Category Soviet and Russian Lunar Exploration


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

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

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



N-l on the pad

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Luna 20 view of surface

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

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

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


So much for the hardware. What about the people who would fly to the moon? The selection of cosmonauts for the moon programme went through a number of phases: [5]

Although no cosmonaut ever did make the trip around the moon or to its surface, we know with a fair degree of certainty who would have made these voyages [23].

Russia drew on its existing teams of cosmonauts for its moon missions. By 1970, the Soviet Union had selected a number of cosmonaut groups. Essentially, Soviet cosmonaut selection was divided into three streams: Air Force pilots and military engineers, who commanded missions; flight engineers, civilians mainly drawn from the design bureaux that made the spacecraft; and specialists, like doctors, selected for specific missions. By the time of the moon programme, the following groups of pilots had been selected:

• Twenty young Air Force pilots for the first manned spaceflights (I960).

• Five young women to make the first flight by a woman into space (1962).

• Fifteen older Air Force pilots and military engineers (1963) (two more joined the group later).

• Twenty young Air Force pilots and military engineers (1965), later called ‘the Young Guards’.

The following groups of civilian engineers had been selected:

• Two engineers, one of whom would fly on the first multi-manned Voskhod flight (1964).

• Six engineers from OKB-1 (1966), with three more joining the following year.

• Three more civilian engineers (1969).

The following specialists were also selected:

• Two doctors (1964).

• Four Academy of Sciences cosmonauts (1967).

Many more cosmonauts were selected subsequently, but too late for the prospective moon missions and they are not considered here (the much later N1-L3M plan never got so far as to merit the selection of cosmonauts). Of the groups above, two were not relevant to the moon programme. The women’s group was selected for the first flight of a woman in space, eventually made by Valentina Tereshkova in 1963. Although there was a number of discussions about further missions by women, none came to fruition and none were ever considered for a moon mission. The group was disbanded in 1969. The two doctors likewise were never considered for the moon mission.

For its moon mission, Russia theoretically had available up to 74 cosmonauts. In reality, the total number available was much smaller, for some had retired or gone on to other work. A small number died during accidents. By far the largest cause for the reduction of numbers was people exiting due to failing medical tests, sometimes caused by the rigorousness of the training regime. A small number was also dismissed for indiscipline.


Early Soviet cosmonauts, Sochi, 1961

Those chosen for the moon mission were inevitably likely to be drawn from the most experienced members of the groups, especially those who had flown in space before. In more detail, the following is the pool from which they were drawn:

I960 first Air Force pilot selection (20): Ivan Anikeyev, Pavel Belyayev, Valentin Bondarenko, Valeri Bykovsky, Valentin Filateyev, Yuri Gagarin, Viktor Gor – batko, Anatoli Kartashov, Yevgeni Khrunov, Vladimir Komarov, Alexei Leo­nov, Grigori Nelyubov, Andrian Nikolayev, Pavel Popovich, Mars Rafikov, Georgi Shonin, Gherman Titov, Valentin Varlamov, Boris Volynov, Dmitri Zaikin.

This was the first, original and most famous group of cosmonauts. These were the equivalent of the Mercury seven, selected in April 1959 for the first American mission into space and immortalized in the film The right stuff. Russia’s right stuff comprised young Air Force pilots recruited in 1959-1960. Compared with the American group, they were much younger (24 to 35, but mainly at the younger end) and had much fewer flying hours. Gherman Titov, the second Russian to orbit the Earth, was only 25 years old when he made his mission. Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, had only 230 flying hours to his credit when he joined the cosmonaut squad (prospective Americans must have a minimum of 1,500). Like the Americans, the Russians put an emphasis on young, tough, fit men in perfect health who could react quickly to difficult situations. Young Air Force pilots, disciplined by military service, were considered to provide the best possible background for the early space missions. China selected a similar type of person for its first yuhangyuan group (1970) and its second one many years later (1996).

Cosmonauts from the moon flights were most likely to be drawn from this group. By autumn 1968, eight members of the group had flown, in this order: Yuri Gagarin, Gherman Titov, Andrian Nikolayev, Pavel Popovich, Valeri Bykovsky, Vladimir Komarov, Pavel Belyayev and Alexei Leonov. There was a high rate of attrition from this group and eight of the group never flew in space at all because of problems,


Chief designer Valentin Glushko with cosmonauts

accidents and even dismissals due to indiscipline. Two died during the moon pro­gramme (Vladimir Komarov and Yuri Gagarin).

The first 20 cosmonauts were recruited through the Institute for Aviation Med­icine with a view to one of them making the first manned flight into space. A centre for the training of cosmonauts was approved in January I960, called the Centre for Cosmonaut Training, TsPK, the title it still uses. General Kamanin was appointed director of the squad, a position he held until 1971. The first cosmonauts arrived in February 1960, the rest the following month, and work formally began with the first lecture at 9 a. m. on the morning of 14th March 1960. Originally, TsPK was located in an office building belonging to the MV Frunze airfield on Leninsky Prospekt, but in June 1960 the centre moved out to a greenfield location. This was a 310 ha site in birch forest, now known as Star Town (sometimes Star City), 30 km to the northeast of Moscow. A secret location until the 1970s, it was to become the most international space training centre in the world by the 1990s.

Star Town’s weather crosses extremes, ranging from +30°C in high summer to —30°C in the depths of winter. A central focus of Star Town is the man-made lake, which freezes over in winter. Around it may be found accommodation for the cosmonauts and workers at Star Town, comprising 15-floor blocks. Transport is mainly by rail via the nearby Tsiolkovsky railway station or by minibus from Moscow [24]. Star Town comprises accommodation, a museum, nursery, school, health and sports centres and an hotel (called Orbita). It is a closed, guarded, walled town, though


Yuri Gagarin at home

entry is now much easier than in its early days. In the central area may be found, within a further walled area, the cosmonaut training centre: simulators, centrifuge, hydrolab (water tank to test spacewalks), planetarium and running track.

The high attrition rate among the first group of cosmonauts meant that a second main group should be selected and, accordingly, a new group of pilots and military engineers was chosen on 11th January 1963.

1963, second Air Force pilot selection (17): Georgi Dobrovolski, Anatoli Filip – chenko, Alexei Gubarev, Anatoli Kuklin, Vladimir Shatalov, Lev Vorobyov, Yuri Artyukin, Edouard Buinovski, Lev Demin, Vladislav Gulyayev, Pyotr Kolodin, Edouard Kugno, Alexander Matinchenko, Anatoli Voronov, Vitally Zholobov, Georgi Beregovoi, Vasili Lazarev.

This group was selected for the flights of the Soyuz complex. There was an important change in direction in recruitment. There had been concerns over the individualistic bent of some members of the first squad. The cosmonaut selectors now wanted to go for slightly older, more mature pilots who would be less likely to cause discipline problems. Graduation from an institute was a requirement, ruling out young pilots straight out of school. There was more emphasis on education and flying experience, less on physical perfection. Military engineers were included for the first time. This was to prove quite a successful selection group, for many went on to become eminent and reliable cosmonaut pilots in the 1970s. One exception was the unfortunate Eduard Kugno. Strange though it might seem to Westerners, membership of the Communist Party was not a prerequisite for selection to the cosmonaut squad (designer and cosmonaut Konstantin Feoktistov was a famous non-joiner). Kugno went a stage further and when asked why he had not joined, he said he would never join a party of ‘swindlers and lickspittles’. He was promptly dismissed for ‘ideological and moral instability’.

Although by this stage, the cosmonaut squad consisted of over 30 members, the multiplicity of manned programmes under way suggested the need for another round of recruitment. In early 1965, the call went out for more candidates and 20 were selected from the 600 who applied. They were a mixture of pilots and engineers, with one military doctor (Degtyaryov). For this group, the Russians went back to younger pilots in their 20s, but this time making sure that they had stable psychological backgrounds.

1965, third Air Force selection (22) (‘the Young Guards’): Leonov Kizim, Pyotr Klimuk, Alexander Kramarenko, Alexander Petrushenko, Gennadiy Sarafanov, Vasili Shcheglov, Ansar Sharafutdinov, Alexander Skvortsov, Valeri Voloshin, Oleg Yakovlev, Vyacheslav Zudov, Boris Belousov, Vladimir Degtyaryov, Ana­toli Fyorodov, Yuri Glazhkov, Vitally Grishenko, Yevgeni Khludeyev, Gennadiy Kolesnikov, Mikhail Lisun, Vladimir Preobrazhenski, Valeri Rozhdestvensky, Edouard Stepanov.

This group was not formed with moon missions in mind at all, but with a view to undertaking, after a lengthy period of training, a range of missions some time in the future. This explains the decision to go for a younger age group. They were accord­ingly called ‘the Young Guards’. This group did, in the course of time, provide a number of pilots for space station missions in the 1970s, but it also suffered high attrition rates.

Originally, there was a broadly accepted view that ‘right stuff’ cosmonauts must be drawn from the military. The Russians began to recruit cosmonauts from further afield much sooner than the Americans. With the first three-man spaceship in 1964, the Voskhod, there were seats which did not need to be filled by military cosmonaut pilots. Sergei Korolev established the principle that engineers and specialists should also be regular participants on Soviet spaceflights and for the Voskhod mission awarded one seat to a designer, the other to a doctor (Boris Yegorov was the lucky man). For the civilian engineer group, two were selected, of whom one would fly, N-1


Yuri Gagarin with Valentina Tereshkova

and Soyuz complex designer Konstantin Feoktistov. He was now a senior designer in Korolev’s own OKB-1 and had been involved in the design departments from the mid – 1960s. When the opportunity came to fly passengers on Voskhod, he leapt at the chance.

1964 civilian engineers (2): Konstantin Feoktistov, Georgi Katys.

Konstantin Feoktistov was drawn from OKB-1 and Georgi Katys from the Academy of Sciences. This was not intended as a cosmonaut group as such, but as a selection that would train for one mission only and then return to normal duties. Feoktistov did not go back quietly, but pressed persistently but unsuccessfully to get further missions. Medical tests went against him. He continued to offer his opinions on spaceflight history and contemporary issues into the 1990s.

The first substantial group of civilian engineers was recruited by Vasili Mishin on 23rd May 1966. They did not report for training until September and some of those listed joined the group even later.


Sergei Korolev with Konstantin Feoktistov

1966 civilian engineers (10): Gennadiy Dolgopolov, Georgi Grechko, Valeri Kubasov, Oleg Makarov, Vladislav Volkov, Alexei Yeliseyev, Vladimir Bugrov, Nikolai Rukhavishnikov, Vitally Sevastianov, Sergei Anokhin (instructor cosmonaut).

Sergei Anokhin was a leading test pilot and put in charge of the group. All were drawn from OKB-1. Despite the worries of the military, there had been no disasters arising from the flying of civilians on Voskhod. The successful flight of Konstantin Feoktis­tov set the trend for the permanent division of cosmonaut selection into two streams: the military and civilian (with the further category of specialist). Later, it became standard for Russian spacecrews to comprise a military commander and civilian flight engineer. Because of its preeminence in the manned spaceflight programme, almost all the civilians came to be drawn from OKB-1, but in the course of time small numbers were also taken from the other design bureaux and from the Institute of Bio Medical Problems. The rationale behind the civilian selections was that those who knew most about the spaceships were those who designed them. They were the best people to fix them if they went wrong. By contrast, there was no equivalent tradition in the American space programme.

A larger selection of specialists was made several years later: four scientists.

1967 Academy of Sciences (4) : Rudolf Gulyayev, Ordinard Kolomitsev, Mars Fatkullin, Valentin Yershov.

This was the first selection of scientists in the Soviet space programme [25] and was an initiative of the President of the Academy of Sciences, Mstislav Keldysh. The United


Cosmonaut Valentin Yershov, lunar navigator

States had also begun scientist selections at around this time. Eighteen scientists applied for this selection, four reaching the final selection on 22nd May 1967. Gulyayev, Kolomitsev and Fatkullin came from the Institute for Terrestrial Magnet­ism, Ionosphere and Radio Wave Propagation, while Yershov came from the Institute for Applied Mathematics. Kolomitsev was a true explorer, having spent over four years at the Soviet Antarctic southern magnetic pole Vostok base. The first three hoped to get assignments on Earth-orbiting missions, but Yershov was chosen with the upcoming lunar missions in mind where he would assist as navigator. He had an unhappy background, for his father, a police officer, had been killed by the NKVD secret police. Yershov, born 1928, had developed surface-to-air missiles before joining Keldysh’s Institute for Applied Mathematics in 1956. There he specialized in space­craft navigation, working on the development of the autonomous navigation system of the L-1 Zond. Yershov even developed a theorem of measurement named partly after him, the Elwing-Yershov theorem.

Finally, a group of three engineers was selected in 1969 and they were the last group whose members entered lunar selections.

1969 civilian engineers (3): Vladimir Fortushny, Viktor Patsayev, Valeri


The last two were drawn from OKB-1, Vladimir Fortushny from the Paton Institute of Welding in the Ukraine. Fortushny was selected with a view to a welding-in-space mission, not for lunar flights (the mission was flown as Soyuz 6 in 1969, but by another cosmonaut, Valeri Kubasov). So this was the pool from which the lunar missions would be drawn.


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.


Apollo ended in December 1972, and from thereon the Russians knew that they had the moon to themselves. When Luna 21 headed moonwards on 8th January 1973, the launching was seen in the West as deliberately calculated to take advantage of the end of the Apollo programme. In fact, the timing was coincidental. The second mooncar, for that was what Luna 21 carried, had taken a full year to redesign after Lunokhod had terminated its programme. Luna 21 weighed 1,814 kg and its translunar flight was problematical. False telemetry signals nearly aborted the mission and then Lunokhod 2’s solar lid opened during the translunar coast, without being asked to do so.


Luna 20 landed in snow


Lunokhod 2

Luna 21 entered a near-circular lunar orbit on schedule on 12th January between 90 km and 110 km, 1 hr 58 min, 60°. The next day, the perilune was lowered to 16 km. On its 41st moon orbit, 255 km from its objective, Luna 21 began its descent from an altitude of 16 km, coming down at 215m/sec. The target was the 55 km wide Le Monnier cratered bay, the target for the first, failed Lunokhod in 1969. Le Monnier was only 180 km from the valley just visited by Jack Schmitt and Eugene Cernan of Apollo 17. Off the edge of the Sea of Serenity, the now eroded remains of the Le Monnier crater cut into the edge of the rocky Taurus Mountains. The main engine blasted at 750 m, cutting out at 22 m when a secondary thruster brought the spacecraft down to 1.5 m, from which height it fell gently to the surface at 7km/hr.

Luna 21 came down in a relatively flat area surrounded by the high rims of the old crater. The site had been chosen because Le Monnier marked the transition between the low mare and the upland continental area. Le Monnier was a flooded rim rather than a sharply defined crater. The location was 25.85°N, 30.45°E, the landing time 02: 35 Moscow time on 16th January. The navigation system failed at the moment of touchdown, which meant that – although the rover was intact – the drivers were not sure exactly where it was.

Lunokhod 2 first activated its cameras and panned around the landing site from the high vantage point of the landing state. With the slogan Fifty years of the Soviet


Lunokhod 2 with hills behind

Union! 1923-1973 emblazoned on it, Lunokhod 2 rolled down the landing ramps not long afterwards. Lunokhod 2 at once made a trial journey over the surface and then parked for two days 30 m away to charge up the batteries. Cameras at once showed the mare, the crater rim to the south and a massive stone split into lumps in the fore­ground.

Lunokhod 2 was a distinct improvement over its predecessor. It was 100 kg heavier at 840 kg. It could travel at twice the speed, having two speeds, 1 km/hr and 2 km/hr (its average turned out to be 15.5 m/hr). Lunokhod 2 was designed to handle obstacles of 40 cm and holes of 60 cm. It had twice the range. Addressing some of the driving problems arising from the first Lunokhod, pictures were now trans­mitted to its drivers every 3.2 sec, compared with 20 sec before. The cameras were moved much higher. Lunokhod 2 had three low-rate cameras on the front, able to scan 360° vertically and 30° horizontally, with two double panoramic cameras able to scan 180° horizontally and 30° vertically. The television cameras had three possible scan rates: 3.2, 5.7 and 21.1 sec per frame. There were new scientific instruments, most notably a photodetector called Rubin to detect ultraviolet light sources in our galaxy and the level of Earthglow on the nighttime moon. The heat source was again an isotope made of polonium-210. The magnetometer was deployed on a boom 2.5 m in front. The laser reflector had an accuracy of 25 cm.

Lunokhod 2’s programme was first to inspect the descent stage, to which it would not return and then it would head south to the mountains 7 km away and explore there. In its first journeys, Lunokhod 2 investigated craters close to the landing stage, taking detours to avoid big rocks. At the end of its first lunar day, Lunokhod 2 parked 1 km southeast from its landing stage.

Lunokhod 2 instruments

• Soil mechanics tester.

• Solar X-ray detector.

• Magnetometer.

• Photodetector (Rubin).

• Laser reflector (France).


Lunokhod 2 wheel marks on the moon

On 8th February, Lunokhod 2 began its first full lunar day and in ten days reached the southern rim of Le Monnier, exploring the edge of the rim and two craters there, one 2 km wide. The nature of the ground varied from soft and loose to hard and firm. In one crater in the foothills, it circled around the edge of a crater with a 25° slope, taking analyses at numerous spots. In the course of one of its early sessions, the bug-eyed roving vehicle went 1,148 m in six hours – much faster than anything achieved before. It climbed one hill of 400 m, with its wheels at one stage slipping up to 80%. From the top it sent back an eerie photograph of the Taurus peaks glowing to the north, 60 km away and the thin sickle of the Earth rising just above. As it journeyed, it measured and analyzed the lunar soil. Lunokhod 2 rambled around the southern rim of Le Monnier. By the end of February, the rover had travelled farther than the first Lunokhod in its ten months.

Now, in March, Lunokhod 2 headed off on its greatest adventure. On the day the Lunokhod landed, the Institute of Space Research (IKI) in Moscow was holding a symposium on solar system exploration, one also attended by American scientists. One of the Americans had brought with with him a batch of new Apollo 17 pictures of that region of the moon, for it was close to the Apollo 17 landing site, giving them to Lavochkin lunar bureau chief Oleg Ivanovsky. They were so detailed that they showed up a new rille, 16 km long and 300m wide, the Fossa Recta, to the east of the rover. Lunokhod 2 was duly directed there, setting out on an eastward course to explore the new rille and there it travelled, the flat crater of Le Monnier on its left flank, its rim and the Taurus Mountains on its right. The rover skirted around small craters as it journeyed eastward. By 20th March it was just west of the rille.

On lunar day 4, April, Lunokhod 2 travelled southwest around the southern end of the rille, exploring it from both sides. Here, geologists were excited to spot an outcrop of bedrock. Although the surface was a firm volcanic basalt, there were occasional dusty soft spots and at one stage the tracks of the rover sank about 20 cm into the lunar surface. The journey along the rille was a dangerous one, for there were many metre-size boulders along its ledge. Lunokhod parked around the eastern side on 19th April. The magnetometer identified a magnetic anomaly on the western edge of the rille.

The ground control veterans of Lunokhod, temporarily idle for a year, had resumed their work in two shifts of two hours each. Driving the Lunokhod over the moon required teamwork. The navigator was responsible for the route over the


Driving the Lunokhod

Подпись: Feb: southward
Подпись: journey
Подпись: Fossa Recta
Подпись: Luna 21 arrival Jan 1973

ALONG THE RILLE OF LE MONNIER BAYFoothills at crater rim

The journey of Lunokhod 2

lunar surface, but in reality the decisions were taken by the whole team, once even voting on the best route. The radio and antenna operator was responsible for ensuring that – whatever the direction of the rover – the antenna was pointing toward Earth and the solar lid was in a position to collect sufficient energy from the sun. The teams worked their shifts according to the lunar day and night and sometimes lost track of Earth time, day and night. Once, during an especially tense drive across the moon, contact with Lunokhod broke off abruptly. Only when they pulled back the curtains of the control room did that realize that the reason was that the moon had just set below the horizon.

In May, Lunokhod resumed its journey on the eastern side of the rille, once traversing up an 18° slope. It was expected that Lunokhod 2 would continue its work for several months, but on 4th June came the sudden announcement from Radio Moscow that ‘the programme had been completed.’ No explanation was given at the time, nor a suggestion that anything had gone amiss. Like so many events in the Soviet
lunar programme, the real story did not emerge for ages – 30 years later [10]. Some extreme versions even came out, like that the moon rover had ‘turned turtle’.

The reality was more prosaic. On 9th May, soon into the new lunar day, Lunokhod had descended into a small but deep 5 m wide crater inside a much larger crater, its depth concealed by the shadows thrown by a low-sun angle. As the drivers tried to manoeuvre Lunokhod out of the crater, the lid touched the crater wall, dumping clumps of lunar soil onto the solar cells. The immediate consequences were not serious – the loss of some electric power – but the long-term consequences were fatal. When night came, the lid was closed, as normal. In closing the lid, the soil was then dumped onto the radiator. When lunar dawn came in early June and the lid was raised again, the lunar soil acted as an insulator, preventing the rover from properly releasing its heat. The heat inside rose and Lunokhod quickly died.

The Russians seem to have been disappointed, but there is little reason why they should have been. Lunokhod 2 had travelled 37 km, sent back 86 panoramic pictures and 80,000 television pictures and had covered four times the area of its predecessor. It had investigated not only crater floors but much more difficult geological features like rilles and uplands. One of its most interesting findings actually had nothing to do with the lunar surface, but the suitability of the moon as a base for observing the sky. Whilst it would be excellent during the lunar night, during the daytime the lunar sky was surrounded by a swarm of dust particles, a kind of atmosphere that would make telescopic observations very difficult. The astrophotometer determined that the lunar night sky was, in Earthglow, 15 times brighter than Earth’s night sky in moonlight. Detailed tables of the composition of the lunar rocks were published, comparing those sampled by Luna 16, Lunokhod 1 and Lunokhod 2. In the case of Lunokhod 2, it was possible to make comparisons between the composition of the mare and continental rocks [11], the proportions of aluminium, silicon, potassium and iron being different. The RIFMA-M X-ray flourescent spectrometer measured the soil near the lander as 24% silicon, 8% calcium, 6% iron and 9% aluminium, but the soil at the edge of the Taurus Hills showed a sharp rise in iron content. Lunokhod 2’s average speed was 27.9 m/hr, seven times faster than its predecessor and it covered seven times the distance. Up to a thousand penetrations of the lunar surface were made by the two rovers between them. The laser fired 4,000 times with an accuracy of 25 cm. The magnetometer had been installed following measurements of some form of lunar ionosphere by Luna 19 the previous year. Lunokhod 2’s magnetometer determined

Table 7.3. The journey of Lunokhod 2, 1973





16 Jan

24 Jan


Land and charge battery

8 Feb

23 Feb


Journey south to the rim of Le Monnier Bay

11 Mar

23 Mar


Journey east to Fossa Recta

9 Apr

22 Apr


Exploration of the rille

8 May


End of mission

that there was a very weak permanent magnetic field around the moon, its measure­ments being broadly in line with those of Apollo. The temperature of the lunar night was measured at — 183°C. Back in Moscow, mission scientists made a geological map of Le Monnier Bay, complete with slices of the surface, bedrock and underlying strata.


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.


The selection of cosmonauts into two groups reflected the two streams of the moon programme: around the moon (L-1) and landings (LOK and LK). The first selection took place on 2nd September 1966, when an L-1 Zond group was established:

Commanders: Georgi Beregovoi, Valeri Bykovsky, Yuri Gagarin, Yevgeni Khru – nov, Alexei Leonov, Vladimir Komarov, Andrian Nikolayev, Vladimir Shatalov and Boris Volynov.

Flight engineers: Georgi Grechko, Valeri Kubasov, Oleg Makarov, Vladislav Volkov, Alexei Yeliseyev.

This was modified 18th January 1967 and made smaller on account of the upcoming Soyuz 1/2 mission:

Commanders: Pyotr Klimuk, Alexei Leonov, Pavel Popovich, Valeri Voloshin, Boris Volynov, Yuri Artyukhin.

Engineers: Georgi Grechko, Oleg Makarov, Nikolai Rukhavishnikov, Vitally Sevastianov, Anatoli Voronov.

This officially marked the start of mission training for the lunar programme. Despite the selection, getting training under way was another matter. The first simulator for the L-1, called Volchok, did not arrive until a year later, in January 1968. It was built by the M. M. Gromov Flight Research Institute and installed at the Air Force Institute for Space Medicine. The main function of the simulator was to enable the training group to practise high-speed ballistic and skip reentries into the Earth’s atmosphere, which was considered the point of greatest difficulty and danger. Versions of the simulator were developed for the LK (Luch), the descent module (Saturn) and for practising rendezvous (Uranus and Orion). The group did no fewer than 70 simulated returns from the moon and, according to Alexei Leonov, learned to land the simulator back on Earth with an accuracy of 1,000 m. Not only that, but they practised the reentry manoeuvre in the 3,000-tonne centrifuge in Star Town. At one stage, Alexei Leonov was subjected to 14 G, causing haemorrhages on those parts of his body that were most severely compressed.

The arrival of the simulator, which had two seats, prompted crews to be divided into pairs for the around-the-moon mission. With the Soyuz programme grounded, cosmonauts could be reassigned. By February 1968, five crews had been formed for the L-1 Zond mission: [6]

Although a member of the original group, Grechko had lost his place temporarily due to breaking his leg in a parachute jump (Vitally Sevastianov took his place). The definitive crews for the L-1 mission were eventually settled on 27th October 1968. The final selection was as follows:


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 Ye-8 series included two orbiters, Ye-8LS, both being launched successfully. They flew the last of the trio of rovers of orbiters and rovers, although it had originally been intended they go first. Their role was to:

• Take photographs of points of interest so as to identify landing sites for later sample return, rover and manned missions.

• Study mascons, magnetic fields, the composition of lunar rocks, meteorites and cislunar space.

New cameras were developed for the series by Arnold Selivanov. Essentially, he adapted the optical-mechanical camera of Luna 9 and 13 as an orbital panoramic camera in such a way as to make 180° long panoramic sweeps extending to the edge of the moon. The images would be developed on board, scanned at 4 lines/sec and relayed back to Earth. These are called optical-mechanical linear cameras and can be used from moving spacecraft.

Warning of a new moon probe first appeared in January 1971 when predictions of ‘low-flying artificial satellites’ were made that would fly ‘fairly soon’. Sure enough, Luna 19 was launched on 28th September 1971 and entered circular lunar orbit of 140 km at 40°, 2 hr 01 min, on 3rd October. Two sets of details were published for the



first day of operation, indicating either a tweaking of the orbit or a refinement of the earlier figures. Three days later, it settled into steady operational orbit of 127 x 135km, 2hr 01 min, 40°. It is more than likely that Luna 19 kept the large tanks used for orbital insertion and continued to use them for manoeuvres, rather than drop them soon after arrival in lunar orbit. The mission was publicized through periodic reports in Pravda and Izvestia. Although at least five full panoramas were assembled, only one section of one was published, along with an illustration showing the probe being loaded onto its Proton carrier rocket, but the detail is poor.

The mission lasted till 3rd October 1972 and 1,000 communication sessions were held. Luna 19 reported back on magnetic fields, mascons, the lunar gravity field, meteoroids and sent back televised pictures of an area 30°S to 60°S and 20°E to 30°E, the quality of publication much improved compared with Luna 12 in 1966. In February 1972, it swept over the Torrid Gulf near the crater Eratosthenes (11°W, 15°N) and filmed rock-strewn plains above which reared a volcanic-like summit. In order to take such pictures it had dropped into a new, lower orbit of 77 x 385 km, 131 min. Another landing area surveyed was around craters Godin and Agrippa at 10°E, 3°N. Some science reports were issued, noting how Luna 19 had measured solar flares and plasma, mascons, the lunar surface and the composition of its soil. The strength of the magnetic field on the nearside and farside of the moon was compared. Radiation levels were measured, especially their rise and fall during solar flares. Ten solar flares were detected. Some cislunar plasma was detected, but the outcome of this experiment was unclear. An altimeter called Vega was carried to measure the precise distance of the probe to the moon (important during its low perilunes). A gamma ray spectrometer took broad measurements of the composition of the lunar surface. A radio occultation experiment was carried out in May 1972 and this found charged particles about 10 km over the moon. The magnetometer measured magnetic fields as the moon moved in and out of the Earth’s long magnetic tail. The mission lasted 4,000 orbits.


Luna 19 low pass

It was a full year before the next orbiting moon probe, Luna 22, took off on 2nd June 1974. The Luna 22 launch came at an important international moment, for the first Soviet-American conference on lunar exploration took place that month, June 1974. Together, the scientists were able to agree on the approximate date of the moon (4bn years), the nature of its crust (thick), the processes that had shaped it and that the moon shared a broadly similar formation to the Earth.

Ground observatories tracked Luna 22 as far as 250,000 km out. Luna 22 entered almost circular moon orbit at 219 x 221km, 2 hr 10 min, 19.6° four days later. A week later, it swooped down to 25 x 244 km for special photography for four days, before going back up again to 181 x 299 km. Over the next year, Luna 22 several times altered its orbit, displaying both versatility and reliability. In November 1974, coinciding with the arrival in orbit of Luna 23, it operated in an eccentric orbit of 171 x 1,437km out, 3 hr 12 min, then raising its perilune to 200 km and making a minor plane change to 21°. Then, in August 1975 it dipped to a mere 30 km over the surface for a week, going out farther to 1,578 km, before returning to a regular orbit of 96 x 1,286 km out when its mission ended in November 1975.

Lunar orbit photography was done both from altitude and at low points, the latter presumably to search for landing sites, but no details were ever given of the sites surveyed and the following two Lunas (23 and 24) were both aimed at the Luna 15 sites which, presumably, had been mapped before 1969. There were two extended periods in which no manoeuvres were made, presumably so as to give time to measure changes to its path arising from distortions in the moon’s gravitational field.

Few scientific results were released from the mission, although they could have been substantial, as evidenced by the heavy radio traffic to and from the probe over the 18 months of its operation. These results could have covered the surface composition, topography and micometeoroid impacts, which were much fewer in the higher orbit. Lunar topography was mapped carefully through the use of an altimeter and a gamma ray spectrometer analyzed the composition of the surface [12]. Science reports indicated that Luna 22 studied the moon’s gravitational field, micrometeorites (23 impacts recorded) and solar plasma. The probe indicated that a sheath of ionized gas forms 8 km over the lunar surface during sunlight. Eight photographs eventually reached the NASA archives in the 1990s. Ten full panoramas were reportedly assembled.

Подпись: Orbits of Luna 19, 22 Luna 19 2 Oct 1971 (LOI) 2 Oct 1971 7 Oct 1971 28 Nov 1971 2 Dec 1971 Feb 1972 140 x 148 km, 2hr 04min, 40.58°

140 km circular, 2 hr 01 min, 40.58°

127 x 135km

77 x 385km, 2hr 11 min

127 x 135 km

77 x 385km, 2hr 11 min

219 x 221km, 2 hr 10 min, 19°

Подпись: Luna 22 6 June 1974 (LOI) 9 June 1974 13 June 11 Nov 1974 2 Apr 1975 24 Aug 1975 2 Sep 1975 25 x 244km for four days 181 x 299 km

171 x 1,437km, 3hr 12min, 19.55°

200 x 1,409 km, 3hr 12 min, plane change to 21° 30 x 1,578 km

Orbit raised to 96 x 1,286 km, 21°

The orbital paths of the two missions show similarities and differences. Having adjusted its original insertion orbit, Luna 19 operated for the first portion of its mission from a 127 x 135-km near-circular orbit (October-November). At the end of November, it dropped its perilune to 77 km for three days of photographic observa­tions, before coming back to the circular orbit. In February, Luna 19 went back to its lower perilune, where it apparently stayed. Luna 22, by contrast, followed three sets of orbits. Its operating orbit was around 200 km, dropping twice for photographic surveys for periods of less than a week, in late June 1974 and late August 1975. The perilunes were on both occasions much lower than those of Luna 19, this time descending to 25-30 km. In addition, Luna 22 also flew, twice, into an eccentric orbit, out as far as 1,578 km. The precise rationale for these manoeuvres has never been explained.


Orbiting the moon was as essential to a manned mission as a soft-landing. Good photographs were essential to determine landing sites and it was important to learn as much as possible about the lunar orbit environment to ensure there were no nasty surprises (there were).

The Soviet lunar orbiter programme was commissioned by OKB-1 at the same time as the Ye-6 programme. Called the Ye-7 programme, it made very slow progress in comparison. Two partially completed Ye-7 models were turned over by OKB-1 to OKB Lavochkin in summer 1965 during the move between the design bureaux. After the success of Luna 9, attention focused on the lunar-orbiting missions.


Luna 10

Although the Ye-7 photographic equipment was not ready, Russia still wanted to achieve a lunar orbit before the Americans did so with their upcoming lunar orbiter. There was also political pressure to mark the 23rd Communist Party Congress, opening at the end of March 1966 and the first congress of new Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Georgi Babakin and Mstislav Keldysh proposed that the Ye-6 bus be used to fly a lunar orbit mission in time for the congress.

This hastily conceived lunar orbiter was called the Ye-6S. It used the Ye-6 bus, to which was attached not the normal lander, but a pressurized 245 kg cabin that would serve as a lunar orbiter. It is more than likely that the cabin was taken from what would have been an Earth-orbiting satellite in the Cosmos series. Its shape strongly suggests that it may have been one of the Cosmos series built by Mikhail Yangel’s design bureau in Dnepropetrovsk. It was equipped with seven scientific instruments originally planned for the Ye-7, including a magnetometer on a long boom. From the ground, scientists would also measure gases in the lunar environment by examining signal strengths as the probe appeared and reappeared behind the lunar limb, and watch for changes in the orbit due to the lunar gravitational field. Lunar orbit insertion would be performed by the Ye-6 bus. Instead of a 46 sec burn for soft – landing, a much smaller burn was required for orbit insertion. Once in orbit, the pressurized Cosmos cabin would separate for an independent mission.

The first Ye-6S was launched on 1st March 1966. The upper-stage problems reasserted themselves and block L failed to fire the probe – renamed Cosmos 111 — out of Earth orbit. The second Ye-6S eventually got away on 31st March 1966. No sooner was it streaking towards the moon than it was announced that it was directed towards an entirely new objective — lunar orbit. Eight thousand kilometers from the moon, Luna 10 was turned around in its path and its rockets blazed briefly but effectively. They knocked 0.64km/sec off its speed, just enough to let it be captured by the moon’s gravity field. The boiler-shaped instrument cabin separated on schedule 20 sec later. Luna 10 was pulled into an orbit of 349 by 1,015 km, 71.9°, 2 hr 58 min and became the first spacecraft to orbit the moon.

But, first things first, Luna 10 celebrated the latest Russian achievement in style. Celestial mechanics meant that Luna 10 would enter the first of its lunar orbits just as the Communist Party was assembling in Moscow for its morning congress session. As it rounded the eastern edge of the moon, Luna 10’s transmitter went full on and relayed the bars of the Internationale — in turn, broadcast live by loudspeaker direct to the party congress over the static of deep space. It was a triumphant moment and the 5,000 delegates had good reason to stand and cheer wildly. Thirty years later, it was learned that the ‘live’ broadcast was actually a prerecording taken from Luna 10 earlier in the mission. The radio engineers did not trust the live broadcast to work, but, as they later admitted, playing tricks on the Central Committee was a dangerous game and the truth could only be safely revealed in the 1990s when the Central Committee itself was no more.

Luna 10’s mission lasted way into the summer and did not end till 30th May after 56 days, 460 lunar revolutions and 219 communication sessions. Data were trans­mitted on 183 MHz aerials and also on 922 MHz aerials. A stream of data was sent back by its magnetometer, gamma ray spectrometer, infrared radiometer, cosmic ray detector and meteoroid counter. These found a very weak magnetic field around the moon, 0.001% that of Earth (probably a distortion of the interplanetary magnetic field); no lunar magnetic poles; cosmic radiation at 5 particles/cm2/sec; 198 meteoroid impacts, more in lunar orbit than in the flight to the moon; no gaseous atmosphere; and that there were anomalous zones of mass concentrations below the lunar surface disturbing the lunar orbit (mascons). Using its gamma ray spectrometer, Luna 10 began the first initial survey of the chemistry of the moon, enabling a preliminary map to be compiled. Lunar rocks gave a composition signature broadly similar to basalt, but other important clues to its composition were picked out. The gamma ray spec­trometer was used to measure the level of uranium, thorium and potassium in lunar rock. There were significant variations in radiation levels on the moon, being high in

Подпись: Luna 10 enters lunar orbit

the Sea of Clouds, for example. Luna 10’s magnetometer was put on the end of a 1.5 m boom and took measurements every 128 sec for two months. Designer Shmaia Dolginov – who had built the original magnetometer on the First Cosmic Ship – was able to refine the range to between —50 and +50 gammas.

Подпись: Ye-6S Height Base Weight (payload) Orbiting altitude Plane
Подпись: 1.5m 75 cm 245 kg 350 x 1,000 km 71.9°

Luna 10’s final orbit, as measured on 31st May, was 378-985 km, 72.2° – whether the changes were due to mascons or reflect more accurate measurement of the original orbit is not certain. Despite its hasty assembly, the Dnepropetrovsk Cosmos mission had presented a significant haul of science, significantly advancing the knowledge of the moon in only a couple of months.

Luna 10 instruments

Meteorite particle recorder. Gamma spectrometer. Magnetometer with three channels. Solar plasma experiment.

Infrared recorder.

Radiation detector.

Charged particle detector.

Подпись: Luna 10 cabin

The discoveries of Luna 10

Weak magnetic field around the moon, 0.001%.

No lunar magnetic poles.

Cosmic radiation in lunar orbit.

Meteoroid impacts, more in lunar orbit than in the flight to the moon. No gaseous atmosphere.


Basaltic surface composition.