A Cosmonaut on the Moon: Korolev’s N-1/L3 plan

The monumental LK-3 lunar lander (engineering model, 1969) in the Cosmonauts exhibition ©Science Museum
The monumental LK-3 lunar lander (engineering model, 1969) in the Cosmonauts exhibition ©Science Museum

On May 25th 1961 President John F. Kennedy took to the floor of Congress and announced that the United States would land a man on the Moon and return him safely before the decade was out. As he spoke, NASA’s total manned spaceflight experience amounted to Alan Shepard’s 15 minute sub-orbital flight in Freedom 7. The President, in consultation with his advisors, had determined that this goal gave the United States its best chance of catching and surpassing Soviet space capabilities.

In 1961 this seemed like quite a gamble with the Soviet Union announcing a succession of space firsts, but as the history books show Kennedy’s goal was met and America put a man on the Moon before both the end of the decade and the Soviets. But how much of a race was it? For decades the Soviet Union officially denied that it had ever engaged in a manned lunar programme. In the West, only those with access to classified satellite photography knew this wasn’t the case but it was only following the collapse of the Soviet Union that the true story would emerge.

The Soviet Union had indeed intended to land Cosmonauts on the Moon, but whereas NASA spent a decade working steadily towards the triumphs of Apollo, the Soviet situation was very different.

This is the story of the Soviet response to Apollo: the N-1/L3.


The Soviet Situation
It’s easy to imagine Kennedy’s Congressional address as the starting gun for a decade-long race to the Moon between the superpowers. While this may have been true for the United States with the nascent Apollo and Saturn projects gaining fresh impetus, Kennedy’s words had little immediate impact in the Soviet Union. In fact it wasn’t until June 1964, over three years after that historic address, that an official decree from the Central Committee of the Communist Party finally committed the Soviet Union to landing a Cosmonaut on the Moon.

This delayed response doesn’t indicate a lack of interest in the Moon prior to this date, but it does point to the disorganisation and lack of clear direction endemic to the Soviet programme at the time. While the West looked on enviously at the early Soviet successes, imagining them to be the initial forays of a well planned assault on the Cosmos, the reality was far less clear.

Sergei Korolev, Soviet space pioneer and Chief Designer, OKB-1 [IMG: Wikipedia CC License]
Sergei Korolev, Soviet space pioneer and Chief Designer, OKB-1 [IMG: Wikipedia CC License]
For Sergei Korolev, Chief Designer of OKB-1, the journey to this 1964 decision was every bit as tortuous as any cosmic voyage his handiwork might make. Korolev and his design bureau were the driving force behind the early Soviet successes of Sputnik, Luna and Vostok as well as the booster that made these triumphs possible, the R-7 – an ICBM of dubious utility but an excellent launch vehicle. By the late 1950s Korolev was looking ahead and planning the N-1, a new booster to carry larger payloads and ultimately the planetary missions he dreamed of.

After working tirelessly to force through various Central Committee decrees which helped to shape Soviet space exploration, Korolev finally received approval for full-scale development on the N-1 and it’s associated component projects in September 1962, a timely decision given that the previous January NASA had approved plans for the Saturn C5 booster (eventually to become the Saturn V). However, unlike the American booster which was clearly designed to support a lunar landing, Korolev’s N-1 still had no defined mission beyond the support of general themes outlined in earlier decrees. The lack of mission was also matched with a lack of funding meaning that effectively, the N-1 was going nowhere fast.

A Plan for the Moon
By late 1963 it was becoming increasingly difficult to ignore American progress on Apollo. The first Saturn hardware was beginning flight-tests and any complacency the Soviet Leadership may have held towards Kennedy’s Moon pledge began to evaporate. In the wake of his success with Vostok, Korolev sought to win Khrushchev’s support for a lunar mission. In September 1963 he presented Proposals for the Research and Familiarisation of the Moon, a vision of circumlunar flights using the planned Soyuz craft followed by a lunar landing mission using the N-1.

Korolev’s plans consisted of 5 major steps, numbered L1-L5, encompassing a crewed circumlunar flight (L1) through to advanced lunar rover missions (L5), but it was L3 – the landing of a Cosmonaut on the lunar surface, which most directly mirrored Apollo. For this mission, he proposed multiple launches of the N-1 to construct a Lunar Complex in Earth Orbit. While this proposal would allow an effective assault on the Moon given the N-1’s modest payload capabilities (in comparison to the Saturn C5) the multiple launches would require a huge financial investment that Khrushchev was unprepared to commit to at the time.

The Premier was also considering overtures made by President Kennedy towards a joint US/Soviet lunar mission. Such a venture would prevent either side from losing political face whilst reducing the financial burden. Sadly, Kennedy’s assassination put an end to any further discussions, meaning either the Soviet Union would have to go it alone or concede the first lunar landing to the Americans.

Korolev had hoped his proposal would consolidate Soviet exploration of the Moon within OKB-1. Unfortunately for him, one consequence of an earlier 1960 decree had been to increase the role played by other design bureaus in the provision of space systems. Korolev had no choice at the time but to accede to this in order to get the decree through, but Vladimir Chelomei (OKB-52) and Mikhail Yangel  (OKB-586) were quick to see the possibilities of expanding their activities from aviation and missiles respectively into space. This situation was exacerbated by Khrushchev’s often ambivalent attitude towards Korolev’s plans as well as Chelomei’s timely decision to hire Khrushchev’s son Sergei to work at OKB-52.

Vladimir Chelomei, Designer of the UR-500 and UR-700 rockets [IMG: Wikipedia CC License]
Vladimir Chelomei, Designer of the UR-500 and UR-700 rockets [IMG: Wikipedia CC License]
Prior to the 1964 decree, On Work on Research on the Moon and Outer Space, which granted Korolev permission to proceed with the N-1/L3, there had actually been three competitive proposals for the lunar mission: Yangel’s R-56 and Chelomei’s UR-700 were both put forward as alternatives to the N-1. Though Korolev prevailed, he did lose the circumlunar mission to Chelomei’s UR-500 (Proton) launched LK-1 mission (Click here for more on the LK-1 and other circumlunar projects). The situation was made more complex by the rift between Korolev and the pre-eminent Soviet engine designer Valentin Glushko.

Valentin Glushko, the leading Soviet rocket engine designer and Korolev's great rival [IMG: Wikipedia CC License]
Valentin Glushko, the leading Soviet rocket engine designer and Korolev’s great rival [IMG: Wikipedia CC License]
Glushko favoured the use of storable propellants (Nitrogen Tetroxide/Unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine) feeling these would simplify the design and eliminate problems his design bureau had been encountering with the Kerosene/Liquid Oxygen (LOX) favoured by OKB-1. Korolev loathed the use of storable propellants. While acceptable for ICBMs that needed to remain fuelled and ready for use, he felt their toxicity and consequent safety issues made them wholly unacceptable for use in a space launcher – especially one with a crew onboard.

In 1962 the Keldysh Commission examined plans for the N-1 and decided in favour of the Kerosene/LOX combination. This incensed Glushko leading to his refusal to work on the project, meaning Korolev had to turn to the inexperienced Kuznetzov to design the N-1’s engines.

While the progress of Apollo may have provided the final spur to action for the Soviet leadership, they chose their own timescale for their lunar mission with the fiftieth anniversary of the October revolution in 1967 provided the Soviet the target rather than Kennedy’s end of decade goal.

Therefore as work began on the N-1/L3 complex, not only were OKB-1 starting over three years behind their American contemporaries, they also had far less time to reach their goal and what budget there was would be split between the lunar landing mission and a separate circumlunar programme using an unrelated booster and spacecraft.

The N-1/L3 Structure
Korolev’s original 1963 plan for multiple N-1 launches and an Earth Orbit Rendezvous (EOR) approach to the lunar landing mission changed following the 1964 decree. Financial constraints on the programme meant that the N-1 would now have to achieve the mission in a single launch, with an orbital ship and a lander travelling to the Moon before separating in lunar orbit. This mode, also chosen by NASA for Apollo, was known as Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR). This change of plans meant that somehow OKB-1 needed to make the N-1 carry around 100 tons to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) – far more than it original design payload of 50 tons.

Various means were examined to achieve the extra performance. Korolev had always pushed hard for the development of cryogenically fuelled upper stages for the N-1 using Liquid Hydrogen/LOX as these would provide far greater performance per pound than the Kerosene/LOX combination used for lower stages and work in this direction was now initiated.

N-1 Engine layouts for (l-r) BLOK-A, BLOK-B, BLOK-V [IMG: ©Nick Stevens]
N-1 Engine layouts for (l-r) BLOK-A, BLOK-B, BLOK-V
[IMG: ©Nick Stevens]
While Kuznetzov had developed an outstanding engine in the NK-15, its thrust was modest so the original plan was to use 24 of them on BLOK-A. This now increased to a colossal 30 engines. Other changes included super-cooling the fuel to increase propellant density, reducing the orbital altitude the L3 complex would be placed in prior to departure for the moon and lowering the launch azimuth to gain more advantage from the Earth’s rotation. Finally a decision was made to reduce the crew from three to two meaning the lunar landing would have to be attempted by a lone Cosmonaut. Even with these changes the N-1 was going to struggle.

A general Plan of the N-1/L3 stack with detail of the L3 [IMG: ©Chris Petty]
A general Plan of the N-1/L3 stack with detail of the L3
[IMG: ©Chris Petty]
The N-1/L3 had five stages (BLOKs) as well as the Lunar Orbital Ship (LOK) and the Lunar Ship (LK). BLOK-A featured an outer ring of 24 NK-15 engines with a central cluster of a further 6, giving the stage an extremely wide radius. Huge spherical propellant tanks were used and a massive network of associated plumbing fed the 30 engines. Whereas the Saturn V could steer by gimballing 4 of its F-1 engines, the N-1 relied on additional roll control engines to apply course changes. The wide spacing of the engines also meant that, should one fail, asymmetrical thrust could push the N-1 off-course. The designers solved this with an ingenious electronic system named KORD which would shut down the adjacent engine in this eventuality, thus balancing the thrust.

BLOK-B featured 8 NK-15V engines – an adapted version of the NK-15 optimised for use at higher altitude. The third stage, BLOCK-V, used 4 NK-21 engines to give the L3 lunar complex its final push into LEO.

The L3 complex during Trans Lunar Injection [IMG: ©Nick Stevens]
The L3 complex during Trans Lunar Injection
[IMG: ©Nick Stevens]
As work on the draft plan for the L3 complex continued slowly throughout 1965 it became increasingly apparent that the planned cryogenic upper stage would not be available for some time. This forced OKB-1 to move forward with upper stages powered by Kerosene/LOX. The eventual structure for the L3 consisted of BLOK-G which would perform the Trans-Lunar Injection burn, firing the L3 out of LEO and towards the Moon. BLOK-D would then perform any required trans-lunar burns before firing again to insert the L3 into lunar orbit. BLOK-D had one further role, serving as the initial descent stage for the LK Lunar Ship, taking the landing craft into it’s final descent before crashing to the lunar surface.

Size comparison of the LK and the Apollo Lunar Module [IMG: Wikipedia CC License]
Size comparison of the LK and the Apollo Lunar Module
[IMG: Wikipedia CC License]
Unlike the Apollo Lunar Module, the LK itself only had a single engine named BLOK-Ye. This would be used for both the final descent to the surface and the subsequent ascent back into lunar orbit. The LK’s descent apparatus consisting of the legs and supporting structure would be left on the surface.

The LOK Lunar Orbital ship [IMG: ©Nick Stevens]
The LOK Lunar Orbital ship
[IMG: ©Nick Stevens]
Completing the L3 complex was the LOK orbital ship. This was essentially a heavily modified Soyuz vehicle featuring an additional engine, BLOK-I, to be used for the all important Trans-Earth Injection burn plus a simplified docking apparatus.

The Mission
The N-1/L3 mission would be launched from Baikonur, placing the L3 complex and its crew of two in a low parking orbit where critical systems would be checked before BLOK G ignited to send the complex towards the Moon. This was very similar to the American Apollo, but beyond this point there were some key differences.

Cosmonaut transfer from LOK to LK in Lunar Orbit [IMG: ©Chris Petty]
Cosmonaut transfer from LOK to LK in Lunar Orbit
[IMG: ©Chris Petty]
In Apollo, the Command and Service modules (CSM) would detach during the trans-lunar coast, extracting the Lunar Module (LM) from the spent S-1VB stage before the complex continued to the Moon. In contrast, the L3 would discard the BLOK-G stage following the TLI burn, then the rest of the stack would continue into lunar orbit where the Commander would leave the LOK orbital ship to enter the LK lander. Unlike the Apollo CSM/LM complex, the L3’s LOK/LK had no internal tunnel for crew transfer. Instead the Commander would need to carry out an EVA, exiting the forward section of the LOK and transferring back along the length of the craft using handholds and an extendable pole before entering the LK’s protective fairing and then the LK itself. At this point, the fairing would detach and the LOK could move away while the LK with BLOK-D still attached would begin its journey down to the lunar surface.

At an altitude of 1500 meters BLOK-D would be cast away to impact the surface while the LK’s BLOK-Ye engine fired to take the craft to a soft landing. Once BLOK-Ye fired the Cosmonaut would have approximately 1 minute to land. He could extend this time slightly, but this would mean eating into the BLOK-Ye’s fuel allocation for ascent to orbit. Small downward facing rockets on the LK’s legs would fire on touchdown to prevent the craft bouncing in the lower lunar gravity.

The LK and Cosmonaut safely on the Lunar Surface [IMG: ©Nick Stevens]
The LK and Cosmonaut safely on the Lunar Surface
[IMG: ©Nick Stevens]
Having landed and carried out initial checks on the LK, the Commander would then exit the lander using a side hatch and descend a short ladder to the lunar surface. The LK’s stay on the surface would be limited to a few hours but this would allow the Cosmonaut to deploy a small experimental package and collect lunar samples. With the surface EVA complete he would then re-enter the LK and prepare for ascent (unlike Apollo, no sleep periods were planned due to the short duration of the stay). The BLOK-Ye would then re-ignite firing him towards a rendezvous with the orbiting LOK.

The LK and LOK rejoin in Lunar Orbit [IMG: ©Chris Petty]
The LK and LOK rejoin in Lunar Orbit
[IMG: ©Chris Petty]
The two ships would dock in lunar orbit using a simple mechanical system whereby the probe apparatus on the front of the LOK would catch on a perforated grid on the top of the LK. Once securely docked the Commander would again exit the LK, this time carrying any lunar samples, and navigate his way back into the LOK.

With the crew re-united, the LK would be cast away and the BLOK-I would fire to propel the LOK back to Earth. Similar to Apollo’s profile, the descent capsule would separate from the rest of the vehicle on approach to the atmosphere and a lifting re-entry would allow the velocity to be bled off before a final descent under parachute to a soft landing on the steppes.

N-1/L3 Under Fire
Almost as soon as the N-1/L3 mission received its go ahead, it came under heavy criticism from various directions. Korolev’s old rival Glushko insisted that the N-1 should be redesigned to use storable propellants and his proposed RD-270 engine. When this challenge failed he took this engine to Chelomei for use on his UR-700 booster design. This then became a major competitor to the N-1/L3 plan garnering much political support.

Many within Korolev’s own bureau, OKB-1, also felt that the L3 was simply too risky with the reliance on a single engine for descent and ascent from the lunar surface and the additional EVAs in lunar orbit. Arguments also raged about the unrealistic timetable that they had been set and the extremely limited budget which wouldn’t stretch to test stands for BLOK-A.

As for sending a single Cosmonaut to the surface, Mstislav Keldysh, influential President of the Academy of Sciences is said to have exclaimed “What kind of nerve must we have to disembark one man on the Moon?!…Imagine for a minute being alone on the Moon! That’s a straight road to the psychiatric hospital.”

In the face of this criticism, Korolev forged ahead with the draft plans for the L3 being completed and approved in December 1965. At last it looked like significant progress could be made and the Soviet push for the Moon could begin in earnest. Unfortunately fate was about to intervene…

On January 14 1966, Sergei Korolev died as a result of serious complications while undergoing abdominal surgery. In mourning Korolev, the Soviets finally released the name of their mysterious Chief Designer and the west learned something of his towering importance to the Soviet space programme.

After Korolev
Still in shock after Korolev’s death, the engineers at OKB-1 acted quickly to back his deputy Vasiliy Mishin to assume control of the bureau which was renamed TsKBEM soon after. Mishin was a talented engineer and had been groomed by Korolev as a possible successor, but unfortunately he lacked the leadership qualities that had allowed his mentor to move projects forward through seemingly insurmountable problems.

Mishin was also unfortunate to inherit a number of under-performing projects. Political vacillation and the distractions of Voskhod had caused huge delays with the Soyuz programme. As America forged ahead with Project Gemini, learning the techniques needed for Apollo, the Soviets entered a period of hiatus.

To make matters worse, the funding situation for the N-1/L3 remained critical with barely enough money to keep the programme going. Against this background Mishin attempted to keep things going, but soon renewed doubts about the N-1/L3 mission profile emerged. Proposals now emerged for a more complex mission with a second LK lander being sent to the surface robotically prior to the manned landing. This would be accompanied by a lunar rover which could examine the LK, then act as a radar guide for the manned LK to ensure a pinpoint landing. Following the landing, the rover could then check this LK to ensure it was in good condition. If it had been damaged during the landing, the Cosmonaut could hitch a lift on the rover to the spare LK. The rover would contain an emergency supply of power and oxygen for use during this transit. While safer, this revised profile would now require an additional N-1 launch for the spare LK as well as a UR-500 Proton to launch the rover.

Tragedy Strikes Again…
In April 1967 it seemed as if TsKBEM and the Soviet programme were getting back on track with the first crewed launch of the long awaited Soyuz. The initial mission was intended as a space spectacular with two craft launching before conducting a rendezvous in orbit and transferring crew members via EVA. It was hoped this single joint mission between Soyuz 1 and 2 could demonstrate many of the same techniques as Gemini had achieved and point the way forward towards the Moon.

Soyuz 1 launched on April 23 1967 carrying Cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov and was to be followed by Soyuz 2 a day later, but almost immediately problems struck. One of the solar panels failed to deploy effectively crippling many of the vehicle’s systems. The decision was made to curtail the mission and scrub the launch of Soyuz 2. As Komarov attempted re-entry the parachute system malfunctioned and became tangled leading to a fatal high-speed impact.

There is still debate as to the amount of political pressure applied to get Soyuz flying before it was fully ready. Whatever the reality behind these claims, the effect was that Soyuz and its related vehicles, including the L3’s LOK, were badly delayed.

The N-1 Edges Towards Flight
Following the tragedies and setbacks of Korolev and Komarov’s deaths it became clear that there would be no Soviet flight to the Moon to celebrate the Fiftieth anniversary of the October revolution. The earlier timetable lay in ruins and to compound problems the circumlunar programme had also experienced massive setbacks. Chelomei’s bold LK-1 plans had fallen way behind schedule and the once his patron Khrushchev had been removed from power responsibility for the circumlunar craft had instead been passed to TsKBEM. As 1968 dawned, hopes were high that a circumlunar flight could be achieved before the Americans could fully recover from their own tragedy, Apollo 1. The proposed Zond vehicle would be an adapted Soyuz, so like the L3’s LOK was subject to delays while this system was prequalified for flight.
(Note: The name Zond was also used for an earlier series of interplanetary probes. Zond missions from 1967 onwards were related to the circumlunar effort)

Artist's impression of the N-1/L3 on the pad at Baikonur [IMG: ©Nick Stevens]
Artist’s impression of the N-1/L3 on the pad at Baikonur
[IMG: ©Nick Stevens]
Meanwhile the N-1 launch facilities were completed at Baikonur and an initial engineering model of the booster was used to check procedures. The first flight ready booster, 3L, finally made its appearance during May 1968. Any hopes that flight testing was imminent were however dashed as cracks were discovered in BLOK-A and the booster was returned to the construction facility for repairs.

As 1968 passed, the Soviets could only watch as Apollo returned to flight with the successful Apollo 7 mission. In October Soyuz 3 marked the first successful crewed flight for Soyuz, but both the Zond circumlunar craft and Chelomei’s UR-500 booster were meeting with mixed fortunes. Nevertheless, the successful flights of Zond 4 and 5 were enough to alarm some within NASA and the CIA and were a contributing factor to the decision to send Apollo 8 to orbit the Moon in December 1968. With the circumlunar prize lost, attention turned again to the N-1/L3 and the possibility of a last gasp attempt to beat the Americans to the Moon’s surface.

Repairs to booster 3L were now complete and February 1969 finally saw the first N-1 launch. There were some suggestions from the political leadership that this very first flight should attempt a manned lunar landing, but in reality the early boosters simply didn’t have the power to lift an operational L3 complex and in any case, both the LK and LOK were still some way from being ready for flight test.

So it was that on 21 February that 30 NK-15 engines finally ignited for the first time together and the N-1 finally took flight. Initially things looked good, but 70 seconds into the flight the KORD system shut down all of the BLOK-A engines and 3L sailed on to a crash some 50km from the launchpad. The emergency rescue system safely recovered the dummy descent section, but it was a disappointing start for the N-1.

Many of the engineers took the loss in their stride – it was after all the first test of the booster and, as there had been no opportunity to test BLOK-A on a test stand it was perhaps unsurprising that there would be teething troubles. They pushed ahead preparing for a second flight knowing now that only delays with Apollo could help them reach the Moon first.

As the flight of Apollo 11 approached, Baikonur prepared for another launch. This booster, 5L, was finally ready for launch just before midnight on July 3 1969. The night launch was an awesome sight as the N-1 rose on a column of blinding flame. Unfortunately what followed was far more spectacular. Around 1 second before liftoff a foreign object had entered a pump in one of the NK-15 engines and caused an explosion. The resulting fire had spread rapidly as the rocket lifted off and damaged wiring within BLOK-A resulting in the KORD system shutting off all but one of the thirty engines at 23 seconds. The booster slowly settled back onto the pad causing the largest manmade non-nuclear explosion on record – the equivalent of 250 tons of TNT. The pad was destroyed and debris flung over a huge area. This disaster finally put an end to any remote hopes there may have been that the N-1/L3 could beat Apollo. Later that month cosmonauts and engineers watched in resignation as Neil Armstrong set foot on the Sea of Tranquility. The race was over.

After 1969
Following the catastrophic second test of the N-1 and the success of Apollo 11, any public discussion of Soviet lunar plans stopped abruptly. New plans for orbital stations and long-duration flights were stressed, but behind the scenes work on the N-1/L3 continued. A year long enquiry into the 5L flight took place, making a number of recommendations. The engines would be redesigned to eliminate foreign objects entering them and a new testing regime would be instituted to address the quality control issues. The pipework on the lower stages was also reviewed and improved with the aim of providing increased reliability.

Work on the LK and LOK continued throughout 1970 and although both had fallen hopelessly behind schedule, Earth orbital tests of the LK under the designation T2K were carried out in late 1970 and 1971. These simulated various flight profiles, proving the BLOK-Ye engine was capable of fulfilling its mission.

By June 1971 the third flight-ready N-1, 6L, was ready to go and on the 27th of that month it took flight. Yet again though, the flight was beset with problems. Almost as soon as the booster left the pad it began to roll, soon exceeding the limiting abilities of the roll-control motors. As the N-1 continued to rise, the rotation became more extreme until the structural limits of the booster were exceeded causing break-up and the shutdown of all BLOK-A engines by KORD at 48 seconds.

Unsurprisingly, with the N-1 having registered 3 losses in 3 launches, calls began to grow for the cancellation of the programme. Many also felt that, given the success of Apollo, the L3 mission was an unnecessarily risky and somewhat feeble response. Planning began on an improved mission named L3M which would have allowed two cosmonauts to travel to the lunar surface and carry out extended-duration stays. Somehow Mishin managed to rally enough political support to continue with the N-1/L3. The engineers were less pessimistic about the N-1, knowing that the forth booster, 7L, featured a whole host of improvements including better roll-control, engine shielding, and tank insulation. The aerodynamics of the booster were also improved to prevent a repeat of the third failure where low pressure zones between the outer and inner engines groups on BLOK-A had caused the rotation to develop.

Kuznetzov was also close to completing the improved NK-33 engines and there was confidence that many of the problems in the system had now been fixed. The flight of 7L was delayed through 1971 and some within the programme called for a further pause so booster 8L could be flown with the new engines, but the decision was taken to press ahead with the flight of 7L and this took place on 23 November 1972 carrying a functional LOK and a mockup of the LK. The initial stages of the flight were encouraging with all 30 engines firing together and performing well. Unfortunately as they were throttled back an explosion occurred in one engine and this destroyed BLOCK-A 104 seconds into the flight. This failure must have been agonising for the engineers as it came a mere 7 seconds before engine cutoff. Had the KORD system shut off all remaining engines, the N-1 could probably have continued through staging and, hopefully, into orbit.

N-1 Variants as flown (L to R) 7L (1972), 5L (1971), 4L (1969) and 3L (1969) [IMG: ©Nick Stevens]
N-1 Variants as flown (L to R) 7L (1972), 6L (1971), 5L (1969) and 3L (1969)
[IMG: ©Nick Stevens]
What next?
Even before the 7L failure, production of the L3 complex had been halted. Any further N-1 flights would use the hardware already manufactured after which improved missions would be planned. TsKBEM still retained enough political support to push forward with development of the N-1 with plans for the much improved 8L and 9L boosters to fly during 1974. 8L was to be an uncrewed test of the whole L3 mission, although the LK would not actually touch down on the Moon, instead carrying out a test of BLOK-Ye in lunar orbit. If this went well 9L was slated to include an unmanned landing after which booster 10L would carry the first cosmonaut to the lunar surface.

Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov was to be the first Cosmonaut on the Moon [IMG: Wikipedia CC License]
Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov was to be the first Cosmonaut on the Moon
[IMG: Wikipedia CC License]
The Commander of this mission was to have been Alexei Leonov, the first man to walk in space during Voshkod 2, who had been in training for the mission for many years.

And End to the N-1
However, before any of these plans could play out, Mishin’s luck finally ran out and he was relieved of his duties at TsKBEM on 27 May 1974. The very same day TsKBEM was amalgamated with Glusko’s KB EnergoMash with the engine designer assuming overall control. Unsurprisingly one of his first actions was to cancel the N-1 in favour of his own plans. By the time of cancellation booster 8L had already been completed and fuelling tests carried out. Boosters 10L through 13L were in various stages of production. Pleas from the engineers to let them finally prove Korolev’s mighty N-1 fell on deaf ears. The N-1 would never reach its goal after all.

Conclusions
The N-1/L3 will forever be remembered as an epic engineering failure, denied by the Soviets for decades but that seems an unfair legacy given many of the problems facing Korolev, Mishin and the entire programme. Funding and political support were both sadly lacking throughout the programme with the military showing no interest and frequent challenges from Chelomei, Glushko and their UR-700 based alternative diverting funds and confusing the issue.

Given the success of approach used on Apollo it seems amazing that two separate lunar programmes should be funded simultaneously, especially as the Gross National Product of the Soviet Union could only support funding at levels far below what NASA was granted. Had the decision been made to concentrate on a single programme to achieve both circumlunar and lunar landing missions, as Apollo did, the prospects for the N-1/L3 would surely have been better. Korolev had also planned to use different BLOKs from the N-1 in 2 smaller boosters, the N-II and N-III as well as the GR-1 orbital bombardment system. These would have helped troubleshoot components and systems rather than leaving everything to be proved on the N-1, but these other boosters were cancelled.

In the early 1960s Korolev had pushed repeatedly for an agency to be established to oversee all space related projects along similar lines to NASA in the United States. Perhaps an agency like this could have marshalled resources more effectively and tamed the in-fighting between Korolev and Glushko allowing them to work together on the N-1/L3.

Of course, the premature loss of Korolev at a time when so many projects were at a critical state proved a massive blow to Soviet space prospects. It is possible to foresee an alternate track where Korolev survived his surgery and was able to redouble Soviet efforts on Zond giving them the prize of the first man around the Moon. The N-1/L3 probably started too late for it to ever beat the United States to the Moon landing, but had the booster successfully flown during the 1960s it seems likely that a manned mission would have followed.

It is interesting to speculate how Nixon would have treated NASA’s budget in the early 1970’s if Cosmonauts were walking on the Moon. Could any US President have walked away from the moon under those circumstances? Probably not, but we’ll never know.

Postscript
Although the N-1/L3 project ultimately failed, there were many examples of outstanding engineering which sadly went unrecognised for decades. The design of the booster was revolutionary at the time and the N-1 was constrained more by the materials and technology of the time than by the ambition or skill of the engineers.

The transport and launch facilities at Baikonur were extremely advanced, with a rotating tower and a huge crawler/erector that carried the complete N-1/L3 horizontally to the pad, then lifted it through 90 degrees. Another amazing element of the project was the lunar suit, the Krechet-94. This was the first semi-rigid suit constructed and allowed the Cosmonaut to enter via the hinged door formed by the backpack. The Krechet formed the basis for the Orlan EVA suit still used by Cosmonauts on the ISS.

A Krechet Soviet moon suit showing the hinged entry door [IMG: Wikipedia CC License]
A Krechet Soviet moon suit showing the hinged entry door
[IMG: Wikipedia CC License]
Perhaps the biggest technological legacy from the N-1 programme was Kuznetzov’s NK-33 engine. When the N-1 was cancelled and Glushko ordered the destruction of the remaining hardware, Kuznetzov’s bureau chose to hide their stockpile of 150 NK-33s. After the fall of the Soviet Union, some of these engines were sold to US company Aerojet. Their performance proved exceptional and Aerojet licensed the design building  re-engineered versions as the AJ26-58 and AJ26-62.

An Aerojet AJ-26 derived from Kuznetzov's NK-33 design for the N-1 [IMG: Wikipedia CC License]
An Aerojet AJ26 engine derived from Kuznetzov’s NK-33 design for the N-1
[IMG: Wikipedia CC License]
More controversially, American company Orbital Sciences import NK-33s from Russia to use in their Antares booster, although it appears an NK-33 turbopump failure was to blame for their recent launch failure.

Recently it has also been interesting to note the lattice fins (similar to those on the N-1’s BLOK-A although steerable in this case) that have been added to Space X’s Falcon 9 booster to aid its recovery.


Acknowledgements
Huge thanks to Nick Stevens for granting me permission to use some of his amazing renders of various elements of the N-1/L3 complex. Nick’s work appears in the ARA Press title N-1: For the Moon and Mars

I’d also like to thank the Science Museum, London for supplying the image of the LK lander displayed as part of their excellent Cosmonauts exhibition. The exhibition runs until 13th March 2016 and more details can be found here: Cosmonauts Exhibition

Sources
Sputnik and the Soviet Space Challenge – Asif A. Siddiqi
The Soviet Space Race with Apollo – Asif A. Siddiqi
Soviet and Russian Lunar Exploration – Brian Harvey
False Steps: The Space Race as it might have been – Paul Drye
Red Star in Orbit – James E. Oberg
Two Sides of the Moon – David Scott and Alexei Leonov
Korolev – James Harford
Apollo: The Race to the Moon – Charles Murray, Catherine Bly Cox

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9 thoughts on “A Cosmonaut on the Moon: Korolev’s N-1/L3 plan

  1. Stan November 14, 2015 / 3:46 pm

    That was a great article, thanks for all the work in putting that together. I don’t have the time to go and read all the history books it would take to compile this article, so thanks! It is great to be alive during a time where I can remember the Soviets as a dangerous and somewhat dehumanized rival, but to now be able to learn of their accomplishments &failures, and admire them for both.

    I would add that the first few paragraphs, whether intentional or not, made me think history has come full circle. I don’t know it you meant it, but your description of the N1 development paralleled the SLS development. When I read the following, my mind could swap N1 and SLS interchangeably:

    “NASA had approved plans for the Saturn C5 booster (eventually to become the Saturn V). However, unlike the American booster which was clearly designed to support a lunar landing, Korolev’s N-1 still had no defined mission beyond the support of general themes outlined in earlier decrees. The lack of mission was also matched with a lack of funding meaning that effectively, the N-1 was going nowhere fast.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • chrisbpetty November 14, 2015 / 7:26 pm

      Thanks for reading the article Stan, glad you enjoyed it. While I wasn’t trying to make a direct comment on the SLS, I do agree that a rocket without a destination will always be subject to delays and possible cancellation. Work and costs will always expand to fill the time available and there is a lot of time with the SLS!

      Like

  2. highfluxheroku December 16, 2015 / 9:58 am

    Typo in the title? Korolev’s

    Like

    • highfluxheroku December 16, 2015 / 1:41 pm

      CHRISBPETTY: Fixed, thanks!

      HIGHFLUXHEROKU: No problem! Thanks for the article!

      Like

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