Less than gravity: The Lunar Landing Research Vehicle

The LLRV in Flight [IMG: NASA]
As NASA came to grips with the enormity of the task handed to them by President Kennedy in his May 1961 congressional address, the list of hurdles standing between America and a manned moon landing was long and formidable. Although NASA’s senior management felt confident that the task could be accomplished before the end of the decade, the finer details of how this would be achieved were far less certain.

Much of the initial focus of Project Apollo fell on the fundamental question of which mission mode should be employed. Some favoured Direct Ascent – launching one huge spaceship directly to the Moon where it would land before returning to the Earth. Others argued Earth Orbit Rendezvous was far more achievable given the limitations of American rocketry at the time. A third group suggested Lunar Orbit Rendezvous may hold significant advantages, but all three approaches had one thing in common – they would involve the controlled landing of a spaceship subject to the Moon’s reduced gravity and lack of atmosphere.
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Once around the Moon: The Soviet circumlunar race

The final leg of the race to the Moon as visualised by TIME magazine

Whilst the complexities and expense of a lunar landing mission always looked difficult for the Soviet space programme to achieve before the end of the 1960’s, the possibility of a simpler circumlunar flight certainly seemed within reach. Unfortunately one of the fundamental truths of the Soviet programme was that the so called Space Race was in reality always as much an internal  battle for influence and funding between the competing design bureaus as it ever was a clash between superpowers.

But in spite of missed opportunities, tragedies and political indecision this was a race that nearly went right down to the wire.
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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.
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