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The Soviet manned lunar programs were a series of programs pursued by the Soviet Union to land a man on the Moon in competition with the United States Apollo program to achieve the same goal set publicly by President John F. Kennedy on May 25, 1961. The Soviet government publicly denied participating in such a competition, but secretly pursued two programs in the 1960s: manned lunar flyby missions using Soyuz 7K-L1 (Zond) spacecraft launched with the UR-500K (Proton) rocket, and a manned lunar landing using Soyuz 7K-L3 and LK Lander spacecraft launched with the N1 rocket. Following the dual American successes of the first manned lunar orbit on December 24–25, 1968 (Apollo 8) and the first Moon landing on July 20, 1969 (Apollo 11), and a series of catastrophic N1 failures, both Soviet programs were eventually brought to an end: the Proton / Zond program was canceled in 1970, and the N1 / L3 program was terminated de facto in 1974 and officially canceled in 1976. Details of both Soviet programs were kept secret until 1990, when the government allowed them to be published under the policy of glasnost.
Although the Soviet leadership had made public pronouncements about landing a man on the Moon and establishing a lunar base as early as 1961, serious plans were not made until several years later. Sergei Korolyov, the senior Soviet rocket engineer, was more interested in launching a heavy orbital station and in manned flights to Mars and Venus. With this in mind Korolyov began the development of the super-heavy N-1 rocket with a 75 ton payload.
In its preliminary Moon plans, Korolyov's design bureau initially promoted the Soyuz A-B-C circumlunar complex concept under which a two-man spacecraft would rendezvous with other components in Earth orbit to assemble a lunar flyby excursion vehicle. The components would then be delivered by the proven middle R-7 rocket. After developing the N1, beginning in 1963, Korolyov began to plan a Moon landing mission using two launches and docking. Later Korolyov managed to increase the payload of the N1 to 92-93 tons (by switching to liquid hydrogen in the upper stage(s) and increasing the number of engines in its first stage from 24 to 30), providing enough power to accomplish the mission with a single launch.
Another main space design bureau headed by Vladimir Chelomei proposed a competing cislunar orbiting mission using a heavy UR-500K rocket (later renamed the Proton rocket) and a two-man LK-1 spacecraft. Later, Chelomei also proposed a Moon landing program with a super-heavy UR-700 rocket and a LK-700(LK-3) spacecraft.
The Soviet government issued a response to the American Apollo challenge after three years. According to the first government decree about the Soviet Manned moon programs (' On Work on the Exploration of the Moon and Mastery of Space '), adopted in August 1964, Chelomei was instructed to develop a Moon flyby program with a projected first flight by the end of 1966, and Korolyov was instructed to develop the Moon landing program with a first flight by the end of 1967.
Following the change from Nikita Khrushchev to Leonid Brezhnev in 1964, the Soviet government in September 1965 assigned the flyby program to Korolyov, who redesigned the cislunar mission to use his own L1 (Zond) spacecraft and Chelomei's Proton rocket.
Korolyov organized full scale development of both programs, but died after surgery in 1966. According to a government decree of February 1967, the first manned flyby was scheduled for mid-1967, and the first manned landing for the end of 1968. Korolyov's death, along with various technical and administrative reasons, as well as a lack of financial support, resulted in both programs being delayed.
As of 1967, the L1/L3 launch schedules were:
- 2P: Develop Block D stage (February or March 1967)
- 3P: Develop Block D stage (March 1967)
- 4L: Unmanned lunar flyby (May 1967)
- 5L: Unmanned lunar flyby (June 1967)
- 6L: Manned lunar flyby (June or July 1967)
- 7L: Manned lunar flybys (August 1967)
- 8L: Manned lunar flybys (August 1967)
- 9L: Manned lunar flybys (September 1967)
- 10L: Manned lunar flybys (September 1967)
- 11L: Manned lunar flybys (October 1967)
- 12L: Manned lunar flybys (October 1967)
- 13L: Reserve spacecraft
- 3L: Develop LV & Blocks G&D (September 1967)
- 4L: Reserve
- 5L: LOK/LK unmanned (December 1967)
- 6L: LOK/LK unmanned (February 1968)
- 7L: Manned LOK/unmanned LK (April 1968)
- 8L: Manned LOK/unmanned LK (June 1968)
- 9L: Piloted LOK/unmanned LK with LK landing on Moon (August 1968)
- 10L: First men land on moon (September 1968)
- 11L: Reserve
- 12L: Reserve
In 1966, two cosmonaut training groups were formed. One group was commanded by Vladimir Komarov and included Yuri Gagarin, and was to prepare for qualification flights of the Soyuz in Earth orbit and a Proton-launched cis-lunar mission (Gagarin, Nikolayev, Komarov, Bykovskiy, Khrunov; Engineer-Cosmonauts: Gorbatko, Grechko, Sevastyanov, Kubasov, Volkov). Komarov later died in the Soyuz 1 spaceflight when his parachute malfunctioned causing his capsule to smash into the earth at high speed. The second group was led by Alexei Leonov and concentrated on the landing mission (Commanders: Leonov, Popovich, Belyayev, Volynov, Klimuk; Engineer-cosmonauts: Makarov, Voronov, Rukavishnikov, Artyukhin). As a result, Leonov has the strongest claim to have been the Soviets' first choice for first man on the moon.
After Komarov's death in Soyuz 1 in 1967, Gagarin was taken out of training and the groups were restructured. Despite the Soyuz 1 setback, the Soviets successfully rehearsed the automated docking of two unmanned Soyuz craft in Earth orbit in 1968 and with the manned Soyuz 4 and Soyuz 5 joint mission in early 1969 tested the other key mission elements.
A total of 18 missions were related to the N1-L3 project. For details, see the table at the bottom of the article.
Moon flyby UR-500K(Proton)/L1(Zond) program
Launched by a 3-staged Proton rocket, the L1(Zond) was a spacecraft from the Soyuz family and consisted of two or three modified modules of the main craft Soyuz 7K-OK with a total weight of 5.5 tons. The Apollo orbital spacecraft (command ship) for the lunar flyby also had two modules (command and service) but was five times heavier, carried a crew of three and entered lunar orbit, whereas the L1 (Zond) performed a flight around the Moon and came back on a return trajectory. Planned for 8 December 1968 for priority over the US, a first manned mission of the L1 (Zond) was cancelled due to insufficient readiness of the capsule and rocket. After Apollo 8 won the first (lunar flyby) phase of the Moon Race at the end of 1968, the Soviet leadership lost political interest in the L1 (Zond) program. A few reserve units of L1 (Zond) made unpiloted flights, but by the end of 1970 this program was cancelled.
Moon landing N1/L3 program
The final plan for a manned landing adopted the same method of single launch and lunar orbit rendezvous as the Apollo project, but had differences in some details and technical data. Despite the fact that the planned Soviet Moon expedition was carried at a single launch like Apollo, for mission safety, some two to three weeks before at least the first manned missions, an LK-R in unmanned L3 complex and two Lunokhod automated moon rovers would be sent to the Moon. They worked as radio beacons for manned LK, with the LK-R being used as a reserve "escape" craft to return from the Moon, and the Lunokhods were additionally equipped with manual controls for the cosmonauts for transfer to LK-R in necessity and for regular researches both.
A variant of the Soyuz craft, the "Lunniy Orbitalny Korabl" (LOK) command ship, carried two men, and consisted of three modules like the regular Soyuz 7K-OK, but was heavier by a few tons. The 7K-OK was half the mass of the three-man Apollo orbital craft (command ship). The "Lunniy Korabl" (LK) carried one cosmonaut, so in the Soviet expedition one cosmonaut alone would land on Moon, while in Apollo two would. The mass of the LK was 40% the mass the Apollo lunar lander.
The total mass of the L3 complex placed in LEO by the N1 was 93 tons compared to Saturn V's 137 tons. The total mass of the LOK and LK was 40% of the full Apollo complex, but was equivalent to the L3 complex without Block G. The booster for the LEO toward the Moon for the Apollo vehicle was provided by the last stage of the Saturn V, while for the Block D, LOK and LK, this was to be provided by Block G of the same L3 complex.
During the L3 complex's journey to the Moon, there was no need to undock and redock the orbital and landing craft as in Apollo, because the cosmonaut would transfer from the LOK to LK by a "spacewalk", while in Apollo this operation was executed by an internal passage.
Block D slowed the LOK and LK into lunar orbit, while in the Apollo complex this phase was undertaken by firing the engine on the service module (the Apollo complex traveled with the Command Module and Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) facing back towards the Earth) to slow the complex and enter lunar orbit.
Once in orbit, the LK with Block D would separate from the LOK and descend toward the surface of Moon using the Block D engine. After Block D exhausted its fuel, the LK was to separate and complete landing using its own engine.
On the Moon, the cosmonaut would undertake moonwalks on foot and by Lunokhods, collect rocks, and plant the Soviet flag.
After a few hours on the lunar surface, the LK's engine would fire again using its landing structure as a launch pad, as with Apollo. To save weight, the engine used for landing would also blast the LK back to lunar orbit for an automated docking with the LOK. The cosmonaut then would spacewalk back to the LOK carrying the Moon rock samples, with the LK being cast off. After this, the LOK would fire its rocket for the return to Earth.
After the US won the final (Moon-landing) phase and the whole of the Moon Race in 1969, the justification for the Soviet lunar landing program evaporated, although development and testing continued into the early 1970s. In 1970–1971 the LK was completely ready after three unmanned test flights on LEO (Kosmos 379, Kosmos 398, Kosmos 434), and the LOK was launched once (Kosmos 382 aka 7K-L1E dummy of 7K-LOK). The Krechet lunar spacesuit and other support systems were tested.
Four N1 test launches were attempted in 1969, 1971, and 1972 and all were failures, despite engineering improvements after each crash. The second launch attempt on 3 July 1969, just 13 days prior to the launch of Apollo 11, was a catastrophic failure which destroyed both the rocket and the launch complex, and this delayed the N1-L3 program for two years more. For automatic Moon flyby, at these two first launches the N1 carried the 7K-L1S spacecraft (modified 7K-L1), while dummy 7K-LOK (7K-L1E) and regular 7K-LOK with dummy LKs at both were at third and fourth launches.
Subsequently, the complete L3 lunar expedition complex with regular 7K-LOK and regular LK for Moon flyby and landing by full unmanned mission of future manned scenario was prepared for fifth launch of modified N1 rocket on August, 1974. If this and one subsequent mission had been successful, up to five Soviet manned N1-L3 expeditions would have been launched in 1976–1980.
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Also, to gain technical and scientific interest in the program, the modified multi-launched N1F-L3M missions with significantly more time spent on the Moon's surface than with Apollo.
But N1-L3 (as well as N1F-L3M) program was cancelled on May, 1974, and Soviet manned space efforts subsequently concentrated on the development of space stations and on several design and ground preparatory processes for a Mars mission, which continues to the present day, but has unclear objectives.
Laterly proposed moonbase Zvezda, first detailed such project with developed mockups of expedition vehicles and surface modules, and "Vulkan-LEK" project were not adopted for economic reasons. As some recompense and as a replacement for the manned landing program, the Soviets fulfilled a program of automated delivery of lunar soil and Lunokhods automated moon rovers.
The launch pad and MIK of N1 was redesigned for the Energia-Buran shuttle program. At least five LKs and three LOKs in various states of construction remain with some units being kept in the designer's and producer's company museums. Near 150 engines produced for first stages of N1F were kept by manufacturer (Kuznetsov Design Bureau) and sold for use on US launchers around the year 2000.
LK Lander - Lunniy Korabl ascent from Moon
- Apollo program
- Moon exploration
- First on the Moon - a Russian mockumentary
- Soviet space program conspiracy accusations
- The Soviet Manned Lunar Programme
- THE SOVIET MANNED LUNAR PROGRAM
- Why did the Soviet Union lose the Moon Race?
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