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Sovit Moon Landing - The Western View

This section provides a brief discussion of whether the U.S.S.R. had a program for landing men on the Moon.

The threat of the Soviet Union reaching the Moon before the United States gave the American space program the impetus (emotional and financial) it needed to achieve what it has today. Thus the question of whether there was indeed a "race" to the Moon or not was of no mean import to those who paid $25 billion to "land some clown on the Moon" as detractors are fond of saying.

Unfortunately there was no definitive way to prove the case either way. All that is attempted here is an analysis of statements made by those who should have known the direction of their space program prior to Americans landing on the Moon in 1969, and their technical capabilities.


Prior to 1969 there was a wealth of statements reflecting the position that the Russians were interested in landing on the Moon and an extensive collection of these quotes (as well as statements on other aspects of the space program) are given in the 1966-70 edition of this report CRS Report (pp. 359-384). If the case were to be proved on verbal evidence alone, there would be no question but that a manned lunar landing was high on the Soviet agenda. A sample of statements prior to July 20, 1969 :

Cosmonaut Feoktistov outlined the Soviet space program as involved in four progressive steps: (1) Study of geophysics and solar phenomena, and unmanned flight to the Moon and planets; (2) study of space biology and man's adaptability; (3) learning to link up and assemble in orbit a launch facility, as a step toward landing an expedition of men on the Moon; and (4) sending landing expeditions of men to Mars and Venus with fundamentally new rocket and spacecraft systems. (TASS, December 31, 1964, 1524 GMT.)

Professor Yelizavetskiy stated: "The launching of the Voskhod 2 and Leonov's space walk strengthens the confidence that the first people on the Moon will be Soviet people." (Moscow Radio, March 19, 1965, 0730 GMT.)

Cosmonaut Leonov said there was a regular, scheduled preparation in the Soviet Union for the conquest of space and the time was approaching when men will land on the Moon. The task of landing has been solved. (Budapest MTI, April 6, 1966, 0907 GMT.)

Academician Keldysh said it was now clear that soon man will land on the Moon and on other planets. (Moscow Radio, October 24, 1967, 1400 GMT.)

Academician Konstantinov stated that landing a man on the Moon does not belong to the realm of fantasy any longer. This was an affair of the nearest, of the most imminent future. Everything was already prepared for this undertaking. There are a few details like radiation hazards, but these will be solved soon. Perhaps the Americans even will be first, but it was still a competition and a question of prestige. (Vjesnik, Zagreb, January 21,1968, p. 8.)

Cosmonaut Shatalov told the Hungarian news agency correspondent in Moscow that the Soviet Union will require "six, seven, and perhaps more months of preparations to land on the Moon. "Who makes the better preparations will get to the Moon first, and it is our wish to do so." (Belgrade TANYUG, April 9, 1969, 1116 GMT.)

Cosmonaut Leonov: "The Soviet Union also is making preparations for a manned flight to the Moon, like the Apollo program of the United States . The Soviet Union will be able to send men to the Moon this year or in 1970. We are confident that pieces of rocks picked from the surface of the Moon by Soviet cosmonauts will be put on display in the Soviet pavillion during the Japan World Exposition in Osaka in 1970. (Yomiuri, Tokyo, June 14, 1969, p. 10.)

The above comments give a strong basis for the official American contention that there was a race to the Moon underway. Those who disagree use two 1963 statements as the core of their argument.

The first was made by Sir Bernard Lovell, Director of the Jodrell Bank Radio Observatory in England . Upon returning to London from a tour of several astronomical centers in the Soviet Union , Lovell reportedly said "the Russians are not interested in sending men to the Moon." Later, however, during a trip to Washington , Lovell maintained that the press had misquoted him and that he had "every reason to believe that the Russians are trying to reach the Moon every bit as fast as the Americans." (18)

The second comment was by then Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in response to a reporter's question: "At the present time we do not plan flights of cosmonauts to the Moon. . . . We do not wish to compete in sending people to the Moon without thorough preparation." (19) The first part of the statement was taken by U.S. critics as demonstrating that we were racing with no opposition. But the second phrase does not imply that the Soviets had no interest in the Moon, only that safety considerations should come first.

One must also take into account that Khrushchev was an expert politician and he knew that if the American public could be convinced that there was no race, there was a good chance the U.S. space program would slow down, giving his country more time to develop their own hardware.


In order for the Soviets to land men on the Moon they would have to demonstrate a technical capability in several areas. Three of the most crucial are discussed here: rendezvous and docking in orbit; a spacecraft with adequate controls for navigation and guidance, life support, and heat regulation; and a launch vehicle capable of sending sizable payloads to the Moon.

1. Rendezvous and Docking

As the earlier sections of this chapter indicate, exercises related to the rendezvous and docking of two ships in Earth orbit have played a major role in the Soviet space program since its beginning. Their first manned "near pass" came with the Soviet Union 's third and fourth spaceflights, Vostok 3 and 4. The mission was repeated with the next two flights, Vostok 5 and 6.

Docking was the next step, and may have been the mission for the ill-fated Soyuz 1 and a second ship never launched. After the death of Soyuz 1's pilot, the manned program slowed down and docking exercises were practiced by unmanned ships. Thus in 1967 the Russians achieved their first docking, between Kosmos 186 and 188. After a second unmanned practice with Kosmos 212 and 213, an unsuccessful attempt was made with the manned Soyuz 3 and unmanned Soyuz 2. Not until the Soyuz 4 and 5 link-up could the Russians finally celebrate a success with manned ships. This was not until January 1969, however, and the Americans had already sent three men into lunar orbit and brought them home again. The "race" had been won, for most purposes.

2. The Spaceship

Although a case could probably be made that all the manned fights and their precursors were devoted in some respect to developing systems capable of long duration spaceflights, the focus here is on the Zond series, for the Russians themselves announced they were tests related to manned circumlunar voyages.

The Zond capsule was a modified Soyuz, with the orbital workshop removed and a still unidentified object put in its place (there was speculation that this was a docking collar). A large parabolic radio antenna was added for long range communications, and the Zond may have a

reinforced heat shield. These Zond missions were described in an earlier section of this chapter, so attention here will only be drawn to what the program demonstrated. Most notable was the reentry procedure practiced with Zond 6 and 7 wherein the spaceship entered the Earth's atmosphere, skipped out to cool the heat shield, and then reentered for landing. This required a great deal of navigation and guidance control.

Concerning life support systems, Oberg reports that without the orbital module, only a single-pilot, six-day mission was possible. (20) This would be enough for a circumlunar flight, although not a landing. It does seem possible, then, that the Soviets could have sent a man at least around the Moon, although since no attempt has been made yet, the case cannot be proven.

3. The Launch Vehicle

The development of a launch vehicle capable of sending a payload heavy enough to accommodate men to the Moon was a hotly debated issue in the West. Some say there was no such vehicle; others said it had been tested.

The D class (or Proton) vehicle was the largest known launch vehicle available to the Russians and has been used for the Salyut space stations, the Zond series, unmanned lunar and planetary landing programs, and 'at least one Kosmos satellite possibly related to the Moon program (Kosmos 382). But for unknown reasons the vehicle has yet to be man-rated. Since it was possible that the D class was either part of the larger booster or at least its forerunner, its lack of total success could be the major factor preventing the Russians from developing a booster comparable to the American Saturn V.

The large vehicle, here designated the G-l-e, was first brought to public attention in America in 1966-67 when NASA representatives began testifying before Congress that the Soviet Union was developing a vehicle with thrust greater than that of Saturn V. Newsmen revealed that outside the hearing room NASA information was more specific: the thrust was in the 5-7 million kilogram range.

To date, no successful test of the G-l-e has been conducted. There are rumors that in the first test (1969) the vehicle blew up on the pad. Vick reports that the explosion was so great that the Nimbus weather satellite observed it and 18 months were required for rebuilding the launch facility. (21) .Subsequent countdowns and tests of the vehicle also failed.

Without a vehicle equivalent to Saturn V, a lunar landing was not likely. With tests of the G-l-e beginning in 1969, there was a possibility that the Russians either hoped to send men to the Moon before the scheduled Apollo landing (although this would have allowed little if any time for unmanned tests, their modus operandi) or expected the American program to be delayed, perhaps just enough to give them the extra time needed. Some American experts felt the Apollo timetable would slip by as much as a few years, so the Russians had some basis for their hopes.

C. FURTHER TESTS: KOSMOS 379, 382, 398 AND 434

A new series of tests ran from late 1970 to mid-1971. Clearly three of the flights fit one pattern, while the fourth (Kosmos 382) was unique. Although all four used an orbital platform, the three similar ones abandoned their rocket stage at the low initial orbit, abandoned the platform at the intermediate orbit, and the payload then provided its own propulsion to the highest orbit. The Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) report suggested, however, that Kosmos 382 used a double burn of the launch vehicle rocket stage, for their register lists it as first appearing in the initial orbit and then shifting to the intermediate, where the platform was released. The RAE apparently misinterpreted events, though, or one would have to assume the rocket stage actually made a separate maneuver equal to that of the launch platform. They probably relied on poor information from NORAD which the latter organization did not correct or qualify. Since this was contradictory, the object reported by RAE close to the initial orbit of the payload must not have been the same rocket casing listed at the intermediate orbit.

The nature of the initial orbits of the three similar flights was very similar to a Soyuz orbit, and indeed the signal formats and frequencies used also resembled Soyuz, so an A-2 launch vehicle was used. But Soyuz class ships have repeatedly been listed by the Russians as having a maximum altitude of 1,300 km. The use of an orbital launch platform like a lunar or interplanetary flight and the further climb with onboard propulsion to more than 10,000 km was clearly beyond the Soyuz capability. This, then, was the first use of the A-2-m vehicle, a much more maneuverable version of the A-2.

The Soviets later identified these three similar flights as flight test of the Soviet “Lunar Cabin” for manned lunar flight. It was not a new version of the Standard A-2 booster.

Kosmos 382, though, differed from the other flights not only because the perigee was raised instead of the apogee, but a very substantial plane change was accomplished in the final maneuver. If this payload was similar to that of the other three, then only a D class vehicle could have been used to make maneuvers of such magnitude, and that apparently was a D-l-m.

Mr. G. E. Perry of the Kettering Grammar School in England calculated the delta Vs involved in Kosmos 379 and found a very close match to what might be expected for lunar orbit insertion and for trans-Earth ejection. (4) He concluded that all four flights involved testing of a Soviet equivalent of the American SPS engine used for the Apollo command service module on lunar flights. The assignment of the three similar flights to the Earth-orbit category in the 1966-70 edition of this report resulted in some criticism. That all four were Moon precursors was a logical explanation, but knowing the limitations of the A-2 vehicle and keeping to a very conservative analysis, the original designation of Kosmos 379, 398 and 434 as Earth-orbit related and Kosmos 382 as part of the lunar program stands until such time as an overt program clarifies the situation.

Kosmos-382 was in fact identified as a flight test of the Standard D-1-e booster using the last stage as a Lunar Braking Module payload demonstration in later declassified Russian Soviet era space history.

These were as follows:


[Altitudes in kilometers]

Name Date Comments Apogee Perigee Inclination degrees
Kosmos-379 Nov. 24, 1970 Original Announcement 233 192 51.6
  Nov. 25 After Maneuver 1,206, 1,198 196, 188 51.6
  Nov. 30 After Maneuver 14,041 177 51.7
Kosmos-382 Dec. 2, 1970 Original Announcement 5,040 320 51.6
  Dec. 7 After Maneuver 5,072 1,615 51.6
  Dec. 8 After Maneuver 5,082 2,577 55.9
Kosmos 398 Feb. 26, 1971 Original Announcement 252 189 51.6
  Feb. 27 After Maneuver 1,189 186 51.6
  Feb. 28 After Maneuver 10,905 200 51.6
Kosmos-434 Aug. 12, 1971 Original Announcement 267 188 51.6
  Aug. 16 After Maneuver 1,261 1,262 190 188 51.6
  Aug. 27 After Maneuver 11,804 11,384 186 180 51.6

SOURCES: TASS announcements and RAE registers

[Today we know this was a series of highly successful flight test of the Kosmos 379, 398, and 434 one and a half stage Soviet “Lunar Cabina” (Lunar Module) spacecraft for manned lunar landing by one cosmonaut for their manned lunar landing program N1-L3 that did not utilize its lunar braking module bloc-D. There was no evidence of a hydrogen, oxygen powered rocket stage was flight demonstrated through 1975.]

[This Kosmos-382 in fact turned out to merely be the second but successful flight test of the Soviet manned lunar programs Lunar Braking Module bloc-D stage for the Soviet “Lunar Cabina” Lunar Module of the N1-L3 program. Bloc-D in fact was used to complete the trans-lunar injection of the L-3 payload as well as break it into lunar orbit and maneuver it to a lower orbit and then the constant thrust powered descent to low altitude over the lunar surface where the LK took over to complete the single manned lunar landing on the Moon. The bloc-D was capable of conducting seven separate burns during its mission. It also helped lay the foundation flight demonstration for later GEO, GSO missions by Proton.]


Taking into account not only statements by Soviet officials, but the early progress of their space program, evidence seems to support the view that the Russians were indeed aiming for the Moon as much as, if not more than, the Americans. In addition to what has been discussed above, other indicators such as tracking and water recovery exercises are available. The death of Komarov in 1967 and repeated failures of the G-l-e caused severe setbacks in their ambitions, however, and they lost the race.


18. Young, Hugo, Bryan Silcock and Peter Dunn. Journey to tranquility. Garden City, New York , Doubleday. 1969 : back cover.

19. Oberg. James E. Russia meant to win the "moon race." Spaceflight, London , v. 17, May 1975: 163-4.

20. Oberg, James E. The hidden history of the Soyuz project, Spaceflight, London , v. 17, August-September 1975: 284.

21. Vick, Charles P., Soviet Superboosters-2. Spaceflight, London , v. 16, March 1974: 96.

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Page last modified: 22-03-2019 21:48:49 ZULU