A Sound of Thunder: The Rise of the Soviet Superbooster

Prelude: Birth of a Giant
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    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.



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    Interlude: “Boris, give me back 800 kilograms.”
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    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!
    Post 1: A Failed Conspiracy
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    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.
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    Interlude : Soyuz 9/10
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    Interlude : Soyuz 9/10​

    - 9th May 1970, Low Earth Orbit

    For the second time in his life, Aleksei Leonov pushed through a spacecraft outer hatch and into space. Gripping the handrail on the exterior of Soyuz 10’s Habitation Module, he looked past the fabric-and-metal of the joined Soyuz spacecraft to gaze at the fully lit face of the Earth. It was a sight that had lost none of its grandeur in the five years since his historic Voskhod 2 mission.

    Leonov flexed his arms experimentally. The internal pulley system of his Yastreb spacesuit made it a lot more flexible than the Berkut he had worn for Voskhod, and with no umbilical cord to get tangled in he had greater freedom of movement - though the bulky life support pack, currently strapped to his right leg, kept bumping into things. Still some room for improvement…

    “Aleksei, are you just going to stand there all day?” Nikolai Rukavishnikov asked over the radio from the descent module. “Do I have to come out there and give you a push?!”

    “I’m on my way, Nikolai,” Leonov assured his comrade. He carefully attached his second safety line to the rail extending along the stubby “snout” of the Habitation Module, then unclipped from the airlock rail and pulled himself along the exterior of the ship. He paused briefly to wave at the TV camera mounted next to the airlock hatch, before turning his attention to his next challenge: the Kontakt docking assembly.

    The probe-and-drogue docking units used on previous Soyuz mission had fitted neatly into the nose of the Habitation Modules, making a spacesuited passage across the exterior of the linked spacecraft relatively simple. The Kontakt system, by contrast, attempted to simplify docking by providing a nice, large target plate on the passive vehicle for the active spacecraft to hit with its probe. For this mission, Soyuz 10 was using a Habitation Module almost identical to that planned for the LOK moonship, including a cluster of thrusters and propellant tanks ending in a probe consisting of four splayed contact legs surrounding a central prong. Together, these appendages presented Leonov with an obstacle course of tanks, tubes and wiring on the Soyuz 10 side, to be followed by the wall of Soyuz 9’s target plate before he could pull himself into the other ship’s Habitation Module. The rails attached to the Habitation Modules allow passage over these obstacles, but still there remained a risk of getting his safety tether snagged in the delicate equipment.

    Come now, Aleksei, Leonov thought to himself. If you can’t master this in nice, safe Earth orbit, how can you hope to achieve it when circling about the moon?

    Taking a firm grip on the handrail, taking care to avoid disturbing the explosive bolts that would release the two craft, Aleksei clipped onto the probe assembly and propelled himself towards the docking plate. Arresting his motion with one outstretched hand against the plate, he turned himself end-over-end, leaving his legs pointing out into space as he inspected the target for damage.

    “The plate looks good,” he reported. “It looks like the probe hit cleanly. It went straight through the plate and grabbed on tight! I see no damage to the probe.”

    “Aleksei, did you experience any problems passing the mechanism?” That was Andriyan Nikolayev, already suited with his torso outside of Soyuz 9’s airlock hatch, ready for his own transfer. After two weeks aloft in Soyuz 9, Nikolayev was to spend a further fortnight in orbit with Rukavishnikov in Soyuz 10, setting a spaceflight endurance record that would prove hard to beat.

    “No problems,” Leonov reported. “I am coming over to you now. I bring warm greetings from Mother Russia and from your lovely Valentina[1].”

    Rukavishnikov chimed in at that point, “I hope she will not become too jealous at my spending the next two weeks in such close quarters with you!”

    “I have not been in space so long and become so desperate for company that she could have anything to be jealous of, Kolya,” Nikolayev replied tartly. Leonov grinned in his suit. It was a good sign that Nikolayev remained in high spirits halfway through his record-breaking mission. Still smiling, Leonov twisted his body over the docking plate and grabbed the next handrail on Soyuz 9’s Habitation Module.

    After pulling himself fully across, Leonov paused to look back upon the Soyuz 10 Habitation Module he’d just left. The sight of the lunar ship’s module in space filled him with a possessive pride, but also a slight sadness. For years Leonov had been training to fly in a similar ship to become the first Soviet citizen to land on the moon. It was, in fact, the reason for his inclusion on this mission, as a spacewalk like this would be required before the LK’s pilot and his companion in the LOK could return to Earth. If the latest rumours were true, and N1-L3 was replaced by a larger, more capable two-launch mission, then the LOK and LK might never get their chance to carry humans to the Moon. Still, Leonov remained determined that, whatever craft was used, he would be one of those chosen to plant the hammer-and-sickle alongside the stars-and-stripes already placed upon their cosmic neighbour. Although there will be one flag fewer than there should have been, he thought. Despite the rivalry between their countries, Leonov was glad to hear that Apollo 13 had returned home safely the week before Soyuz 9 had launched.

    Shaking himself out of his daydream, Leonov crossed the last few metres to the hatch, tagging Nikolayev’s arm with his gloved hand. “Now your turn, Andriyan. See if you can beat my time!”

    “I’ll try not to spend as much time counting crows as you did,” Nikolayev responded, before pushing himself clear of the hatch and heading off along the Orbital Module the way Leonov had come.

    Leonov watched from the hatch, waiting in case Nikolayev should need assistance, but the other cosmonaut had no difficulty in crossing to the other Soyuz. Satisfied that Nikolayev was safe, Leonov took one last, long look at the Earth, then turned and entered the spacecraft. Much easier than last time, he thought to himself. Remembering becoming stuck in Voskhod 2’s airlock and having to partially depressurise his suit still sent a cold shiver down his spine when he thought about it. No such problems here, though. There was plenty of room for his Yastreb suit, and Leonov closed and sealed the exterior hatch with ease before turning the valves to repressurise the compartment.

    “I’ll be with you in a moment, Georgi Mikhailovich,” Leonov called over the radio as he watched the pressure dials rise. As the gauges reached nominal pressure, Leonov first carefully removed one glove, then reached up to unseal his faceplate and swing it upwards.

    Immediately Leonov slammed the faceplate back into place, fighting to control his stomach. This compartment has been in vacuum for almost an hour, he reminded himself. And still, that smell!

    “Georgi, in the name of all that is sacred, isn’t there a bar of soap on this spaceship?!”



    [1] Andriyan Nikolayev was married to Valentina Tereshkova.
    Post 2: The First Rumble
  • Post 2: The First Rumble​

    - The President’s Daily Brief, 7th May 1970



    The latest photography from a satellite over Tyuratam shows that the Soviets are still working on their largest space booster—assembled on one of the pads at Complex J and therefore dubbed ‘the J-Bird’ by U.S. observers of Soviet rocketry. The first booster of this type to be tested blew up on the other pad at Complex J last July during an attempt to launch a payload to the Moon. The extensive damage to that pad is still being repaired.

    The J-Bird is the Soviet counterpart of the Saturn V, but [REDACTED] it cannot deliver as large a payload to the moon. The difference in performance is in the high-energy propellants in the upper stages of the Saturn.

    The Soviets would have to use two J-Birds to put a man on the Moon—a rendezvous would be necessary. Thus, both launch pads at Complex J would be needed. The link-up mission of Soyuz 9 and Soyuz 10, currently in progress, is believed to be making use of a different docking system than previous flights, and could be a test of the system planned for connecting in orbit the components of dual-launch lunar mission. Interplanetary probes and circumlunar missions can be handled by one J-Bird, which could also be used to orbit a permanent space station weighing 100 to 150 tons. An unmanned lunar landing and return mission could also be launched.

    Because of the problems the Soviets have been having with their large space boosters, the intelligence community has estimated that they probably will not be able to make a lunar landing before 1973.


    With the successful completion of the record-breaking Soyuz 9/10 mission, attention at TsKBEM was focussed back towards the lunar mission, and in particular getting the N-1 into space. The priorities agreed at the Ministerial meeting in May 1970 were quickly confirmed in June via Decree 437-160, directing Mishin’s team to develop the enhanced N-1F version of the booster that would be needed for the expanded L3M lunar mission. This Decree was followed in September by the formal approval of L3M by the Military Industrial Commission, the VPK, making the dual-launch lunar mission the official policy of the Soviet government. TsKBEM would fly the last remaining Zond probe in October, continue development of the 7K-T Soyuz ferry for Phase 1 of Chelomei’s Almaz space station, and begin advanced planning for the MKBS space base, but the overriding priority was now, once again, getting N-1 off the pad and into space.

    Following the disastrous loss of N1-5L in July 1969, much work had gone into improving the rocket to avoid such costly failures in the future. In particular, at the insistence of Vladimir Barmin, the Chief Director of launch facilities, the N-1's KORD control system was modified to prevent any engine shutdown command being issued until after the rocket was clear of the pad. The 5L explosion had completely wreaked the pad at Site 110 East, and Barmin wanted to ensure that any future failures would happen well away from his precious facilities.

    Other changes included the addition of a fire suppression system in the N-1 Blok-A, contained within large external sleeves added to the outside of the first stage in the most visible change to the rocket’s appearance. Additionally, more robust partitions were added between the engines, with the aim of minimising the damage should one of the NK-15s explode, as had happened on the previous launch. The NK-15s themselves were subjected to more rigorous testing and extra precautions to avoid contamination that might cause “foreign object ingestion” - Kuznetsov’s go-to explanation whenever one of his engines failed.

    Despite all of these precautions, the launch of N1-6L on 10th March 1971 ended in another failure after less than a minute in the air. This time all of the Blok-A engines performed flawlessly - and that was the problem. The interaction of thirty engine plumes with the wide base of the rocket, seen now for the first time, set up eddies that generated an unexpected roll force. The four small vernier thrusters of the Blok-A were unable to compensate, and within forty seconds the roll had grown beyond the capabilities of the guidance system, which went into gimbal lock. As the aerodynamic forces began to tear the vehicle apart, the KORD system shut off all engines, and the wrecked vehicle descended to impact the steppe, coming down several kilometres from the launch pad, much to Barmin’s satisfaction[1].


    Although hugely disappointing, this latest setback did not derail the programme, and work continued in defining the upgrades that would be needed to support N-1F and the L3M mission. The N1-6L Launch Commission had, for the first time, officially acknowledged that the single-launch N1-L3 approach was impossible to safely execute, and so all the energies of TsKBEM’s lunar project team were firmly focussed on the dual-launch mission. It was decided that the existing L3 spacecraft - seven pairs of Soyuz derived LOKs and LK landers in various stages of assembly - would be flown without crews. This would allow in-space testing of critical subsystems, such as the LOK fuel cell technology and LK propulsion system, which could then be adapted for the larger Lunar Expedition Ship (LEK) planned for L3M. For similar reasons, the LK itself would undertake two Earth orbit test flights, in February 1971 as Kosmos 398 and August 1971 as Kosmos 434, in addition to the Kosmos 379 mission that had already been flown in November 1970. All three of these LK test missions, launched on Soyuz-L rockets, were completed flawlessly, and the remaining LK flight models were held for uncrewed lunar missions under the N-1 flight test programme.

    Following the conclusion of the L1 circumlunar programme with the October 1970 launch of Zond 8, L1 chief engineer Yuri Semenov had been put in charge of development of the LEK, and he and his team were eager to take advantage of the huge amount of work already done to accelerate their timetables. Semenov also brought his experiences working with Chelomei’s TsKBM on L1 to bear in discussions with Mishin and his other deputies on the direction of the N-1 programme. In particular, Semenov reported favourably on the rigorous review and testing campaign that had finally cured the Proton rocket of its “childhood illnesses”, and impressed upon Kuznetsov the importance of quality control in the manufacture of the NK-15 engines and their uprated NK-33 derivatives that would power N-1F. Although defensive of the work already done by his bureau in front of the other Chief Designers, Kuznetsov privately took note of Semenov’s suggestions and began instituting additional quality checks at his production plant. Most of these improvements related to the development of the new NK-33 engines, but before they would have their chance to fly there was one mission remaining for the NK-15s.

    In late May of 1972, N-1 vehicle No. 7L was finally rolled out of the Assembly and Processing Building at Baikonur’s Site 112 (MIK-112) and into the bright Kazakh sunshine, resting in the cradle of its “Grasshopper” Transporter/Erector. The previous month had witnessed a similar scene, when the 1M1 test vehicle, a full-scale non-functioning model of the rocket, had been hauled out for fitting tests. This, however, was the real deal, the fourth flight model of one of the two largest rockets on the planet. Hauled along twin tracks by two pairs of powerful diesel locomotives, slowly, grudgingly, the wheeled cradle and its 230 tonne cargo were pulled out of the building on the first part of its journey to the Raskat launch complex at Site 110.

    As N1-7L emerged into the sunshine, the modifications from the previous N-1 vehicles became visible. Aside from a minor update of the white-and-grey colour scheme, a trained eye would note significant modifications as the rear of the rocket emerged. Firstly, the sharp-edged skirt at the N-1's base was replaced by a short cylindrical section joined to a gentle slope starting higher up the rocket’s flanks, and sported four large auxiliary rockets. The modified base would change the aerodynamic loads, whilst the beefed up roll control engines would be able to counter any forces that might still emerge, preventing a repeat of the roll that had doomed vehicle 6L.

    Further aerodynamic refinements were evident as the eye moved upwards along the body of the rocket, with the long housings protecting the propellant lines and fire suppression systems of each stage now coming to a streamlined point instead of the previous boxy termination. This was evident on all three stages of the N-1 proper, as were the increased number of telemetry antennas.

    The nose of the rocket looked much the same as on the previous three missions, with the distinctive shroud of the L3 complex terminating an a launch abort system which had proven its reliability on vehicle 5L by pulling the modified L1E “Zond” capsule free of what became one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history. Beneath that shroud lay the L3 complex, consisting of the Blok-G and -D upper stages, a mock-up of the LK lander, and an operational LOK lunar orbiter. This LOK had been fitted out as an uncrewed test vehicle and scientific probe. If successful, it would carry the designation “Zond 9”, a heavier follow-on to the L1 series of Soyuz derived lunar probes that had ended with the launch of Zond 8. If the launch was unsuccessful, the public would never hear of it.

    After grinding along five kilometres of Baikonur’s rail network, the four locomotives, now positioned at the opposite end of the Transporter/Erector, began the final push up to Pad 38 of Site 110, the Grasshopper straddling one of the three giant flame trenches extending from the pad itself. Carefully, the giant transport and its moon rocket cargo eased into position, the bottom of the launcher overhanging the wide, circular pit of the launch pad.

    At this point the Transporter/Erector was called upon to demonstrate the second half of its name. With a billowing smoke and fumes from the powerful diesel engines, the giant hydraulic rams were forced into their pistons, and the behemoth began to tilt upwards. It took more than an hour to lift the rocket to vertical over the flame pit and bring the adapter ring nestled inside the outer circle of NK-15 engines to rest on the launch pad’s support pads. Once in position, steel latches emerged from the pads and locked the rocket into place. With the launch vehicle secure on its stand, the Grasshopper was disconnected from the rocket’s load bearing hardpoints and the supporting frame was lowered once more, leaving N1-7L a solitary white peak in the late afternoon sun of the Kazakh plain. As the sun set, the rotating service tower swung into place and floodlights lit to allow work to continue through the night.

    On the morning of 12th June 1972, the Kazakh steppe was once more shaken by the sound of thirty NK-15 rocket engines firing together. As soon as their combined thrust exceeded the weight of the rocket, N1-7L lifted from Pad 38 and began its ascent to the stars. The redesigned aft skirt and beefed-up control rockets performed perfectly, and as the launcher cleared the tower there was no sign of the roll that had doomed its predecessor. At T+23 seconds the rocket had already out-lived N1-5L. The ascent continued, with the rocket following its pre-programmed pitch and yaw manoeuvres. T+50 seconds had seen the KORD-commanded shutdown of vehicle 6L, but 7L continued to fly true. The clock passed T+68 seconds, making 7L the longest lived N-1 to date, beating the record set by N1-3L, the very first launch, and still there were no signs of trouble. Had they finally defeated the “bobkins” that had plagued the earlier flights?

    At T+94.5 seconds, exactly to programme, the six central engines of the Blok-A first stage shut down. The 24 engines of the outer ring kept firing, providing the thrust that would settle the Blok-B propellants and enable its own engines to ignite, whilst also giving a final boost to the rest of the stack. No previous N-1 launch had ever gotten this far, and it was here that the gremlins made one last roll of the dice.

    The simultaneous shutdown of the six central Blok-A engines meant a sudden drop in thrust that sent a shockwave through the rocket. Joints were shaken and welds were strained, and deep inside the complex plumbing of the Blok-A propulsion system, pipes feeding oxygen and kerosene to the central engines snapped.

    T+100 seconds.

    Rocket propellant sprayed inside the aft compartment of the first stage and was quickly ignited on contact with the hot engine parts. A fireball expanded inside the aft compartment, continuing to be fed by the broken propellant lines.

    T+105 seconds.

    The fire suppression system, which was first added on vehicle 6L and had been upgraded for 7L, triggered and sprayed flame retardant chemicals into the compartment. The flames retreated briefly, but then resurged.

    T+110 seconds.

    A battle raged inside of Blok-A. A battle between flame and foam, and a battle against the clock. The outer engines felt the heat of the fire, and above them, the giant, almost-empty sphere of the oxygen tank got warmer, and warmer…

    T+113 seconds.

    With a burst of flame that dwarfed the events lower down, the eight NK-15V engines of Blok-B roared into life. Fourteen million Newtons of thrust hammered against the blast deflectors atop Blok-A’s kerosene tank.

    T+118 seconds.

    The fire in Blok-A finally reached the outer ring of engines. As engines started to fail, KORD began shutting them down in pairs, keeping the now-dwindling thrust balanced, before finally extinguishing all 24 engines. As the thrust dropped, the still-firing Blok-B separated from the doomed lower stage, pushing them apart a few seconds sooner than anticipated in their programming. The deviation is a minor one though, and as the heat of the fire finally ignites the vapours in Blok-A’s propellant tanks, the rest of N1-7L ascends, phoenix-like, to continue its journey into space.[2]




    [1] IOTL N1-6L launched on 26th June 1971, and failed for the same reasons. The earlier launch ITTL reflects the increased priority without the distraction of preparing for Salyut 1. Without full-scale ground testing (something ruled out by the cost of the necessary facilities), it was impossible to foresee the aerodynamic instabilities that doomed the rocket.

    [2] The fire happened as described IOTL on launch 7L, but is believed to have been joined by the explosion of a turbopump on one of the still-firing NK-15s, probably due to contact between the turbine blades and the pump casing. ITTL additional attention to quality - or perhaps just dumb luck - mean that the turbopump explosion doesn’t happen, giving just enough of a window for Blok-B staging to complete before Blok-A ceases to function.
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    Interlude : The View from the West
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    Interlude : The View from the West​


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

    The Giant Booster

    For any manned lunar mission there is one further vital element required: a booster in the Saturn V class. No such booster placed a Soviet payload in orbit during 1968-1971, although there were intelligence reports that two large boosters (Type-G or SL-15 vehicles) were prepared for flight. The first is believed to have exploded on the launch pad on 3-4 July 1969 while being fuelled in readiness for launch. The second was launched on 24-25 March 1971 but disintegrated at an altitude of about 12km.[1] Then, on 12 June 1972 Moscow Radio announced that a new heavy lift rocket named Groza had been successfully launched from “Baikonur Cosmodrome”. This was the first Soviet admission that they had a large booster under development.

    Although few details were announced at the time, the Soviet Union has since released a considerable amount of information on the rocket. In its basic form the Groza[2] SL-15 is a three stage vehicle, with all stages using liquid oxygen and kerosene (a propellant combination which was used on the Sputnik-Vostok-Soyuz family of launch vehicles). The first stage is powered by 30 engines from the Kuznetsov Bureau, with a combined thrust of 4,600 tonnes. The second and third stages use engines of a similar type, with eight on the second stage and four engines on the third stage. For the initial launches, two further upper stages were used. The fourth stage was used to place the payload into a parking orbit and later provided the impulse needed to place the payload on a trans-lunar trajectory. The fifth stage was used for deep space manoeuvres and was identical to the upper stage previously flown with the Proton SL-12 rocket. These fourth and fifth stages were later replaced by a single oxygen-hydrogen stage.

    Zond 9

    The payload for the first Groza launch was Zond 9. Despite sharing a designation with the earlier unmanned circumlunar spacecraft, it is clear that Zond 9 was a new design much larger than the previous probes in the series. After completing two orbits of the Earth, Zond 9 was placed onto a lunar trajectory by the Groza fourth stage, which was then observed to separate from the payload. A course correction manoeuvre was applied on 15 June at a distance of 320 thousand km from Earth. It was widely expected that Zond 9 would enter lunar orbit, but no further manoeuvres were performed and the craft passed behind the Moon on 16 June at a minimum distance of 2,800km. Radio telemetry continued to be received from the probe until 22 June, after which all contact was lost. The Soviets made the following official announcement regarding the mission:

    “In accordance with the space research programme, automated probe Zond 9 has successfully completed its mission and has entered a solar orbit as an artificial planet. According to telemetric data, all the systems and assemblies on board and the scientific equipment functioned as designed. Scientists are analysing the results, which will further our understanding of the Moon and deep space.”

    Official Soviet sources have provided few details of this “Heavy Zond”, but many Western observers believe this was an unmanned test of hardware for a lunar landing system for cosmonauts.


    [1] This is all verbatim as identified in the OTL book. Apparently, even as late as 1987, Western civilian Soviet-watchers remained unaware of the N1-3L launch in February 1969.

    [2] IOTL of course, N-1 never got a true name, and indeed was kept secret for years. Soviet practice was usually to name their rockets once they went operational, often taking the name from their first payload (e.g. Vostok, Molniya, Proton). Energia only got its name a few days before launch. ITTL, with a successful launch, the Soviet authorities want a name to put on the press releases, and this is it.

    The name Groza (Гроза, pronounced “Grah-zah”) means “Thunderstorm”, fitting into an OTL trend of Soviet space vehicles being named for violent weather events, as well as being the name of a politically relevant play, which was popular with both the Communist Party and the public.

    It also lets me reference Bradbury for my timeline’s title.

    I considered using the name “Raskat”, which is the name of the N-1 launch complex and is usually translated as “peal of thunder”, but after consulting with a Russian friend I discovered that it’s also a term widely used for “steamroller”, which didn’t quite have the space-age feel I was looking for.
    Post 3: Like a Diamond in the Sky
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    Post 3: Like a Diamond in the Sky​

    “I'm on the surface; and, as I take man's last step from the surface, back home for some time to come - but we believe not too long into the future - I'd like to just [say] what I believe history will record. That America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17."

    - Gene Cernan, Apollo 17 Commander, December 13 1972, Taurus-Littrow Valley.


    As 1972 turned into 1973, the public focus of the space programmes of both Superpowers was shifting. The completion of the Apollo 17 mission signalled the end of America’s moon project, with attention switching to the upcoming launch of the Skylab space station and, beyond that, the development of a reusable Space Shuttle, turning space from an exotic location to explore into a place in which to live and work on a routine basis. Moreover, the signature the previous May of an agreement with the Soviets to conduct a joint mission in 1975 gave rise to hopes of a less confrontational future, in which both Superpowers could cooperate for the benefit of all humanity.

    Publicly, the USSR embraced this position. After all, they had always been in favour of cooperation, and had refused to engage in the Moon Race, focussing instead on scientific robots and perfecting their crewed Soyuz spacecraft. It was the Americans who had seen competition where the Soviets had offered cooperation.

    Behind the scenes, attitudes were somewhat different.

    After eight years of development work, by the end of 1972 the first model of Vladimir Chelomei’s Almaz Orbital Piloted Station was finally nearing completion. OPS-1 consisted of two pressurised cylindrical sections, with propulsion systems, solar arrays and a docking port clustered at the rear of the larger cylinder. Along the belly of the two cylinders were arrayed apertures for a series of telescopes, including the giant Agat-1 photo-camera that filled much of the main compartment. These were all to be trained on the Earth’s surface, for Almaz was a military space station, conceived as a response to the USAF Manned Orbital Laboratory and sold to the Soviet military as a flexible and responsive reconnaissance platform.

    Although this military function had until now kept the project cloaked in secrecy, by late 1972 there was a renewed political emphasis on using Almaz to claim another “first” for the USSR, by publicly beating Skylab to orbit with a crewed space station. To meet this objective not only would the station need to be ready, but so would a method of getting cosmonauts to Almaz. Chelomei’s original 1965 concept was to launch Almaz with a crew of three already onboard, in a VA return capsule attached to the front of the workshop. This idea had been scrapped by 1969, to be replaced by a separate Transport and Supply Ship (TKS), which combined the same VA design with a spacious Functional Cargo Block (FGB), providing crew facilities and consumables to support missions of several months. Unfortunately for Chelomei, TKS was running behind schedule, and was not expected to be available until the second half of the 1970s. In the meantime, Almaz would be forced to rely upon Mishin’s Soyuz for crew transfers.

    To support Chelomei’s needs, Mishin had proposed a minimal upgrade of the 7K-OK design used for all Soyuz missions to date. He was planning a more extensive upgrade to support his own MKBS space station, but this was still many years in the future, and came well below N-1 and L3M on Mishin’s priority list. For Almaz, TsKBEM would simply update the Soyuz Habitation Module to include a docking probe with an internal transfer hatch compatible with Chelomei’s OPS design, but leave the rest of the ship more or less unchanged. Designated 7K-OKS[1], the upgraded Soyuz was the bare minimum needed to meet Chelomei’s requirements.

    Mishin felt that the similarity with the earlier 7K-OK version meant that there was no need to waste effort and resources on a test flight programme for 7K-OKS, proposing instead to launch with a full crew on the very first mission to Almaz. Chelomei, unhappy with the marginal technical characteristics of the vehicle, disagreed, and succeeded in forcing a minimal test programme onto Mishin. This commenced with an uncrewed test flight in November 1971, under the designation Kosmos 456[2]. The mission at first appeared to have been fully successful, but upon landing it was discovered that a fault in the separation of the Habitation Module from the Descent Module had caused all of the separation charges to fire together instead of in sequence, and this had triggered a valve to open prematurely and depressurise the Descent Module before landing.[3] TsKBEM engineers made changes the the separation system to avoid such a problem in future, validating these with a second uncrewed test flight, Kosmos 490, in June 1972. This was followed in August by Soyuz 11, which launched cosmonauts Dobrovolsky, Volkov and Sevastiyanov on a five-day shakedown mission[4]. The mission was a complete success, and Soyuz 7K-OKS was declared ready for regular service.


    The focus now returned to Chelomei and Almaz, with work preceding around the clock at the integration building in Baikonur over the winter 1972/73 to get the station ready for launch. Finally, on 7th January 1973, a Proton-K rocket lifted from pad LC-81/23 and carried space station Almaz/OPS-1 into an initial 208km by 240km orbit. Over the next few days, Almaz used its own propulsion system to raise its orbit to a 240km x 256km transfer orbit, in preparation for entering its final operational orbit at 260km altitude. Telemetry showed good functioning of all on-board systems, and TASS announced with a fanfare that the USSR had placed into orbit the world’s first long duration space station (the qualifier of “long duration” being used to distinguish it from the docked Soyuz 4/5 spacecraft of 1969, which TASS had already claimed to be the “the world's first experimental cosmic station”).

    Preparations were well underway for the launch of cosmonauts Popovich, Artyukhin and Patsayev aboard Soyuz 12 to take command of the station, when suddenly things started to go wrong.

    Twelve days after Almaz reached orbit, and just two days before the planned launch of Soyuz 12, mission controllers at the Saturn-MS complex at Yevpatoria re-established contact after one of the regular communication blackouts to discover that the station’s electrical power generation had mysteriously dropped by half. Telemetry also showed that the control system propellant tanks had lost some pressure, indicating that Almaz’s automatic orientation thrusters had been fired. Several other systems had tripped into safe modes following the drop in power, but analysis over the next day confirmed that otherwise the station was functional. Communications remained good when the station was over Soviet ground stations, but full power could not be restored.

    Following some additional checks, controllers were able to command Almaz to fire its main engines, raising the station’s perigee enough to remove the risk of an early re-entry. With no other indications of trouble, it was decided to proceed with the Soyuz 12 mission at the next nominal launch slot. Dictated by the orbital plane of the station, the planned 25 day duration of the mission, and by a desire to ensure good lighting conditions at the recovery zone for Soyuz to land, this indicated a launch on 3rd March 1973. Unless the Americans pulled a surprise, this would still leave plenty of time for Soyuz 12 to reach Almaz before Skylab could be launched. There was no indication of problems with the Almaz’s docking mechanisms or Igla rendezvous system, so the crew should be able to board the station. Just to be safe, it was decided to introduce a hold on the automatic approach at 50m to allow the cosmonauts to visually inspect the station before completing the docking manoeuvre. With this modification to the flight plan agreed, the State Commission approved Soyuz 12 for launch.


    [1] There is some debate over the designation of this version of Soyuz, which IOTL only flew twice as Soyuz 10 and Soyuz 11. Some sources show it as 7KT-OK. In “Rockets and People”, Chertok refers to these spacecraft as 7K-T No.31 and 32, with GRAU index 11F615A8, but this clashes with other sources that use 7K-T for the later, 2-person Soyuz ferry, which usually flew with no solar panels.

    For my purposes, I have therefore just stuck with 7K-OKS, for no better reason than it’s the one used in the title of the Wikipedia page.

    [2] With no rush to meet the needs of Salyut-1, development of 7K-OKS is slower than IOTL, but probably consumes an equivalent number of engineer-hours due to the lower priority Mishin places on it - hey, it’s not his mission on the line!

    [3] This is, of course, exactly the failure that led to the Soyuz 11 tragedy IOTL. Here it’s picked up on an uncrewed test, but the far lower profile of the failure (no-one in the West even knows it occurred) means that less effort is put into fixing the many, many issues with 7K-OKS, and a “band-aid” solution is applied instead.

    [4] This is a small change from the OTL crew of Soyuz 11, with Vitali Sevastiyanov replacing Viktor Patsayev ITTL. This is due to the changed nature of the mission as a brief test flight rather than a lengthy space station mission, and so the Research Engineer role is swapped out for a second Flight Engineer. IOTL, Sevastiyanov was on the Soyuz 11 backup crew. The original prime crew for Soyuz 11 IOTL was commanded by Alexei Leonov, but ITTL he has just completed a high profile mission on Soyuz 9/10, and so is out of rotation.
    Interlude: Soyuz 12
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    Interlude: Soyuz 12​

    - 4th March 1973, Low Earth Orbit

    Pavel Popovich, commander of Soyuz 12, stared in disbelief through the ship’s periscope viewer at the Almaz space station, now just fifty metres away. More specifically, he was staring at the shattered remains of the left side solar array.

    “Now we know why the power output is low,” said Yuri Artyukhin, leaning in from his own Flight Engineer’s seat to share the commander’s view.

    “Do we?” interjected Viktor Patsayev, the mission’s Research Engineer. “Something clearly hit the solar panel. But what?”

    “I don’t see any damage to the main hull,” Popovich noted. “Whatever it was, it looks like only the left array was affected”

    Popovich strained to pick out any new details. The base of the array, where it met the aft section of the station right behind the large cylinder of the main Workshop Compartment, appeared undamaged. But about halfway along its span, the extending truss and the solar panels attached to it were twisted. At least two of the panels were completely missing, and others had large holes in them.

    “Bozhe miy!” Popovich cursed under his breath. “A few metres over and it would have hit the Workshop.”

    “The station could have depressurised!” Artyukhin exclaimed. He paused before continuing. “Do you suppose it could happen again?”

    Popovich shook his head. “Unlikely. The station’s orbit has been raised since the impact. Any debris it generated will still be close to the original orbit. And what are the odds of us meeting another stray meteoroid?”

    But Artyukhin was considering other options.

    “What if it wasn’t an accident?” he asked. “What if this was an attack?”

    “The Americans?” Patsayev asked, scepticism in his voice. “That seems unlikely.”

    “Is it?” Artyukhin continued, counting off points on his fingers. “Think about it. Just a few months before their Skylab is ready, TASS triumphantly announces that we have beaten them in launching the world’s first space station. A space station with an important military purpose, which is surely known by the American CIA. Then suddenly, before we can man the station, it is struck by some mysterious object that leaves it crippled. It can’t be a coincidence.”

    “This is speculation,” Popovich said firmly. “And if it was an attack, it wasn’t a very effective one. See, the docking port appears undamaged. We will still be able to board the station and complete our mission.”

    “Unless they try again,” Artyukhin replied, grimly.

    Before Popovich could answer his comrade, the radio crackled back to life.

    -rya. On line! Yantar, here is Zarya. On line!.”

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    Post 4: Crisis on Almaz
  • Post 4: Crisis on Almaz​

    "We swallowed a lot of problems for a lot of days because we were reluctant to admit publicly that we were not getting things done right. That's ridiculous, [but] that's human behavior."

    - Gerald P. Carr, Commander Skylab 4


    Reports from Soyuz 12 on 4th March 1973 confirmed suspicions that had already formed on the ground that Almaz had been impacted by an object that had severely damaged one of the two deployable solar arrays. A flyaround of the station revealed some other minor damage to the hull, probably caused by secondary debris from the initial strike, but no other critical systems appeared to have been affected. With telemetry still showing the station fully pressurised, and with no apparent damage to the docking apparatus, Soyuz 12 was given permission to attempt a manual docking. This was expertly executed by mission commander Pavel Popovich, and at 20:37 Moscow Time on 4th March, Popovich opened the interior hatch and, together with Research Engineer Viktor Patsayev, entered the station.


    Popovich and Patsayev found a station in critical condition. It had not been possible for Mission Control to reactivate many of the systems that had tripped when the solar array was lost, including such critical items as the air fans and heating systems. The cosmonauts’ first task was to get these working again, without which they would have to abandon the station and return to Earth. Fortunately, and despite the cold, dark conditions in which they were forced to work, they soon had the vital life support functions up and running, although the continuing power restrictions meant that the temperature control systems were kept off for now. Mission control advised the crew to return to the warmth of Soyuz to sleep overnight, but confirmed that, barring any unforeseen circumstances, they expected the crew to stay on Almaz for the full 24 days of the mission.

    Although the cosmonauts were able to get some rest, this was not a luxury for many on the ground, as engineers tried to understand what could have caused the impact. Even before they could complete an initial analysis, the politicians and generals were starting to draw their own conclusions. The extremely low odds of a natural impact event on this scale, coupled with the fact that, suspiciously, it happened whilst Almaz was out of ground communications, as well as the wider context of the race between Almaz and Skylab to be the first space station, and considering the military nature of Almaz… Given such a string of coincidences, it didn’t take long for an opinion to form in the Kremlin that their high-profile space victory may have been the subject of American sabotage.

    Over the next days, as Popovich, Patsayev and Artyukhin worked to revive as much of Almaz as possible, Chelomei found himself shuttling between Yevpatoria and Moscow, updating Afanasiev, Ustinov and other Central Committee members on the progress of the investigations. As the investigation continued without a clear answer, Soviet military forces were placed on a heightened alert, and Brezhnev ordered a freeze of ongoing preparations with the Americans for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. As part of the increased military preparedness, Chelomei was ordered to ready one of his Polet “Fighter Satellites” for a possible retaliatory attack against a US space target. Despite being illegal under the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty signed the previous year, the co-orbital anti-satellite system had been quietly introduced into operations with the Antimissile and Space Defense Forces in January 1973, and Chelomei assured Ustinov that it could be deployed at two weeks’ notice. On orbit, Popovich and his crew were told to ready their experimental R-23M Kartch self-defence cannon, in case some new threat should approach the station.

    Fortunately for the world, such drastic measures proved unnecessary, as on 8th March, the fifth day of the mission, TsKBM engineers identified the real culprit behind the damage to Almaz: themselves. Specifically, it was the third stage of the Proton-K rocket that had launched Almaz into orbit. Following separation of the station, the upper stage had remained in a nearby orbit, where it would normally be expected to decay within a couple of months. This time however, the upper stage did not quietly accept its fate. Instead, some novel combination of tank pressures and thermal stresses caused the stage to burst three days after launch. The fragments continued in orbit for a further ten days, until one of them intersected with Almaz at the low point of its orbit, ripping through the solar array[1].

    Relief at the news that Almaz had not in fact come under enemy attack didn’t last long before turning into anger, with Chelomei bearing the brunt of the leadership’s fury. Although the panic over a possible attack was now over, the Soyuz 12/Almaz mission was still facing considerable difficulties. Chronic power shortages meant that almost none of the planned experiments could be performed, and the fluctuations of heat and cold within the station made life extremely uncomfortable for the three cosmonauts. The dim lighting of the station meant that photographs and TV broadcasts from the station, intended to maximise the propaganda value of the mission, were of poor quality. Additionally, the unnatural rhythm of the cosmonauts’ work day, synchronised to the periods in which the station was in contact with the ground rather than to a natural 24 hour day, coupled with poor planning of their workload, was leading to exhaustion and short tempers amongst the crew.

    The Soviets were able to conceal most of these problems from outsiders, and talked up the achievements of the crew in restoring the station to operations (following “damage from a rare meteoroid strike”), but it was clear that not everything was going to plan. On the fifteenth day on the station, with crew morale at rock-bottom and some of the jerry-rigged life support systems starting to give out, it was decided to end the mission early. Soyuz 12 was brought back to Earth for a rare night-time landing on 19th March. Almaz remained in orbit for a further four months, but plans for follow-up missions to the crippled station were shelved, and it made a controlled re-entry over the Pacific Ocean on 12th July 1973.


    Pavel Popovich, seen during a television broadcast from the Almaz space station, 12th March 1973[2]

    Already unpopular within the Brezhnev regime (and with Ustinov in particular) due to his earlier close ties to Khrushchev, as well as his exasperatingly slow progress on almost every project to which he was assigned, Chelomei’s political capital now completely evaporated. He remained in place for a few more months, but in September 1973 was finally removed from his post as Chief Designer at TsKBM. His former bureau was merged with KB Energomash to form NPO Energomash, and placed under the control of Valentine Glushko.[3]

    Soviet embarrassment over the partial success of Almaz was assuaged somewhat when, following its launch on 14th May, NASA’s Skylab space station suffered an eerily similar incident, losing one of its solar wings and micrometeoroid buffer during ascent. As with the Soviet station, a rescue of the station was performed by the crew of Skylab-2, in a far more elaborate and public demonstration of quick-thinking improvisation and can-do spirit than in the case of Almaz. Skylab would go on to host a total of three crewed missions in 1973, setting a new endurance record of 84 days for the crew of Skylab-4, before being mothballed in orbit.

    With the US now largely absent from orbit, and in parallel to the organisational changes happening at NPO Energomash, the Phase 1 Almaz programme continued, and March 1974 saw the launch of Almaz-2. Largely identical to the first OPS station, changes in launch procedures ensured that it didn’t suffer the sort of fratricidal attack from its launch vehicle that had wounded its predecessor, and the signs were optimistic when Soyuz 13 launched three weeks later with cosmonauts Boris Volynov, Lev Dyomin and Valeri Rozhdestvensky aboard. Unfortunately, their mission to dock with the station failed when the Igla automatic rendezvous system malfunctioned, causing the Soyuz to make a number of high-speed close passes of the station before ground controllers were able to shut it down. By the time manual control had been established, Soyuz 13 no longer had enough propellant on board to complete the rendezvous, and so Volynov and his crew were ordered to return to Earth after just two days aloft. TASS declared that the mission had successfully “carried out experiments to perfect the technique of piloting the ship in different flight situations”, but few people believed this, either inside or outside the USSR.[4]

    Igla was subjected to some rapid modifications, and Soyuz 14 was ready to launch just three months later. On 25th June 1974, cosmonauts Vyacheslav Zudov, Vladimir Preobrazhenski and Anatoli Berezovoi docked with Almaz-2 on a mission that would last for 28 days, a new Soviet record. As with Almaz-1, television and photographic images released from the mission were dark and grainy, but in this case the reason was a deliberate attempt to conceal features of the military space station rather than a being due to equipment failure. Over the course of their mission, the crew conducted a large number of experiments, mostly military in nature. This included participation in a military exercise, with the crew of Almaz-2 providing near-real time reports of observed troop movements to military headquarters. The mission also exposed the limits of the station and crew, with several equipment failures occurring towards the end of the mission, and the cosmonauts becoming increasingly irritable with one another after many weeks in such close quarters.

    Following the completion of the Soyuz 14 mission, Almaz-2 was left in an automatic mode for several months, conducting remotely commanded observations relayed back to Earth via its Avrora secure datalink. Further results were returned to Earth via a small re-entry vehicle, based on those used for Soviet spy satellites, which detached from the station and returned to Earth in November 1974.

    Almaz-2 was finally commanded to a destructive re-entry on 5th January 1975. The Almaz-3 space station would be launched later in 1975, hosting missions by Soyuz 15 and 17, but by this time priorities within the space programme were beginning to change, as the Soviet military started to pay serious attention to the US Space Shuttle.


    [1] This is almost exactly what happened to Salyut 2/OPS 1 IOTL, except in that case the Proton debris depressurised the station before a crew could launch, and so the station was abandoned in orbit to fall back to Earth on 28th May 1973.

    [2] OTL photo of Popovich inside Salyut 3/OPS 2.

    [3] IOTL Glusko would replace Mishin on 17th May 1974, combining KB Energomash with TsKBEM to form NPO Energia.

    [4] This failure - and the transparently feeble attempt to cover it up - also occurred IOTL, on Soyuz 15’s mission to Salyut-3. It was an issue with Igla (one of several, in fact), which could easily have resulted in Soyuz colliding with the station at 70+kph.
    Interlude : MKBS
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    Interlude : MKBS​

    - Excerpt from Encyclopedia Astronautica by Mark Wade


    In the second half of 1971 and first half of 1972, simultaneous with other work, TsKBEM began technical development of a Multi-module Orbital Complex (MOK). The MOK was designed to solve a wide range of tasks: astronomical and astrophysical research, materials research, navigation, communications , remote sensing for study of forestry, farming, geology, fisheries, etc., and military applications.

    MOK was not a single spacecraft but an integrated collection of earth-based and near-earth orbital systems consisting of:

    • Multi-module Cosmic Base Station (MKBS)
    • Autonomous spacecraft, operating from the MKBS
    • Transport systems, using at first expendable supply transport craft, to be replaced later by reusable systems
    • Launch vehicle systems
    • Launch sites
    • Autonomous test systems
    • Search and rescue complexes

    The MKBS would control all of the linked orbital systems and provide base quarters for the crews, an orbital control center, a supply base, and servicing facilities for on-orbit systems. Independently functioning spacecraft would dock with MKBS for repair, upgrade, and refueling. The MKBS would co-ordinate all of the autonomous spacecrafts' activities and maneuvers, resulting in a unified transport system.

    The MKBS would consist of a large core module of 80 metric tons, launched by the N-1 into a near earth orbit around 51.5 degrees. It was to be powered by a 100 kW nuclear power plant derived from OKB-1's work on nuclear electric propulsion. Solar arrays totaling 140 square meters of area provided 14 kW of backup power. Additional Soyuz and TKS-derived modules could be attached and detached to conduct special studies. The station had a basic core diameter of 6 m and a length of 50 m when the reactor boom was deployed. A basic crew of three, with a maximum of six, would inhabit the station throughout its five year life. Crews would serve two to three month tours, with overlapping crew member replacements four times a year. The station was to be equipped with a total of eight motor clusters consisting of orbital correction motors of 300 to 1,000 kgf, coarse orientation motors of 10 to 40 kgf, and ion engines for fine orientation and orbital altitude maintenance with a thrust of 100 to 300 grams.

    By mid-1973, with the MKBS and N1-L3M programs both experiencing delays, engineers at TsKBEM became concerned that the lack of large payloads for the N-1 in the near term may leave it vulnerable to cancellation. These fears were heightened following Glusko’s appointment as head of TsKBM and his plans to not only accelerate the Almaz space station program, but to replace the Proton booster with a new modular kerolox design. This would leave MKBS vulnerable to replacement by Almaz, while a new Proton replacement threatened Mishin’s plans for the N11 launcher in the same class. Glushko’s ambitions to expand his RLA rocket family to include a heavy launch vehicle could even prove a challenge to the N-1.

    In response, in December 1973 Mishin proposed to simplify the initial experimental phase of the MOK program to launch a large MKBS core module as quickly as possible. This module would make use of work previously completed in support of the OS-1 station that had preceded MKBS, outfitted with life support, power and guidance systems derived from TsKBEM’s Soyuz spacecraft. The technologically complex nuclear reactor was deleted to reduce risk to the schedule, and in its place the area of the solar arrays was doubled. The use of N-1 for the launch would help demonstrate the booster’s necessity, even without lunar missions, while the placing in orbit of a station with an even larger mass than the US Skylab would keep TsKBEM in the space station game, upstaging Glushko and his far smaller OPS stations. In his memoir, Chertok noted with irony the parallels between this approach and the so-called ‘DOS Conspiracy’ of 1969, which had proposed to use Soyuz systems to outfit an OPS hull to launch a minimal space station within a year as a response to Apollo.

    Technical development of the MOK was the first large-scale space technology study which used combined, earth resources studies, economic analysis to determine the best engineering solutions. Various technical results obtained in the process of this work were used for a long time after. Leading participants in the project were I N Sadovskiy, V V Simakin, B E Chertok, V S Ovchinnikov,, M V Melnikov, A P Abramov, V D Vachnadze, V K Bezverbiy, A A Ryzhanov, I E Yurasov, V Z Ilin, G A Dolgopolov, N P Bersenev, K B Ivanov, V C Anfyrev, B G Sypryn , V P Zaitsev, E A Shtarkov, I V Gordeev, B V Korolev, V G Osipov, V N Lakeyev, V P Byrdakov, A A Kochkin.

    It was interesting to note that American propulsion engineer Peter James described the MOK in considerable and accurate detail in his 1974 book Soviet Conquest from Space.
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    Interlude : Yes, Comrade
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    Interlude : Yes, Comrade​

    - Central Scientific Research Institute No.50 (TsNII-50), June 1975

    Er, Fedor Nikolayevich, I wonder if I could have a word?

    Of course, Boris, come in. What seems to be the problem?

    Well, it’s the Minister.

    You’ll have to narrow it down more than that, Boris.

    The Minister has asked us to write a report about this American space shuttle. Apparently, “Uncle Mitya” is in two minds about whether we should develop our own equivalent, and he’s asked the Ministry of General Machine Building to produce an analysis summarising the military potential of such a vehicle, and so the Minister has in turn tasked our Special Research Institute to write the report.

    Sounds simple enough. So what’s the problem?

    Well, the Chief Designers and the Academy of Sciences aren’t keen on it. They don’t see any benefit and want to focus on their existing priorities.

    You mean Mishin wants Glushko’s space stations, Glushko wants Mishin’s Moon rockets, and Utkin just wants to be left alone to build missiles.

    Er, well, that is…

    So why your concern?

    Well, the Minister is worried that it would look bad if he recommended a shuttle against the wishes of both his Chief Designers and Keldysh. But on the other hand, he doesn’t want to risk recommending against a shuttle, in case it later turns out the American’s do have some secret military purpose for it.

    Hmm, I see. Still, the solution is simple enough, Boris: You must ensure that your report is sufficiently “balanced”.


    Yes, Boris. You present a detailed, rigorous analysis of all the available data, complete with charts, trade-offs, parametric assessments, and so forth, and then you add a summarising page at the beginning stating that on balance, when the totality of the data is taken into account, and having been weighed up by all the experts in the relevant fields, when assessing the indications of the shuttle possessing an inherent military capability on the one hand versus the countervailing evidence of fundamentally non-offensive characteristics of the system in question on the other hand, it is not possible to determine with a high degree of certainty the true level of threat, or indeed lack of threat, presented by this potential future American vehicle to the Peasants and Workers of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

    Excuse me?

    You fudge it. You cloak the methodology in complexity while keeping the conclusion so vague that, whatever happens, you are sure to be right.

    Oh, I don’t think I could really do that, Fedor Nikolayevich.

    And why not?

    Because the Academy of Sciences has done it already.

    But I thought you said the Academy was against the shuttle?

    They are, but if you take a look at their report… Here: “We do not see any sensible scenario that would support the shuttle for scientific uses.” The rest of their analysis says our expendable rockets are cheaper and more effective than the shuttle, but with those two words, “scientific uses”, they hinted that there could be a military use, and so got the whole problem passed to us at the Ministry of General Machine Building.

    Hmm. Well, if obfuscation has already been used, perhaps we should deploy a surfeit of clarity.


    You write two reports. One clearly indicating that the American shuttle is a military threat that must be countered, and the other just as clearly proving that it isn’t.

    But surely only one of them can be true?

    If you want the truth, Boris, you must read Pravda.

    No… I mean, yes… That is, what I mean to say is, how is the Minister to make up his mind based on contradictory reports?

    Official reports are not intended to enable our leaders to reach a conclusion, Boris. They are to provide cover for them to go ahead with whatever conclusion they have already reached. Where the conclusion is uncertain, it is our job to give them options - and to ensure that no punishment for being wrong should ever fall upon the leadership or, more importantly, on us!

    Well, I suppose if you put it like that…

    Then you’ll write the two reports?

    Yes, comrade!


    With apologies to Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn. If you’re not familiar with their work, I recommend this clip as encapsulating much of the spirit I have attempted to channel.

    Happy April Fool’s Day! This light-hearted interlude was already written and in the buffer when I realised my regular posting schedule would put Post 5 on 1st April, so I decided to swap the order around. Post 5 (which will discuss the shuttle decision, promise!) will now go up on 5th April, with Post 6 returning to the regular ordering on 8th April.

    Incredibly, TsNII-50 really did produce two contradictory reports, IOTL and ITTL, although the canonicity of this particular exchange is left as a matter of reader preference.
    Post 5: Shuttle Studies
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    Post 5: Shuttle Studies​

    - Statement by President Nixon, 5th January 1972

    I have decided today that the United States should proceed at once with the development of an entirely new type of space transportation system designed to help transform the space frontier of the 1970's into familiar territory, easily accessible for human endeavor in the 1980's and '90's.

    This system will center on a space vehicle that can shuttle repeatedly from Earth to orbit and back. It will revolutionize transportation into near space, by routinizing it. It will take the astronomical costs out of astronautics. In short, it will go a long way toward delivering the rich benefits of practical space utilization and the valuable spinoffs from space efforts into the daily lives of Americans and all people...


    A newspaper article dated January 29, 1972 about the newly authorised Space Shuttle program. Note that the illustration is already outdated by the time of publication. Source: Andrew LePage


    The American decision to develop the Space Shuttle at first had little impact on Soviet space planning. During the US studies of the late ‘60s, the lead Soviet space bureaus under the Ministry of General Machine Building (MOM) already had more than enough on their plates. Chelomei was focussed on the Proton launch vehicle and Almaz space station, and Mishin worked to deliver the N-1 and its associated lunar landing and MKBS space station projects.

    The Ministry of Aviation Industry (MAP) had kept a team at Artyom Mikoyan’s MMZ Zenit bureau working on a small air-launched spaceplane since 1966. Called Spiral or “Product 50-50”, this was a three stage vehicle, which would see a small lifting body spaceplane boosted to orbit with an expendable stage launched from a hypersonic carrier aircraft. However, the military were never convinced of the need for Spiral, and following the death of Mikoyan in 1970 the project coasted on at a low level without political support. The minister responsible for MAP, Pyotr Dementyev, didn’t want to divert his resources to space projects, considering them to be a MOM responsibility. Conversely, Sergei Afanasiev at MOM felt that, as an aerospace system, any spaceplane project should clearly be led by MAP.

    Despite a November 1970 directive from the Military Industrial Commission (VPK) for the two ministries to develop a draft plan for a Soviet reusable space system, few resources were spent on this activity, which was seen as a distraction from other, more urgent projects. This attitude remained even after President Nixon gave the official go-ahead to NASA to develop the American Space Shuttle.

    Following the US announcement, the VPK organised a meeting with representatives of MOM and various military research and operational organisations on 31st March 1972, but no agreement was reached on the need for a Soviet response to the American initiative. A further meeting in April, at which Mishin, Chelomei and Glushko were all present, concluded that there were no economic or operational benefits to be gained from a reusable system, and that the Soviet Union had no requirement for the payload return capability that was one of the selling points of the Shuttle. A series of studies were initiated to meet the letter of the VPK’s directive, but they were not prioritised. When they finally reported back in June 1974 their conclusion was that, even with a very high flight rate, there were no cost savings to be had from a Shuttle-type system.

    Before this conclusion could be presented, the VPK had already commissioned an additional set of three parallel studies at the end of 1973. These studies were split into three strands, with one each being assigned to Rostislav Belyakov’s MMZ Zenit, Mishin’s TsKBEM, and Valentin Glushko’s new NPO Energomash[1].

    The Zenit approach was to scale up the Spiral lifting body to 20 tonnes, sized for launch by a Proton rocket. This would have an extremely limited payload compared to the American shuttle - no more than a few tonnes - but would be well suited to the role of space station ferry. The approach took advantage of work already done on the aerodynamics of Spiral, including a number of launches and re-entries performed by the sub-scale BOR-1 and 2 vehicles in 1969-1972. Technical risk was further reduced by avoiding the development of a new, dedicated launcher, so it could be expected to have the system ready to go before the American Shuttle could fly.


    The MiG-105 lifting body, developed as part of the Spiral system, was the basis for MMZ Zenit’s shuttle proposal. Source: Uncertain. Taken from Reddit.

    At NPO Energomash, Glushko shared his predecessor’s lack of interest in a space shuttle. His immediate priority was on getting the Almaz programme back on track, and on the development of a new family of “Rocket Flight Apparatus” (RLA) launch vehicles. Having opposed Korolev’s use of “cryogenic” propellants in the 1960’s, Glushko had made an abrupt about-face and embraced the use of kerosene/oxygen in his launch vehicle designs. Partly this was due to his concern over losing out to Kuznetsov as the premier provider of rocket engines in the USSR, but it also came down to the simple reality that cryogens gave superior performance, and with the experienced Glushko had gained in staged-combustion engines with storable propellants, he now felt confident in applying those lessons to a kerolox design. His intention was to develop a modular series of launch vehicles to first replace Proton, then scale up to create a superior alternative to N-1. Glushko was already lobbying hard to have TsKBEM’s large MKBS space station merged with Almaz Phase 2 and placed under his control, and similarly hoped to use RLA as leverage to wrest the lunar project away from Mishin.

    A reusable spaceplane didn’t fit into Glushko’s wider vision, and so it was assigned a low priority at NPO Energomash. Their proposal in response to the VPK directive was similar in shape to the US Shuttle, but scaled down to the 20 tonnes also proposed by Zenit. Launched on the RLA replacement of Proton, Energomash’s shuttle would be used for crew rotation and resupply of Glushko’s space stations, while heavy payloads would continue to use expendable rockets.


    NPO Energomash spaceplane. Source: RussianSpaceWeb

    TsKBEM’s proposal was the least detailed of the three studies, with their report describing a vehicle only slightly smaller in size and payload capacity to the American Shuttle, but designed for launch atop the N-1. Mishin saw little value in developing an all-new heavy lifter to carry a spaceplane when they had finally, after great efforts, managed to bring a rocket of similar capability into operation. The study talked vaguely about options for adding re-usability features to the N-1 Blok-A, such as air-breathing jets for a powered soft landing, but didn’t settle on a final concept, and in its basic form proposed to leave the N-1 essentially unmodified.

    TsKBEM’s shuttle orbiter concept exhibited some limitations from the need to be compatible with N-1, with the most serious constraint arising from the aerodynamics of the stack. To avoid a complete re-design of the N-1, the shuttle vehicle would have to be mounted on top of the rocket, in the position originally intended for the L3 stack. Centre of pressure concerns ruled out putting a US-style big winged orbiter in this position, and even a Spiral-type lifting body would be challenging. This led to TsKBEM’s proposed spacecraft having a roughly cylindrical shape, with small deployable wings that would swing down to control re-entry, before the whole craft made a final vertical descent under parachutes. This sacrificed cross-range capability, as well as introducing a significant question mark over how the vehicle was to be returned to the launch site, but it would make for a simple, robust design that more closely approached the Americans’ up- and down-mass capabilities.


    TsKBEM’s shuttle proposal landing under parachutes. Source: False Steps

    By 1975 the Soviet military was starting to take serious notice of the progress of the US Space Shuttle. In particular, questions were being asked about what exactly the Americans expected to do with their new spaceship. NASA was still claiming to be aiming at up to 60 Shuttle launches per year. Soviet analysts struggled to identify a mission that would require an increase of US annual launch capability from 150 tonnes per year to over 1700 tonnes per year. Of even greater concern was the question of what the new 180 tonnes of annual downmass capability would be used for. Analysis by the TsNIIMash research institute confirmed the view that the Shuttle could never become economically viable on the basis of NASA’s publicly stated missions, and a report by the Soviet Academy of Sciences concluded that “we do not see any sensible scenario that would support the shuttle for scientific uses.” When pressed, the scientists identified some possible military uses for the Shuttle, such as the orbiting and retrieval of large experimental anti-missile lasers or, more fancifully, a surprise orbital nuclear bombing run on Moscow and Leningrad, but there was no consensus on how realistic these possibilities really were. When tasked with assessing the military potential of the Shuttle, the TsNII-50 research institute produced two reports - one confirming the Shuttle’s military potential, and the second refuting it.

    In an attempt to cut through this confusion, Defence Minister Dimitri Ustinov summoned Mishin to his office to discuss the options. Mishin, still unenthusiastic about the project, instead sent his deputy in charge of shuttle studies, Valeriy Burdakov[2]. In contrast to his boss, Burdakov was enthusiastic about the possibilities of a Soviet shuttle, and he and Ustinov spoke at length over the military capabilities of such a system. Together with reports from KGB chief Yuri Andropov emphasising the Shuttle’s military potential, this seems to have swung Ustinov behind the case for a Soviet space shuttle as insurance against the Americans opening up a capability gap and revealing some surprise mission that the Soviets had been unable to identify.

    On 17th February 1976, the CPSU Central Committee and the Council of Ministers issued a joint decree “On the Development of a Reusable Space System and Future Space Complexes”. This directed MOM to lead the development of a reusable space system able to launch up to 30 tonnes into a 200km orbit, and bring back payloads massing up to 20 tonnes. Following the decree, the role of prime contractor for the shuttle was given to TsKBEM. Over his objections, and in parallel to the ongoing lunar programme, Vasily Mishin was now put in charge of delivering a Soviet space shuttle.[3]


    [1] Chelomei’s TsKBM has been combined with Glushko’s KB Energomash to form NPO Energomash. IOTL a similar merger between KB Energomash and TsKBEM gave us NPO Energia, but I want to avoid the name Energia ITTL to reduce confusion (as if keeping TsKBEM/TsKBM straight up to now had been simple!).

    [2] IOTL, Burdakov was in charge of shuttle studies at TsKBEM under Mishin, then demoted after Glushko took over and merged his KB Energomash bureau with TsKBEM to form NPO Energiya. Glushko was also uninterested in a shuttle IOTL, and so sent Burdakov to Ustinov instead of going himself, making this a case of In Spite of a Nail.

    [3] This chapter is heavily based upon information contained within the excellent book “Energiya-Buran” by Bart Hendrickx and Bert Vis.
    Post 6: Lightning Strikes
  • 2A9AKbfXlFR7247sVMWKu2X_8NskQG0MkQYMuvrHIZRoov5fL3cI0TUQ-0-9rz3ki72r7Jt7GZ91sqbD6YDMjiPg5CEANOSgmw0fg2NLvhA8NTRpd6mNuhmtvDBfiQ820z8oh849

    Post 6: Lightning Strikes​

    “First, inevitably, the idea, the fantasy, the fairy tale. Then, scientific calculation. Ultimately, fulfilment crowns the dream.”

    - Konstantin E. Tsiolkovskii


    Following the success of the N1-7L launch, there was a hiatus in further Groza missions as TsKBEM worked on the upgraded, “production” version of the N-1, called N-1F. This would keep the aerodynamic shape of vehicle 7L, but replace the NK-15 engines with new, more powerful NK-33s. As well as various improvements to increase thrust and enhance reliability and testability, the NK-33 was tuned to work with a specialised formulation of kerosene called “sintin”. When used with super-chilled, densified propellants, these upgrades would increase Groza’s payload to orbit from 90 tonnes to up to 105 tonnes. Also, in a direct response to the issues found on N1-7L, the control program of the Blok-A was modified to shut down the central NK-33s in pairs rather than all at once, to avoid the shockwave and resultant fire that had almost ended the flight of 7L. These improvements would all make their debut with vehicle N1-8L.

    The payload chosen for N1-8L was the same as that for 7L, namely a full-up L3 stack, including functional models of the LOK spacecraft and LK lander. Assuming no recurrence of the Blok-D issue that had caused “Zond-9” to overshoot the Moon, the plan was a full uncrewed rehearsal of the L3 mission profile all the way to landing of the LK on the surface, and then a lift-off of the LK ascent stage back to lunar orbit. An automatic docking of the LOK and LK was not planned, but mission controllers wanted to see how close the two craft could rendezvous based on purely automatic systems. This capability would be needed for the rendezvous of the L3M GB-1 rocket stage and GB-2 lander, and would also be critical for the Mars 5NM sample return mission then in development. There were also those at TsKBEM, including Vasiliy Mishin, who still held out hopes that a successful automatic landing might pave the way for an L3 mission carrying cosmonauts, as a precursor to the later L3M missions.

    To support the N1-8L landing attempt, October 1973 saw the launch of the Luna 22/Lunokhod 3 space probe[1]. This was the latest in NPO Lavochkin’s series of robotic rovers, launched by Proton-K and placed on the lunar surface by a Ye-8 descent stage. The first of the Lunokhod probes had been the victim of an early Proton launch failure in February 1969, resulting in radioactive polonium from the rover’s heating unit joining the Proton’s unburnt toxic propellant in being dispersed across the landscape, but two follow-on missions had been completed successfully in November 1970 and January 1973. With Lunokhod 3, the programme would at last be fulfilling part of its original design mission, that of surveying a safe landing site and providing a radio beacon to guide an LK lander to the surface. Naturally, this role was not included in the press release celebrating the landing of Lunokhod 3 in the Mare Vaporum on October 18th, 1973.

    With Lunokhod 3 confirming the suitability of the landing zone, preparations for the launch of N1-8L continued apace, and the rocket was rolled out to Pad 37 at the Raskat launch complex at Baikonur in mid-December 1973. Ground support technicians worked through the bitter winter cold to ensure that there would be no repeat of that disaster with vehicle 8L.

    The launch on 21st January, 1974 proceeded far more smoothly than those that had come before, validating Mishin’s assurances to the leadership that N-1 had put its early problems behind it. One of the the thirty Blok-A NK-33 engines did suffer a failure 90 seconds into the flight, but the KORD system immediately reacted to shut down the opposing engine, balancing the thrust and extending the burn to compensate, and staging occurred just a few seconds later than expected, with no significant impact on the mission. The Blok-B and Blok-V stages both performed perfectly, and a final nudge from the Blok-G vernier thrusters was enough to place the L3 complex into a stable low Earth orbit.


    The L3 complex (comprising the Blok-G departure stage, Blok-D tug, Blok-E/LK lander and the Soyuz 7K-LOK orbiter) spent the next day in its parking orbit while mission controllers at Yevpatoria checked over the stack’s systems. With everything green, the Blok-G was commanded to fire its main engine, accelerating the stack to Earth escape velocity, before dropping away and leaving the rest of the complex in a lunar transfer orbit. With the mission now successfully underway, TASS announced to the world that mission “Zond 10” was in progress. Had the TLI burn failed, the mission would have been reported as “Kosmos 628”.

    Over 22nd-26th January the combined vehicle coasted uneventfully towards the Moon, as ground control continued to monitor. Two minor course correction manoeuvres were performed exactly to plan, suggesting that the Blok-D was behaving itself this time. When the time came for the critical lunar orbit injection manoeuvre, Blok-D once again performed flawlessly, putting the reduced stack into a 175km parking orbit around the Moon. After completing an initial programme of lunar surface photography from the LOK, on the 27th January the Blok-D fired again to bring the complex into an elliptical orbit dipping from 85km to a minimum altitude of 16km above the lunar surface.

    On 28th January, the LOK orbiter and LK launch shroud gently separated from the Blok-D and LK, pulling the LK out like an arm from a sleeve. The LK was powered up, while on the lunar surface Lunokhod 3 was commanded to activate its beacon. Controllers were delighted to see the LK confirm reception of Lunokhod’s signal. All indications from the LK were within tolerances, and so it was time to take the next and most critical step: landing.


    The severe mass limits under which the L3 mission had been forced to operate meant that, unlike the American LEM, the LK lander was unable to take itself down to the lunar surface and then back to orbit using its internal fuel reserves. In fact, mass was so restricted that the total volume of propellant carried by the LK for landing covered a maximum one minute of descent engine burn time, or about half the duration of the reserve propellant load carried on the LEM. To compensate for this, the Blok-D would be used as a “crasher stage”, firing one last time to bring the LK to a point around 1500m above the landing site at almost zero velocity, before dropping away to impact the surface, while the LK’s own Blok-E engine carried it on the final stretch to the ground. On a crewed mission, the LK would hover briefly at 110m altitude, giving the cosmonaut on board three seconds to either select a landing site or trigger an abort.

    On 29th January, 1974, the command was sent for the 8L Blok-D to perform this final manoeuvre. Exactly to plan, the stage decelerated its LK payload into a trajectory aligned with Lunokhod 3’s beacon. The Blok-D engine cut out at an altitude of 1552m, well within tolerances, and then completed the last of its many duties by separating from the LK to crash onto the surface below.

    The LK’s Blok-E RD-858 descent engine now took up the load, as the ship’s digital computer guided the ship on its final dash to the surface. With no cosmonaut on-board, the hover at 110m lasted a mere fraction of a second before the LK made the final drop. Just as it had on three Earth orbital test flights, the little lander performed its duties flawlessly. Less than thirty seconds after separating from Blok-D, the LK’s landing contact sensors were triggered, and four upwards-facing solid landing rockets fired, pressing the LK’s landing legs firmly into the lunar soil. At long last, the L3 Programme had succeeded in landing on the Moon.


    The celebrations at the new mission control centre at TsUP in Kaliningrad, just outside Moscow, were immediate. For Mishin and his lieutenants, the landing was a vindication of their strategy and skills, and of the vision of Sergei Korolev. L3 could put a man on the Moon, no matter what the naysayers might have said. Later that day, Lunokhod 3 transmitted back encrypted photographs of a distant LK lander on the lunar surface, giving proof-positive of the Soviet achievement. But the mission remained incomplete until the LK had lifted off again and the LOK had returned to Earth.

    After just a few hours on the surface - simulating the time that would have been needed for its sole cosmonaut crew to perform his moonwalk - the Blok-E’s twin redundant RD-859 engines fired, lifting the LK cabin up and away from its landing gear, which was left sitting on the surface. With confirmation of successful ignition, the LK’s digital computer shut down one of the engines, completing a burn to orbit on a single RD-859, as designed. The quality of the Yangel Design Bureau’s work shone through again, as the LK completed this final major burn as flawlessly as the rest of its mission.

    With the LK back in lunar orbit, the LOK tracked the lander’s rendezvous beacon and was able to manoeuvre to within 500m of the LK before holding its approach. This gave confidence that, on a crewed mission, the LOK pilot would indeed be able to complete the rendezvous and snag the LK with the Kontakt capture mechanism, allowing his comrade to spacewalk across and enter the LOK’s habitation module (BO). For this automated mission though, a capture was deemed too risky, and so the LOK and LK slowly separated in their orbits as preparations were made for the LOK’s return.

    On a crewed mission, after both cosmonauts were safely in the LOK, the BO and attached LK ascent stage would separate from the rest of the ship. This was because the Kontakt system was not designed to be disengaged, and the LOK’s S5.51 main engine was not powerful enough to bring the BO/LK combination into an Earth transfer orbit with the rest of the LOK.

    Despite Zond 10 not completing the docking with the LK, it was still planned to detach the BO before making the Earth return manoeuvre, and it was here that the mission suffered its first major failure. The explosive bolts designed to separate the BO from the descent module appear to have worked as designed, but the umbilical connector between the two modules did not detach as planned. This left the BO hanging from the rest of the LOK but a thick, flexible cable. Attempts were made to jerk the connector free by backing the LOK away using its attitude control thrusters, but the cable remained stubbornly in place.

    With the minutes dwindling to the planned TEI burn, the decision was taken to attempt the burn as planned and hope that the BO would fall away once full thrust was applied. This scheme almost succeeded, but before the cable ripped free, it pulled the BO into a collision with the LOK’s propulsion module, damaging the delicate radiator panels covering the surface of the module. The collision also affected the direction of the burn, which would require a significant correction manoeuvre to ensure the LOK hit its narrow Earth re-entry window. In the event, the LOK never got the chance to attempt this, as, despite efforts to shut down all non-essential systems and save power, the inability to reject the heat generated by the ship’s fuel cells caused the LOK to overheat and shut down on 31st January, 1974. The ship would go on to swing past the Earth and continue out into deep space.

    Despite this late failure, Mishin and his engineers were upbeat following the mission. The upgraded N-1F had performed flawlessly, and all manoeuvres in the complicated mission plan had been executed up to BO separation. There were five more LOKs and four LKs that had been completed before the switch to L3M, and Mishin felt confident that this provided enough vehicles to complete a test programme and land a cosmonaut on the surface by the end of 1976. This would provide a propaganda and morale boost, as well as lunar surface experience, before the triumphal landing of L3M in 1978.

    A Soviet man on the Moon was almost within reach.



    [1] IOTL the Luna 22 designation was given to an orbiter mission launched in June 1974. ITTL, the addition of Lunokhod 3, and the later designation of the LK as Luna 23, means the orbiter ITTL will be named Luna 24, with knock-on effects down the programme.
    Interlude: The Phantom Moonwalker
  • Popular space YouTuber Steve Maitlis explores the “Phantom Moonwalker” legend.

    Hullo! This is Steve Maitlis, and today I’d like to talk about the Phantom Moonwalker legend. Now, this is the idea that in the mid-1970s the Soviet Union actually put a cosmonaut on the Moon, but that he was killed during the return to Earth and the whole thing was covered up by the Communist Party.

    So the first thing to say about this story is that it does have some basis in fact. Although it was denied at the time, we now know that the USSR was developing their giant Groza rocket from the mid-sixties onwards. This was an attempt to beat the American Apollo programme and put the first man on the Moon. This attempt failed, with the Groza suffering a number of catastrophic failures in the late-sixties and early seventies. It finally made its first successful launch in 1972, sending the Zond 9 probe past the Moon. Zond 9 was much larger than the earlier Zond probes that had been launched on the Proton rocket, and in the West it was referred to as the “Heavy Zond”. Again, no details were released by the Soviets, but there were those in the West who speculated this could be a test of a new, piloted space vehicle for lunar missions.

    This of course was coming three years after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had won the Moon race for the United States. At the time, the Soviets claimed that they had never been racing Apollo, and were instead working on a more gradual, but larger-scale programme of increasingly sophisticated space stations, before progressing to more capable lunar missions with up to three cosmonauts at a time.

    However, revelations after the fall of the USSR showed that they had in fact developed a smaller, faster mission for putting a Russian on the Moon, called “L3”. This was similar to Apollo, in that it used a single launch to send both a lunar orbital ship and a lander together to the Moon. Like Apollo, the lander would descend to the surface, then re-join the mothership in lunar orbit to bring the crew back home. But the scale of the mission was smaller. To meet the mass limitations of the Groza, the crew would be just two, compared with three for Apollo. Just one of the cosmonauts would fly the lander to the surface, while the other remained in orbit. The lander itself was as small as possible, carrying only a minute of propellant for the descent, and requiring the pilot to remain in his spacesuit for the whole mission. This meant that he would be able to stay on the surface for just a couple of hours before having to return to the orbiter.

    So, the second Groza launch came on January 21st, 1974, and the payload was once again a Heavy Zond, designated Zond 10. Now unlike Zond 9, this new probe didn’t fly past the Moon, but actually went into lunar orbit. It then deployed a separate landing vehicle, called Luna 23, which made a successful soft landing in the Mare Vaporum - the Sea of Vapours. This was very close to the landing site of the Luna 22 probe, which had put a Lunokhod rover on the Moon a few months earlier, and it is believed that the Lunokhod acted as a beacon to guide Luna 23 down to a safe landing. After less than a day on the surface, Luna 23 launched an ascent stage back into lunar orbit, and this module then performed a rendezvous with the Zond 10 mothership. It’s unclear whether the two spacecraft succeeded in docking, but shortly afterwards Zond 10 blasted out of lunar orbit to head back to Earth. Unfortunately, communications with Zond 10 were lost en-route, and the probe never made it back to Earth.

    Now even at the time, this mission raised a lot of questions in the West. The Soviets claimed that it had been a test of a new automatic sample return spacecraft, similar to the earlier Luna 16 and 20 spacecraft, just much larger. But a lot of Western analysts felt that the scale and complexity of the mission was just too high for this to be plausible. Also, if it was a sample return mission, why did the lander spend such a short period on the surface? Surely if it was collecting large volumes of rock and regolith, it would have needed more time.

    However, the mission did match the profile of a minimum-capability piloted lunar mission, and Western space observers quickly came to the conclusion - later proved correct - that this had been an uncrewed dry run for an attempt to put a Soviet cosmonaut on the Moon. But a few people went further, speculating that Zond 10 had in fact carried cosmonauts, but that the mission had failed, and the whole episode had been covered up.

    This may seem outlandish, but the secrecy surrounding the Soviet space programme meant that many people found it plausible. Even back then, the Soviets were suspected of renaming unsuccessful missions using the generic name “Cosmos” to hide their failures. Moreover, this wasn’t the first time suspicions had been raised about a piloted mission. Going all the way back to Yuri Gagarin, there are claims that Vladimir Ilyushin, a Soviet test pilot, had actually beaten Gagarin to orbit by a few days, but had been seriously injured when his capsule crashed in China, and so had his mission erased from the history books. In the early 1960s there were also a number of recordings made by a pair of Italian brothers, Achille and Giovanni Battista, which claimed to include radio messages from Soviet cosmonauts dying in space. Now these claims have all since been debunked, but at the time it seemed quite plausible that the USSR may have been covering up fatalities in their space programme.

    Thinking it through, though, the claims that Zond 10 was a piloted mission gone wrong don’t really stack up. For one thing, the mission was launched nearly five years after the Soviets had lost the Moon race, and more than one year after the last Apollo mission, Apollo 17. Why would they take the risk of putting a crew on their experimental spacecraft to do a mission that had already been done better by the United States? Why not take more time to get it right?

    Secondly, if the failure occurred after the lander had lifted off from the Moon, during the attempted rendezvous with the orbiter, why was the landing of a cosmonaut on the surface not announced as soon as it happened? We might not expect the sort of live TV coverage that Apollo 11 got, but surely the Soviets would have announced their triumph at the earliest opportunity?

    In fact, photos of the site taken by the Lunikhod 3 rover, which were publicly released in the early 2000s, show no signs of footprints, a flag, or the sort of scientific equipment we would have expected a moonwalker to have left on the surface. Other spacecraft have since taken high resolution overhead photos of the area, which clearly show the abandoned descent stage, but again there is no sign of flags and footprints.

    Now it could be that the failure was such that the cosmonaut was unable to exit the lander, but even so, we would expect that just the success in landing would be something worth celebrating - especially considering how challenging landing this thing is, at least in Nurbel!

    Thirdly, any piloted mission generates a lot of space-to-ground comms traffic, and in particular voice communications. Even back then, there was a large community of amature radio enthusiasts who regularly listened in on both Soviet and US space missions. Although there was one case of a radio operator in Norway claiming to have heard the voice of a cosmonaut during the mission, there was no independent verification of this. For there to be no other recorded voice traffic over a mission lasting for several days seems extremely unlikely. Some people have argued that, for this mission, they may have been observing strict radio silence, but this begs the question of why it’s never been employed on other Soviet space missions - even the military missions to the Almaz space stations.

    Finally, we have the counter-example of what happened when a Soviet cosmonaut was killed in the course of a mission. On 24th April, 1967, Vladimir Komarov was killed when the parachutes of his Soyuz 1 capsule failed to deploy.

    Far from his death being covered up, Komarov was given a state funeral and buried with full honours in the Kremlin wall. We would expect similar honours for the heroes of a Soviet Moon landing attempt.

    So in summary, while it appears that Zond 10 was indeed a test of hardware for a Soviet piloted lunar landing mission, there is no evidence to suggest there was a crew on board. The Phantom Moonwalker myth remains just a myth.

    I’m Steve Maitlis: Happy Landings!
    Post 7: N-1 Developments
  • 2A9AKbfXlFR7247sVMWKu2X_8NskQG0MkQYMuvrHIZRoov5fL3cI0TUQ-0-9rz3ki72r7Jt7GZ91sqbD6YDMjiPg5CEANOSgmw0fg2NLvhA8NTRpd6mNuhmtvDBfiQ820z8oh849

    Post 7: N-1 Developments​

    “We do not want to retrace the Americans’ path. We must have forward-looking plans.”

    - Minister of General Machine Building, Sergei Afanasiev, 6 December 1969


    The success of the N1-8L mission was a cause for elation amongst the TsKBEM engineers who had worked on the lunar mission for so many years, and for much of that time had known only failure. Despite the loss of Soyuz 7K-LOK No.2 en-route back to Earth, the impressive achievement of placing the LK on the lunar surface - under fully automatic control, no less! - seemed to open the way to putting a cosmonaut on the surface years earlier than the L3M programme could achieve. True to his earlier form, in March 1974 Mishin proposed to the VPK that, if the upcoming N1-9L mission was completed successfully, then the next mission should attempt to put a man on the Moon using the L3 approach.

    Despite the superficial attractiveness of this option, there were several influential voices speaking against it, including from within Mishin’s own bureau. Several of his senior deputies, including Feoktistov, Semenov, and others, were concerned at diverting resources away from the L3M project in favour of the far more limited dead-end of an L3 landing. This opinion was shared by Mstislav Keldysh, head of the USSR Academy of Sciences, who had long opposed L3 as being scientifically useless. Keldysh, who was now approaching the end of his long and illustrious career, had backed L3M, and was loath to see it delayed any further.

    Further concerns were raised by Nikolai Kaminin[1], the head of the Cosmonaut Training Centre for the Air Force, who remained unconvinced that the L3 system could be made safe enough to risk the lives of cosmonauts. In his view, the large number of critical events and the razor-thin safety margins inherent to the system made it an accident waiting to happen. The failure of the LOK habitation module separation on mission 8L appeared to validate this view.

    In the end, the VPK agreed, and decided to continue with the flight plan as laid out for L3M. Mishin still held out hope that a successful follow-up to 8L would enable him to persuade the leadership to be more daring, but these hopes were dealt a blow when N1-9L launched in August 1974. Carrying another LOK/LK pair on a similar mission profile to 8L, all appeared well until the time came for the Blok-G upper stage to send the L3 stack on its way to the Moon. The stage failed to ignite, leaving the Blok-D, LOK No.3 and LK No.2 in an Earth parking orbit. The mission was not a total loss, as it proved possible to separate the Blok-G from the rest of the stack and perform the various planned manoeuvres with the LK and LOK in Earth orbit under the designation “Kosmos-676/7”, but it lent further strength to Kaminin’s argument that the L3 system was not ready to fly cosmonauts.


    By this time, four years after the VPK had approved the L3M project, good progress was being made on developing the Blok-Sr upper stage, GB-1 lunar “crasher” stage, and crewed GB-2 Lunar Expedition Ship (LEK) that would be used for the mission.

    Blok-Sr was to be the largest hydrolox stage developed by the USSR to that point, making use of an upgrade of the RD-56 engine developed by Alexei Isaev’s OKB-2 Design Bureau (re-named KM KhimMach in 1974). This upgrade had originally been intended for use on the smaller Blok-R for an earlier upgrade of the N1, and had carried over to the Blok-Sr when that stage merged the roles of the old Blok-S and Blok-R. A particular challenge was the requirement to be able to re-start the engines up to five times over the course of a mission, in order to perform the Earth departure, mid-course correction, and lunar capture manoeuvres that would put the GB-1 and GB-2 into orbit of the Moon, but by 1974 Isaev’s team were confident that they had solved these issues. Initial test firings showed good results, and Isaev was expecting to be able to deliver an integrated Blok-Sr stage with two RD-56 engines for a test flight by mid-1975.

    In order to support such a mission, it was necessary to upgrade the facilities at the Groza launch pads to support liquid hydrogen production, storage and fueling operations. To this end, Vladimir Barmin’s Design Bureau of General Machine-Building (KBOM) had in 1973 begun construction of a new hydrogen propellant and storage facility half a kilometre northeast of the twin launch pads at Baikonur Site 110. These would pipe the super-cold propellants for the Blok-Sr via a new fueling arm on the Rotating Service Structure towers at each launch pad.

    With Pad 37 (the West or Right launch pad) supporting ongoing Groza launches, the tower modifications were first started at Pad 38 (Site 110 East or Left). Following its devastation in the explosion of N1-5L in July 1969, the launch pad had been painstakingly rebuilt, and would now be further modified to support L3M. In addition to the provisions for liquid hydrogen, this also involved modifications to the umbilical connects and the crew access arm that would be used with the L3M GB-2 spacecraft. This meant that, for the next few years, Pad 37 would remain the sole launch pad for Groza missions. After completion of the upgrade at Pad 38, the pads would swap roles as Pad 37 was upgraded in its turn, resulting in a dual-launch capability being restored by the end of 1976.

    For the spacecraft themselves, the 24 tonne GB-1 ‘crasher stage’ was maturing rapidly. This was to be expected, as it was basically a stretched version of the Blok-D that had been in use since the first Proton/Zond mission in 1967, and which had given sterling performance on the N1-8L/Zond-10 mission. GB-1 would use the same 11D71 engine burning kerolox propellants as Blok-D, and TsKBEM expected to have the first flight model ready for launch by the end of 1974.

    By far the most complex component still to be developed was the GB-2 Lunar Expedition Ship (LEK). Projected to have a mass of more than 23 tonnes on the lunar surface, the GB-2 dwarfed the six tonne LK lander used for L3. This was partly due to the tripling of the crew compliment, but also related to the fact that LEK would also replace the function of the LOK, being a single vehicle for the journey to lunar orbit, landing and habitation on the Moon’s surface, and return to Earth.

    Working backwards from the end of the mission, the Return Capsule (VA) was a modification to the familiar, headlamp-shaped Soyuz module that had been used on all of the 7K variants, including the LOK. For most of the mission, the Return Capsule would be housed within a pressurised ‘hanger’ formed by the Cocooned Habitation Block (OB), with the VA suspended from a hatch at the top of the OB, which in turn connected to the Escape Tower during launch. The three cosmonauts would remain in this capsule for launch and re-entry phases of the mission, but the rest of the time would be able to exit the VA through a side hatch and move around the OB, removing the need for spacewalks or complicated (and heavy) docking mechanisms and hatches.

    The Cocooned Habitation Block would be the cosmonauts’ cockpit, main workspace, and home during the 2-3 weeks of the L3M mission. The module was spherical in shape, with two bowl-shaped depressions for windows, affording the Commander and LEK Pilot a downwards view from which to control the descent and landing. On the other side of the module was an exterior hatch for access to the lunar surface. Weight and volume limitations meant that it was not possible to include an airlock in the OB, and so for moonwalks one of the cosmonauts would seal themself inside the Return Capsule, while the other two donned moonsuits and depressurised the main cabin of the OB. Space was tight in the Habitation Block, with the Return Capsule taking up much of the interior volume, but it was roomier than the capsules already used for the long duration Soyuz 9/10 mission, and so Semenov’s team were confident it would be sufficient.

    The Habitation Block was mounted atop a Propulsion Unit (DU) carrying a large main engine using a hydrogen peroxide/hydrocarbon propellant mix. This engine would be responsible for all vehicle manoeuvres from final descent through to lunar ascent and trans-Earth injection, and so reliability was vital. In an unusual case of cooperation between bureaux, the RD-510 engine for the DU was being developed by Glushko’s NPO Energomash. The DU would also house the fuel cells that would power the spaceship for missions of up to a month. Based on those developed for the L3 LOK, they would provide both power and drinking water for the crew during their mission.

    The combined VA/BO/DU complex was attached to a disposable Landing Stage, consisting of a framework mounting the landing legs, batteries, scientific equipment, and radiators. This would be left behind on the surface at the end of the mission, removing the need to lift almost four tonnes of equipment back to lunar orbit. Before descending to the surface, the Landing Stage would also carry a Kontakt docking system and associated rendezvous antennas and cameras. Derived from the system developed for the L3 LOK and LK, and tested in Earth orbit on the Soyuz 9/10 mission, this would be used to link the LEK to the GB-1 crasher stage in lunar orbit. Following the completion of GB-1 descent burn, the Docking Module would detach from the Landing Stage and impact on the lunar surface with the GB-1 booster.


    The development of the LEK was led by Yuri Semenov’s team at TsKBEM, and was proceeding well, taking advantage of many of the systems developed for the L3 programme. Nevertheless, the complexity of the new spacecraft meant that the first uncrewed test flights were not expected to take place before 1977, putting the earliest date for a crewed mission into 1978. Before that date, there were two other major programmes planning to make use of Groza’s heavy lift capability: a series of uncrewed heavy Mars probes, and the long-delayed MKBS space station.


    [1] IOTL, Kaminin was retired after the Soyuz 11 disaster, having previously avoided forced retirement in 1969. ITTL, he is still in-post at the age of 67, and still fighting political battles with Mishin.
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    Post 8: Dawn
  • 2A9AKbfXlFR7247sVMWKu2X_8NskQG0MkQYMuvrHIZRoov5fL3cI0TUQ-0-9rz3ki72r7Jt7GZ91sqbD6YDMjiPg5CEANOSgmw0fg2NLvhA8NTRpd6mNuhmtvDBfiQ820z8oh849

    Post 8: Dawn​

    TV Anchor:
    If you think you saw a new star at about 8:30 tonight, it was the Soviet Zarya space station. The station and its three cosmonauts passed directly over DC at 8:34 tonight, travelling northwest to southeast. The National Space Institute used the event to point out the growing gap between the US and Soviet space efforts.

    CUT TO: EXT. DAY. A residential suburban street in Washington DC.

    Space Expert:
    Right now, the Soviets have a very dynamic program, a well thought-out program, and indeed the United States is foundering in a whole mess of technical and leadership problems. The idea of what we’re trying to do is to let the public know that, yes, the Soviets have something and it’s up there, and they should be aware of that, and the American program is in trouble.

    - WJLA Local Evening News, 30th April 1975[1]


    The long-discussed Multi-module Cosmic Base Station (MKBS) could trace its lineage all the way back to the Orbital Station (OS) concept proposed by Korolev in 1960 as a military base in space. This later evolved into the MKBS, which was to form the centrepiece of an expansive Multi-module Orbital Complex (MOK), a constellation of military satellite systems serviced on orbit by human crews operating out of the MKBS. Despite much of this military role being assigned to first Chelomei then Glushko under the Almaz project, the MKBS had remained on TsKBEM’s books as an authorised project, waiting for the N-1 launch vehicle that would make it possible. With Groza reaching something like routine operations, and conscious of the success of the competing Almaz space stations, in mid-1973 Mishin had ordered an acceleration of efforts to put the first MKBS station into orbit.

    The starting point for Mishin’s initial MKBS station was the OS-1 design that had reached the mock-up stage in 1969. Using one of these mock-ups as the basis of a pressure hull, the design was modified to use solar panels rather than the originally planned nuclear reactor, which was not expected to be ready for flight until 1978 at the earliest. Systems adapted from Soyuz or borrowed from Almaz were used to fit out the station, with the Soyuz 7K-OKS variant providing crew transfer services. Although the longer term plan was to support crews of six-to-nine cosmonauts and resupply with a new, automated Soyuz derived cargo ship, this first station would host a single docking port, with the bulk of the supplies needed to support up to five missions of three cosmonauts being launched with the station. This was made possible by the increased size and launch mass of the station, as well as the shortage of scientific experiments available to fill the hull at short notice.

    By the middle of 1974, the MKBS No.1 design had been frozen and assembly was well underway. With an empty mass of 55 tonnes, the 21m long station was composed of a series of compartments, comparable in many ways to the Almaz station. At the rear was a 1.7m long Propulsion Compartment, containing engines for orbit maintenance and attitude control. This was attached to the main Working Compartment, a cylinder 8.6m long and 5.3m wide, which housed propellant, life support systems and consumables, plus scientific equipment. This transitioned down to the Habitation Compartment, 2.75m wide and 10.2m long. As the name suggests, this compartment housed crew facilities for three cosmonauts, as well as the flight control consoles. Four large solar arrays were mounted on the exterior of the Habitation Compartment, supplying up to 10kW of electrical power to the station. Finally, there was a small Transfer Compartment, mounting the SSVP port and Igla antennas that would be used to dock visiting Soyuz ferries.

    Mishin was gearing up for a launch of MKBS-1 in mid 1975, but his plans for larger, modular follow-on stations were dashed in September 1974 when a joint decree of the Central Committee and the Council of Ministers commanded the merger of the MKBS programme with the Almaz Phase 2 project, with overall responsibility for Soviet space stations transferred to Glushko’s NPO Energomash. Mishin would be permitted to launch his first station as a demonstration and propaganda tool, but follow-on stations would be built by Glushko.

    Despite the blow this decision dealt to morale at TsKBEM, work continued on the station module, and by March 1975 the giant module was completing final checks and was moved to the MIK building at Site 112 to start integration with Groza vehicle number N1-10L. A month later, on 18th April 1975, MKBS module No. 1 lifted off from Pad 37. On the side of the fairing (the first for Groza lacking an escape tower) was written the station’s name: Zarya.



    Zarya’s arrival and commissioning in orbit was monitored from the new Flight Control Centre in the Moscow suburb of Kaliningrad, close to TsKBEM headquarters. An expansion of the old Coordination and Computing Center for interplanetary probes, the new facility had been developed to support the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, and was far more impressive than the old centre at Yevpatoriya in Crimea. The new control centre had debuted in February 1975, supporting the Soyuz 15 ASTP rehearsal mission, and was now to be the primary control facility for all future Soviet crewed space missions. The opening of the new control centre had also been marked by a change of ground control’s callsign from “Zarya” to “Moscow”. This would prove helpful in avoiding confusion when calling the new space station.

    With Zarya safely in orbit and functioning nominally, attention quickly turned to the launch of Soyuz 16 with the station’s first crew. As Zarya was a TsKBEM project, two of the three crew members were civilian engineer-cosmonauts, led by Mission Commander Vladislav Volkov and Research Engineer Oleg Makarov. They were joined by Air Force cosmonaut Anatoli Voronov as Flight Engineer, who had served on the back-up crew for the Soyuz 13 mission to Almaz 2, and so had trained extensively on that military station’s systems. Both Makarov and Voronov would be making their first spaceflight, whilst Volkov had previously flown as the Flight Engineer on Soyuz 7. Operating under the callsign “Ruben” (Ruby), the crew’s training had been more chaotic than was normal, as the compressed schedule to get Zarya ready for launch had seen many last-minute changes in the experiments carried and their layout on the station. Often, modifications made as the station was being prepared failed to make it into the training mock-up, raising concerns that the crew were not ready to support the mission. Nevertheless, when the State Commission met on 23rd April, they confirmed both crew and spacecraft as ready to fly.

    Soyuz 16 lifted off from Baikonur’s Site 1 launch pad at 07:55 on Friday 25th April 1975. The Soyuz-U rocket operated smoothly, delivering the 7K-OKS spacecraft into an orbit co-planar with Zarya, but around 30km lower. The crew reported feeling fine, and later that day began manoeuvring to put Soyuz on a transfer orbit to the station. After a sleep period, the final approach commenced early the next day, approaching to within 7km of the station by 07:00 on 26th April. At this point the Igla system was expected to establish radio contact with the station, but once again the automatic docking equipment proved unreliable, refusing to lock up on Zarya. After consultations with the Chief Operative and Control Group (GOGU), Volkov was commanded to begin a slow manual approach, firing the Soyuz’s SKD engine to approach at 10m/s. At a distance of 5.6km Igla finally achieved radio lock, and the automatic systems took over for final approach, and mechanical contact was achieved at 08:12. Just over two hours later, the docking hatch was opened and Volkov and Voronov entered Zarya’s Transfer Compartment.



    The first few days on board were focussed on activating and checking out the station’s systems. The crew found the station’s vital systems mostly working as expected, but several of the experiments experienced problems, the most serious of which was the failure of the cover of the KATE-UO stereographic camera to open, making the instrument unusable.

    In terms of living space available, all three cosmonauts expressed how spacious the workshop interior was compared to Soyuz, or even Almaz, and Zarya’s impressive size was frequently emphasised during their regular “Cosmovision” television broadcasts. Although a few pre-recorded television programmes had been broadcast from the Almaz stations, the frequent five- to ten-minute live telecasts from Zarya were a new innovation for Soviet missions, and helped to boost the profile of the station with the Soviet public and the wider world. Subtitled highlights from the transmissions proved surprisingly popular in US television news clips, as the mission was taking place during the build-up to the much anticipated Apollo-Soyuz joint flight, and so Western audiences were eager to learn more about the Soviet space programme.

    Despite its hurried construction and a general lack of cooperation between the TsKBEM and Energomash design bureaux, the designers of Zarya had been able to take advantage of many lessons learnt from the three Almaz missions. Voronov in particular commented favourably on the small individual ‘cabins’ each cosmonaut was provided with, compared with simply attaching a sleeping bag to any convenient wall, as had been the practice with Almaz. Other aspects that had been improved included keeping the cosmonauts on a regular 24-hour cycle, rather than the shorter ‘day’ used on Almaz-1 to keep synchronised with ground contact windows. This avoided unnecessary disruption to the crew’s circadian rhythms, greatly improving their productivity and morale. Communications sessions with TsUP were generally shorter and more focussed, avoiding micro-management of the cosmonauts’ time or bombarding them with trivial or repetitive queries.

    Time management was particularly important for the crew of Soyuz 16 due to the large number of experiments carried on board. In an effort to prove the value of the station, Mishin and his engineers had crammed as many experiments as possible into Zarya. However, whilst the large size of the station meant that it could physically host almost twice as many experiments as Almaz, the number of cosmonauts available to operate them remained the same. As originally conceived, Zarya was to have included three docking ports on the Transfer Compartment, allowing regular crews of six supported by uncrewed cargo ships, but the rush to complete the station had led to this capability being deleted.
    Also, the switch from nuclear energy to solar panels to provide electricity meant that power to operate these payloads had to be rationed. Some on-going experiments with moderate power needs, such as the Oazis plant growth experiment, were able to operate continuously, but most could only be run during dedicated sessions on specifically scheduled days. The time available was further reduced by the size of the station and late changes in the layout of the hardware, meaning the cosmonauts often had to spend an hour or more finding and preparing the equipment before the experiments could start. The short training time and sheer number of experiments meant that even more time was taken up in reading instructions, much to the frustration of the scientists on the ground.

    Despite these problems and frustrations, by the second week of the mission the cosmonauts had settled into a steady routine, and the mission proceeded relatively smoothly for the next month. The cosmonauts made observations of the Earth and stars at multiple wavelengths, conducted experiments in plant growth and materials science, and underwent a wide range of biomedical examinations, on top of a vigorous exercise regime. Experience with the Almaz missions had demonstrated the importance of exercise in maintaining health and allowing for a quick re-adaptation to full gravity on return to Earth, and the extra volume available in Zarya had allowed for a wide variety of exercise equipment to provided, including a treadmill, exercise bike, and elasticated “weight machines”. Cosmonauts on Almaz missions had noted that use of the treadmill in their stations tended to set up vibrations that affected astronomical observations, or could even cause sympathetic oscillations in the solar arrays. In contrast, the crew of Zarya found this to be far less of a problem, thanks to a combination of an updated treadmill design with built in vibration damping, and the increased mass and differing harmonics of the station. High-precision observations still needed to be conducted in periods when none of the crew were exercising, but the solar arrays were never put at risk by a cosmonaut’s jogging.

    After eight weeks on-orbit, it was time for the crew of Soyuz 16 to pack their belongings and prepare for their return to Earth. Although luxurious compared to previous Soviet spacecraft, a number of minor malfunctions and inconveniences meant that the cosmonauts were eager to get home. For example, all three cosmonauts complained that the station interior remained overall quite cool, hovering just under 20℃ regardless of the setting of the control thermostat. Their diet had also become quite monotonous, with no opportunity for re-supply missions to mix up the menu. This was something that the next crew would also have to contend with, as all vittals for the three planned missions had been launched with the station.

    After setting the station for automatic operation and shutting down all unnecessary equipment, the crew returned to their Soyuz capsule, sealing the hatch to the station at 07:15 on Sunday 22nd June, 1975. Undocking came less than an hour later, followed by a textbook re-entry and landing in a remote region of the Kazakh SSR two hours before sunset that same day. Volkov, Makarov and Voronov were celebrated as Heroes of the Soviet Union, their “Cosmovision” broadcasts having made them famous throughout the USSR and across the world.

    Unfortunately, Soyuz 16 would prove to be the only crewed mission to Zarya. Late in the night of 14th July, while the flight controllers and engineers at TsUP were focussed on the ongoing Soyuz 17 ASTP mission, one of Zarya’s on-board experiments, which should have been switched off before the crew departed, shorted out. The short triggered a fire, which quickly spread throughout the station. By morning, when mission controllers realised that the station had missed its last two contact periods, Zarya was dead in space. As Leonov and Stafford shook hands in orbit, TASS quietly informed the world that operations with the Zarya space station had been successfully concluded, with all mission objectives fully met.

    Despite the disappointing loss of Zarya, 1975 continued to be a busy year for TsKBEM, as for the second year running two Groza launches were planned. The second, N1-11L, was aimed beyond Earth orbit, and even past to Moon, towards one of the N-1’s original objectives: Mars.

    The Soviet Union had a poor record of Mars exploration. Up to the end of 1973 a total of fifteen Mars missions had been launched by the USSR, with four departing Earth in 1973 alone. Of these missions, nine were total failures, and only one, the Mars-5 orbiter, would prove to be fully successful. Of the partial successes, there were some notable achievements, including the first soft landing on the planet by Mars-3 in December 1971 (although this triumph was muted when the lander fell silent after just 110 seconds on the surface). However, next to the results obtained by the American Mariner probes - especially Mariner-9, which entered orbit in November 1971 - the Soviet programme did not compare well. With NASA planning to send twin landers to Mars at the 1975 launch window, the Soviets hoped that the capabilities provided by Groza would give them a chance to catch up, and perhaps surpass, US accomplishments.

    In 1970, Georgy Babakin at NPO Lavochkin directed his engineers to start designing a Mars sample return probe, using the N-1 as the launch vehicle. This would follow on from the successful Luna-16 mission that returned samples from the Moon in September 1970, but would be much larger in mass, duration and complexity. The Mars 5NM sample return probe would have a starting mass in low Earth orbit of a whopping 98 tonnes. The 16 tonne lander was too heavy to rely upon parachutes, and so after using a deployable shield to aerobrake from interplanetary speeds, four rocket engines would be used to perform an automated thrust-borne soft-landing on the surface. A two-stage return rocket would put the 750kg cruise stage into Mars orbit, where it would wait up to ten months for the planets to align before starting its journey home. Finally, a 15kg return capsule would plummet through Earth’s atmosphere to deliver its payload of Martian soil to the waiting scientists. After a three year voyage, that 98 tonne probe would have brought back 200 grammes of Mars dust.

    Recognising the complexity of this mission profile, Babakin proposed to first test some of the key technologies with a simpler, though still impressive, mission to land a rover on Mars. Called Mars-4NM, this would use the same deployable aeroshell and rocket powered descent as 5NM, but the payload would instead be a modification of the Lunokhod rovers that had been the first wheeled vehicles on the Moon.

    Originally intended to launch in the 1973 opportunity, the teething problems experienced by Groza, as well as difficulties in developing the probe, delayed the launch, and the probe - now named Mars 8[2] - lifted off on 12th September 1975 on Groza launch N1-11L. The launch and Earth departure were successful, but contact was lost with the probe three months later, before it reached the Red Planet. The cause was never found, but was assumed to be a failure of the electronics systems, and the back-up probe on Earth was subjected to additional testing with the hope of launching a repeat of the mission during the 1977 launch window.



    [1] Based upon an OTL news piece from St Louis local TV, interviewing Michael Mackowski
    of the Space Frontier Society in 1987 about the Mir space station. However, the opinion that US spaceflight is mired in technical and political problems is pretty much evergreen.

    [2] IOTL the Mars series ended with Mars 7, which launched in 1973. The spacecraft made a successful flyby of Mars, but unfortunately so did the lander, which missed the Martian atmosphere and continued on into space. IOTL, no other Mars missions were launched by the USSR until 1988, with the twin Phobos probes. These also mostly failed, with only the Phobos 2 orbiter partially meeting its objectives before going silent. Russia tried to break the hoodoo in 2011 with Fobos-Grunt, but this mission was left stranded in Earth orbit when its upper stage failed.
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    Interlude : The Apollo-Soyuz Test Program
  • 2A9AKbfXlFR7247sVMWKu2X_8NskQG0MkQYMuvrHIZRoov5fL3cI0TUQ-0-9rz3ki72r7Jt7GZ91sqbD6YDMjiPg5CEANOSgmw0fg2NLvhA8NTRpd6mNuhmtvDBfiQ820z8oh849

    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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    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.
    Interlude : Report to Congress
  • 2A9AKbfXlFR7247sVMWKu2X_8NskQG0MkQYMuvrHIZRoov5fL3cI0TUQ-0-9rz3ki72r7Jt7GZ91sqbD6YDMjiPg5CEANOSgmw0fg2NLvhA8NTRpd6mNuhmtvDBfiQ820z8oh849

    Interlude : Report to Congress​


    - Soviet Space Programs 1971-75, Staff report prepared for the Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, United States Senate, August 30, 1976.

    B. Soviet Political Uses of Space

    1. The climate in 1971
    In 1971, the Russians in their media seemed more devoted to attacking U.S. policies related to Vietnam than in recognizing successes in the Apollo program. The unmanned Lunokhod rover was touted as a better approach than the high cost and risky manned Apollo flights. An earlier theme of attacking the American space program on the grounds of its militarization had largely disappeared. The Soviet space program was still described in terms suggesting its high degree of perfection. Apollo was described as a risky aberration, while the true path to further progress was linked to Soviet successes in Earth orbit and a gradual expansion into deep space using their new Groza rocket. Soviet leaders gave high visibility to the Soviet space program and their personal links with it. Emphasis was put on the practical benefits which would flow from the program. The achievements of the Almaz space station missions, with a public emphasis on the monitoring of Earth’s environment from orbit, played into this narrative.

    2. The Climate in 1975
    In 1975, the climate was quite different. The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project received tremendous attention and was heralded as a building block to further improvement in relations between two partners of similar capabilities in space. Of necessity, there was some easing of space secrecy on the part of the Russians as a condition of the co-operative effort. At the same time, the political uses of space to glorify achievements of the Soviet system continued, and there were sharp limits to the amount of openness.

    2. Characteristics of Space Relations

    a. Absence of familiar Soviet themes and actions

    (1) No downgrading of American space effort. - Discretion was the most significant characteristic of Soviet space relations with the United States during January-July 1975. Absent were some of the familiar themes and political actions characteristic of Soviet space politics during the most intensive periods of the Cold War. There was no downgrading of American space programs or activities. Allegations of American critics that the Soviet Union gained more from the joint mission than the United States appeared to be met by and large with studied restraint. Such assertions were politely rejected with reminders of the difficulty in getting sufficient congressional appropriations for carrying on the American manned space program, and experience not shared by the Soviet Union, and that the one-sidedness in going forward with ASTP, therefore, really benefited the American side. However, Soviet interests would not suffer, it was said. Both sides would really be the beneficiaries from a joint enterprise that furthered the cause of detente, cooperation, and peace. American space officials were cited to dispute the charge of an uneven technological transfer to the Soviet Union.
    Sharper rebukes to this allegation took the shape of counter-charges that the critics were opponents of detente. Yuriy Zhukov, a leading Soviet publicist, referred to such critics as “demagogues in the U.S. who stand against scientific cooperation with the U.S.S.R.” In reply to such critics, he said: “It is not accidental that U.S. firms are buying ever more licenses for inventions from us.”

    (2) Easing of restrictions on secrecy. - Evidence of an improving Soviet attitude in space relations was apparent in the easing of restrictions on secrecy. In the course of preparations for the Apollo-Soyuz mission the Soviets admitted, albeit reluctantly, American officials and astronauts to areas of space work heretofore held in the greatest secrecy. Preparations had apparently gone smoothly until the Apollo crewmen insisted on touring the Tyuratam Cosmodrome, inspecting the Soyuz launch pad, and visiting the Soyuz spacecraft. Air Force General Thomas P. Stafford, commander of the Apollo spacecraft, said: “I never fly on a spacecraft I haven’t been in on the ground.” Reluctantly, the Soviets agreed to the visit, in conformance, it might be added, to the principal contained in the April 6, 1972 agreement on the joint flight. NASA project officials had uniformly insisted and gained agreement that American crews had to be familiar with the actual Soyuz that would participate in the mission.
    On their four visits to the Soviet Union the astoronauts also visited Star City, the cosmonaut training center 30 miles outside Moscow. Americans also spent hours touring and working at the space control center at Kaliningrad, near Moscow. As Astronaut Donald K. Slayton said in Moscow, “We have seen everything we need to see to fly this mission effectively.”
    Such openness along with a willingness to permit “live” TV coverage of the mission stirred favorable comments in the West. One optimistic Western diplomat in Moscow contended that the mission as a whole was significant. “This whole system has been built on a threat - a threat from outside to destroy the country,” he said. “It’s a major step to take away the enemy.” He argued that the decision to let down the secrecy barriers and open up the Soviet space program as much as the Soviets did could have wider effects in this “very cautious, bureaucratic system.” “When the genie gets out of the bottle,” he suggested, “it’s very hard to put it back.”
    One Soviet science writer was similarly optimistic. “This secrecy… bothers us too,” he said, adding, “But I think this will change. As cosmonauts train with your astronauts, as our people go more and more and see how you do things… I think they will begin to loosen up.” Another prophesied: “I cannot be sure. But I begin to see a few green shoots in the frozen ground… If we cultivate these, if we don’t expect too much but cherish each sprout, I think eventually we will have a garden.” The Apollo-Soyuz information flow, said Robert C. Cowen, science writer for The Christian Science Monitor, “may be the first flowering of that garden.”

    B. Presence of familiar Soviet themes and actions
    (1) Exaggerated claims for Soviet space efforts. - Despite the respect shown regarding American space achievements, characteristic exaggerated claims for Soviet space efforts continued to be made. The successful 58-day orbital flight of Soyuz 16-Zarya in April-June, the longest Soviet manned space flight, was a major triumph, and media coverage was extensive and positive. American observers opined that the flight would further bolster Soviet self-confidence following successes with their Almaz program.
    Soviet pride must have been further encouraged by the sending in June of two automatic space stations, Venera 9 and Venera 10, in the direction of Venus. Space specialists in Moscow believed that at least in part the stepped-up Soviet activity in space (in addition to these major launchings, the Soviets orbited numerous smaller satellites) was intended to demonstrate competence in a broad range of space systems and dispel the impression that the Soviet space program was in trouble. The Venus probes, the first in three years, served to remind the world that the Soviet Union had made the only successful landing on Venus.
    That the Soviets were gaining in self-confidence by these achievements prior to the Apollo-Soyuz mission was evident by the tone of confidence and satisfaction that marked their reports on the Soyuz 16 mission, and the strong implications by Soviet specialists that Zarya would be used by many successive crews manning the orbital station in shifts ranging from a few weeks to months. To the discerning observer the Soviets could also be seen to draw confidence from the belief that by participating with the United States in a joint mission on the scale of Apollo-Soyuz they were able to demonstrate effectively that they had achieved parity in space.
    Thus, solid and highly visible achievements in space had made it possible for the Soviets to again flaunt their successes as they had done in the past, although in keeping with the spirit of détente and the style of the Brezhnev regime, the emphasis was placed on demonstrating Soviet competence in space and parity with the United States.

    3. Political Significance

    c. Soviet gains in prestige.
    - That the Soviet Union gained in prestige as a result of the successful joint flight is apparent from reactions at home and abroad. To have the demonstrated technical and scientific capability of participating in such a complex operation with a space power so advanced in space science and technology as the United States cannot have escaped the attention of an attentive world. What no doubt added to the global popular appeal of the mission was the visual proof that the two superpowers with basically conflicting social systems and many diverging national interests could indeed cooperate in such a dramatic undertaking on a common basis of detente.

    d. Intensity and depth of Soviet space commitment. - Finally, Soviet space activities in this period suggest the depth and intensity of the Soviet commitment to space exploration. On visiting the Soviet space center near Tyuratam, Astronaut Stafford reported that from the amount of construction under way, the Soviets were “dedicated” to pursuing the goals of their space program.
    The American astronauts said that they were impressed by the “tremendous effort” the Soviet Union was putting into its space effort.
    Despite restrictions placed on their movements by the security-conscious Russians, American space specialists had seen enough, in the words of one report, “to convince them that the Soviet Union is continuing to put vast resources into its space effort.” Referring to assembly sheds that the visiting party saw scattered throughout the area near the Baykonur cosmodrome, as well as work evident on the launch pads of their Groza heavy rocket, Astronaut Slayton said, “I’d be surprised if they weren’t working on some advanced technology… but we didn’t see it.”
    Moreover, published statements by Soviet space scientists and cosmonauts suggest extension rather than retranchement of the Soviet space commitment.
    Given the Soviet inclination to view such scientific enterprises in a political context, all of this suggests the high political value that the Soviet leadership places on space exploration.


    Thus, consideration of future prospects for Soviet-American space cooperation logically begins within the parameters of political relations and a determination of the durability of detente. As Chapter One suggests, detente is now being put to a great test as 1975 comes to a close: the Soviet Union and the United States have come to grips with the issue that lies at the very heart of the concept; namely, military detente and efforts to resolve differences in SALT II and MBFR negotiations. Aggravating the environment of relations is also Soviet intervention in Angola. Still, a more fundamental and discordant element working against the purposes of detente, in addition to the inner dynamics of the great power conflict that underlay Soviet-American relations, is Soviet insistence that there can be no detente in ideology and that the “struggle” against world capitalism (i.e. the United States, its allies, and non-Communist countries), perceived in multiple ways, must continue. (Figure 4-1 graphically portrays the presently existing adversarial relationship between the Soviet Union and the United States; a handshake in space - ASTP - becomes an arm-wrestling match on Earth). Accumulating evidence by the end of 1975 suggests to some observers of the Soviet political scene that an internal debate is now taking place on the merits of detente and the desirability of changing that policy to a more aggressively oriented revolutionary line. Advocates of this approach urge taking political advantage of what they perceive to be a “weakened” international capitalistic system.
    Placed in the context of growing American disenchantment with detent which has been fed by a durable distrust of the Soviet Union, these developments suggest that detente in Soviet-American relations is heading for trouble. A countervailing factor to this tendency is the belief that both sides, faced with the common danger of nuclear war in an environment of deteriorating relations and judging relationships from the position of realism, would want to pursue a policy of negotiation, not confrontation.
    It is, therefore, in the continuation of détente that advocates of space cooperation must seemingly place their hopes for the future.


    Figure 4-1
    Last edited:
    Post 10: US Responses
  • Post 10: US Responses​

    “In Washington, few things are so permanent as a temporary solution.”

    - Dennis R. Jenkins, “Space Shuttle: Developing an Icon


    The United States was slow to respond to the steady increase in Soviet space capabilities as the 1970s progressed. Following the triumph of the Apollo programme, NASA transitioned its focus to development of the Space Shuttle, which was to provide frequent, economical access to orbit by the end of the decade. Apollo hardware continued to be flown with the Skylab missions in 1973, and the joint Apollo-Soyuz mission with the Soviets in 1975, but after this NASA paused all crewed space missions to concentrate its resources on the Shuttle. The remaining Apollo capsules and Saturn rockets were to be handed over as museum exhibits, while Skylab was left un-tended in orbit, hopefully to be visited by one of the early Shuttle missions.

    Although NASA appeared confident that the Space Shuttle would render large expendable rockets like the Saturn V and Groza obsolete, this view was not universally shared. With approval of the Space Shuttle programme in 1972 being quickly followed by the Soviet Groza/Zond 9 mission later that same year, lawmakers began to express concern that the USA was giving up a hard-won lead in heavy launch vehicles just as the USSR was expanding their capabilities. The impressive Zond 10 and Kosmos 676/7 missions of 1974 re-enforced this view, but it was the 1975 launches of the Zarya space station that really set alarm bells ringing. Zarya was seen as a harbinger of future heavy, militarised Soviet space bases, which might be used to develop capabilities in particle beam weapons and large, super-sensitive space based radar arrays.

    Despite NASA’s official assurances that the frequent and economical operations of the Space Shuttle would enable missions of equal or greater ambition at lower cost, senior members of the Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences were not convinced, and during the FY1976 budget hearings an appropriation was added to the NASA budget to delay the handover of Apollo hardware to museums and instead keep it in storage, in case there should be a need to rapidly respond to some Soviet advance before the Shuttle could be made operational. NASA administrator James Fletcher accepted this directive, but pointed out that the launch pads at Kennedy Space Center were planned to be remodelled over the coming years to support the Shuttle, meaning that equipment necessary to launch the preserved Saturn V’s would be gone by 1977. At that point, the USSR would become the definitive owner of the world’s most powerful space launcher].

    As evidence mounted of further improvements being made to the Groza rocket with the addition of hydrolox stages, even as the Shuttle programme suffered delays, the situation became increasingly difficult politically. This was especially true during the run-up to the 1976 Presidential and Congressional elections, as although space did not feature prominently in most voters’ or candidates’ minds, the apparent ceding of space leadership to the Soviets did feature as part of wider attacks on President Ford’s record. Taken together with his decision to pardon Nixon, the fall of South Vietnam, and a struggling economy, talk of falling behind in the space race fitted into a narrative of Ford having overseen a period of US decline.

    In fact NASA was already looking at alternatives to Saturn V for launching large payloads, with a contract jointly awarded to Boeing and Grumman to assess options for a shuttle-derived heavy lift vehicle. The objective was to explore possibilities for a heavy launch vehicle that could co-exist with Shuttle, while minimising any impacts on the Shuttle’s development program. The study received a boost in funding and priority in early 1976, and the final report was issued in September of that year[1].

    The report investigated several options, but the one received with most interest at NASA was the “Class-1” or “SDV-1” concept. This would use the exact same External Tank and Solid Rocket Boosters as the Space Shuttle, but replace the orbiter with a recoverable boat-tail containing the engines, plus a large expendable launch shroud. Payload to LEO was projected to be around 70 tonnes, just 60% of that of Saturn V and comparable to Korolev’s original N-1 design, but it had the advantage of maximising re-use of Shuttle hardware and facilities. This would dramatically cut the amount of money and time needed to develop the system. The study also speculated that the initial SDV-1 could later be evolved and expanded to an in-line configuration capable of matching Groza’s 105 tonnes to orbit, though it provided few details on the specifics of this upgrade.

    The study was well received within NASA (except for inside the Astronaut Office, which was pressing to ensure that all launches carried crews), and also in government as a relatively cheap and fast way to respond to concerns over a perceived capability gap with the Soviets. This broad support meant Administrator Fletcher was able to persuade the Ford administration to include in their final budget proposal a 10% increase in the Shuttle budget line for initial development of the Shuttle-Derived Heavy Launch Vehicle. After some tug-of-war in the new Congress between fiscal hawks seeking to cut the budget and Cold Warriors keen to counter the USSR, this figure was reduced to 6%, and in December 1977 NASA issued a contract to Rockwell to begin development of the SDHLV, which was now given the name “Shuttle-C”.

    The reduction in the development budget imposed some changes to the design of Shuttle-C, with the most significant being the deferral of plans for a recoverable Propulsion and Avionics Module. The Shuttle-C Propulsion and Payload Module (PPM) would now be fully expendable, sacrificing three RS-25 Space Shuttle Main Engines with every flight. Engineers at Marshall proposed reducing the impact somewhat by enabling two- or single-engined versions where the full payload capability was not needed, but this didn’t reduce the number of eyebrows raised in Congress that NASA now proposed to throw away copies of its expensively developed reusable engine.

    Other proposed cost-saving measures included the deletion of the Orbital Maneuvering System engines in favour of an upper stage, such as the planned Centaur-G, in the payload bay to push the Shuttle-C’s cargo into orbit. However, the development of Centaur-G had not yet been authorised, and pad modifications to allow fueling of the stage were not in the budget, so in the end NASA accepted the marginally higher operational costs of flying with an OMS.

    All this was an echo of what had happened to the original Shuttle design, with re-usability sacrificed in order to lower up-front costs, at the expense of increasing recurring costs in operations. In the final design, the Solid Rocket Boosters would be the only part of the Shuttle-C stack to be re-used. As with most of the other compromises made to fit the allocated budget, NASA pinned their hopes on future upgrades to improve performance after the system started to fly.

    The Payload and Propulsion Module design would consist of a more-or-less unmodified Shuttle orbiter boat-tail (maintaining compatibility with the crewed Shuttle ground interfaces), but with a few changes to lower its weight. As the structure would no longer need to be rated for 100+ launches, some mass savings could be realised by reducing structural tolerances and swapping out some titanium components for cheaper aluminium alternatives. Similarly, the thermal protection tiles could be omitted, replaced by a cheaper coating to withstand aerothermal loads and heating from the propulsion system.

    At the front of the PPM was an all-new Cargo Carrier element. Although the idea of simply removing the wings and crew compartment from a standard orbiter was suggested, this was rejected as it imposed too great a penalty on performance. The high structural mass of the orbiter body would have to be subtracted from the payload, and in terms of volume, fitting a 60+ tonne payload into a space intended for 25 tonnes was not ideal. In the end, the basic configuration chosen was a simple cylinder, 7.6m in diameter and 27.4m long, ending in a cone. The bottom half of the Carrier was integrated with the PPM, providing a strongback attached to the External Tank, while the upper half would be jettisoned to allow release of the payload.

    With Shuttle-C development now underway, and with the first launch projected as soon as 1980, thoughts turned to what payloads could take advantage of the new capability. The most obvious answer was a large space station as a response to the Soviet Zarya, but the funding to develop such a station was simply not there, and in any case, the US still had Skylab in orbit, making a new station hard to justify.

    This last assumption was coming under increasing scrutiny by 1978. Following the last crewed mission on Skylab 4 in 1974, the space station had been boosted into a 433km x 455km orbit that NASA assumed would keep the station in space into the early 1980s. By late 1977, an unexpected increase in solar activity expanding the upper atmosphere meant that NORAD now expected Skylab to re-enter the atmosphere in mid-1979. Although NASA continued planning for a possible Shuttle rescue mission, unofficially most within the Agency accepted that it would not be possible to rescue Skylab.

    At the same time, the December 1977 launch by the Soviet Union of the Zarya 2 space station again highlighted the apparent gap opening up. At least as large as the original Zarya station, official Soviet reports were describing Zarya 2 as “the world’s first modular orbital complex”, suggesting that the station would be expanded further over time. In contrast to the first Zarya, missions to the new station were secretive, hinting at a predominantly military purpose more aligned with the Almaz stations. With the return of Americans to space in the Shuttle not expected for a further two years, the press and political class in the US demanded a response.

    However, NASA believed it had found a near-term option that would not only provide a strong foundation for a permanent American crewed presence in space, but would do so without breaking the bank. First explored as an option in 1977, the NASA budget request for FY 1979 asked for modest funding to prepare a 60-tonne station module to be launched on one of the first flights of Shuttle-C, within two years of the start of the programme. This station would be visited by the Shuttle, and could be expanded over time with additional modules carried in Shuttle’s payload bay. Development of the additional modules could be postponed until after the funding for Shuttle development had moved off the books, or could be passed to allied nations, in an extension of the approach being used for the ESA-built Spacelab modules planned for the Shuttle.

    Of course, the development of a large space station module from scratch in less than two years for a fraction of the funds being spent on even the Shuttle-C was completely unrealistic. Fortunately though, NASA already had a large, flightworthy space station module available and sitting in storage: Skylab-B. With some modifications, the backup Skylab module could provide NASA with an orbital destination for the Shuttle, and an ongoing project to build upon in the 1980s.

    As with the Shuttle and Shuttle-C programmes before it, Skylab-B was heavily budget constrained, with modifications kept to the bare minimum needed to meet initial needs while driving costs down, and accepting the inevitable technical debt this imposed. Additionally, there were technical constraints coming from the change of launch vehicle (launching on Saturn-V no longer being an option due to changes in the pad infrastructure).

    The first and most pressing of the technical constraints was mass: at 75 tonnes, a straight duplicate of Skylab-A would be too heavy to launch on Shuttle-C. The need to lose weight meant the immediate deletion of the Apollo Telescope Mount, removing 11 tonnes from the station. The Airlock Module was retained, but six tonnes of consumables stored in the module were removed, on the basis that each visiting Shuttle would carry the bulk of provisions needed for a given mission. This rationale also allowed the removal of four tonnes of food and water from the Orbital Workshop, saving around 10 tonnes on launch mass.

    The Multiple Docking Adapter, originally intended for visiting Apollo capsules, had to be completely replaced. The docking port was not compatible with the androgenous docking adapter planned for the Shuttle’s External Airlock[2], and in any case was not rated at the atmospheric pressures used for Shuttle. The MDA was therefore removed, and a new Shuttle Docking Module was designed, derived from the External Airlock. At around 2.2 tonnes, the SDM would be almost a third the mass of the old MDA, aided by the fact it would no longer have to hold control equipment and film for the deleted Apollo Telescope Mount. Consideration was given to providing the SDM with multiple docking ports, so it could act as a node for the addition of future modules, but this was rejected in order to save both mass and budget. It was reasoned that a dedicated node module could always be added at the axial port if needed in the future.

    One issue weighing heavily on the minds of NASA engineers was the topic of propulsion for the station. With Skylab-A even then falling from the sky, it was quickly decided that Skylab-B must have a re-boost capability from day one. Ideally, this system would be mounted at the base of the Orbital Workshop, on the opposite side from visiting Shuttles, to avoid interference with any future modules that would be added to the station, but this posed several problems. Firstly, it would interfere with the OWS’ radiator, which was already in this position. Secondly, locating the propulsion system at the opposite end of the station from visiting Shuttles would make refuelling operations extremely difficult. This would require either a long (and heavy) set of pipes and pumps, or the orbiter performing an elaborate and risky manoeuvre to approach the rear of the station just for refuelling.

    The alternative was to position the reboost engines at the ‘front’ of the station, around the Shuttle Docking Module. This would give easy access from the Shuttle payload bay, and had the added advantage of producing thrust loads similar to those already studied as part of planning for a possible reboost of Skylab-A. In the end, the two engines of the Main Station Propulsion System (MSPS) were added either side of the Airlock Module in the thermal shroud of the main station body, with refuelling lines running up the outside of the AM to the Shuttle Docking Module.

    With the development of Skylab-B approved in October 1978, the United States now had a plan in place to meet the Soviet challenge in Low Earth Orbit in the early 1980s. However, by this stage it was becoming increasingly obvious that the Soviet challenge was already moving deeper into the cosmos...



    [1] This study was commissioned IOTL, but didn’t get the priority boost, so delivered the final report in September 1977.

    [2] IOTL development of the External Airlock was deferred in 1976 as a cost saving measure, before being revived to support Shuttle-Mir in the 1990s. ITTL it is revived in the late ‘70s to support Skylab-B.


    Note: I'm hoping to have some artwork to accompany this post soon. I'll edit it in as soon as it's available.
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