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Soviet Lunar Landing Programs and Plans

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.

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.

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 1965, the Soviet Moon program had split into two parallel strands: one, the N1-L3 to land cosmonauts on the Moon, and another, the L1 to send cosmonauts around the Moon. The L1 circumlunar version of Soyuz was tested under the cover of the Zond program, but was overtaken by Apollo 8 in December 1968.

Their basic manned spacecraft had been successfully tested in earth orbit. The manned lunar landing complex consisted of two distinct spacecraft. The first was the LOK lunar orbiter (or L-2) and was similar to the American Apollo Command and Service Module complex. The second was the LK lunar lander (or L-3) and was similar to the American Lunar Module.

The LOK lunar orbiter was based on the successful Russian Soyuz spacecraft design and had overcome early failures like the Soyuz 1 disaster which had killed the cosmonaut, Vladimir Komarov. The LK lunar lander had been tested in earth orbit under the Russian Cosmos series, similar to what the Americans did with the Apollo 9 flight.

The Russian could never get their large lunar booster, the N-1, to work. In size, the N-1 was comparable to the American Saturn V. However, in four launch attempts between 1969 and 1972, the N-1 failed to even get into earth orbit. When In July 1969, the Soviet Union lost the race to get a man on the moon first, they did not completely dismantle their lunar program. 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.

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.

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