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How close were the Soviets to a Moon landing in 1969?


Guest Stephen Turner
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Guest Stephen Turner

Question to the Forum space exploration crew.

Just how close were Russia to a manned landing in the summer of 1969. ( I do have a reason for asking this, which I shall expand uppon once the experts have spoken)

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Question to the Forum space exploration crew.

Just how close were Russia to a manned landing in the summer of 1969. ( I do have a reason for asking this, which I shall expand uppon once the experts have spoken)

Stephen

I believe Evan has touched on this on another active thread. IIRC, pretty much all the technological difficulties had been overcome except the N1 rocket, which had a rather nasty habit of blowing up on take off. A major design difference between the N1 and Saturn V was that the Saturn V only had 5 rocket engines in its first stage, whereas the N1 had 30 - plumbing was an understandable issue. The second test failure destroyed not only the rocket but much of the launch complex too.

How much of the rest of the hardware had made it off the drawing board and into the engineering workshops I don't know.

The wiki article contains some info but is a little bare...

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It's a little difficult to answer. Perhaps the better question would be how close were they to making a landing attempt.

As mentioned in other threads, the biggest hurdle (never overcome) was the N-1 launch vehicle, the Soviet counterpart to the American Saturn V. Because of a combination of internal personality disputes / rivalry, and a lesser technological base, the Soviets had not produced a rocket engine as powerful as the American F-1 (which produced over 1.5 million pounds of thrust). Since they did not have as powerful engines, they needed more of them to carry equivalent payloads. This meant that the N-1 had thirty engines in it's first stage alone. This meant a very complex arrangement of fuel oxidizer feed lines, control systems, etc. The problems of this complex system were never overcome, and the N-1 never successfully flew (although the upper stages had been tested successfully).

Without the N-1 to launch the spacecraft into lunar orbit, they never had a chance. Coincidently though, if not for an earlier decision they might have been able to do it. Like the US, the USSR considered various 'modes' to reach the Moon. Like the US, they considered Earth Orbit Rendezvous (EOR) but it was rejected in favour of the N-1. If they had stuck with EOR, they they would have launched all the various components separately using smaller but available rockets, assembled them in Earth orbit, refuelled, and conducted a lunar landing mission. It would have still been complex (no manned mission to this day has refuelled in orbit) but stood a chance.

If the USSR had been able to launch the components into Earth orbit, then they had planned to use a similar mission profile to Apollo, albeit with different spacecraft. The S-IVB / CSM would be replaced by a modified Soyuz spacecraft (the LOK), and the LM would have been replaced by a single-pilot lunar lander (the LK). The Soviet docking design meant that the cosmonaut would have transferred between LOK and LK via an EVA instead of a connecting tunnel.

The Soyuz was a reliable spacecraft, so perhaps not too many problems would be expected for a lunar mission. That being said, another variant had been scheduled to conduct a manned circumlunar flight. It was tested unmanned as Zond-5 in SEP 68 and returned to Earth, with a repeat as Zond 6 in NOV 68. The flights had problems with the spacecraft, so perhaps they did not feel it was up to a lunar mission as yet. Additionally, Apollo 8 did a circumlunar flight in DEC 68, so a lot of the propaganda value would have been diminished.

The LK, on the other hand, had been ground tested but never flown in space; it's unknown what problems might have been encountered.

There are also the problems with rendezvous to consider; the Soviets had far less experience than the Americans. These were not insurmountable by any means, but it was another hurdle they would have to face.

So, if the Soviets had been able to get a successful manned N-1 launch happening in 1969, they may have been able to conduct a successful lunar landing; it would have been a very big risk though, using spacecraft that had either little variant flight testing / no flight testing. Perhaps they might have gotten lucky and pulled it off - but it would probably have failed, more likely with the LK during the lunar landing phase.

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Why didn't the Russians simply fake a landing before we did?

Considering the secrecy in which the Soviet space programme operated compared to the openness of the US effort, it would have been a lot easier for them to have done such a thing.

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They were probably too busy faking the Soyuz program.

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