A Sound of Thunder: The Rise of the Soviet Superbooster

Yes and no, but mostly no. If an object is at EM-L1, it has two hurdles to cross to get to an orbit that comes close enough to Earth for a Soyuz capsule to skim the atmosphere and be braked to a landing on Soviet soil...

Now surely you were not suggesting, first ascend to L1 and then go from there back to Earth. I think you will find though that there is no royal road from the Lunar surface back to Earth that does not involve pretty close to this guesstimate 3 km/sec one way or another.
Apollo ascent to lunar orbit was about 1,700 m/s, and then transearth injection was about 1,000 m/s on top of it, for a delta-v of about 2.7 km/s. Assuming something more like 2.7 to 2.8 km/s, the numbers @nixonshead mentioned would imply about 326 to 338s isp, which isn't unreasonable (though on the high side) for a vacuum-optimized HTP/kerosene engine. Why the Russians were thinking that...I dunno, but the math seems to make sense.
I checked, and according to Astronautix HTP/kerosene engines seem to top out at 320 seconds Isp, rather than 326/328
I checked, and according to Astronautix HTP/kerosene engines seem to top out at 320 seconds Isp, rather than 326/328
Astronautix isn't exactly what I'd call a reliable source. And besides, the fuel is described as CxHy, which implies it's actually syntin, or some other synthetic kerosene derivative.
First two pics, it looks to me like part of the Zarya Station isn't enclosed in the fairing - given its diameter at that part, I can see why.

This was inspired by OTL’s Salyut 1, which was also largely exposed on launch. I considered enclosing Zarya anyway, but decided in the end that the hassle of the super-large fairing would not be worthwhile.

Nice to see a render of the N1 being raised into position, not too many of those ^_^

That transporter/erector was a pain to model, so you bet I’m going to use it!! Here's another example.

And a nice touch on the little detail of the US (at least the public) thinking the Soviet Space Effort is way ahead of where it actually is. Should the Truth comes out...

I figured it would mostly be a factor of the Soviets continuing to launch exciting new things, while the US is perceived to be in retreat - Apollo abandoned, Skylab abandoned, Shuttle in development but without any visible progress yet. Plus the fact you can always find someone who says “Things ain’t what they used to be, the US is being overtaken by the Soviets/Japanese/Chinese/Luxembourgers…”.

Ever since learning about the 4NM and 5NM mission proposals, I always thought that the Soviets must have been out of their minds on some high-grade stuff when they proposed them.

Well, we’ve got this big rocket. Gotta put something on the top!

I'm kind of impressed by the sheer numbers of N1 launches that will be happening ITTL. They must be getting some serious economies of scale on the engines. Though I wonder if they won't want to start launching probes in pairs again to have redundancy in case of in-flight failure.

Dual launches are currently not an option for N-1 until the Blok-Sr upgrades at the Site 110 pads are completed. Even then, I figured the cost of preparing and launching two Grozas (and their payloads) per Mars shot is prohibitive for 4NM.
Regarding the number of launches, IIRC there were 3-4 N-1s in various stages of construction when the programme was cancelled IOTL, and they were planning to launch 9L pretty quickly after 8L (which was itself more or less ready to go before cancellation), so they seem to have set up a pretty steady production stream.

Great updated as always. I was looking for the @ from whom made the renders you use and was like "wait since when the brazilian space agency does this?".

The renders are by me, with @aebdigital being my Twitter handle. I only realised that I shared initials with the Brazilian Space Agency when preparing this “The Descent of Anansi” fan art.
Interlude : The Apollo-Soyuz Test Program

Interlude : The Apollo-Soyuz Test Program​


Excerpt from “The Soviet Manned Space Programme”, by Phillip Clarke, published by Salamander, London, 1988.

The Joint Flight

The flight of Soyuz 17 marked a rare degree of openness for the Soviet space programme. Any flight with the Americans had to be conducted in the full glare of world publicity and for the first time the Soviet Union broadcast live coverage of events from space to the outside world. American personnel were at the Soviet Kaliningrad Mission Control for the launch, while a rookie cosmonaut, Illariavov, was part of the Soviet team at Houston Mission Control.

American astronauts had visited the Soviet Tyuratam launch site in May 1975 to see the ASTP Soyuz in assembly; this marked the first time that non-Soviet astronauts had visited the launch site. Following the assembly of the spacecraft and its booster, at about 2.00 GMT on 12 July 1975 the prime launch vehicle for the Soviet half of the ASTP mission began its journey to the launch pad - the same pad that had been used for the launches of Sputnik 1 and Vostok 1. The back-up Soyuz vehicle was later transported to the second Soyuz launch pad, some 32 kilometres distant. Nine of the twelve cosmonauts who had trained for the mission had arrived at Tyuratam for the launch: Leonov, Kubasov, Bykovski[1], Filipchenko, Rukavishnikov, Romanenko, Ivanchenkov, Rafikov and Aksyonov. This represented the prime crew for the first spacecraft and both the prime and back-ups for the second spacecraft. Unless serious illness overcame any of Leonov, Kubasov or Bykovski, it seems likely that the Soviets would have delayed the launch if any of them fell ill rather than assigning one of the other crews to the mission. The remaining three ASTP cosmonauts, Dzhanibekov, Andreyev and Isaulov, were working in the ground control network, monitoring the flight.[2]

On 15 July, Leonov, Kubasov and Bykovski, dressed in their flight suits, boarded the cosmonaut bus to the launch pad in full view of television audiences. After entering the spacecraft through the orbital module and dropping into the descent module, the orbital module hatch was sealed at 9.45, ready for the countdown and launch. Two hours before launch, the crew went through their flight check lists.

Television pictures were beamed “live” to the world from Tyuratam, starting at 9.58 GMT, and they continued until Soyuz was safely in orbit. At midday the cosmonauts fastened their harnesses. Launch in full view of the world’s television viewers came at 12.20 GMT. At 120 seconds into the flight the four strap-ons of the launch vehicle had separated and the core second stage was still firing; at 160 seconds after launch the payload tower and shroud were separated; 300 seconds saw the core stage shut down and the ignition of the third, orbital stage; finally, 530 seconds after launch, the third stage shut down, with spacecraft separation quickly following.

After orbital injection, Soyuz had an announced orbit of 51.8°, 186.35 - 220.35km, almost a perfect match with the planned parameters. In an operation starting at 17.37 and lasting for 2h 34min the pressure in Soyuz was reduced from 867mm to 539mm. Later that evening the cosmonauts began to operate the Biokat-M biological experiment. All of this was captured by the spacecraft television camera[3].

The Apollo crew were asleep as their colleagues were launched into orbit. While Soyuz 17 was completing its fourth orbit, the crew of Stafford, Brand and Slayton climbed aboard Apollo (officially, the spacecraft was simply “Apollo”, but it is often listed as “Apollo 18”). At 19.50 GMT the final Saturn booster was launched from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, carrying the last throw-away manned spacecraft which the Americans planned to launch. The mass of the combined CSM was 12,905kg and the DM mass was 2,006kg.

It took Apollo 18 about ten minutes to reach a 155-173km orbit, after which the transposition and docking manoeuvre to link Apollo with the docking module was successfully completed (although Stafford did have some initial difficulties in aligning Apollo with the DM). Two orbital corrections were then completed by Apollo, resulting in orbits of 165-167km and then 169-233km.

A day after launch, the Soyuz propulsion system fired to place the spacecraft in its “assembly orbit” 51.8°, 222.7-225.4km. It had now to wait for Apollo to arrive. A further pressure reduction in the Soyuz reduced the cabin pressure to about 500mm. On 17 July the world was treated to live television pictures of Soyuz 17 as Apollo 18 approached for the docking. Contact between the spacecraft was made at 16.09 GMT and the final docking was accomplished three minutes later, with Apollo operating as the “active” spacecraft. The crews checked the integrities of their two spacecraft. The cosmonauts then checked their modules and Leonov and Bykovski entered the orbital module to check the presume in the DM. Pressure in the DM was adjusted to 250mm of mercury, ready for the first crew transfer. At 19.13 the Soyuz orbital module hatch opened. The world saw Stafford - watched by Slayton in the DM - shake hands with Leonov. Although the flight was far from completed, this symbolic handshake marked the culmination of the ASTP mission.


Painting of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project docking by Andrei Sokolov.


[1] Valeriy F Bykovskiy, Air Force cadre, commander Vostok 5 1963, (+ Soyuz 22 IOTL)

[2] ITTL the ASTP mission includes one more cosmonaut, as without the Soyuz 11 disaster, the Soyuz is still flying with a crew of three, and no pressure suits.

[3] IOTL the TV camera failed.

General Note: The dates and times quoted are exactly as per OTL. Although butterflies would mean that “in reality” these would certainly vary a little, there were no specific or significant impacts on the timing of ASTP from my PoD, so I didn’t consider it worthwhile to go through and shift a day here, or an hour there, when most people wouldn’t notice anyway.
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Shouldn't that be
Probably Valeri Vasiliyevich?
Probably. I've had some issues with different transliteration schemes in different sources, but this case was likely just a typo on my part. I'll double-check with the source and update as necessary.

I'm afraid there's a slight delay for today's post, but I should have it up either later tonight, or tomorrow. It's got shuttles in it, so I think you'll all enjoy it :)
Post 9: The Soviet Shuttle

Post 9: The Soviet Shuttle​

Akin’s Law of Spacecraft Design #39. (alternate formulation):

The three keys to keeping a new human space program affordable and on schedule:
1) No new launch vehicles.
2) No new launch vehicles.
3) Whatever you do, don't develop any new launch vehicles.


Following the publication of the Joint Decree establishing the Soviet shuttle project, this immediately became the main focus of efforts at TsKBEM as system lead, and at the newly-formed NPO Molniya, a spin-off from the Mikoyan-Gurevich (MiG) Design Bureau, which was to deliver the spaceplane. Mishin placed Konstantin Bushyev, TsKBEM’s chief of piloted space vehicle design, in overall charge of development of the launcher-plus-orbiter system, with Molniya’s Gleb Lozino-Lozinskiy leading the orbiter design effort.

Whilst the L3M lunar landing project had the support of the Academy of Sciences, the shuttle was now seen as a priority for the military, and under Brezhnev it was the military that held the most sway. Mishin was frustrated by this, still seeing the lunar mission as his main objective, but he could hardly turn down the opportunity to lead the nation’s flagship space programme for the next decade, especially after having lost the space station project to Glushko. So Mishin accepted the assignment, and worked to shape the shuttle into something that would minimise the disruption to L3M, and perhaps even advance and secure the lunar launch infrastructure.

Central to this was the use of Groza as the launch vehicle for the Soviet spaceplane. Although there were voices within both the Air Force and TsKBEM itself calling for a clone of the US shuttle design (“The Americans aren’t dumber, do it the way they do!”), there were other compelling reasons to avoid simply duplicating the US shuttle, even apart from Mishin’s desire to maximise re-use of the existing N-1 infrastructure. For one, although Soviet experience with hydrolox propellants was improving with the development of the Blok-Sr upper stage, the creation of large, high-thrust, reusable hydrogen-oxygen engines like those of the shuttle would have been a daunting task. Similarly, the large solid rocket boosters employed by the Americans were well beyond the scope of anything that had been built in the USSR to that point. The industrial base to build such motors did not exist, and transporting the heavy SRB segments to the Baikonur cosmodrome for each launch would be a considerable challenge. Once launched, these boosters would not have the option of splashing down for recovery, but would instead either need to touchdown on land, or be simply left to crash as expendable stages. Developing all these systems would add years and billions of rubles to the project, assuming it would be possible to develop at all.

Despite this decision to follow the N-1 derived path, the Draft Plan delivered in December 1976, providing the overall design specification for the system, made some significant changes to the vertical-landing lifting body proposed in earlier TsKBEM studies. The most visible of these was the inclusion of wings on the orbiter.

In the original concept, the shuttle spaceplane was to be a wingless, roughly cylindrical craft 34m long, with a pair of small wings at the rear of the vehicle to control re-entry, which would be folded against the side of the plane on launch. After slowing in the upper atmosphere, the shuttle would descend vertically under parachutes before making a final rocket-assisted soft landing in the Kazakh steppe. This reduced aerodynamic loads on the launch vehicle, and avoided the need for expensive runway facilities at Baikonur, but it suffered from a low cross-range capability - just 800km[1] - and presented some significant logistical challenges in returning the vehicle and its payload to the launch site. The cross-range capability was particularly important due to the Soviets lacking the variety of emergency landing sites made available to the Americans by their allies.

To address these shortcomings, the 1976 design added a pair of straight-edged deployable wings to the orbiter. These would be stowed beneath the payload bay during launch, orbit and re-entry, before swinging out to provide lift and control for the descent through the atmosphere. Small jet engines would provide thrust to guide the vehicle to a landing at a runway at Baikonur, or any suitable military runway in case of emergency[2]. These would dramatically improve the orbiter’s subsonic lift/drag ratio, allowing a cross-range of almost 2700km[3].

The inclusion of variable-geometry wings - only recently introduced into the Soviet Air Force with the MiG-23 in 1974 - was controversial from the point of view of both the additional weight of the swing wing mechanisms, and the complexity and associated opportunities for failures it introduced to the system. For the weight issue, this was seen as an inevitable consequence of providing a reasonable cross-range capability without imposing undue loads on the launcher, while stowing the wings for re-entry at least minimised the impact by removing the need to provide them with additional thermal protection. The added complexity was a concern, however, and became a significant driver for the other major change in the design; the emergency escape system.

For their shuttle, NASA were assuming that, once the first few test flights were completed, regular operations would be so routine and safe that no emergency escape system would be needed. With the recent experience of the N-1 launch failures and the Soyuz 1 disaster in mind, the engineers at TsKBEM and NPO Molniya did not share this confidence, and were determined to include a robust escape system for their shuttle. This took the form of a separable nose section, containing the crew cabin and nose RCS thrusters. Upon launch, an escape rocket would be attached to the nose, allowing the capsule to be pulled clear in the event of a launcher failure, just as on crewed Soyuz or Groza launches. Once the high acceleration portion of the launch was over, this escape rocket would be jettisoned, but the cabin would retain the ability to split from the main body of the orbiter using its own small, internal solid rockets. In case of a failure on-orbit, the nose RCS units would be used to brake the capsule for re-entry, with small body flaps used to control the descent. The final landing would be either under parachutes with solid braking rockets, or the crew would eject and come down under their own parachutes.

Although offering a robust set of options for escaping disaster, these emergency systems added considerable mass to the orbiter. Together with the swing wings and the usual growth in mass as the design was detailed, this threatened to push the orbiter beyond the 105 tonne maximum payload of the basic N-1F Groza launch vehicle. After their experience in paring mass budgets to the bone on the N1-L3 programme, the team at TsKBEM were reluctant to repeat the experience with the shuttle. It was possible that they could remain within budget by sacrificing payload mass, but Mishin saw another opportunity present itself to use the shuttle programme to enhance his lunar ambitions.

In 1965 a study had been conducted to investigate replacing the Blok-V 3rd stage of the N-1 with a large hydrolox stage, the Blok-V-III. This study was later superseded by plans to develop the Blok-S and Blok-R upper stages, which were then consolidated into Blok-Sr, but with the experience gained in the intervening decade, a large hydrolox upper stage could be within striking distance. The introduction of Blok-V-III would boost Groza’s payload to LEO up to 125 tonnes. This would instantly solve the shuttle’s weight problems, while giving Mishin a powerfully uprated launcher for the lunar base being designed by Barmin’s bureau. The Draft Plan therefore included specifications of the development of the N-1FV-III and associated test and ground support equipment.

Although the inclusion of a hydrolox third stage removed concerns over the orbiter’s mass from the launch side of operations, the growth in weight was posing considerable problems for the re-entry phase, and in particular with respect to thermal protection. Keeping the wings stowed during re-entry saved the mass of having to protect them from aerodynamic heating, but it also reduced the cross-sectional area the spacecraft could use to slow itself in the atmosphere. This, together with this increased mass of the orbiter, meant that the orbiter would experience higher temperatures on re-entry, to the point where it wasn’t clear if a US-style thermal protection system based on silica tiles would be up to the job. In addition, there were concerns that the quartz sand needed to manufacture such tiles was simply not available in the USSR, and may have to be imported from Brazil.[4]

In response to these concerns, the designers at Molniya and TsKBEM investigated alternatives for protecting the shuttle during re-entry. They considered the use of exotic superalloys, similar to those developed in the US for the cancelled Dyna-Soar project, but this technology was considered too immature to be integrated into an operational vehicle in the near term. Another option, based on work done previously by the Myasishchev Design Bureau for the “Project 48” spaceplane study, was foamed ceramic tiles. These would be lighter than quartz-fibre based tiles, while offering a similar performance, with the weight saved allowing for the inclusion of an active cooling for critical areas.

All of these issues, though challenging, appeared to be soluble, and by the end of 1976 Mishin and his deputies were confident they would be able to deliver the vehicle the military were asking for, but there was a significant price to pay. In order to advance work on the shuttle, budget allocations to the L3M programme, and to the crewed LEK vehicle in particular, had been reduced, and engineers previously focussed on the moon landing were switched to working on the detailed schematics for shuttle sub-systems. A major upgrade of the Site 110 launch facilities would be needed to adapt the rotating service towers to the shuttle’s needs, as well as the hydrogen-fueled Blok-V-III, which was significantly larger than the Blok-Sr upper stage. This would further delay the dual-launch capability needed for L3M. True, the new capabilities enabled by the shuttle related upgrades would allow for a far more robust and ambitious programme once completed, but this was scant comfort for many of those who had spent the last decade chasing the Moon, and now yet again saw their target receding into the distance.

In spite of these concerns, the engineers at TsKBEM and Molniya continued to prove their dedication, and the Draft Project was presented to an expert commission for review in December 1976. This review was completed in July 1977, and was followed by a formal government approval for the development plan in November 1977, shortly after the American Shuttle Enterprise completed its Approach and Landing Test series.

As well as an approved design and a clear development path ahead, it was at this point that the Soviet shuttle programme also acquired a name: Baikal.



[1] This is the original cross-range capability of the OTL MTKVP design, as stated in “Energiya-Buran”, Bart Hendrickx and Bert Vis.

[2] This is very similar to the Convair T-18 and FL-3 designs developed in the 1960s/70s as part of their shuttle studies.

[3] This is based upon the 1500 nautical mile cross range for the Convair T-18, as stated in “Space Shuttle: Developing an Icon, Vol. I” by Dennis R. Jenkins.

[4] This was a real concern on the OTL Buran programme, but in the end a suitable domestic source was found.
holy. metric. shit. this is incredible, I absolutely adore this idea and I cannot wait to see it executed. You're an absolute madlad and I cannot wait to see what's next :cool:
RD-57. That's the more powerful between it and the RD-56 right?

Have to say, while the Block-V-III will certainly boost Groza's capabilities - incidentally allowing for a greater mass margin on L3M should it be needed - it does concern me that further delays could prevent a Soviet Lunar Landing from ever occurring, especially with Baikal being a high-priority item for the Military - where TsKBEM's funding comes from IIRC.

And when we consider Mishin's go-to for dealing with stress - that must be piling up on him now - I can't help but wonder how long he can hold out...

One thing I'm noticing here. With the stated payload of Groza with its Block-V-III of 125,000Kg, does that surpass the Saturn V's LEO capacity?