Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Red Moon - the Soviet Lunar Programme

One of the most spectacular exhibits in the current Cosmonauts exhibition at London's Science Museum is the Soviet LK-3 lunar landing module. Needless to say it was never used. The exhibition, which by the way is awesome, is a celebration of all the Soviet Space Programme did achieve. It is interesting none the less to explore Soviet efforts in lunar exploration and reflect on how things could have been had the Soviets put a man on the moon first, as imagined in the painting below by Alexei Leonov, who would have been that man. In the early days of trying to reach the moon, the Soviets and the US were neck in neck.

In the Ocean of Storms by Alexei Leonov - cosmonaut and artist

The success of Sputnik on October 4th 1957 sent a shockwave through America and brought an unbearable level of media scrutiny and public criticism onto its competing army and navy rocket programmes. Although both successfully launched satellites in the early months of 1958, the need for a joined up approach in response to the Soviets' relentless progress was clear and NASA came into being in July of the same year.

In the closing months of 1958, the newly formed NASA in conjunction with the US Army Ballistic Missile Agency, who, needless to say, did not come entirely in peace, began launching the Pioneer series of probes. These were intended as moon fly-by's but the first three launches all experienced technical failures. By January of 1959 the Soviets were ready to begin their own programme. Objective number one was to hit the moon. On 2nd January Luna 1 blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome atop a Vostok rocket and headed into the heavens. To allow its progress to be tracked, the final stage of the rocket released a cloud of sodium vapour at a distance of 113,000km from Earth which was visible from Earth based telescopes. Suggestions to detonate a nuclear warhead on the surface of the moon itself to allow the impact to be seen had been sensibly shelved. The shiny silver sphere, similar in general appearance to Sputnik, carried equipment for detecting the presence of gasses in interplanetary space, for measuring the magnetic field of the earth and investigating whether the moon also had a magnetic field, as well as collecting vital data on radiation exposure during its journey. In the event Luna 1 missed the moon by 6000km and sailed on, transmitting until its batteries ran out, 600,000km from Earth. Thereafter it became an artificial planet, albeit a very small one, falling into a solar orbit.

Image of dark side of the moon taken by Luna 3 1959
In March 1959 NASA's Pioneer 4 became the first US mission to escape Earth's gravity and flew by the moon at a distance of 60,000km before joining Luna 1 in solar orbit. The Soviets followed up later in the year with two more missions. Luna 2 was virtually identical in design and objectives to Luna 1 and succeeded in impacting the lunar surface on 13th September. Less than a month later Luna 3 was launched on a trajectory to sling-shot around the moon. Equipped with a camera activated by photo-electric cells which detected the sun-lit face of the moon as the craft passed behind it on 7th October, Luna 3 captured the first images of the dark side of the moon, which were transmitted back to Earth as the spacecraft headed back before probably burning up in Earth's atmosphere.

The next two years saw feverish activity from both superpowers on several fronts as they worked towards the major goal of getting a man into space and continued to launch ambitious exploratory missions. By the time the US probe Ranger 4 emulated Luna 2 and crashed into the dark side of the moon in April 1962, following the failure of the systems which should have ensured a softer landing, a great deal had happened. Dogs, chimps and men had orbited the Earth safely and returned as heroes. Probes had been dispatched into interplanetary space, the USSR had begun programmes to send exploratory probes to both Mars and Venus and JFK had thrown down the gauntlet and committed the US to landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth by the end of the decade. It was game on.

Soviet poster celebrating manned spaceflight
With both moon projects having successfully impacted an object on the lunar surface, the next objective was to set down a probe upon the moon in a more controlled manner. Luna 4 was the first Soviet attempt at a soft landing and also the first mission to use an earth parking orbit like the US Ranger missions before being propelled on a new course to the moon rather than a direct ascent trajectory as in previous Luna missions. Failure of the navigation system resulted in the spacecraft being incorrectly orientated for its mid-course correction burn and it missed the moon by 8000km on 5th April 1963. The headlines would nevertheless be seized by the USSR again in July of that year by Valentina Tereshkova becoming the first woman in space.

Meanwhile work on further developments was mired in political infighting. The complicated Soyuz A-B-V circumlunar complex was the brainchild of Soviet space-programme mastermind Sergei Korolev. The programme relied on the docking of a manned spacecraft termed Soyuz A with a second unmanned booster module in orbit, termed Soyuz B, which would propel it on its journey to the moon. Soyuz B would first have been filled with fuel by three unmanned tugs, termed Soyuz V. It sounded bloody complicated and Khruschev had been persuaded to back the rival programme of Vladimir Chelomei instead. Korolev was instructed to focus on developing a lunar lander and in the meantime continued with the manned spaceflight programme.

Over the Black Sea by Alexei Leonov

On 12th October 1964 another first was achieved by the Voskhod 1 mission which took three cosmonauts into orbit in the first multi-crew flight. The spacecraft was little different from the Vostok capsules used in earlier missions. The crew were waved off by Khruschev but by the time they landed the Soviet premier had been ousted from power and they were welcomed back by Brezhnev. The change at the top saw a return to a joined up approach which would be overseen by Korolev, who combined Chelomei's Proton rocket with his own Soyuz L1 spacecraft.

1965 saw the space-race heat up. In March Alexei Leonov aboard Voskhod 2 carried out the first space-walk. The success of any Soviet moon landing would at some point require crew to transfer externally between spacecraft and so this was a critical development as well as being an outstanding moment in its own right. Five days later the US launched Gemini 3; their first multi-crew mission and the first manned flight of a new generation of spacecraft. In May Luna 5 became the second Soviet probe to impact the lunar surface. The US had achieved four further successful impacts with their Ranger missions which had returned good quality photographs of the lunar surface before crashing into it. In June Ed White emulated Leonov by carrying out a space walk on the Gemini 5 mission. A week later Luna 6 was all set to achieve the first soft landing on the surface of the moon but a system failure put the probe on the wrong trajectory. Nevertheless a full test of all systems for landing was carried out as the probe sailed past the moon and it appeared that had it been on course the landing would have been a success.

The honour of the first soft landing on the lunar surface was claimed by the Soviet Luna 9 probe on February 3rd 1966. Two more attempted landings in late 1965 had been on target but had experienced failures in their landing systems. This time everything worked. The retro rockets fired, the cushioning airbags inflated and the shiny sphere of Luna 9 was set down gently on the moon. Four petal shaped stabilisers opened out to hold the sphere steady and the communication antennae and TV camera popped up, allowing Luna 9 to send back the first pictures from the surface of the moon. In a devastating blow for the Soviet space programme however, Sergei Korolev had not lived to see it. The driving force behind all of the Soviet successes in space  thus far had died following complications during a routine operation. His death was a disastrous setback for the programme and without his leadership the Soviet efforts floundered as trust between the cosmonauts, engineers and their political masters broke down over difficulties with the ongoing Soyuz programme.

Vladimir Komarov became the first Soviet fatality of the space race in April 1967

Meanwhile the US programme was going well. In March Gemini 8, piloted by one Neil Armstrong, made the first successful docking with an un-manned Agena capsule, proving another essential manoeuver required for the US version of a manned moon mission. The Americans had further cause to celebrate when Surveyor 1 made a successful soft landing and transmitted from the surface of the moon in June 1966. The Soviets achieved their second successful soft landing with Luna 13 on Christmas Eve.

1967 was a black year in the story of the space race for both the US and Soviet Union. The tragic fire which broke out during crew training in the new Apollo 1 command module and claimed the lives of astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee saw the US suspend manned space-flight for twenty months while NASA investigated and made modifications. In April the Soviet programme suffered their own tragedy when cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, who had successfully flown on the Voshkod 1 mission was killed on the first manned mission of the Soyuz spacecraft. When the parachute failed to deploy following re-entry Komarov died when the capsule hit the ground.

The cosmonauts involved in the Soyuz programme including Yuri Gagarin had been highly critical of the spacecraft's shortcomings and the unwillingness of the bureaucrats and engineers to take their safety concerns seriously. With Komarov's death, Gagarin was prepared to make his criticism public. For both nations lessons had to be learned for the show would go on.

The mighty but complicated and unreliable N1 rocket

The Soviet plan to put a man on the moon, under the direction of Korolev's successor Vasili Mishin, differed somewhat from the ultimately successful US approach. The L3 Moon expedition complex comprising a Soyuz command module, an LK lander and a booster would be launched into earth orbit atop the new N1 rocket. With no need for docking manoeuvers in Earth orbit the two man crew would continue on their flight to the moon, where one cosmonaut would transfer to the landing module for descent to the lunar surface. Here the Soviet approach differed from the US Apollo design for there was no connecting tunnel between the command module and the landing module and so the cosmonaut would need to exit one and spacewalk to the other and then repeat the exercise on the way back. The lander would use the same engine for both descent and take off but in case of failure the plan was to land a spare unmanned LK module on the moon as well as a couple of remote controlled Lunokhod rovers to allow the cosmonaut to travel to the spare. It remained an ambitiously complicated scheme.

Testing of the technology for launch and propulsion continued through 1967 and into 1968 with a series of unmanned 'Zond' probes. Tests were bedevilled by unreliability of the rocket technology but the Soviet engineers soldiered on. In September 1968 they narrowly beat the Americans to another first with Zond V. The probe carried the first living things around the moon and returned them safely to Earth; two steppe tortoises, who splashed down in the Indian Ocean none the worse for wear. Zond V also carried a dummy fitted with radiation sensors, its face was modelled on Yuri Gagarin, who had tragically died in a plane crash in March of that year. The dummy incidentally is the last exhibit in the Cosmonauts exhibition. In October 1968 both nations returned to manned spaceflight. Apollo 7 completed the mission of the ill-fated Apollo 1 whilst two weeks later the Soyuz manned programme also resumed in order to perfect the docking manoeuvers required for the whole Soviet mission to work. Soyuz 3 attempted to dock with the unmanned Soyuz 2 but the pilot Georgi Beregovoi, who could be forgiven some nerves given the fate of Komorov, was unable to complete the manoeuver successfully due to an error of orientation which left insufficient fuel for a second attempt.

Soviet engineers inspect the Zond 5 cosmo-tortoises ( pic credit Energia.)
The next Zond launch in November '68 was an unmanned test for the planned Soviet manned circumlunar mission scheduled to take place the following month. Zond 6 successfully orbited the moon and returned to Earth but on re-entry suffered a depressurisation of the crew compartment which would have killed any cosmonauts on board. The decision was taken to delay the next mission and the Americans took full advantage, moving up their own manned lunar orbiting mission which would have been Apollo 9 and instead sending the crew of Apollo 8 successfully around the moon and returning them safely to Earth.

With the honours for a successful manned circumlunar mission going to the US, the Kremlin top brass decided not to bother with the Zond 7 mission, which would have taken Alexei Leonov and Oleg Makarov around the moon in March 1969. The propaganda value of achieving the feat second was not thought worthwhile. With their thunder stolen, the Soviets could at least celebrate the new year with the success of the Soyuz 4 & 5 missions. The two manned spacecraft had docked in orbit and transferred two out of the three crew members of Soyuz 5 to join the single cosmonaut in Soyuz 4, proving this vital element of the plan could be performed if the Soviet manned mission to the moon ever got underway. The mission was widely celebrated as another Soviet first but there had been much bitter argument over whether the spacecraft should dock automatically or under control of the cosmonauts. An automated docking between 2 unmanned spacecraft 'Cosmos 212 & 213' had been achieved over a year before and amongst the engineers this was felt to be the safer option. There had also been much argument over how many men should transfer due to worries of re-entering with three men on board. Would the parachute cope with the extra weight? In the end the benefits of two space walkers being able to assist each other should one get into difficulty outweighed the re-entry concerns. In the end all went smoothly but the delays had been costly. As Soyuz 4 pilot Vladimir Shatalov pointed out, whilst they had been arguing, the Americans had been orbiting the moon.

Stamps from Cuba and Hungary celebrate Soyuz 4 & 5

The momentum of the US effort now appeared unstoppable with Apollo 9 fulfilling Apollo 8's original mission objectives in March, perfecting their own in-orbit docking manoeuvers and Apollo 10 carrying out a complete dry run of the moon landing all bar the landing part in May. Meanwhile the second planned Soviet lunar orbital mission Zond 8 was also cancelled. Zond 7 and Zond 8 would later be used as unmanned probes. On 3rd July a catastrophic failure of an N1 rocket test launch completely destroyed the N1 launch pad at Baikonur in a massive explosion and put paid to any chance the Soviets might have had of beating the US to the moon. It is believed to have been the largest man-made non-nuclear explosion of all time. The N1 was a mighty rocket and mighty complicated too. Its development had been dogged by problems. The first stage of the rocket had 30 separate engines whereas the US Saturn V had just 5. With so many engines all required to work at once, failures were almost inevitable. The Soviet lunar programme had literally gone up in smoke. Therefore it would be Neil Armstrong not Alexei Leonov who would finally set foot on the moon on July 20th 1969 and with one small step, it was game over.

This Apollo lander mock-up takes pride of place in the Science Museum - IMHO the LK3 would have looked cooler!

Space-race Timeline

October 4th 1957 The Soviet Union launches Sputnik
November 3rd 1957 Laika becomes the first dog in space
January 3rd 1958 First US satellite Explorer 1 launched
March 17th 1958 Vanguard 1 becomes 2nd successful US satellite
May 15th 1958 Sputnik 3 launched
July 29th 1958 US establishes NASA
October 11th 1958 NASA launches Pioneer 1
January 2nd 1959 Luna 1 launched
September 14th 1959 Luna 2 hits the moon
October 6th Luna 3 takes first picture of dark side of the moon
August 19th 1960 Sputnik 5 takes 2 dogs into orbit and successfully returns them to Earth
October 10th 1960 USSR launches first attempted Mars probe.
November 3rd 1960 US Pioneer 5 becomes first probe to send back data from interplanetary space.
January 31st 1961 Ham the chimpanzee becomes the first passenger on a US space mission and returns safely.
February 12th 1961 USSR launch Venera 1 - 1st attempted Venus probe
April 12th 1961 Yuri Gagarin becomes first man in space
May 5th 1961 Alan Shepard makes sub-orbital flight
May 12th 1961 JFK Commits US to putting a man on the moon 'before the decade is out.'
February 20th 1962 John Glenn becomes first American to orbit the Earth
April 23rd 1962 US probe Ranger 4 impacts the moon
April 5th 1963 Luna 4 misses the moon
July 16th 1963 Valentina Tereshkova becomes the first woman in space
October 12th 1964 Voshkod 1 makes the first multi-crew orbital mission
March 18th 1965 Alexei Leonov makes the first space walk
March 23rd 1965 Gemini 3 becomes the first US multi-crew mission
June 3rd 1965 Ed White emulates Leonov and carries out first US space walk on Gemini 5 mission
January 14th 1966 Death of Sergei Korolev
February 3rd 1966 Luna 9 achieves first soft landing on the moon
March 16th 1966 Gemini 8 carries out the first docking with an unmanned Agena target vehicle
January 27th 1967 Apollo 1 fire kills 3 astronauts and leads to suspension of US manned missions for 20 months
April 24th 1967 Vladimir Komorov is killed when the Soyuz 1 parachute fails to deploy on landing
September 18th 1968 Zond V takes the first lifeforms around the moon - two tortoises.
October 11th 1968 US returns to manned spaceflight with Apollo 7
October 25th 1968 USSR returns to manned spaceflight with Soyuz 2 & 3 attempted docking in orbit
November 10th 1968 Zond 6 simulates a crewed circumlunar mission but failures raise concerns
December 24th 1968 Apollo 8 orbits the moon
January 16th 1969 Soyuz 4 & 5 become the first manned spacecraft to dock in orbit and transfer crews between them
March 13th 1969 Apollo 9 performs docking operations required for US moon landing
May 26th 1969 Apollo 10 returns from a successful dry run of the moon landing mission
July 3rd 1969 - Soviet N1 rocket explosion destroys launch facility
July 20th 1969 Apollo 11 lands on the moon

Some great links

More space related posts on Slings and Arrows