Space Trucks! Big G and the TKS

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1985 Department of Defence concept shows Buran approaching a Soviet Space Station with 2 TKS and 1 Soyuz craft attached[IMG: US DoD via National Archives]
Towards the end of the 1960’s both the USA and Soviet Union had their eyes firmly on the Moon, but away from the lunar race plans were beginning to take shape for longer duration flights within Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Designs for Space Stations came into focus both for civilian and military purposes and these studies led to a need for a new generation of ships that could perform the logistical roles that would be generated by these orbital outposts.

Here we’ll take a look at two contemporary concepts from that era. They were designed to carry out broadly similar roles, yet one had its feet firmly in the earlier days of the space race, while the other created an enduring legacy that lasts to this day in the biggest space construction of them all, the International Space Station (ISS).
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Once around the Moon: The Soviet circumlunar race

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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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