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Soviet Lunar Programs

Both the Soviet and the American space program had their roots in the same dream, that began with Jules Verne to Constantine Tsiolkovsky to Hermann Oberth. From these early visionaries, the plan was to go into earth orbit first, then a space station, and finally exploration of the Moon and then Mars. The race into space jumped one of steps by going to the Moon after going into earth orbit.

Brian Harvey wrote "The Soviet moon programme began in an unlikely place - in a children's magazine, on 2nd October 1951. Mikhail Tikhonravov was a veteran rocket engineer from the 1920s and was now convinced that a flight to the moon might soon become a practical possibility. In the paranoia of Stalin's Russia, talking about unapproved projects like moon flights was a potentially dangerous enterprise, so he chose a relatively safe outlet, one unlikely to raise the blood pressure of the censors: the pages of Pionerskaya Pravda, the newspaper devoted to communist youth. There, on 2nd October 1951, he outlined how two men could fly out to the moon and back in a 1,000 tonne rocketship. The article concluded: "We do not have long to wait. We can assume that the bold dream of Tsiolkovsky will be realized within the next 10 to 15 years. All of you will become witness to this and some of you may even be participants in unprecedented journeys."

The Soviet lunar program, though it had a long history, was never completed. This was due to many reasons. The first successes of the USSR in space instilled hope in domestic designers and made the Americans nervous, who suddenly turned out to be second. But luck turned away from the Soviets, and since the beginning of the 60s, things did not go so smoothly as planned. As a result, the USSR did not send a single cosmonaut to the moon at all, having lost this regular race. But, nevertheless, the Soviet lunar projects were very interesting.


The lunar program takes its official start on January 30, 1956, when almost two years remained before the launch of the first satellite. A decree was created that outlined the future development of the Soviet space program, and among them were the following points:

  1. Launch of artificial earth satellites weighing up to 2.5 tons into low orbit by 1958
  2. Weekly launches of manned spacecraft by 1964
  3. Unmanned reconnaissance satellite by 1970
  4. A launch vehicle (RN) capable of communicating a second space velocity to a 12-ton payload.
  5. A launch vehicle capable of launching 100 tons into Earth orbit for landing on the moon of 2-3 cosmonauts. No time was specified for this item.

The dates for implementing the lunar program, described at this time, were more cautious than all subsequent ones: in a few years, an expedition to the moon was planned for 1967-69. This was due to the fact that the lunar program had no military significance: the majority of manned flights were planned to be carried out for reconnaissance and other non-peaceful purposes. In addition, the USSR and the United States have not yet started the next competition.

Many technical details were not known. To bring the required 100 tons of cargo into space, it was not enough to use conventional missiles made on the basis of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). It was necessary to create a fundamentally new carrier. Initially, it was even planned to use a nuclear rocket engine, which would use ammonia as a working medium and a nuclear reactor to heat it.

OKB-1 Korolev develops several draft designs. One of them was a RN weighing 2000 tons and putting 150 tons of cargo into orbit. The first and second stages of this rocket worked on ammonia, which was heated in a nuclear reactor to 3500 C and was ejected from the nozzles. Considered options with another working fluid: a mixture of liquid hydrogen and methane. Although in this case pure hydrogen is the ideal substance, its use was impossible due to technical reasons. In terms of size, weight and layout, this rocket resembled the N-1, which will be created for the same purpose a little later.

Work on this type of propulsion system (DU) was stopped in 1959, when it became obvious that conventional engines running on chemical fuel could provide similar performance at a much lower cost and complexity, possessing in addition a solid advantage: they were much safer than nuclear propulsion systems (DU). After the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, and then the first cosmonaut, the United States seeks to catch up and President Kennedy sets a goal: to land an astronaut on the Moon before the end of the decade. The USSR does not make such direct statements, only for some official reports one can understand that something is still planned. What exactly became known relatively recently.


The development of a project for delivering a manned spacecraft to the Moon and its return to Earth changed after the September 24, 1962 decision of the Central Committee of the CPSU and the Council of Ministers of the USSR on the development of the heavy N-1 launch vehicle. The lunar program of the USSR was launched after a policy statement by US President Kennedy in 1962 of intentions to land American astronauts on the Moon by the end of the decade as part of the Apollo program.

In the USSR, several projects of manned space complexes were developed to fly around and land a man on the moon and projects of lunar bases. The main ones are the projects 7K-9K-11K, UR500K-L1 (L1, the flyby of the Moon) and "N1-L3" (landing on the Moon), performed under the guidance of S.P.Korolev, and projects of UR500-LK1 (flyby of the Moon) and UR700-LK700 (landing on the Moon), which were performed under the direction of VN Chelomey. Unlike in the USA, where the circumnavigation of the Moon was a preparation for disembarkation, there were two separate programs in the USSR. By decision of August 3, 1964, the creation of a flying ship was entrusted to Chelomey (OKB-52). To the near-earth orbit LK-1 with a mass of 17.87 tons was to be launched by the UR-500K rocket ("Proton").

NASA gave serious consideration to three options: Initially, direct ascent; then, Earth-orbit rendezvous (EOR), and, finally, a darkhorse candidate, lunar-orbit rendezvous (LOR).

Direct ascent was basically the method that had been pictured in science fiction novels and Hollywood movies. A massive rocket the size of a battleship would be fired directly to the moon, land and then blast off for home directly from the lunar surface. The trip would be like that of a chartered bus, moving from point A to point B and back to A again in one brute of a vehicle. Strong feelings existed within NASA in favor of direct ascent, largely because it meant the development of a proposed giant booster named the Nova.

After the engineers made their calculations, however, NASA realized that any single big rocket that had to carry and lift all the fuel necessary for leaving the Earth's gravity, braking against the moon's gravity as well as leaving it, and braking back down into the Earth's gravity again, was clearly not a realistic option-especially if the mission was to be accomplished anywhere close to President Kennedy's timetable. The development of a rocket that mammoth would just take too long, and the expense would be enormous.

The main idea of Earth-orbit rendezvous [EOR] was to launch two pieces into space independently using advanced Saturn rockets that were then in development; have the two pieces rendezvous and dock in Earth orbit; assemble, fuel, and detach a lunar mission vehicle from the modules that had joined up; and then proceed with that bolstered ship, exactly as in the direct flight mode, to the moon and back to Earth orbit. The advantage of EOR was that it required a pair of less powerful rockets that were already nearing the end of their development. EOR enjoyed strong support inside of NASA, especially among those who recognized that selection of EOR as the mode for the Apollo mission would require the virtual construction of a space station, a platform in Earth orbit that could have many other uses, scientific and otherwise, beyond Apollo.

In the end NASA selected neither of the first two options: instead, it selected the third: lunar-orbit rendezvous. The brainchild of a few true believers at the Langley Research Center who had been experimenting with the idea since 1959, the basic premise of LOR was to fire an assembly of three spacecraft into Earth orbit on top of a single powerful (three-stage) rocket. The chief problems were the complications involved in requiring a rendezvous with the components left in the parking orbit.

On July 11, 1962, after much technical debate and in-fighting, Seamans and NASA Administrator James E. Webb announced during a press conference at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., that lunar-orbit rendezvous had been selected as the primary mission mode for the initial manned moon landing. Considering the strong opposition to LOR during NASA's intensive evaluation of possible mission modes for Apollo, the choice seemed quite unlikely.

The first vague version, L1-R7, envisaged circling the moon by the modified Vostok spacecraft. Pretty soon it became clear that this project is inefficient and has no future at all. Work on the fly-around of the Moon was conducted in OKB-1 (now RSC Energia). On March 10, 1962, S.P.Korolev approved a technical prospectus "Complex for assembling spacecraft in the orbit of a satellite of the Earth. (Theme "Soyuz")". On the ship Vostok-7, equipped with engines for maneuvering, a cosmonaut-fitter was sent to space. He was to assemble in orbit a "space rocket" of three identical accelerating blocks. Then, to this "space train", a special L-1 spacecraft, intended for flying around the Moon, was docked.

In the 1960s, both American and Russian programs seriously looked at space stations. The American program began with the Apollo Applications Workshop that eventually led to the Skylab space station. In the Soviet Union, the need for a space station was first looked at by the Korolev Design Bureau in 1962, which would have been launched by the then fledgling N-1 booster. But since the Korolev Bureau was assigned the task of getting a Russian man to the Moon, the Chelomei Design Bureau was given the space station task which later became known as Almaz.


For parity with the Americans, it was necessary to create a more serious program, which was created by Korolev in 1963. It consisted of five stages and involved detailed lunar explorations. The first stage, R1, provided for a manned flyby of the moon. The second, L2, was a lunar rover (not to confuse the L2 rover of the L2 program with Lunokhod-1 and Lunokhod-2, who worked on the Moon — these are different devices), who surveyed the proposed landing sites of the lunar ship (project L3) with cosmonauts. At the next stages, more detailed scientific experiments were planned from the orbit (program L4) and from the surface (L5).

In May 1963 the project was modified - there was an automatic docking, and Vostok-7 disappeared. The "Soyuz" flyby complex included the ship itself, which received the designation 7K (it was from this development that the modern "Soyuz" grew), the 9K missile unit and the 11K tanker ships. All the elements of the system had to be put into orbit by a modified "seven", Korolev did not plan to use "alien" missiles. The first rocket unit was launched, four (!!!) tankers were automatically attached to it in automatic mode in order to fill with 22 tons of fuel.

The last flight was a 7K ship with crew. After docking the ship to the refueled rocket block, the latter separated the unnecessary now (but necessary for docking with the tankers) compartment of orbital maneuvering, the engine of the Republic of Bashkortostan was launched and the ligament departed to fly around the Moon.


By the beginning of 1964, despite the hard work of the previous year, it becomes clear that the Moon in the USSR was begun too late: the Americans pulled out ahead, having already begun full-scale work on the Apollo program, and in the Soviet Union only some draft projects were created. March 24, 1964 Korolev met with Khrushchev, where he defended his plan for exploring the moon and interplanetary space. As a priority program is recognized L3. The lunar ship would be launched into space by the N1 carrier rocket. The creation of this RN was supposed to be completed in 1966. The upper stages D and E provided for the use of kerosene / oxygen and hydrazine / nitrogen tetraxide, respectively, which by 1967 could be replaced by hydrogen / oxygen (which is the best option).

However, only when the serious intentions of the Americans became clear, did Khrushchev show some interest in the lunar project. It is worth noting that Korolev was promoting not only the lunar theme: he continues other space research and even continues work on the nuclear-electric engine for heavy interplanetary spacecraft. Despite the desire of the Soviet government to mark the 50th anniversary of October with the landing of the Soviet cosmonaut on the Moon, the N1-L3 program was still somewhat sluggish: by this time only 7 billion of the required 11 billion rubles were actually allocated for building the N1 launch complex. For higher priority military programs of work both on the launch vehicle and on the spacecraft are delayed.

In addition, the space theme was covered not only by Korolev. At this time, he was in a not too cordial relationship with Glushko and Chelomey. And although Korolev managed to make the Moon landing project a priority program, the entire lunar theme did not go to him: the Chelomey project UR-500 / LK-1, the program of a manned flyby of the Moon, begins to be implemented. However, after some time, new changes occur. Khrushchev was removed from power, which affected Chelomey’s projects. Now Chelomey was left with only the development of the UR-500K (Proton) launch vehicle for the lunar flyby project (Korolev is developing a spacecraft for this purpose) from the lunar program. The new program got the designation 7K-L1.

L3 (landing on the moon) also changed fundamentally. The new name for this option is N1-L3. The 7K was developed in the first place, and by 1964 (when Chelomey was assigned to work on LK-1), it was almost ready. But in late 1965-early 1966, the country's leadership decided to combine the two flights. Korolev took the upper block D (from the program N1-L3 - the expedition to the moon) and the ship 7K-L1 (created on the basis of developments on 7K), and from Chelomey the UR-500K booster.

Since this project involved staying on the lunar surface for a very short time, in 1964, in addition to it, they created the project of the lunar base Zvezda. In 1970 and 1972, more perfect modifications of N1-L3 appear; this is the project L3M-70 and L3M-72. This is the latest version of the lunar ship, which began to develop after Korolev, but the project was closed.


After Valentin Glushko led the TsKBEM (formerly OKB-1), having replaced the disgraced Vasily Mishin, he worked for 20 months to create a lunar base based on the modification of the Proton rocket designed by Vladimir Chelomey, which used self-igniting Glushko engines.

Despite this, in 1974, the project "Vulkan" appeared, probably the most ambitious of all. He is waiting for the same fate as all previous projects had. Although in the end, the Buran will be much like a competitor, V. Glushko made one significant change that allowed him to keep his lunar program. Finally, in 1978, during the implementation of the project of the Soviet shuttle "Energy-Buran", the last version of the manned lunar program appeared.

After the demise of their manned lunar program, Russia continued their lunar exploration with unmanned devices, possibly as a way to show the world that unmanned probes were cheaper than manned flights. Their unmanned lunar program included both sample return missions and remotely controlled rovers. The Soviets accomplished three successful lunar sample return missions - Luna 16 (1970), Luna 20 (1972), and Luna 24 (1976). Many of the samples recovered were exchanged with both American and French scientists for analysis. They also accomplished two successful remote controlled lunar rover missions - Lunokhod 1 attached to Luna 17 in 1970 and Lunokhod 2 attached to Luna 21 in 1973 - something that the United States was not able to do for over 25 years until 1997 with the Mars Pathfinder mission. Each Russian rover mission lasted between 4 months and 1 year after landing on the Moon's surface returning thousands of pictures.

The Soviet Lunar program had 20 successful missions to the Moon and achieved a number of notable lunar "firsts": first probe to impact the Moon, first flyby and image of the lunar farside, first soft landing, first lunar orbiter, and the first circumlunar probe to return to Earth. The two successful series of Soviet probes were the Luna (24 lunar missions) and the Zond (5 lunar missions). The Zond 6, 7, and 8 missions circled the Moon and returned to Earth where they were recovered, Zond 6 and 7 in Siberia and Zond 8 in the Indian Ocean.

By the beginning of 1976 the USSR leadership decided to stop the lunar program and concentrate on the Soviet space shuttle, since the American shuttle was viewed as a military threat. The N-1 program was officially canceled only in 1976. After the bitter national loss, the Communist Party redirected the space program toward space stations and the continued development of its Soyuz spacecraft.

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Page last modified: 22-03-2019 21:48:50 ZULU