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L1

7K-L1


L3M


l3m





3P


L1


L1


zond4


7L


8L


zond5

L1 No. 9 (Zond-5)


Zond-6

L1 No. 12L (Zond-6)


L1

L1 No. 13L



Zond-7


Zond-8


6l

N1 No. 6L


7l

N1 No. 7L


LKM


D2


Sr





8L

N1 No. 8L


cancellatioj


Soviet lunar program

Practically immediately after the Soviet Union sent the first cosmonaut into orbit, the Moon became the destination for human space flight. In May 1961, President Kennedy proclaimed the lunar landing on the surface of the Moon before 1970, as the main goal for NASA. However, the Soviet government was slow to respond to the US challenge.

Previous chapter: Early piloted spacecraft


poster

In 1962, four departments within Sergei Korolev's OKB-1 design bureau began studies of possible scenarios of lunar expeditions. Among multiple concepts, engineers investigated possible lunar flyby missions, which would require less rocket power than actual landing expeditions. Two such scenarios were under consideration. The first plan involved a pair of launch vehicles based on the R-7 rocket and carrying the 7K (Soyuz) spacecraft and the separate Earth-orbit escape stage propelled by liquid hydrogen.

The second option also involved two launches of R-7-based rockets: one carrying a modified Vostok spacecraft along with an additional fuel tank and the second rocket was delivering a liquid oxygen tank along with an engine derived from Block L on the Molniya rocket. In parallel, Vladimir Chelomei's OKB-52 design bureau started its own work on the circumlunar mission, which had an advantage over Korolev's plans thanks to its reliance on a more powerful UR-500 rocket, which could accomplish the task in a single launch. (52)

At the end of 1962, OKB-1 was reviewing various scenarios of lunar and martian expeditions, which could take advantage of the prospective N1 rocket with the expected payload of 75 tons to the low Earth's orbit. Four architectures were chosen out of 26 possible schemes to put cosmonauts on the lunar surface. The favored scenario required three N1 rockets launching the 19K lunar expeditionary system and a pair of 21K tankers for in-orbit fueling of the 19K ship. The crew would be delivered later on the vehicle derived from the 7K spacecraft. The expedition would use a direct descent to the lunar surface, skipping complex and dangerous rendezvous in the lunar orbit.

By 1963, OKB-1 formulated the whole array of lunar exploration projects. The L1 circumlunar mission concept was at the root of the 7K (Soyuz) spacecraft development, which would be a part of the three-component mission, all of which would be launched by boosters derived from the R-7 ballistic missile. The same strategy also proposed the L2 unmanned lunar rover, the L3 complex for an expedition to the Moon and the L4 lunar orbital station and the L5 crew-carrying lunar rover. For the time being, the L3 lunar landing project became the focus for OKB-1 during most of 1964.

It took more than three years after Kennedy's speech in 1961 for the cash-strapped Soviet government to commit needed resources for the manned expedition on the surface of the Moon. "Do not leave the Moon to the Americans," Nikita Khrushchev reportedly told leaders of the Soviet rocket industry, "...Anything you need in order to do it, will be provided." On Aug. 3, 1964, the Soviet government finally gave full go ahead to the lunar landing effort with Decree No. 655-268. What became a secondary task of a lunar flyby was delegated to Vladimir Chelomei's own spacecraft launched by the newly developed UR-500 rocket. At the same time, Korolev had to focus on a much more difficult but prestigious task of beating Americans to the Moon with his L3 lunar landing system.

However, the development of a heavy-lifting launcher, needed for the lunar expedition, was plagued with political and technical problems. Powerful captains of the Soviet rocket industry fought for the leadership and influence in the program, stretching the project's already limited resources, while the Soviet military, which financed rocket development, had always remained skeptical about the prospects of giant space launchers, be it Korolev's N1, Chelomei's UR-700 or Mikhail Yangel's R-56.

At the end of 1964, Korolev also approved the idea to dock a pair of the 7K spacecraft in the Earth's orbit as a rehearsal of future operations during lunar expeditions. The Soyuz variant proposed for this purpose was designated 7K-OK, where the "7K" designation was inherited from the original manned vehicle in the lunar fly-by project, while "OK" stood for "okolozemny korabl" or "near-Earth-orbital spacecraft."

The fall of Khrushchev in October 1964, further delayed the program, which continued suffering from the lack of funds and resources. Nevertheless, on Oct. 25, 1965, a government decree formally approved the development of the 7K-OK Earth-orbiting spacecraft, in parallel with the work on the 7K-L1 variant, which aimed to fly behind the Moon before the Apollo.

In January 1966, the Soviet lunar program received another blow with the death of Sergei Korolev, but after many delays, the first unpiloted Soyuz 7K-OK spacecraft was finally launched in November 1966. At the time, the USSR was still well in the Moon Race and the planned lunar landing was still remote enough for TsKBEM to draft a super-ambitious three-phase strategy for lunar exploration. (INSIDER CONTENT)

On Feb. 4, 1967, the Soviet government issued another decree, which proclaimed the flight around the Moon and the piloted landing on its surface to be a task of "state importance." The document set the goal of flying a circumlunar mission between June and October 1967. The flight testing of the 7K-L1 system began in March 1967, with the largely successful launch of the UR-500K rocket variant delivering the 7K-L1 No. 2P unmanned spacecraft prototype.

In the meantime, various technical problems, delayed the first launch of the N1 rocket until February 1969 and it ended in failure. It was a heavy blow to the Soviet space program, already hopelessly behind the US in the Moon Race. While engineers at Sergei Korolev's TsKBEM design bureau were picking up pieces, their Kremlin bosses watched the US to add to its triumphant flight of Apollo-8 around the Moon in the previous December yet another successful test of the Saturn-5 rocket during the Apollo-9 mission in March 1969. Two months later, the piloted lunar module of the Apollo-10 mission hovered just a few miles from the lunar surface, setting the stage for the actual landing in the Summer 1969. Not surprisingly, new calls for changing the course came to the Kremlin.

Like in Khrushchev's reign at the turn of the 1960s, Vladimir Chelomei, the head of the rival TsKBM design bureau, reemerged on the scene with an "alternative" launcher to the troubled N1. Obviously, this time, there was no point in talking about beating Americans to the Moon, but instead, the Soviet response would be a piloted mission to Mars! To this end, Chelomei proposed to upgrade his mighty but non-existing UR-700 rocket into an even bigger UR-900. (685)

But at the time, neither technical failures nor political pressure at home and abroad could deter Soviet engineers from pressing on with the N1 project. In 1969, they had no illusions about winning the Moon Race, but the N1-L3 project still remained the centerpiece of the Soviet space program.

On July 3, 1969, the second attempt to launch the N1 rocket ended in a much bigger catastrophe than the first, seriously damaging the only available launch pad, while also revealing serious technical flaws in the design of the booster. Two years of corrective measures brought little results, as the third launch also failed in 1971. The last attempt to fly N1 was made on Nov. 23, 1972, when the rocket failed 107 seconds into the flight, around seven seconds before the separation of the first stage.

In the meantime, the TsKBEM design bureau initiated design work (INSIDER CONTENT) on an upgraded expeditionary complex, known as N1-L3M, which was intended to "outshine" the Apollo expeditions with larger crews and longer stays on the surface of the Moon. In the second half of 1969, the L3M design team ruled out the use of the radically redesigned N1M rocket and focused on the two-launch scenario based on moderate upgrades of the N1 rocket. (INSIDER CONTENT) It eventually involved the development of new upper stages for the N1 – Block S/Sr (INSIDER CONTENT), Block D2 (INSIDER CONTENT) — and the whole new lunar lander, LKM, (INSIDER CONTENT) for the crew of two or three.

However, both L3 and L3M projects were cancelled in 1974, after the program's leader Vasily Mishin was ousted as the head of the TsKBEM industrial conglomerate responsible for the project. Despite many appeals, an almost ready N1 rocket (Vehicle No. 8L) (INSIDER CONTENT), which was scheduled for launch before the end of 1974, was scrapped along with hardware for several other N1 rockets.

Mishin's successor, Valentin Glushko, had its own ambitious plans for lunar exploration, but under political pressure, he had to re-direct most of the effort of the industry toward the development of the Soviet copy of the US Space Shuttle.

The post-Soviet Russian industry renewed planning for lunar expeditions in the mid-2000s, as the economic conditions in the country had slowly improved. The Kremlin then came close to endorsing the Moon (INSIDER CONTENT) as the objective of the Russian space program, but in 2014, essentially undercut its own ambitions in space with the neo-imperialist expansion back on Earth, first with the annexation of Crimea and then finishing off last hopes for the space program (INSIDER CONTENT) with the full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022.


 

Piloted lunar exploration projects in the 20th century:

Official name
Country
Mission
Horizon
USA (Department of Defense)
Lunar
base
Apollo
USA (NASA)
Lunar
landing
7K, 9K, 11K
USSR (OKB-1)
Lunar
flyby
13K
USSR (OKB-1)-
Lander with the L2 rover launched by 9K/11K system
as an alternative to 7K payload
L1
USSR (OKB-1)
Lunar
flyby
L2
USSR (OKB-1)
Robotic lunar
surface rover
L3
USSR (OKB-1)
Spacecraft
for lunar expedition
L4
USSR (OKB-1)
Lunar orbital station
with a crew of 2 or 3
L5
USSR (OKB-1)
Piloted lunar surface rover
for initial lunar base operations
UR-500LK
USSR (OKB-52)
Lunar
flyby
UR-500K-L1
USSR (OKB-52/OKB-1)
Lunar
flyby
N1-L3
USSR (OKB-1)
Lunar
landing
L3M (INSIDER CONTENT)
USSR (OKB-1/TsKBEM)
Lunar
landing
LK-700
USSR (OKB-52/TsKBM)
Lunar
landing
DLB/Galaktika-Kolumb
USSR (KBOM)
Lunar
base
Zvezda
USSR (TsKBEM/NPO Energia)
Lunar
base

 

Soviet deep-space spacecraft (proposed and developed):

Official name
Mission
Status
7K (Soyuz, LOK)
Manned vehicle for lunar flyby,
circumlunar mission
Developed as part of N1-L3 and 7K-OK projects

9K/9KM/9KV

Space tug for circumlunar mission
launched by R-7-based rockets
Not built
11K
Space tanker for
the 9K spacecraft
Not built
13K
Lunar lander for the L2 rover
launched with 9K/11K booster tanker
Evolved into a Luna lander
19K
Heavy space tug
based on the N1 rocket
Not built
21K
Heavy tanker
based on the N1 rocket
Not built
TMK-1/2 (M/V)
Crew vehicle for Mars and Venus flyby
based on liquid propulsion
Not built
TMKE (M/V)
Crew vehicle for Mars and Venus flyby
based on electric propulsion
Not built
SMTK (M1/M2)
Assembled spacecraft
for Mars mission
Not built

 

Soviet missions preparing expedition to the Moon:

 
Official name
Industry name
Launch date
Landing date
Launcher
Crew
Mission summary
1
7K-OK No. 2
Nov. 28, 1966
Nov. 30, 1966
-
Destroyed on reentry
2
Dec. 14, 1966
-
-
Destroyed on Pad 31 due to an accidental ignition of the emergency escape system, resulting in three fatalities.
3
7K-OK No. 3
Feb. 7, 1967
Feb. 9, 1967
-
Lost pressure and sunk in the Aral Sea during botched landing
4
7K-L1 No. 2P
March 10, 1967
-
-
Tested systems of the Block D upper stage
5
7K-L1 No. 3P
April 8, 1967
-
-
A second firing of the Block D failed in orbit
6
7K-OK No. 4
April 23, 1967
April 24, 1967
Vladimir Komarov
Planned for docking with a second Soyuz. Developed problems in orbit. Crashed on landing killing Komarov
7
7K-L1 No. 4
Sept. 28, 1967
-
-
Proton's 1st stage failed; escape system saved the reentry craft
8
7K-OK No. 6
-
Docked with Kosmos-188. Made ballistic return
9
7K-OK No. 5
-
Docked with Kosmos-186. Self-destructs on landing
10
7K-L1 No. 5
Nov. 22, 1967
-
-
Proton's 2nd stage failed. The escape system saved a reentry craft
11
7K-L1 No. 6
March 2, 1968
-
-
The descent module self-destructed during reentry
12
7K-OK No. 8
April 14, 1968
April 19, 1968
-
Docked with Kosmos-213
13
7K-OK No. 7
April 15, 1968
April 20, 1968
-
Docked with Kosmos-212
14
7K-L1 No. 7
April 23, 1968
-
-
Escape system self-initiated during launch
15
7K-L1 No. 8
July 14, 1968
-
-
An on-pad explosion of the upper stage killed one person; craft damaged
16
7K-OK No. 9
Aug. 28, 1968
Sept. 1
-
Test flight
17
7K-L1 No. 9
Sept. 15, 1968
Sept. 21, 1968
-
Flew around the Moon; splashed down in the Indian Ocean
18
7K-OK No. 11
-
Rendezvous with Soyuz-3
19
7K-OK No. 10
Attempted to dock with Soyuz-2 but failed due to wrong orientation
20
7K-L1 No. 12
Nov. 10, 1968
Nov. 17, 1968
-
Flew around the Moon; reentry craft depressurized during landing and crashed
21
7K-OK No. 12
Vladimir Shatalov
Docked with Soyuz-5
22
7K-OK No. 13
Boris Volynov Yevgeny Khrunov Aleksei Yeliseev
Docked with Soyuz-4; Khrunov and Yeliseyev transferred to and landed onboard the Soyuz-4
23
7K-L1 No. 13
Jan. 20, 1969
-
-
Proton's 2nd stage failed; the escape system saved a reentry craft
24
7K-L1A (7K-L1S)
Feb. 21, 1969
-
-
The N1-L3 launch (No. 3L) failed at T+68.7 seconds
25
7K-L1A (7K-L1S)
July 3, 1969
-
-
N1-L3 launch (No. 5L) failed at launch
26
7K-L1 No. 11
Aug. 8, 1969
Aug. 14, 1969
-
Flew around the Moon
27
7K-OK No. 14
Georgy Shonin, Viktor Kubasov
-
28
7K-OK No. 15
Anatoly Filipchenko
Viktor Gorbatko Vladislav Volkov
Planned to dock with the Soyuz-8
29
7K-OK No. 16
Vladimir Shatalov
Aleksei Yeliseev
Failed to dock with Soyuz-7 due to Igla rendezvous system failure
30
Unannounced
7K-L1E No. 1
Nov 28, 1969
-
-
Test of the Block D upper stage version for the N1 launcher; Proton failed during launch
31
7K-OK No. 17
June 1, 1970
June 19, 1970
Andriyan Nikolaev
Vitaly Sevastyanov
Set flight-duration record
32
7K-L1 No. 14
Oct. 20, 1970
Oct. 27, 1970
-
Flew around the Moon; landed in the Indian Ocean
33
Kosmos-379
T2K
Nov. 24, 1970
-
-
A lunar lander test in the Earth orbit
34
Kosmos-382
7K-L1E No. 2
Dec. 2, 1970
-
-
A flight test of the Block D upper stage version developed for the N-1 launcher; fired seven times in orbit. Experimental L1-based payload carried the Rosa-L life-support system.
35
Kosmos-398
T2K
Feb. 26, 1971
-
-
A lunar lander test in the Earth orbit
36
N1-L3
June 27, 1971
-
-
The N1-L3 launch (No. 6L) failed at T+50.1 seconds
37
Kosmos-434
T2K
Aug. 12, 1971
-
-
A lunar lander test in the Earth orbit
38
7K-LOK
Nov. 23, 1972
-
-
The N1-L3 launch (No. 7L) failed at T+107 seconds

 

Next chapter: First space stations (Salyut era)

 

Compiled by Anatoly Zak

Last update: June 18, 2024

All rights reserved

insider content

 

Scale model of the launch complex for the Proton rocket with the L1 spacecraft in Baikonur. Copyright © 2002 Anatoly Zak


The Proton rocket with the 7K-L1 spacecraft for the circumlunar mission is poised for launch in Baikonur on Nov. 22, 1967.


BOZ

Block D fires its SOZ thrusters before igniting its main engine. Copyright © 2017 Anatoly Zak


Scale model of the UR-700 launcher, which Vladimir Chelomei proposed as an alternative to Korolev's N1 rocket. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak


soyuz4

Soyuz-4 photographed from Soyuz-5 during undocking on Jan. 16, 1969.


L1A

A custom-built section of the L1A spacecraft used as a payload during launches of N1 rocket No. 3L and 5L in 1969. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak


The N1-L3 complex during its assembly at Site 112 in Tyuratam.


The N1 moon rocket leaves the assembly building at Site 112 in Baikonur.


pad

An N1 rocket on the pad, probably before its third launch in 1971. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos


ignition

The fourth and last N1 rocket lifts off on Nov. 23, 1972.


d2

The D2 space tug developed for the upgraded L3M lunar expeditionary complex between 1970 and 1973. (INSIDER CONTENT) Copyright © 2023 Anatoly Zak