoked the Americans to competing in a moon race, realized too late that there was a real race under way.

There was one particular misjudgement for which it would be harder to fault them. The American decision to move up Apollo 8 for a moon-orbiting mission clearly took the Russians aback. Contrary to Western notions of Russian recklessness with human lives, they took a cautious approach, insisting on four successful around-the – moon missions before they would put a cosmonaut on board. Yet here the Americans

decided, in 1968, to send an Apollo into orbit around the moon on the first manned flight of the Saturn V. Although the gamble paid off, it was nevertheless a risky move. Years later, some of those closest to the decision still recoil at just how risky it was [27]. Despite all the failures of Proton and N-1 on launch, it is some consolation that the launch escape system functioned every single time and no cosmonaut would have been lost on launch. Despite pressure from the Kremlin, the people running the space programme never gave serious consideration to rushing a manned Zond around the moon over 7th-9th December 1968, largely because they felt further testing was required. This must have been a difficult decision, but it was the right one.

Two other factors were also important in the outcome of the moon race. The decision to skip intensive ground-testing for the first stage of the N-1 was a bad mistake and ultimately fatal to the programme. However, some comments should be entered in mitigation. Chelomei’s Proton did have the benefit of intensive ground­testing but its miserable development history cost the Russians the first around-the – moon flight and squandered countless payloads. Korolev probably calculated that getting the ground-testing systems for the N-1 built would delay him at least a further year, possibly two, and this was time and money he did not have. Better to take a calculated risk that the problems could be overcome quickly enough, as they had been in the past. In reality, all rocket designers seem to have underestimated the problems of integrating powerful rocket engines and they continued to so do for many years. The development histories of the N-1 and UR-500K were not exceptional: but the Saturn V was.

The second factor was of course Korolev. His loss came at a crucial juncture in the moon race. The way in which he held the Soviet space programme together in its early years and his ability to organize people, bureaux, politicians and talent was legendary. The N-1 could never have got as far as it did without Korolev. The verdict of most of those who knew him was that – with Korolev – the Soviet Union might well have gone around the moon first. The USSR would probably not have landed on the moon first, but he would have given the Americans ‘a darn good run for their money’. All agree that he was the only person who could have pulled it off. Mishin, by his own admission, was never able to tame the other design bureaux the way Korolev did. Mishin: ‘If Korolev had lived, we would have made more progress.’ Though capable in his own ways, he lacked the same drive, organizational ability, relentlessness or capacity to knock heads together. Valentin Glushko had an ambition to match Korolev, but was less able to manage his political masters and flawed by a preparedness to settle scores rather than see projects on their merits. The chief designer system, which served the Soviet Union so well in some respects, was ultimately less successful than American teamwork and its clinical division between political and administrative leadership.

At its heart, the Soviet Union lost the moon race because it misjudged American intentions and resources, mobilized its fewer resources too late and failed to control its competing empires of designers and rocket-builders. Ironically, the Americans won the moon race by showing that they could professionally run a rigorously managed, state-led programme of the type that the Russians were supposed to have but which we now know they did not. Whatever the causes, the winning of the moon race by the

Americans may have had profound political consequences. Despite the Vietnam War, despite many domestic difficulties, the United States reasserted itself, through the moon landing, as the leading technological nation in the world. To John F. Kennedy, this had been the imperative of his era. Kennedy had taken the view that if the United States were to lead what he called the free world, it must prove that it was more capable than its rival. The developing countries, especially, looked to whichever country would be most successful in the mastery of space. The United States went on under the subsequent presidency of Ronald Reagan to rise to a military dominance to become, by the 21st century, the only superpower in a unipolar world. Did the moon victory play a part in this?

By contrast, the loss of the moon race became, in the eyes of subsequent histor­ians, a symbol of the Brezhnev period (1964-82), formally labelled during the time of perestroika ‘the years of stagnation and decline’. During the period 1957-64, Nikita Khrushchev was able to portray the Soviet Union abroad as an energetic, socially progressive, even liberalizing country able to demonstrate how state-led planning and space-led investment could be an instrument for modernization. Yuri Gagarin’s flight became, in the broad canvass of the Soviet years 1917-91, the absolute zenith point of the communist project. But what if Alexei Leonov had been first to step upon the moon? This was an interesting exercise explored by the British Broadcasting Corpora­tion [28]. The moon landing might well have given the Soviet system a new lease of life, a new military and political confidence. The Russians might have gone on to establish lunar bases (Brezhnevgrad?) and carry out the Mars missions originally projected by Tikhonravov and Korolev in the 1950s, bringing the hammer and sickle with them. How the Americans would have responded is difficult to predict. Unlike the case in the 1950s, they would have lost a contest in which they had specifically set down the goals. Various scenarios are possible, but it is much less easy to see the United States as the unchallenged empire it subsequently became. The moon landing may indeed have been the crucial turning point in 20th century history.


Some time before the cancellation of Luna 25, references to future Soviet lunar exploration had already dried up in the Soviet press. In July 1978 it was briefly reported that a lunar geochemical explorer was under consideration and due to fly by 1983, but nothing more was heard of this project. At around that time, NASA was trying to persuade Congress to fund a lunar geochemical polar orbit – with equal lack of result.

The moon was now relatively well known and Keldysh made the argument to the political leadership that the USSR should no longer try to directly compete with the United States. Both he and the director of the Institute of Space Research (IKI in Russian), Roald Sagdeev, argued that the USSR should concentrate on what it was good at, had proven expertise and did not compete directly with the Americans. This pointed the Soviet Union in only one direction: toward Venus. Here, the Soviet Union had parachuted probes through Venus’s atmosphere in 1967 and 1969 (Venera 4, 5-6), soft-landed simple probes on its surface in 1970 and 1972 (Venera 7, 8) and put down sophisticated landers in double missions in 1975, 1978 and 1985 (Venera 9-10, 11-12,
13-14, Vega 1-2). Venera 13 and 14 drilled Venusian soil and analyzed it in an onboard laboratory. Balloons were dropped into the Venusian atmosphere (part of the Vega project). Orbiters first circled the planet in 1975 (Venera 9, 10) and then in 1983 radar-mapped its surface (Venera 15-16). By the end of the Vega programme in 1986, Venus’s surface, atmosphere and circumplanetary space had been well characterized.

Mars took second place in the Soviet programme for interplanetary exploration. The Russian Mars 3 probe became the first spacecraft to soft-land on the Red Planet and sent a picture from its surface in December 1971. The Soviet Union obtained a full profile of the atmosphere right down to the surface during the descent of Mars 6 into the Mare Erythraeum in March 1974. After a gap of many years, the USSR went on to organize an imaginative mission to Mars’s little moon, Phobos, in 1988-9 (the first probe failed, the second achieved limited success). The Americans began a wave of missions to Mars in the 1990s, each one revealing more and more of what an interesting planet it was.

In the light of the genuine progress made in the successful exploration of Venus and the sustained interest in Mars, it is little wonder that the further scientific exploration of the moon became a low priority. Eventually, though, coinciding with a reforming political leadership in the Soviet Union, some plans were advanced. In 1985, the idea of a lunar polar orbiter was resurrected. In 1987, the Institute for Space Research (IKI) in Moscow gave this mission a target gate of 1993, with a lunar farside sample recovery in 1996 and an unmanned laboratory on the moon, with rovers, in 2000. In its last plan for space development published in 1989 (The USSR in outer space – the year 2005), the Soviet Union proposed a lunar polar geophysical orbiter, but few details were given and only a sketchy illustration was published, suggesting it would use the Phobos spacecraft design. At one stage, the project acquired the name Luna 92, indicating a 1992 launch date, but it never got beyond the preliminary design stage and the money originally set aside for it was used for the Mars 96 planetary mission instead.


The original around-the-moon programme was designed by Tikhonravov’s Depart­ment #9 of OKB-1 in 1960-1, and this became the Soyuz complex of 1962-4. In August 1964, the around-the-moon programme was transferred to Vladimir Chelo – mei’s OKB-52 design bureau. He planned to send a spacecraft, called the LK (Luna Korabl) directly around the moon on his Proton rocket, then nearing completion. The idea that the Soviet Union might attempt to send a man around the moon first was one familiar to Western analysts. The around-the-moon mission required much less rocket power, hardware and testing than a landing. The psychological effect of going around the moon, the excited commentaries, in Russian, of the lunar surface at first hand, would have a considerable effect on world public opinion. Chelomei probably realized this.

Not much is known of Chelomei’s LK design. A design published in the Tsiol – kovsky Museum in Kaluga shows a bullet-shaped cabin with two solar wings at the base, eight aerials and a service module of some kind behind. It resembled a scaled- down Apollo-type command-and-service module, 5.2 m long with 7.27 m wide solar panels and X-shaped antenna system, possibly 4 tonnes in weight. The small, 2.7 m long 2 tonne cabin would have carried one person around the moon. Fitted to the top of the UR-500K, the entire space vehicle would have been 46.7 m tall. The design, completed in July 1965, seems to have made little progress, and it is possible that Chelomei, like Korolev, was severely overstressed with other projects, in Chelomei’s case the development of the Almaz orbital space station. Vladimir Chelomei was an original and imaginative designer who came up with many ingenious designs and solutions and it is possible that his LK might have been one of them. Even today, many years after his death in 1984, his influence is still apparent. His design, the Proton, is still flying, a new version being introduced, the Proton M. The first module in the International Space Station, the functional control block or Zarya, is originally a Chelomei design.

Chelomei’s LK design was to become an academic matter. In October 1964, only a few months after the August governmental resolution, Nikita Khrushchev was overthrown. Khrushchev had been a big supporter, largely because of Chelomei’s success in delivering a fleet of operational ballistic missiles for the Soviet rocket forces.

Korolev devoted considerable energies during 1965 trying to push Chelomei out of the moon programme altogether and instead for OKB-1 to run an integrated pro­gramme for around-the-moon voyages and landing, which he argued made more economic and organizational sense. Eventually, on 25th October 1965, Korolev managed to wrest the LK moonship back from the Chelomei design bureau. Korolev was able to offer a stripped-down Soyuz spacecraft as his alternative, which he called the 7K-L-1. The government must have been persuaded that a design that was already at an advanced stage was preferable to one that had barely got beyond the drawing board. Korolev was not able to remove Chelomei altogether, for the government decided that the UR-500 would continue to be used. Korolev also persuaded the government to use, as upper stage for the Proton, the block D upper stage then being fitted out for the N-1 rocket. On 31st December, Korolev and Chelomei formally signed off on the deal.

It would be wrong to overstate the rivalry between Chelomei and Korolev, for they seemed able to work together when it mattered, albeit sullenly on Chelomei’s part. This was not the case between Korolev and Glushko, whose relationship seems to have become truly venomous. With the man-around-the-moon project using the same block D upper stage and a related cabin, the 7K-L-1, the Soviet moon pro­gramme was at last achieving some economies of scale. The December 1965 agreement specified the construction of no fewer than fourteen L-1 spacecraft, of which seven would be for unmanned tests and four for manned circumlunar missions.

Both the Russian moonships, the L-1 Zond and the LOK, were derivatives or relatives of the Soyuz spacecraft, which in turn was rooted in the designs of the Soyuz complex, 1962-4. The missions of the L-1 Zond and LOK were closely, even inti­mately, linked to the development of Soyuz.


The managers of the Zond programme followed closely the requalification of the Soyuz programme, grounded since Vladimir Komarov’s fatal mission in April 1967.


Zond 5 in the Indian Ocean


Zond 5’s turtles

A successful flight of Soyuz would give much confidence that the closely related L-1 Zond could be flown out to the moon and back, manned, that autumn. Cosmos 238 flew a four-day profile that August to pave the way for the first manned Soyuz flight for 18 months. Selected for the mission was 47-year-old wartime combat veteran and test pilot Georgi Beregovoi.

Soyuz was ready to go on 25th October, a month after the return of Zond. So close were the American and Soviet programmes to one other at this stage that Soyuz 2 flew only three days after the end of the first test of America’s new Apollo. The Americans had returned to space with Apollo 7, which orbited the Earth from the 11th to the 22nd of October, crewed by veteran Walter Schirra and novices Walter Cunningham and Don Eisele. It was technically such a perfect mission that, for the Americans, nothing now stood in the way of sending Apollo 8 around the moon. NASA’s new administrator Tom Paine confirmed that Apollo 8 would fly to the moon, would make ten lunar orbits and gave the date for launch as 21st December. But he could not be certain whether his team of Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders would be the first to report back from there.

Soyuz 2 was launched first, on 25th October, unmanned. Soyuz 3, with Georgi Beregovoi on board, roared off the pad the next day into a misty drizzling midday sky. Half an hour later he was close to the target, Soyuz 2. Then things began to go wrong. Several docking attempts were made but, it later transpired, the craft had been aligned the wrong way up. Excessive fuel was used. Sensors failed on both spacecraft. The planned docking was abandoned, Soyuz 2 was brought down and after four days Georgi Beregovoi came home. Thick, early snow lay on the ground and the tempera­ture was — 12°C. Helicopters were in the air looking for him and villagers were outside their houses on the lookout too. Strong winds blew the capsule sideways into a snowdrift and the impact was so gentle that Georgi Beregovoi barely noticed it. Villagers waded through the snowdrifts and, amidst flecks of snow, the grinning flier had his picture taken before being whisked away for debriefing. But he had returned alive from the first successful manned orbit test of the Soyuz. Now Zond had flown automatically around the moon and a manned spaceship like Zond had circled the Earth for four days, both returning safely. A manned circumlunar mission could not be far away.

Samplers, rovers and orbiters

When Luna 15 was smashed to pieces in the Sea of Crises in July 1969, Russia’s plan to upstage Apollo by the first automatic recovery of lunar soil came unstuck. But the Soviet Union permitted the programme to continue, for two reasons: first, because the series could produce a credible automatic programme for the exploration of the moon; and, second, because the series was important if the Soviet man-on-the-moon pro­gramme were to be completed after all. Such hopes still existed in reality up to the summer of 1974 and on paper for another two years.

Luna 15 was the first of the Ye-8-5 soil sampler missions to leave the Earth, one earlier mission having failed on launch. Some considerable work was still required for such a mission to be successful. A number of lessons had arisen from the troubled experience of Luna 15. There had been considerable difficulties controlling the craft. Luna 15’s original orbit had been far from that intended. The radar had presented problems. Despite delaying the final landing manoeuvre, the final burn had not proved to be sufficiently precise. In the months that followed the loss of Luna 15, the Lavochkin engineers made the adjustments that they felt sure could guarantee success the next time.

The Lavochkin engineers were convinced that the basic design was sound. Although the three missions had been launched hastily, the basic Ye-8 design, origin­ally intended for lunar rovers, had a lengthy and careful design over many earlier years. The sample return spacecraft consisted of three parts: a descent stage, ascent stage and return cabin.

Ye-8-5 lunar sample return spacecraft

Height 3.96 m

Weight on launch 5,750 kg

on moon 1,880 kg

KT descent stage

Подпись: One 11D417

Samplers, rovers and orbiters Подпись: 520 kg 245 kg 2m 1.92 tonnes Nitric acid and UDMH


Return cabin

Подпись: 39 kgПодпись: 50 cmWeight


For radio communications, the lander carried a cone-shaped antenna on a long boom, working on 922 MHz and 768 MHz. Uplink was received on 115 MHz. A dish-shaped radar was located on the bottom of the spacecraft.

The Lavochkin bureau still had another three sample return spacecraft available. All were duly launched in the period following the Apollo 11 landing, on 23rd September 1969 (Cosmos 300), 22nd October 1969 (Cosmos 305) and 6th February 1970. On Cosmos 300, there was a leak in the oxidizer tank of block D, which depleted the entire supply during Earth orbit injection and could not fire out to the moon, leaving the spacecraft to crash back to Earth four days later. On Cosmos 305, the attitude control system failed and block D did not get into the right attitude to fire to the moon, crashing back near Australia. With the February 1970 launching, Proton’s first-stage engines were erroneously turned off at 127 sec and it cratered downrange.

Of the first five attempts, only one had left Earth orbit. A second batch of sample return spacecraft was now constructed and there was a delay until the first of the new spacecraft could be available. In the meantime, concerted efforts were applied to attempt to fix the appalling record of the Proton rocket. Proton’s unreliability had not only cost the moon programme dearly, but dogged the interplanetary pro­gramme, destroying two of a new series of Mars probes in March 1969. Eventually, Georgi Babakin persuaded the minister responsible for the space programme, Sergei Afanasayev, to introduce a requalification programme. This took place over spring and summer 1970, culminating in a suborbital test on 18th August 1970. This led to a swift and radical improvement in performance, but Soviet space histories might have been happier, had these changes been introduced sooner.


These and other plans were overtaken by political events and the financial crisis that engulfed the Soviet Union and then Russia in the early 1990s. In the post-Soviet space programme, the moon was rarely mentioned. The first instance was in summer 1997, when IKI proposed plans to send a small spacecraft into lunar orbit, using a Molniya rocket from Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia in 2000 (a Proton would be prohibitively expensive). Over time, this mission acquired the title Luna Glob, or ‘lunar globe’. The orbiter would deploy three 250 kg penetrators, modelled on those developed for the Mars 8 mission the previous year. They would dive into the lunar surface at some speed, burrowing seismic and heat flow instruments under the lunar surface, leaving transmitters just above the surface. With small nuclear isotopes, they would transmit for a year, operating as a three-point network to collect information on moonquakes and heat flow. A number of variations on these themes appeared, but none progressed beyond the aspirational stage at this time. The reality was that Russia lacked the financial resources to mount any scientific missions during the 15 years that followed the fall of the Soviet Union and concentrated all its efforts on keeping its manned, military and applications space programmes going. For the time being, the only hopes for more moon probes rested with private industry and Russia providing a booster rocket for a freelance Western venture. One such mission, Trailblazer of the TransOrbital Corporation, was postulated in the early 2000s, using an old Cold War rocket called the Dnepr.

July 2005 saw the Russian Federation announce that there would be a new federal space plan to run through 2015. One of the highlights of the plan was a return to Mars with a new mission to its moon Phobos in 2009, the mission being called Phobos Grunt. Analyzing the plan proved an impossibility, since the government issued only press releases and interviews about it, but never the original text. Almost a year later, it was made known that the plan included, in a revival of the Luna Glob mission, a return to the moon in 2012 [4]. Details of the mission were given by officials of the Russian Space Agency, the Vernadsky Institute and the Institute of Earth Physics. All appeared anxious that Russia, for all its past expertise in the exploration of the moon, should get back in the business of lunar exploration. They were also motivated not just by American plans to return to the moon by 2020 announced by President Bush, but by the prospect of moon probes being sent there by China, India and Japan much sooner.

The new Luna Glob envisaged the launch by a Molniya rocket of a mother ship into lunar orbit. Before arriving at the moon, the mother ship would release a fleet of ten high-speed penetrators to impact into the Sea of Fertility in a circular pattern, each only 2,500 m from the next one, forming a 10-point seismic station. The mother ship would continue into lunar orbit. First, it would deploy two pene – trator landers at the Apollo 11 and 12 landing sites, to rebuild the seismic network they began there in 1969. Then it would send a soft-lander down to the south polar region, called the polar station, carrying a seismometer and two spectrometers to detect water ice. The mother ship would act as a relay for the 13 data stations on the lunar surface.

Although the name Dennis Tito will never be as famous or recognizable as many of the great astronaut or cosmonaut heroes, what he did may prove ultimately to be of great importance. When his Soyuz rocket fired him up to the International Space Station in 2001, he became the world’s first paying space tourist. In one of the great post-Cold War ironies, commercial space tourism was developed by Russia, albeit by an American company, Space Adventures in cooperation with the builder of Soyuz, the Energiya Corporation. After launching a number of space tourists to the station, Space Adventures decided to offer an even more staggering – and pricey – idea: lunar tourism. Space Adventures’ proposal: to offer a six-day loop around the moon in a reconstructed Zond cabin for C80m, with a first flight set for 2009. When the original plans for space tourism were put forward, they were considered a publicity-seeking stunt, but with a queue of millionaires ready to spend the money and go through the year-long training, Space Adventures had established a viable business. Maybe, 40

years later than scheduled, Zond will make a round-the-moon manned flight after all [5].


The basic Soyuz was 7.13 m long, 2.72m wide, with a habitable volume of 10.5m3, a launch weight of up to 6,800 kg, and a descent capsule weight of 2,800 kg. Soyuz consisted of three modules: equipment, descent and orbital. The equipment module contained retrorockets and manoeuvring engines, fuel, solar wings and supplies. The acorn-shaped descent module was the home of cosmonauts during ascent and descent, which one entered through the top. There were portholes, a parachute section and three contour seats. The orbital module, attached on the front, was almost circular, with a spacewalk hatch, lockers for food, equipment and experiments. Being more spacious, the cosmonauts lived there rather than the cramped descent module. From Soyuz there protruded a periscope for dockings, two seagull-like solar panels, aerials, docking probe on the front and flashing lights and beacons. On top of the Soyuz was an escape tower. Normally jettisoned at 2 min 40 sec into the flight, the purpose of the escape tower was to fire the Soyuz free of a rogue rocket. A solid rocket motor, with twelve angled nozzles of 80,000 kg thrust, would fire for 5 sec.


The Soyuz spacecraft

The initial tests of Soyuz were not auspicious. The first test of Soyuz was Cosmos 133 on 28th November 1966. Cosmos 133 was to have docked with a second Soyuz, launched a day later, but this launch was cancelled when Cosmos 133 developed attitude control problems. The Cosmos could not be positioned properly for reentry and was destroyed deliberately for fear that it would land in China. During the second test, a month later, the rocket failed to take off. When the gantries were swung back around the rocket, the cabin was accidentally tipped, causing the escape tower to fire, thus setting the upper stage on fire and causing an explosion which destroyed the pad. One person died, but it could have been many more. The third test, Cosmos 140 on 7th February 1967, followed the test profile up to reentry when a maintenance plug in the heatshield burned through and caused structural damage. Worse followed: the cabin came down in the Aral Sea, crashed through ice and sank (divers later retrieved the cabin from 10 m down).

Despite these difficulties, Russia pressed ahead with a first manned flight of the Soyuz for April 1967. Instead of a cautious, single mission, a big shot was planned. Soyuz would go first, with a single cosmonaut on board, Vladimir Komarov. Twenty – four hours into the flight, Soyuz 2 would follow, commanded by veteran, Valeri Bykovsky. Two newcomers, Yevgeni Khrunov and Alexei Yeliseyev would fly with him. The rendezvous would simulate the moon link-up. Soyuz would be the active craft and would rendezvous on orbit 1. Then the show would really begin. Khrunov and Yeliseyev would don suits, leave Soyuz 2 and transfer into Soyuz to join Komarov. The spacewalk would simulate the transfer of cosmonauts between the the lunar orbiter and lunar lander as they circled the moon. The two ships would then separate after about four hours. Komarov, now accompanied by Khrunov and Yeliseyev, would be back on the ground by the end of day 2, Bykovsky following on day 3. So, in 72 breathtaking hours, the new Soyuz craft would demonstrate Earth orbit rendezvous on the first orbit, transfer by spacewalking to a primitive space station, carry out key tests for the moon flight and put the USSR back in front.

As the launch date drew near, there were a record 203 faults in Soyuz which required correction. The pre-test flights had been disconcerting. An atmosphere of foreboding prevailed at the cosmodrome. As Vladimir Komarov climbed into the transfer van to take the ride down to the pad, he had an air of fatalistic resignation about him. His fellow cosmonauts joshed him, trying to cheer him and get a smile. They started singing, encouraging him to join in. By the time they reached the pad some minutes later, he was singing with them too and the mood of pessimism had lifted somewhat. At 3: 35 a. m. Moscow time (not quite sunrise local time) on 23rd April 1967, the R-7 rocket lit the sky up and headed off in the direction of the growing embers of the onrushing dawn. Eight minutes later Vladimir Komarov was back in orbit testing out the most sophisticated spacecraft ever launched.

The trouble started at once when one of Soyuz’s two solar panels failed to deploy, starving the craft of electrical power. Other glitches developed as the day went on. The first attempt to change the craft’s orbit was unsatisfactory. The ship began to rotate around its axis and only spun more when Komarov tried to correct the problem. The thermal control system degenerated, communications with the ground became irregular and lack of electricity prevented the astro-orientation system from operat­ing. The ion system had to be used instead. Ground control was considering a way of launching Soyuz 2 and for the spacewalking cosmonauts to free the errant solar panel of Soyuz when a tremendous storm hit the launch site and knocked out the electrical systems of the waiting rocket. The decision was taken to abandon the Soyuz 2 launch and bring Komarov home at the first available opportunity, on orbit 16 the next morning.

Even then, there was more trouble. Just as the attitude control system was lining up the Soyuz for reentry, the craft passed into darkness and it lost orientation. The decision was made to try again on orbit 17, even though it too would bring Soyuz far away from the normal landing site. Using procedures that he had never practised in training, Komarov managed to align the craft and fire the retrorockets himself. Despite his heroic efforts to save the mission, worse was to come. As the cabin descended through the atmosphere, the drogue parachute came out but the main parachute remained stubbornly in its container. When the reserve chute was popped out, it tangled in the lines of the drag chute of the main parachute. Soyuz 1 crashed at great speed into the steppe at Orenberg at 7 a. m. The cabin exploded on impact and when Air Force recovery teams arrived all they found was burning metal, the rim of the top of Soyuz being the only hardware they could identify. They piled on soil to extinguish the flames.

The control centre knew nothing of what had happened. As they closed in on the wreckage, the recovery team sent a garbled message to the effect that the cosmonaut needed ‘urgent medical attention’ (a euphemism for the worst possible news), but the local Air Force commander closed off all communications. Defence Minister Ustinov was informed of the true outcome at 11 a. m. and Leonid Brezhnev an hour later in Karlovy Vary, Czechoslovakia. The Soviet people were officially informed later in the day. Gagarin himself removed Komarov’s body from the wreckage. Some days later, some young Pioneers (boy scouts) found some further remains of Vladimir Komarov on the steppe. They buried them and made a small memorial for him of their own.


Soyuz spacecraft rendezvous, docking system

Vladimir Komarov’s loyal comrades laid his remains to rest in the Kremlin Wall two days later. It was a sombre and chilling occasion, an unwelcome reminder of the real costs of the moon race. As the bands played the haunting Chopin funeral march the grim-faced and tight-lipped cosmonaut corps, now diminished to nine men and one woman, swore that the programme must go on relentlessly.

The consensus afterwards was that the whole mission had been rushed before Soyuz was really ready. It was apparent that Komarov had behaved masterfully in steering Soyuz successfully through reentry against all the odds. The failure in the parachute system was quite unrelated to the many problems that had arisen in the flight up to that time. The system for sealing the parachute container was defective, making the parachute likely to stick as it came out. This left the investigators with the chilling conclusion that if Soyuz 2 had been successfully launched, it too would have


Vladimir Komarov and his friend Yuri Gagarin

crashed on its return. Years later, Valeri Bykovsky recalled how the storm had saved his life.

Early tests of Soyuz

28 Nov 1966 Cosmos 133 (failure)

Dec. 1966 Pad explosion

7 Feb 1967 Cosmos 140 (failure)

23 Apr 1967 Soyuz (failure)


Just over a week later, Zond 6 headed away from Earth onto a moon trajectory (10th November). Several cosmonauts attended the launch, some hoping that one day soon they would fly a future Zond. The problems from the earlier missions then reasserted themselves. The Earth sensor failed and then the high-gain antenna failed to deploy. Despite this, two days later Zond 6 adjusted its path and on 14th November rounded the moon at a close point of 2,418 km with its automatic camera clicking away and taking metres and metres of photographs of the moon’s surface. Zond 6 carried a similar payload to Zond 5: 400 mm camera, cosmic ray sensor, micrometeorite detector and some unidentified animals (probably turtles again).


Zond 6 around the moon

Even as the mission was in progress, the Russians were well aware of the start of the countdown for Apollo 8 at Cape Canaveral. The head of the cosmonaut corps, General Kamanin, considered the Apollo 8 mission to be pure adventurism and an extraordinary risk. He then considered a Russian manned flight around the moon to be a possibility for the first half of 1969. But, he conceded, the Americans might just pull off their mission first. There were hurried phone calls from the Kremlin: Can we still beat Apollo 8? No, said Kamanin. The best we could do is a manned flight in January, assuming Zond 6 is a success and Apollo is delayed. The most realistic date for a manned circumlunar mission was April 1969. The leaders of the space programme would not be rushed. The Soviet approach – four successful Zonds first – was clearly more conservative in respect of safety.

Zond 6 was now returning to Earth, though more problems emerged. Cabin pressure in the descent module suddenly fell, but then held. Temperatures in the fuel tanks fluctuated up and down. Zond 6 did manage to fire its engine briefly on 15th November, 251,900 km out, to adjust its course home and again a mere 10 hours before reentry to refine its trajectory. Zond 6 reentered over the Indian Ocean and dived to 45 km altitude. Pointing its heat shield at 90° to the flight path generated a cushion of lift underneath the Zond, bouncing it back into space. It was skipping across the atmosphere like a stone skipping across water, its speed now down from 11 km/sec to 7.6 km/sec. Zond 6 soared back into space in an arc and several minutes later began its second reentry. At this stage, things began to go awry. First, the high – gain antenna failed to separate. Second, more seriously, a gasket blew, depressurizing the cabin while it was still in space – which would have been fatal if unsuited cos­monauts had been on board and certainly did kill the animals on board at this stage. Third, between 3 km and 5 km above the ground, a spurious electrical signal com­manded the firing of the landing retrorocket and the ejection of the parachute. Zond 6 crashed to the ground from a great height unaided. Unlike the first Soyuz, it did not explode on impact, but any spacesuited cosmonauts on board would have died. It took ground crews a day to find the cabin. They salvaged the film, which was then exhibited to the world as proof of a completely successful mission. Only decades later was film of the badly battered moon cabin released and the truth of Zond 6 told.

Zond 6 was a triumph for the skip reentry trajectory first plotted ten years earlier by Department # 9. However, the performance of Zond 6 to and from the moon still needed some improvement. The landing accident was so serious that more work was still required on the landing systems, which had been considered solved by the smooth return of Soyuz 3. Sadly, the Russians did not learn their lesson as a result of the depressurization high above the atmosphere and put cosmonauts into spacesuits for such critical manoeuvres. The crew of Soyuz 11 later paid the penalty for this failure to learn. As for the planned flight around the moon by cosmonauts, it was postponed.


The first of the new batch of Ye-8-5 spacecraft was not available until the following month. Luna 16 was launched on 12th September 1970, and it headed out moonwards on a slow four-day coast. In contrast to the great media interest which Luna 15 had attracted, Luna 16 went virtually unremarked by the Western media. This was a pity,


Luna 16, testing before launch

for Luna 16 was a remarkable technical achievement by any standard. Its flight coincided with what became known to the world as Black September. Four airliners were seized in the space of a few hours by Palestinian fighters; the aircraft were hijacked to a remote airstrip called Dawson’s Field in Jordan; King Hussein’s army moved in to crush the Palestinians. The world looked on, mesmerized.

Luna 16 carried, like Luna 15 before it, the new KTDU-417 main engine built by the Isayev design bureau. The KTDU-417 had a throttleable engine ranging from

750 kg to 1,920 kg. At highest thrust, it had a specific impulse of 310 sec, able to burn for 10 min 50 sec using up to four tonnes of propellant. This engine was built to perform mid-course correction, lunar orbit insertion, pre-descent burn, the ‘dead – stop’ burn to take it out of lunar orbit and the final burn 600 m above the moon. There was also scope for further manoeuvres in lunar orbit, as had proved necessary on Luna 15 and the engine could be fired up to eleven times. It could also be used at lowest thrust with a specific impulse of 250 sec [1]. The engines for the final stages of landing had a thrust of 210 and 350 kg.

Luna 16 burned its engine on the first day for 6.4 sec to make a course correction. Luna 16 entered moon orbit on 17th September at an altitude of 110 km to 119 km, 71°, 1 hr 59min. The aim was to achieve a circular lunar orbit around 100km.

After two days, Luna 16 fired its engine to make a 20-m/sec velocity change and brake into an elliptical course of 106 km by 15.1 km, with the perilune over the landing site. Its final path before descent was 15 km by 9 km, so low as to only barely scrape the peaks of the moon’s highest mountains. At this stage, the four 75 kg large propellant tanks that had been used for mid-course correction, lunar orbit injection and orbital change were jettisoned.

As Luna 16 skimmed over the eastern highlands of the moon on the 20th, the retrorocket of the 1,880 kg craft blasted and Luna 16 began to fall. First, the main engines blasted for 267 sec, using about 75% of fuel remaining, to kill all forward motion. This was a big burn, 1,700 m/sec. The critical stage had begun. Luna 16 was now over flat lowlands. Sophisticated radar and electronic gear scanned the surface, measuring the distance and the rate of descent. After the ‘dead stop’ engine burn, Luna 16 was in free fall, coming down at 215 m/sec, until six minutes later it was at 600 m. Then the main engine blasted again. At 20 m, a point detected by Doppler – sounding gamma rays, the retrorocket cut off and small vernier engines came into play. At 2 m, sensing the nearness of the surface, these too cut out, the intention being to achieve a landing speed of 2.5 m/sec or 9km/hr. Luna 16 dropped silently to the airless surface, bouncing gently on its four landing pads. It was down, safe and sound, on the Sea of Fertility, 100 km from crater Webb. The flat and stony ground was marked only by a few small craters, even if they were not visible during the descent, because Luna 16 had landed in darkness. This and subsequent soil-sampling missions carried stereo cameras of the type carried by Luna 13, so the quality of images should have been very good. The purpose of the cameras was to help to guide the operators of the drill and for such night landings floodlights were carried.

Strong signals were picked up by Western tracking stations. Within hours, the USSR had announced its third soft-landing on the moon – but said no more. The Russians had still not admitted that the intention of the probe was to collect samples.

Meantime, a quarter of a million miles away a 90 cm drill arm swung out from Luna 16 like a dentist’s drill on a support. It swung well clear of the base of the spacecraft, free from any area that might have been contaminated by gases of landing engines. The wrist of the drill had a flexibility of 110° elevation, 180° rotation and was able to drill to 35 cm. The drill head bored into the lunar surface at 500 r. p.m. using electric motors for 7 min and then scooped the grains of soil down to 35 cm deep. There it began to hit rock and, rather than risk damaging the drill, the boring was

terminated and the sample collected and put into the container attached to the drill head. Like a robot in a backyard assembly shop, the drill head jerked upwards, brought itself alongside the small 39 kg spherical recovery capsule, turned it round and pressed the grains into the sealed cabin, which was then slapped shut.


How do Soviet space leaders regard their exploration of the moon now? In the early 1990s, the leaders of the space programme at the time emerged from the shadows to tell their story of the moon programme. Inevitably, granted the secrecy of the period, their first concern was to tell what happened. Many were directly involved as partisan protagonists, so their comments must be treated cautiously.

One of the first to tell the story was Chief Designer Vasili Mishin, first in magazine articles and then in interviews (his diaries were bought by the Ross Perot Foundation and have yet to be published). He was followed by numerous journalists, writing in dailies such as Izvestia and magazines like Znaniya. Some of the most detailed infor­mation was provided by the head of the cosmonaut squad, General Nikolai Kamanin, who kept a diary throughout the period and which has now been translated [6]. Latest and possibly last of the old guard to speak out was Boris Chertok, who in his eighties compiled a multi-volume memoir, published as Raketi i Lyudi (Rockets and people). Regrettably, little has been put in print by the cosmonauts involved in the lunar programme and some of them have already died. Oleg Makarov, for example, although he would have been on the first around-the-moon and first landing mission, was prepared to talk about the planned Zond mission, but would say very little about his own prominent role [7].

All expressed varying levels of regret, even grief, that the Soviet Union failed to win the moon race. Having achieved all the early breakthroughs in space exploration, they took the view that the Soviet Union should, with proper organization, have been able to reach the moon first. ‘How could we, after such a bright start, have slipped into second place?’ asked military journalist and cosmonaut candidate Col. Mikhail Rebrov [8]. Kamanin told his diary just how difficult it was for him to come to terms with what he regarded, unambiguously and without any mitigating factors, as a crushing defeat: ‘We drain the bitter cup of failure to the dregs,’ he acidly told his diary. He can’t have been the only one.

Most agreed with the reasons advanced by Mishin to explain why the Soviet Union lost: resources much inferior to the United States, the rivalry of the design bureaux, the continual revision and remaking of decisions, the false economy of avoid­ing comprehensive ground-testing, the death of Korolev at a crucial stage [9]. Most were sympathetic to Mishin, regarding his dismissal and the suspension of the N-1 programme as bad and even unjust decisions. In histories in which blame is liberally apportioned and widely scattered, several focused on Glushko for not being big enough to cooperate with the N-1 project from the start, arguing that he played an inconsistent, spoiling and even vindictive role in the programme [10]. Most felt that the N-1 would probably flown and been a successful rocket, eventually assembling large orbital stations. Chertok believed the Soviet Union did have the capacity to build a proper lunar base in the late 1970s and that such a venture made political, engineering and scientific sense, although it would have been costly [11]. Mishin [12]: We were able and should have implemented such an expedition after the USA. ‘Only a sense of political embarrassment, out of coming second, after the great rival, pre­vented this from happening,’ he said. Most of all he regrets the cancellation of the N-1, the wasted effort, the bitter resentment this caused in the industry and its replacement by an even more expensive programme which was ultimately cancelled in turn. Mishin’s final comment: ‘We were just a step away from success with the N-1. We could have built a base on the moon by now without stress or hurry.’

Having said this, these accounts are somewhat one-sided. Vladimir Chelomei did not leave memoirs, nor did Valentin Glushko. Although Glushko published technical papers, he never left behind a political statement defending his role in the space programme. When he died in 1989, his vast Energiya bureau was re-divided much as it was before he clustered its constituent companies together in 1974. The original OKB-1, now RKK Energiya, published a vast, colourful company history of the bureau and its projects, providing much of the detail on which an important portion of our knowledge of the Soviet moon programme is based. More critical comments and views come from General Kamanin. A diehard Stalinist, his severest criticisms focused on what he regarded as the poor quality of leadership given by the party and government, his own military and the space programme leadership, like Mishin and Keldysh. He was critical of the N-1 from the start, which he always regarded as an unsuitable and bad rocket: Chelomei’s UR-700 would have been better. Patriot though he was, he was overwhelmed in unconditional admiration of America’s stunning lunar successes. He resented the way in which they were under-reported and downplayed by the Soviet media and that he could not speak publicly and approvingly of them. He felt just how tough it must be on disappointed Soviet cosmonauts not to fly to the moon. Kamanin was especially critical on how good decision-making was undermined by the corrosive secrecy with which the Soviet lunar programme was run.

Retelling the Soviet side of the moon race, with its setbacks, ‘grandiose failures’ (Kamanin’s words), waste and poor decisions, seems to have given these writers little satisfaction, apart from the unmeasurably important one of making the facts of this hidden history known. They seemed to derive little comfort from the fact that from the chaotic final stages of the moon programme, a plan emerged for the building of space stations. This was a field in which their country became the undisputed world leader and remains so to this day. In his own way, Glushko was vindicated, for in 1987 his replacement for the N-1 did fly, Energiya giving the Soviet Union the most powerful rocket system in the world. Its subsequent cancellation, for economic reasons, can hardly be laid at his door. Unlike the N-1 and more like the Saturn V, the Energiya flew perfectly on its first two testflights and it was not for technical reasons that it never flew again.

Some of the writers refer to the general loss of interest in going to the moon among the Soviet political leadership, now that the Americans had achieved the feat and demonstrated it several times. Afanasayev [13] said that this was the considered view of the Soviet political leadership by 1972 and suggests that the decision to wind down the unmanned lunar programme was taken at around the same time as the decision regarding the manned programme. It is interesting that the political leadership of both the United States and the Soviet Union lost interest in flying to the moon in parallel at around the same time, even though one country had been there and the other had not. The next grand projet of Brezhnev’s Soviet Union was a more practical, earthly one, the Baikal Amur Railway.

The hardware and rockets from the Soviet lunar programme mostly found their way to museums, like the LK lander. The main collection of unmanned Soviet lunar spacecraft may still be found in the Lavochkin Museum, and that is where Lunokhod 3 may be found. When the financial situation of the Russian space programme reached rock bottom, many of its most famous artefacts were sold, from spacesuits to space cabins, Vasili Mishin’s diary, even Sergei Korolev’s slide rule. Even real spacecraft were sold. On 11th December 1993, Sotheby’s sold Lunokhod for $68,500, but it was explained to the buyer that he would have to collect it from the Sea of Rains!

It is with the moon drivers that we leave the story. Lunokhod was one of the great achievements of the lunar exploration programme, though, as we saw, far from the only one. The moon drivers did everything expected of them and more. Not only had they worked away from home for the year-long journey of Lunokhod and the half­year journey of Lunokhod 2, but they were not even allowed to tell their families or friends where they were or what they were doing. Not until perestroika were they allowed to come out of the shadows and tell their remarkable story. Since then, the Lunokhod drivers would gather once a year, on the great 17th November, to recall their experiences in driving on another world. They are older and greyer now and most have now retired. Vyacheslav Dovgan is now a general. Happily, they were at last formally conferred with the medals that they had deserved a quarter century earlier and now wear them with pride [14].