Early work on the Space Shuttle in the late 1960s did not spark an immediate response from the Soviet side for a number of reasons. The only two design bureaus capable of building manned spacecraft had more pressing concerns. TsKBEM, the former Korolyov design bureau (now headed by Vasiliy Mishin), was preoccupied with Soyuz, the civilian DOS space station, and the N-1/L-3 manned lunar program. TsKBM, the Chelomey design bureau, was busy working on the military Almaz space station and its TKS transport ship, not to mention a variety of unmanned military satellites and anti-ship missile projects.
Not only would the development of a large reusable spacecraft place an extra burden on the already overtaxed design bureaus, there simply was no clear need for such a system in the near future. The Soyuz and TKS spacecraft could perfectly handle transportation tasks for the DOS and Almaz stations and the Soviet Union had a varied fleet of expendable rockets to satisfy satellite launch requirements for many years to come.
Looking at the more distant future, TsKBEM was studying a so-called Multipurpose Orbital Complex (MOK), an entire orbital infrastructure aimed at lowering space transportation costs. Even here there was no immediate need for a large reusable shuttle system. The centerpiece of the MOK was to be a giant N-1 launched space station called MKBS (Multipurpose Space Base Station) that would serve as an orbiting garage. The idea was that satellites in the constellation would be serviced either at the MKBS or regularly be visited by MKBS-based crews flying light versions of the Soyuz outfitted with a manipulator arm. The satellites themselves would be orbited by expendable rockets or partially reusable rockets based on the N-1. In April 1972 Mishin and Chelomey got approval for a joint proposal to turn Almaz into a combined civilian/military space station serviced by Soyuz spacecraft, allowing TsKBEM to focus on the more distant goal of creating the MOK. The two chief designers agreed that Chelomey’s TKS would be the MOK’s key transportation
system during the program’s experimental phase. Reusable transportation systems were part of the MOK plans, but only at a later stage .
There were also other obstacles to the initiation of a Space Shuttle type project. Requiring a blend of aviation, rocket, and space technology, it would be an organizational nightmare. The leading missile and space design bureaus, including TsKBEM and TsKBM, came under the “space and missile industry’’ known as the Ministry of General Machine Building (MOM) (headed by Sergey Afanasyev), while the leading aviation design bureaus were under the Ministry of the Aviation Industry (MAP) (headed by Pyotr Dementyev). Although both were willing to participate in such an effort, neither was eager to take on prime responsibility for it, considering it to be “the other ministry’s field of business’’.
Finally, the atmosphere around the turn of the decade may not have been conducive to the start of a totally new program. It was a period marked by many spectacular failures in the Soviet space program, both launch vehicle mishaps (notably the Proton and the N-l) and spacecraft malfunctions (notably lunar and deep-space probes). The string of failures even led to the creation of an investigative commission, which concluded that one of the root causes for the numerous setbacks was the lack of proper ground-testing facilities such as engine test stands, vacuum chambers, and the like. Embarking on a completely new, costly, and technologically advanced project under such conditions would not have been a logical course of action.
However, while any final decision on a Soviet shuttle was still years away, some in the Soviet space community did think it was time to begin preliminary research on such a system. The initiative seems to have come from the Military Industrial Commission (VPK), a body under the Council of Ministers (the Soviet government) that oversaw all defense-related ministries (including MOM and MAP). Among its tasks was to formulate new proposals for military and space projects (with the necessary input from the design bureaus and the military community), which could then be officially approved in the form of joint decrees of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the Council of Ministers. These decrees would set rough timelines for projects, outline their major goals, and also assign the main organizations that would be involved. It was then again up to the VPK to implement those decrees by dividing the work among the design bureaus, setting concrete timetables, and convening meetings of the people in charge.
In a draft proposal for the Soviet Union’s next five-year space program dated 27 November 1970, the VPK suggested that both MOM and MAP as well as other organizations should work out a so-called “draft plan’’ for a “unified reusable transport ship’’ in 1972. This is the first known written evidence of the Soviet Union’s intention to respond to the Space Shuttle. Essentially, it was an order to produce nothing more than paperwork. The “draft plan’’ is just one of the preliminary stages that Soviet space projects went through before metal was actually cut.
Indications are that the phrase about the reusable transportation system was not included in the final government and party decree describing the country’s goals in space for the next five years. Clearly, the time was not quite ripe enough even for preliminary research on a shuttle system. There may have been opposition from
MOM and MAP but, perhaps more importantly, there was no urgent need to begin this work because the US Space Shuttle had not even been officially approved.
Even President Nixon’s go-ahead for the Space Shuttle project in January 1972 did not set in motion a concerted effort to develop a reusable spacecraft. The first high-level meeting in response to Nixon’s January 1972 announcement was organized by the VPK on 31 March 1972. It was attended by both industry and military officials, more particularly representatives of TsNIIMash (MOM’s leading space test and research facility), the TsNII-30 and TsNII-50 military research institutes, the Chief Directorate of Space Assets or GUKOS (the “space branch’’ of the Strategic Rocket Forces) and the Air Force, but no consensus was reached on the need for a response. At this stage the VPK once again formulated a draft proposal asking MOM, MAP, and other organizations to develop a draft plan for a shuttle system, but it met with stiff opposition from MOM minister Afanasyev and was not accepted.
In late April 1972 another meeting took place at TsNIIMash, attended by some of the chief designers (Mishin, Chelomey, Glushko), officials of MOM and TsNII-50. Their conclusion was that a reusable space transportation system was a less efficient and less cost-effective way of delivering payloads to orbit than expendable boosters. Also, they did not see an immediate need for using such a system to return satellites or other hardware back to Earth, certainly not after Mishin and Chelomey had received approval for the MOK/TKS plan that same month. Moreover, at this point the US Space Shuttle was not considered a military threat to the Soviet Union .