A Sound of Thunder: The Rise of the Soviet Superbooster

Prelude: Birth of a Giant

Prelude: Birth of a Giant​

"I believe that this Nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth."

- President John F. Kennedy, 25th May, 1961, United States Congress, Washington DC



The Soviets had made a late start in the moon race, despite their early successes with Sputnik, Vostok and Voskhod. The various Design Bureaux constituting the Soviet space programme all had their own, mutually competing lunar mission proposals with which to counter President Kennedy’s 1961 declaration. However, the Soviet leadership, under Nikita Khrushchev, were not convinced that a response was either necessary or desirable. The military, under whose responsibility the space programme fell, could see no strategic or tactical advantage from a lunar mission, while the costs would be enormous. Despite some spectacular growth since the end of the Second World War, Soviet Gross National Product remained less than a third of the United States’ GDP, meaning a straight like-for-like investment in a Moon shot was unthinkable. In fact, many Soviet analysts doubted that such a commitment of resources was sustainable on the American side either, predicting that the US would pull back from, or at least slow down, their gargantuan project.

By 1964, it had become apparent that the US were serious about landing on the Moon, and the Soviet leadership turned to the Council of Chief Designers to propose a programme that could beat the Americans to the surface. They were not short of options.

From Vladimir Chelomei’s OKB-52 came the UR-700 project. Using the same storable N2O4/UDMH propellant technology as his already-approved UR-500 rocket, the UR-700 wound gang rocket bodies together to form a monstrous 4-stage launcher capable of putting over 200 tonnes of payload into Earth orbit. This would support a ‘direct ascent’ lunar mission, putting his LK-700 spacecraft with two cosmonauts on a trajectory straight to the lunar surface, with no need for the complicated rendezvous and docking techniques chosen by the Americans. Once their mission was completed, the LK-700 ascent stage would again place the crew on a direct course for Earth, making a direct re-entry using the conical return vehicle’s aerodynamic shape to manoeuvre to a landing zone in the USSR.

In Dnepropetrovsk, Mikhail Yangel’s design bureau were developing their own large rocket design based on the same storable propellants as Chelomei. After initially considering a simple clustering of his successful R-16 rockets, Yangel’s engineers decided in favour of a monoblock design with a basic diameter of 6.5m. This was sized to allow the transportation of rocket stages via the Soviet canal network, and is an example of the sort of practical considerations that had made Yangel’s bureau popular with the military. Called R-56, the ‘super-rocket’ consisted of three stages, with an optional fourth stage for geosynchronous or lunar payload. However, despite the impressive leap in scale over any currently existing launchers, the R-56 was underpowered compared to the offerings of other bureaus, capable of putting just 40 tonnes into low Earth orbit. For lunar missions, Yangel proposed to upgrade the engines and cluster multiple R-56 stages, but this would still necesitate a dual launch strategy, with all the accompanying concerns over the unknowns of docking operations in space.

At OKB-1, Sergie Korolev, the mastermind behind the earliest Soviet space spectaculars, proposed a mission that much more closely followed the template of Apollo. Like Apollo, a single launch would place a Lunar Orbital Ship and a lander on-course to the moon, though with a crew of two rather than Apollo’s three. Once in lunar orbit, a single cosmonaut would transfer to the lander and descend to the surface. At the completion of his surface activities, the cosmonaut would use a smaller ascent stage of the lander to return to his comrade in orbit, after which both would return to Earth via a double-skip re-entry, spreading the thermal load of deceleration for lunar return velocity.

The rocket Korolev proposed to use to launch his lunar mission was the N-1. Originally proposed in 1960 as a 50 tonne class “Carrier” (“Nositel”) vehicle, the N-1 had been approved for production in September 1962 with a target payload capability of 75 tonnes to low Earth orbit. To meet this increased performance target, Korolev had insisted on the use of kerosene and liquid oxygen as propellants, rather than the storable propellants favoured by Chelomei. This choice put Korolev at odds with Valetin Glushko, Chief Designer of OKB-456 and the USSR’s premier manufacturer of rocket engines, who refused to supply kerolox engines for N-1. Korolev had instead turned to Nikolai Kuznetsov’s OKB-276 to develop the 1.5 Mega-Newton thrust closed cycle engines that would be clustered together to lift the rocket at its payload into space.

As to what that payload would be, this remained undecided at the time of N-1’s approval. Korolev proposed several options, including nuclear-armed military space stations, crewed fly-by missions of Mars or Venus, and a menu of lunar orbital and surface missions using multiple launches and Earth-orbit assembly techniques. Only with the 1964 call to beat Apollo to the Moon did N-1 gain a concrete mission.

If Korolev was going to beat the Americans - and Chelomei - to the prize, it would mean taking the most direct path: a single launch mission, removing all unnecessary complications, to deliver results in the shortest time with the lowest risk. This logic is what led Korolev to propose the N1-L3 mission, and what convinced the Soviet leadership to entrust him - not Chelomei - with the responsibility guiding the USSR to victory in the Moon race. On 3 August 1964 Command number 655-268 issued by the Central Committee of Communist Party of the Soviet Union commanded OKB-1 to put a man on the moon.

There was only one problem: The N1-L3 mission demanded a starting payload in low Earth orbit of at least 95 tonnes.

N-1 had a payload capability of 75 tonnes.

To bridge this critical gap, Korolev and his team planned some significant changes to the N-1's design. First, the number of NK-15 engines on the ‘Blok-A’ first stage would be increased from an already impressive 24 to a total of 30, and the thrust of each of those engines was to be increased by 2%. To fit more propellant into the tanks, the kerosene and liquid oxygen would be super-cooled before fueling, increasing its density, while a change in the design of the pressurisation system and the removal of some telemetry equipment would reduce the launcher’s dry mass. Finally, the parking orbit used for the mission was changed from 300km at 65 degrees inclination, to a lower 200km, 51.8 degree orbit.

Work on the N-1 continued at an increasing pace throughout the rest of 1964 and into 1965, largely unaffected by the replacement of Khrushchev by Brezhnev at the top of the Soviet government. By December 1964 the advanced design project for the N1-L3 mission had been completed, and construction of the twin pads at Baikonur’s Site-110 was advancing. The following January saw orders issued for a total of sixteen N1-L3 stacks to be produced, and throughout 1965 plans were laid for further evolutions of the N-1 that would improve performance and reliability through better engines and high energy upper stages.

In contrast to this image of industrious progress at OKB-1, Chelomei had several of his projects cancelled by a new regime that saw him as having been just a bit too cosy with the ousted Khrushchev. This culminated in August 1965 with the humiliation of having the spacecraft for the planned L1 circumlunar mission changed from Chelomie’s LK-1 to a Soyuz derived spacecraft manufactured by Korolev - though still to be launched on Chelomie’s Proton rocket.

By the end of 1965, it seemed that Korolev was on the verge of his dream of assuming total control of the USSR’s space programme, but behind the scenes things were not going quite as smoothly as he was presenting. Efforts to increase the performance of the NK-15 engines were facing problems, and with no money available for a ground test facility for the complete first stage, there were concerns over the effects of lighting 30 engines together for a launch. The various weight-saving and performance-boosting measures for the launcher were struggling to meet their goals, while the mass of the L3 complex to be sent to the Moon (the LOK moon ship, LK lander, and their Blok-D and Blok-G rocket stages) remained stubbornly outside the envelop of what N-1 could deliver.

To further reduce the demands on the rocket, increasingly risky strategies were incorporated into the mission plan. In one such change, it was decided that the LOK and LK would dock using a simple punch-and-grab mechanism, with no heavy internal hatch, requiring a cosmonaut to perform two spacewalks in lunar orbit to transfer between ships. Another change saw fuel reserves for the LK lander cut to a bare minimum, then cut again, relying on a pre-placed Lunikhod probe to scout the area and deploy a radio guidance beacon, avoiding the need for the lander to hover whilst its pilot hunted for a safe landing zone. These and similar changes led to some disquiet within the cosmonaut corps, and inside of OKB-1 itself, but Korolev remained upbeat and active despite his crushing workload, and his motivation abilities, political skill, and record of success convinced those working for him that they would somehow overcome the obstacles before them and succeed in their mission.

Then, on 14th January 1966, while undergoing surgery to remove a cancerous growth from his colon, Sergie Pavolvich Korolev died.

The sudden and unexpected passing of the Chief Designer left a vacuum of leadership at the top of OKB-1 (now called TskBEM, standing for the Central Design Bureau of Experimental Machine Building). The general assumption was that Vasily Mishin, Korolev’s former deputy, would take over, but political in-fighting within the Central Committee meant that his appointment was not confirmed until May 1966, four months after Korolev’s death.

Despite this delay, work on the lunar project continued. By February 1967 the twin LC-110 launch pads were approaching completion, and a full-sized mock-up of the N-1 rocket, called 1M1, had started construction. March 1967 saw the first uncrewed test flight of the Soyuz 7K-L1 circumlunar ship and its Blok-D upper stage on a Proton rocket. Designated Kosmos 146, the test successfully placed the ship into an elliptical Earth orbit, carefully directed away from the Moon to disguise its purpose. Plans were laid for the first crewed L1 circumlunar flight to take place by the end of 1967, to be followed by an aggressive schedule of N-1 test flights to start in March 1968 and leading to a manned lunar landing by the end of that year. The loss of the follow-up Kosmos 154, which saw the Blok-D stage fail to start in orbit, was disappointing, but overall it appeared that the Soviet lunar programme had weathered the storm of Korolev’s loss remarkably well.

By the end of 1968, no such optimism was possible. A series of failures of the Proton launcher and the 7K-L1 spacecraft (now called “Zond”) dashed hopes of beating the US in a flight around the Moon, with Apollo 8 claiming that prize in December 1968. The L3 landing project was faring no better, with the first flight model, N1-4L, developing cracks in the Blok-A oxygen tank that led to it being rolled back into the assembly building for refit. The next model, N1-3L, underwent fitting and engine tests on the pad in the summer of 1968, but when it returned to the pad for the first N-1 launch attempt on 21st February 1969, an engine fire and failure of the KORD control system led to the total loss of the rocket. A second attempt was made with vehicle N1-5L on 3rd July 1969, but this resulted in an even greater disaster, with another KORD failure shutting off the engines just seconds into the flight. The fully fueled rocket crashed back into its launch pad, destroying the pad in an explosion so large that it was visible to US weather satellites. Two weeks later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped out onto the Sea of Tranquillity.

The Moon Race was over.



Last edited:
Interlude: “Boris, give me back 800 kilograms.”

Interlude: “Boris, give me back 800 kilograms.”​

- Excerpt from “Rockets and People, Volume IV: The Moon Race”, by Boris Chertok, edited by Asif Siddiqi. Original text published in Moscow, 1999. This translated version published by NASA History Program Office, 2011.


[Note: The following exchange between Sergie Korolev and Boris Chertok took place in mid-December, 1964.]

I’ll return to the conversation with Korolev in my office. The first subject of our meeting was, of course, the L3. I remember his request/ultimatum quite well: “Boris, give me back 800 kilograms.”

Grabbing a previously prepared weight report with numerous handwritten amendments, I tried to demonstrate that “giving back” was out of the question. All the systems for which my departments were responsible already required more than 500 kilograms above our allotment. And there was still so much documentation that hadn’t been issued, dozens of expert commission recommendations that hadn’t been implemented, and not a single bit of experimental work had been completed yet! The automatic landing of the LK was the least developed part of the program. For reliability, we needed triple or, at least, double redundancy, diagnostics, and good communications with Earth, and all of this meant weight and more weight.

Korolev was not about to look at the weight report. He interrupted my explanations and calmly repeated, this time looking me straight in the eye (he had a real knack for this): “All the same, give me back 800.”

Without allowing me once again to switch to a forceful defense, S. P. said that he had held a very difficult discussion with Keldysh. He [Keldysh] didn’t believe that we had yet solved the weight problem for landing even one cosmonaut on the Moon. For that reason, in Keldysh’s opinion, the design as a whole still had loose ends. Chelomey, who had his own alternative design proposals, was putting pressure on Keldysh.

Tyulin was forming a new ministry, but evidently they weren’t going to appoint him minister of his own ministry. “Uncle Mitya” [Minister of Defence Industry Dimitriy Ustinov] had his own people, and now in the Politburo you couldn’t get past Ustinov. The only one there who really knew what we were doing was Khrushchev. Now he’s gone, and all those who had seized power were not yet accustomed to making independent decisions. The military officials couldn’t understand at all why it was necessary to fly to the Moon. It’s a big headache that since Nedelin, “infantry” marshals had been in command of space. The Air Force should have piloted programs—they had a better understanding of human capabilities. Incidentally, Air Force Commanders-in-Chief were being appointed, as a rule, from the ranks of combat pilots. They knew human capabilities, but it was difficult for them to get a sense of the scale of space systems.

“The ‘Americanese’ don’t hesitate to say that the master of space will be the master of the world,” continued S. P. “They have greater opportunities than we do. We are poorer, and therefore our leaders, especially the military, must be wiser.”

S. P. expressed these thoughts as if verifying his reasoning to justify his demand to “give back 800 kilograms.” Now, in his opinion, I knew everything and I understood everything, and by hook or by crook I must bring the weight reports down by 800 kilograms in the design materials. It turned out that he wanted to get 800 kilograms less than the limit stipulated in Bushuyev’s design materials! This was completely unrealistic. But I wasn’t about to argue. I knew that S. P. was “padding” his request. Feigning annoyance, he said that because of such obstinate people as Voskresenskiy and me, in our current situation they might cut back appropriations for the N-1. Then the “Americanese” would certainly pass us. They are getting billions for the Saturn V. The president is monitoring the program personally, while our program is divided between aviation, rockets, and agriculture. Now, after Nikita, Brezhnev is going to support Yangel. The Ukraine has a stranglehold on this Central Committee Presidium.

Here, I remember saying that perhaps this was a good thing—Pilyugin wouldn’t be able to cope with the N-1 without the Kharkov instrumentation group, and we also had the Kievpribor Factory working for us in Kiev. We would also have a difficult time without its help. As for Yangel, I reminded Korolev of the quip the military officers had come up with: “Korolev works for TASS, Chelomey’s [work] goes down the toilet, and Yangel’s is for us.”

S. P. had already heard this aphorism, but it clearly offended him to hear it repeated. His mood darkened. His facial expression, the glint in his eyes, and the position of his head always betrayed Korolev’s mood and state of mind. He did not have Glushko’s ability to maintain a completely impenetrable and imperturbable appearance regardless of his inner state.

“What stupidity,” said Korolev, “and military men from Dnepropetrovsk [where Yangel’s design bureau was located] started it. And they’ve got no grounds to poke fun at Chelomey. He’s got Myasishchev’s magnificent aviation designers and an aviation factory with production culture the likes of which Dnepropetrovsk has never dreamed. That’s precisely where Chelomey’s main strength lies, rather than any special relationship he has with Nikita Sergeyevich.”

When Korolev mentioned the factory, I couldn’t restrain myself and boasted: “The factory in Fili set me up in life and even provided me with a wife.”

“Did your Katya really work there, too?”

“Yes, all my personnel forms mention that.”

“I haven’t studied your personnel forms, but don’t forget to say hi to Katya for me.”

After that little breather, Korolev returned to his thoughts about Chelomey’s projects. “Now that they’ve given Nikita the boot, officials whom Chelomey has really annoyed have decided to show him who’s boss. Ustinov and Smirnov talked Keldysh into heading a commission to investigate the work of OKB-52. I advised him not to, but he consented. Look what’s happening. Keldysh is chairman of the expert commission on the N-1, he was chairman of the commission on Yangel’s combat missiles, and now he has been assigned the role of inspector over all of Chelomey’s work. He has taken on a very large responsibility. It will be interesting to see how he will act with the circumlunar flight project using the UR-500. After all, the deadline for that was just recently set for the first quarter of 1967. God willing, the rocket will fly for the first time in a year, and in two years they’re already planning a piloted circumlunar flight. I think that we should join forces with regard to the vehicle, rather than fritter away our strength. Now, since we’re soon going to be in the same ministry, maybe we can make some arrangement. In any event, I gave Kostya [Bushuyev] the assignment to look into whether it would be possible to adapt a 7K from a Soyuz [launch vehicle] to a UR-500 launcher. After all, honestly, I am not very convinced that your beloved Mnatsakanyan will make a system that will go through three dockings in a row without a hitch.”

“Sergey Pavlovich! According to information from our ‘fifth column,’ Chelomey hasn’t really gotten moving on the vehicle yet, while our landing on the Moon is set for a year after the circumlunar flight, and we have to make not just one, but two completely new vehicles.”

“That’s why you have to give me back 800 kilograms,” he said very sternly.

As I was editing this chapter for the new edition of my memoirs, I recalled the words of Yuriy Mozzhorin, which he managed to tell me in 1996 after that year’s Korolev Lectures.

“You described Korolev as if you, his deputies, knew about the flaws and unreliability of the N1-L3 design, and he, Korolev, stubbornly refused to look into it. As director of NII-88 at that time, at the personal request of Uncle Mitya [Ustinov], I tried to gain an understanding of all the lunar problems, including what motivated people, on whom much depended, in their attitude toward the Moon. I was convinced that Korolev, perhaps better than we, felt and understood the general situation. Those 800 kilograms that he demanded from you were a test of your loyalty to his policy. He needed a super-heavy-lift launch vehicle and as soon as possible. Even if we didn’t fulfill the mission in a one-launch version, then at least we were testing out the launch vehicle. And then we could come out with new robust proposals for the Moon and Mars.”


This excerpt is produced verbatim, if slightly abridged, from Chertok’s OTL memoirs (which I highly recommend). I feel it captures superbly not only the tremendous issues faced by the engineers developing the N-1, but also an insight into Korolev’s way of working in the complex political landscape of the USSR. If he did indeed have a full understanding of all the technical difficulties of a single-launch lunar landing mission, and was using it as a political tool to get the N-1 built before falling back to other, more achievable goals, then it would be interesting indeed to see what he may have pulled off had he lived. But that is for other alternate histories to explore!
A few notes.

Hello, and welcome to my third timeline here at alternatehistory.com. Like my first two, Kolyma’s Shadow and The Snow Flies, the theme here is spaceflight, and in particular the fate of the mighty N-1 moon rocket.

This timeline has been a long time in gestation. I first started playing with the concept in the summer 2017, after modelling the N-1 in Blender, based upon references in the excellent book N-1: For the Moon and Mars by Matthew Johnson and Nick Stevens (the second edition of which is currently in preparation). After developing a rough outline, I got distracted by various other projects - principally my second and third children! - so the timeline lay fallow for several years. Then, in 2019, I was commissioned by Techniques Spatiales (a.k.a. French Space Guy) to build some more Blender models to be used in his upcoming N-1 documentary. This not only allowed me to get paid to create more N-1 related resources, but also gave me access to some rare sources of information on the Soviet moon programme that helped me flesh out some more details. I finally started writing in earnest in the summer of 2021 and now, thanks to some gentle prodding from @e of pi, I finally have Part 1 completed (well, almost!).

The plan is to post a regular update each Friday, with Interludes usually coming in between on Tuesdays. As the first Post and Interlude predate the PoD, serving the purpose of setting the scene for the timeline, I’ve decided to post them together here, before starting the first ‘regular’ Post on Friday.

I’d like to thank @e of pi, @TimothyC and Nick Stevens for their encouragement and technical consultancy, as well as Techniques Spatiales for his patronage and patience.

I hope you enjoy A Sound of Thunder!

Subscribed. I look forward to seeing where you take this. Space-X are proving that large numbers of first stage engines can work under the right circumstances though whether Soviet QC is the right circumstances is another question.
Subscribed. Been very much looking forward to this one since the teaser dropped - so glad to see N1 getting more love in althist lately. Excited to see where things go from here!
How delightful to see you posting another timeline! I look forward to gushing at the incredible artwork you've developed for it! But first I will subscribe...
Your art had me hyped for this timeline long before I had the slightest inkling you were going to write it! Very excited to see where this goes!
...and the nominations for the 2023 Turtledove for Best Spaceflight Timeline is... :)

Good luck: I'm sure it'll be great. And presumably well illustrated...
Holy cow, holy cow. I can't believe how excited this makes me. Maybe this will motivate me to finish my own spaceflight timelines.
Thanks for the enthusiasm everyone! We’re currently enjoying a bounty of quality space timelines (as recognised with the new dedicated Spaceflight & Technology category for the Turtledoves), so I’m glad to see no evidence of Rocket Fatigue. With regards to the artwork, there will of course be plenty of illustrations in this timeline (though not with this week’s update, I’m afraid), hopefully including some commissioned pieces from some other talented artists.

Stay tuned!
Post 1: A Failed Conspiracy

Post 1: A Failed Conspiracy​

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

- Neil Armstrong, 20th July 1969, Mare Tranquillitatis, the Moon


By the summer of 1969, morale at Mishin’s TskBEM bureau had hit rock bottom. The success of Apollo 11 in July, which was expected to be duplicated by Apollo 12 the following November, made the Soviets’ more modest lunar efforts seem pointless. It would take at least another year to get the N-1 to fly, and longer before a crewed flight could be expected. Even then, the lunar landing mission was right on the edge of N1-L3’s capabilities, with almost zero margin for error, and would result in a single cosmonaut on the surface compared with two Americans for every Apollo mission. Was there any point in continuing?

The official line from the Soviet government quickly became that the USSR had never been in the Moon race at all, considering robotic exploration to be a far safer and cost-effective method of exploration than launching crews into deep space. Despite this public position, behind closed doors the need to come up with an alternative space spectacular to answer Apollo and compensate for the failures of the N-1 programme was well understood, both in the ruling circles and amongst the engineers at TskBEM. The joint flight and docking mission of Soyuz 6, 7 and 8 later in 1969 would be a short-term, if underwhelming, response, but what objective could be met in the medium term that would steal some of Apollo’s thunder?

An option that came quickly to mind was the establishment of a crewed space station. TskBEM had been working on designs for a Multi-Module Orbital Complex (MOK) that would consist of a flotilla of military communications and surveillance missions, all serviced by crews operating from a large Multi-Purpose Space Base (MKBS). This gargantuan station would be impressive in its own right, as well as militarily useful. The problem was that without the N-1 there was no way to launch it, and even if the issues with the rocket were resolved, technical development of the MKBS had barely started, and would take many years to reach fruition.

Vladimir Chelomei’s OKB-52 were already advancing with their own Almaz military space station. However, despite a prototype Orbital Piloted Station (OPS) hull having been produced in 1968, the internal systems of the station still required much additional work, including the complex guidance, life support and thermal control systems. At least three more years were needed to complete OPS, reducing its impact as a response to Apollo.

At this point, in August 1969, a small group of engineers at TskBEM started to explore a third option. This group included Mishin’s First Deputy, Sergei Okhapkin, as well as other senior figures like Boris Chertok, Konstantin Bushuyev, Konstantin Feoktistov, and Boris Rauschenbakh. Their idea was simple but daring: Chelomei had a space station hull, but lacked support systems. In Soyuz, Mishin’s bureau had these systems on a smaller scale, but no space station in which to put them. What if they combined the two, using Soyuz systems to outfit an Almaz hull? Using this off-the-shelf approach, it could be possible to complete and launch a space station within one year.

The group at TskBEM further developed their idea in secret throughout September 1969. They knew that they were likely to meet resistance from both Chelomei and Mishin, who, apart from their personal dislike of one another, would each see this jerry-rigged space station as a threat to their own projects. Chelomei would not be thrilled to lose one of his Almaz hulls, and Mishin would see the scheme as advancing Chelomei’s OPS system at the expense of his future MKBS. The group of conspirators therefore hatched a plan to go over the heads of the Chief Designers and present their idea directly to Dmitrii Ustinov, the Secretary of the Central Committee for Defence and Space, who had the authority over all Soviet space activities to order Mishin and Chelomei to work together.

Unfortunately for the space station conspirators, Mishin learned of their plans during a trip to the control centre at Yevpatoriya, Crimea, in support of the Soyuz 6/7/8 mission[1]. As expected, Mishin was infuriated, both at the idea itself and the attempt to circumvent his authority, and immediately quashed the scheme.

Mishin’s own hopes for restoring some prestige initially focussed on a plan to use the next L1 Zond mission to make a crewed lunar flyby in time for the 100th anniversary of Lenin’s birthday in April 1970. Since its first test launch in 1967, the 7K-L1 vehicle had made more than a dozen flights, but nine of these had been partial or total failures. However, most of the problems had been with the (Chelomei-built) Proton launch vehicle, which had experienced a period of “childhood diseases” that now appeared to be behind it. The most recent mission, Zond 7, had performed a fully successful mission in August 1969, returning four turtles to a landing in the Kazakh SSR after a flight around the Moon.

The success of Zond 7 gave Mishin confidence that a crewed mission could be undertaken in the near term with minimal risk. Sending a cosmonaut around the Moon on Lenin’s birthday would provide both a morale boost to his engineers, and reflect some badly needed political credit onto the TsKBEM boss. However, Zond chief designer Yuri Semenov was not so confident. Despite its recent success, Semenov was convinced that at least one more fully successful uncrewed mission would be needed before a cosmonaut could be risked. Mishin was undaunted, believing that an uncrewed Zond 8 mission could fly in December, with the crewed mission following in April, but Semenov was adamant that this extreme schedule was unrealistic.

In the event, a meeting with Minister Afanasiev on 6th December resulted in approval not of a crewed Zond mission, but rather another multi-ship Soyuz mission that would see two of the spacecraft dock in orbit for Lenin’s birthday. Taking advantage of the opportunity to advance the lunar programme, the mission would use the Kontakt docking system planned for L3, and would see one cosmonaut from each spacecraft cross to the other via a spacewalk. By making both Soyuz flights long duration missions, it would be possible to keep one of the cosmonauts aloft for a month or more, reclaiming for the Soviets the record for spaceflight duration.

Aside from this one attempt at a space spectacular, the Ministerial meeting produced no real change in direction, as projects already in train were left to coast onwards, almost as if Apollo had never happened. Mishin was directed to continue N1-L3 development and the initial design of the Multi-Purpose Space Base. The unmanned L1 missions were to continue until the last Zond spacecraft had been used, but piloted missions were off the table. Lastly, TsKBEM was ordered to provide 7K-OK vehicles from 1972 as ferries for Phase-1 of Chelomei’s Almaz military space stations.

Rather than fall into despair at this lack of leadership, a determined group of engineers, centred on Konstantin Feoktistov, began to look again at options to leapfrog the US. Perhaps a near-term response like the Soyuz/Almaz Space Station was not possible, but surely something better could be done in the medium term?

Their focus quickly fell upon the L3M concept. L3M had been studied within TsKBEM for more than a year, ever since it became obvious that N-1's performance was at best marginal for a lunar mission. The basic L3M scenario would see an up-rated N-1 using a hydrogen-fuelled upper stage to send an uncrewed braking stage into lunar orbit. A second N-1 would then launch the crew vehicle with at least two cosmonauts towards the Moon. After travelling to lunar orbit, the crew would rendezvous with the braking stage, which would put the crew vehicle on a trajectory to intercept the surface, after which the braking stage would be discarded. The crew vehicle would then hover and land, arriving on the surface with a total mass of 21 tonnes, compared with a dry mass of just 5 tonnes for the Apollo Lunar Module. The crew would then spend up to two weeks exploring the surface, then depart in an ascent stage on a direct trajectory to Earth, avoiding the risks and complexities of having to first rendezvous in lunar orbit. The cosmonauts would return to Earth a Soyuz-derived descent module, which would separate from the rest of the vehicle before performing a lifting re-entry to bring them to the surface.

The main problem with the approach was not technical, but political. It would mean abandoning the work already done on the LOK and LK and explaining to the Politburo that the mission presented for their approval in the last Five Year Plan was now unachievable. However, the alternative was to have no meaningful missions at all, and there were signs that the leadership may be open to a change in direction. Afanasiev was said to be questioning whether N-1 was needed, and Keldysh and his Academy of Science had never been very supportive of the single-launch L3. If Feoktistov could provide a clear, detailed, and achievable plan to present to the leadership - one so obviously superior to L3 that even Mishin could be persuaded to support it - then there was still a chance to see Soviet boots on the moon. But the work had to start immediately. If the window to include L3M in the Ninth Five Year Plan was missed, the opportunity might never come again.

In parallel to work developing the L3M concept, the opening months of 1970 saw a flurry of activity related to preparations for the Soyuz 9/10 joint mission for Lenin’s birthday, which was to be the most complex crewed mission undertaken by the Soviet Union to date. It not only called for a docking and crew transfer, as had been the case with Soyuz 7 and 8, but also required that each of the spacecraft to spend two weeks in space. This was longer than had been achieved on any previous mission, beating the thirteen day US record with Gemini 7. Moreover, this mission would be the first crewed test of the Kontakt apparatus designed for the N1-L3 lunar missions that, despite the renewed focus on L3M, remained for now the programme of record.

The mission would see the replacement of Soyuz 10’s Orbital Module with what was effectively a copy of that of the LOK lunar spaceship, complete with a Kontakt docking probe on top. Soyuz 10 would carry a more conventional Orbital Module, but with a lightweight Kontakt target plate replacing the SSVP docking system used on earlier Soyuz missions. The Soyuz 9 probe would imbed itself into the Soyuz 10 plate, locking the two ships together. As with the LOK and LK craft on a lunar mission, this mating would be permanent, meaning that, at the end of its mission, Soyuz 9 would separate its Orbital Module whilst still attached to Soyuz 10. Soyuz 10 would continue to orbit with both Orbit Modules for a further two weeks before returning its two cosmonaut crew to Earth.

Although all of the components needed for the mission were available, the sheer number of innovations and the extremely short timescale in which to prepare kept Mishin’s engineers working overtime throughout the winter of 1969/70. But despite this crushing workload, Feoktistov and his collaborators still made time to advance planning on L3M, and by February 1970 Mishin had been persuaded to back their proposal not just as a follow-on, but as a replacement for L3. With the Chief Designer’s support gained, renewed effort was placed on preparing the ground to present the new mission to the government for approval.

Technical issues meant that Soyuz 9 missed by a few days a launch on Lenin’s birthday itself, finally taking off on 25th April 1970. Cosmonauts Andriyan Nikolayev and Georgy Grechko reported everything nominal and settled in for a two week wait for their comrades in Soyuz 10. Shortly afterwards, on 5th May, a meeting was held of the Chief Designers with the Minister of General Machine Building, Sergey Afanasiev, and Leonid Smirnoff, Deputy Chair of the Council of Ministers and head of the Military Industrial Commission. The original subject of the meeting was the progress of the Almaz space station project, but the agenda soon expanded to the wider topic of the future direction of Soviet spaceflight.

Those present confirmed their commitment to Almaz, but also gave renewed commitment to N-1 and its associated missions. The MKBS space station was approved, with the aim of launching by 1976, the last year of the next Five Year Plan. The N-1 itself was to receive the planned upgrades to N-1F status, including an acceleration of the development of a hydrogen upper stage, the Blok-S. It was intended that these changes would give the N-1 sufficient margin to safely perform an initial L3 lunar landing mission, but this would not be the end point of the Moon project. Rather, L3 would act as an advanced scout for the real mission: a landing of three cosmonauts by L3M in 1976.


[1] Point of Departure. IOTL the “DOS Conspirators” presented their plan to Ustinov after the Soyuz 6/7/8 mission. The plan was approved, and in 1971 the USSR launched Salyut 1 as the world’s first space station.
Last edited:
So replacing the Block G with the Block S, and using the N1F. That should give the L3 quite a bit more margin. Something tells me that L3M will run into troubles. And if the Soviets land a man on the Moon in the mid 1970s, after the decision has been made to proceed with the Space Shuttle, how does that change things for NASA? Does the Soviet response to the Shuttle launch on N1?
I was wondering when the PoD would appear, I read the prelude and while I don't have that detailed a knowledge of the Soviet Space program everything seemed pretty close to OTL. No Salyut presumably means the first Soviet space station will be Almaz aka OTL Salyut-2 which only launched a month before Skylab and didn't work. If it works and launches on schedule then the Soviets could still be the first to orbit a space station, if, as in OTL, it doesn't NASA could rack up another first with Skylab as the worlds first Space Station.
Last edited: