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Ever since advances in astronomy bestowed Mars with the potential to harbor life or even an intelligent civilization, the planet has been the subject of public interest in Russia, as it has been in the most industrialized nations.

In the artificially optimistic atmosphere of the post-revolutionary Soviet Union, both, sci-fi writers and enthusiasts of space exploration chose Mars as a destination for human expeditions.

In Alexei Tolstoi's novel Aelita, made into a movie in 1924, Mars was the greatest extent to which Soviet-style revolution was brought.

Around that time, Friedrikh Tsander, the leading advocate of space exploration in the USSR, put forward the famous "Forward to Mars!" slogan.

However, it took several more decades for the idea of human travel to Mars to be seriously evaluated by the engineers of the infant Soviet space industry.

At the dawn of the Space Age, Sergei Korolev led OKB 1, the super secret Soviet organization, which pioneered ballistic missile development in the USSR, and today known to the world as RKK Energia.

While the organization had been originally created for the sole purpose of developing the weapons' delivery systems, Korolev had long been a proponent of space exploration.

Possessing legendary abilities to influence Soviet politicians and generals alike, Korolev managed to garner a great deal of independence in determining the scientific policies of his organization.

OKB 1 Mars mission studies in the 1960s

According to a recently published corporate history of RKK Energia, in 1959, a group of enthusiasts at OKB 1's Department 3 had already started developing a heavy piloted interplanetary spacecraft, or TMK. Korolev's giant N-1 rocket, slated for the ill-fated Soviet project to land a man on the moon, was originally conceived as a vehicle for the TMK spacecraft. At 75 tons (76,200 kilograms), 123 meters tall and 19.6 meters in diameter, the TMK would carry a crew of three on a two to three-year mission including a Mars flyby.

The spacecraft would feature an instrument module, which would double as a radiation shelter for the crew and artificial gravity, achieved by the rotation of the vehicle. The habitable sections of the craft had a diameter of 6 meters. (52)

The "explanatory note" to the Soviet government signed by Sergei Korolev and Mastislav Keldysh, the President of the Academy of Sciences and dated Feb. 16, 1959, called for the creation of heavy-lift rockets with the goal of launching manned interplanetary spacecraft among the objectives of space exploration. (84)

On April 12, 1960, Korolev sent to the Kremlin a draft of the decree outlining the future direction of the Soviet space program. Among numerous goals proposed in the document, Korolev listed the creation of the interplanetary spacecraft with a crew of two or three and capable of flying by and landing on the surface of Venus and Mars. Korolev estimated that the weight of the spacecraft during the approach to one of the planets would range from 10 to 30 tons, including 3-8 tons of payload. In case of a "flyby" expedition, unmanned probes, identified as N-II, would be dropped on the surface of the planet. According to Korolev, the manned expedition on the surface of the planet would include 3 or 4 spacecraft flying in formation. The crew, returning from the surface of the planet, was expected to dock with one of the backup ships, which would be then used for the flight back to Earth. (84)

In a following reincarnation of the document, dispatched to the government on May 30, 1960, Korolev identifies the spacecraft as "Object KMV" (Article KMV, where KMV stands for "Spacecraft Mars-Venus." The development of the spacecraft was projected for 1962 - 1965. (84)

Mars train

At the beginning of the 1960s, the OKB 1's internal studies of manned planetary exploration evolved further to include the landing of a piloted expedition on Mars. The spacecraft, carrying crew of six and powered by electrical jet engines and a nuclear power generator, would be assembled in Earth orbit out of elements launched by individual rockets.

The design of the Mars landing complex in the project would rival the wildest imagination of science fiction writers. It would deliver to the Martian surface a "train" of five movable platforms. (52)

One platform would carry the crew cabin with a manipulator and a device for drilling soil. The second platform would be a launch pad for an aircraft capable of flying in the Martian atmosphere. Two more platforms would carry main and backup return rockets, which would allow the crew to take off from Mars.

Finally, the fifth platform would be equipped with a nuclear-powered generator, which would supply the expedition with energy. The "train" would travel across the Martian terrain for a year, collecting samples and relaying data to the base craft orbiting the Red Planet.

At the end of the mission, the crew would take off from the surface to rendezvous with the orbiting base ship for the return journey home.

During the following decade, however, the Soviet rocket industry concentrated its efforts mostly on matching NASA's Apollo program and toward the mass deployment of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Forget the Moon -- Let's go to Mars

RKK Energia, (then called TsKBM) returned to the Mars mission idea at the end of the 1960's. After losing the moon race, the Soviet space industry was looking for a new direction, which would provide a long-term, ambitious goal for the program. Large space stations, permanent lunar settlements and ultimately Mars missions were on the drawing board.

RKK Energia hoped to use its yet-to-be-tested N-1M launcher to assemble the nuclear-powered spacecraft in Earth orbit. The spacecraft would propel itself with innovative electric-reactive engines powered by a nuclear generator.

Plans for a Martian expedition were among the subjects discussed by a large group of the Soviet space officials on July 3, 1969. The meeting took place in the former office of Sergei Korolev in Podlipki (now the town of Korolev) and was primarily dedicated to the problems with the development of the N-1 launcher. However, at the request from Mastislav Keldysh, the President of the Academy of Sciences, Vasiliy Mishin, Designer General of TsKBM made a presentation about his organization's plans for a Martian expedition.

According to Boris Chertok, Mishin's deputy who participated at the meeting, the participants of the meeting had little enthusiasm for the plan. (78) Despite Mishin's assurances that the work on the Martian plan did not affect the current work of the bureau on the N-1, the government officials were too preoccupied with the troubled lunar program to look far beyond it.

Martian plans in 1980s

The N-1M launcher, on which Mishin's plan was based, was not destined to fly after its predecessor, the giant N1, was scrapped in the mid-1970s following four launch failures.

However, not unlike the legendary phoenix, by 1987 the Soviet Union again had a "new and improved" super-rocket on the launch pad, which could make a piloted mission to Mars possible.

The Energia heavy-lift vehicle was capable of delivering more than 100 tons (101,600 kilograms) of cargo into low Earth orbit, and many observers in the West agreed that it could be a perfect booster for the Mars mission hardware.

In 1986, RKK Energia updated its late 1960s plans, applying the already extensive experience gained in long-duration flights on the Salyut space stations. A dual-reactor unit on the Mars spacecraft would provide additional safety margins.

By 1989, RKK Energia's Mars ambitions evolved into a three-stage plan, which would include a gradual buildup of the hardware and experience necessary for the landing on Mars.

In the first step, a scaled-down and unmanned version of the Martian expedition complex would be assembled on the Mir space station and launched toward Mars.

A dress rehearsal of the Mars expedition would follow, delivering a landing vehicle minus the crew to the surface of the Red Planet, as well as a platform with several rovers.

Only then would a piloted expedition be sent to the fourth planet. A 350-ton spacecraft would spend two years for the expedition to Mars. The nuclear sources of power onboard the Martian expeditionary complex considered in the 1960s, were now replaced with deployable thin-film solar arrays. (52)

Chelomei's plans

At the end of the 1960s, plans for a Martian expedition were also drafted at the TsKBM design bureau led by Vladimir Chelomei. (112) Chelomei proposed its own hardware for the task, including the giant UR-700M launch vehicle and the MK-700 manned spacecraft.

On June 30, 1969, the Minister of General Machine Building, MOM, Afanasiev issued a decree (#232) calling for Chelomei to conduct within one year a preliminary design of a Martian expedition based on UR-700M or UR-900 launch vehicle and the MK-700 spacecraft within one year. (78) The project, however, did not go beyond preliminary design stage.

In addition, Khrunichev enterprise, long associated with Chelomei, also worked on the plans for Martian expedition led by Aleksandrov. The Salyut design bureau, a development arm at Khrunichev, inherited this work and "kept them alive" well into the 21st century.

Struggling but undefeated

Russian Mars plans experienced a hard landing with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. As the old Soviet economy collapsed in the 1990s, so did the government financing of all but a few of the most immediate space projects.

The best hope for Russian engineers dreaming of Mars exploration now lay on the opposite of the Atlantic.

In 1994, while US-Russian space cooperation enjoyed its honeymoon, RKK Energia management informed NASA about its Mars-exploration projects. The Russian proposals reportedly generated a great deal of interest in the US but, the relationship between two partners has soured since then.

Undeterred by politics and the dire financial situation in the Russian space industry, experts from both countries have maintained low-profile contacts.

According to the magazine Novosti Kosmonavtiki, Russian and US technological approaches toward a Mars expedition were the subject of a September 1998 meeting in Moscow. The US Planetary Society, the Russian Institute for Space Research and RKK Energia organized the event. Ironically, it was a victim of bad timing -- held in the wake of the currency crash in Russia.

Today, with US-Russian cooperation in space is at its lowest, and most artist renderings of future astronauts on Mars show them unfurling a US flag, Russian enthusiasts of human Mars exploration can only hope that their ideas and dreams will see better days.

Writing and photography by Anatoly Zak; Last update: March 3, 2010


A scale model of the needle-like Aelita spacecraft (right) next to the manned Mars lander (see photo below) and the concept of the Mavr spacecraft for the Martian expedition developed at the end of the 1960s. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak

A scale model of a manned Mars lander. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak

Concept models of the MK-700 Martian expedition spacecraft developed at Vladmir Chelomei's TsKBM. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak

Scale models of the manned planetary landers considered at Chelomei's design bureau. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak

A nuclear power unit developed at NPO Energia. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak

A mockup of a nuclear-powered vehicle at the TsNIIMash research institute. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak

The TsNIIMash concept of the spacecraft for interplanetary travel. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak