A Soviet space expert discusses how recently declassified material confirms his painstaking discoveries over decades about why the Soviet Union was unable to win the space race.
Russia today is at a crossroads. If the current financial policies, under the heel of the International
Monetary Fund, should continue, the one-time Soviet superpower will be relegated to Third World
status, suffering the political and economic chaos that will result from such a devolution.
After his most recent trip to Russia in April 1997, during which he traveled throughout the country
to various space facilities, space expert Charles Vick commented that the IMF policies in Russia
``amount to economic tyranny.'' One result, he observed, has been the meteoric rise of corruption and
criminality, and the corresponding lack of available resources for basic economic reconstruction, or
the space program.
The Soviet Union was the only nation besides the United States that ever developed the ability to
put man into space. The Soviets did it first. But they could not sustain an effort of such magnitude,
because they were not able to transfer new technology from their civil and military space programs
to the economy, as a whole. As Charles Vick explains, the pie was limited in size by this failure, and
when the political situation changed, other programs took priority over sending men to the Moon.
Today, the Russians will doggedly try to maintain their space capabilities, Vick states, but time is
Charles Vick, currently a senior research associate at the Federation of American Scientists, has
more than 35 years of experience in assessing Soviet space technology. His technical drawings of
Soviet launch and space vehicles are known worldwide. By applying his own creative powers to
analyze whatever paltry data were available from the Soviets before 1989, Vick was the first to
publish a drawing that reconstructed the N-1/L-3 Soviet manned lunar vehicle, at a time when the
Soviets were denying that they ever had a manned lunar program.
Vick is now working to develop the seventh N-1/L-3 book-length study. He was interviewed by 21st
Century Associate Editor Marsha Freeman in July.
Russia today is at a crossroads. If the current financial policies, under the heel of the International Monetary Fund, should continue, the one-time Soviet superpower will be relegated to Third World status, suffering the political and economic chaos that will result from such a devolution.
After his most recent trip to Russia in April 1997, during which he traveled throughout the country to various space facilities, space expert Charles Vick commented that the IMF policies in Russia ``amount to economic tyranny.'' One result, he observed, has been the meteoric rise of corruption and criminality, and the corresponding lack of available resources for basic economic reconstruction, or the space program.
The Soviet Union was the only nation besides the United States that ever developed the ability to put man into space. The Soviets did it first. But they could not sustain an effort of such magnitude, because they were not able to transfer new technology from their civil and military space programs to the economy, as a whole. As Charles Vick explains, the pie was limited in size by this failure, and when the political situation changed, other programs took priority over sending men to the Moon. Today, the Russians will doggedly try to maintain their space capabilities, Vick states, but time is running out.
Charles Vick, currently a senior research associate at the Federation of American Scientists, has more than 35 years of experience in assessing Soviet space technology. His technical drawings of Soviet launch and space vehicles are known worldwide. By applying his own creative powers to analyze whatever paltry data were available from the Soviets before 1989, Vick was the first to publish a drawing that reconstructed the N-1/L-3 Soviet manned lunar vehicle, at a time when the Soviets were denying that they ever had a manned lunar program.
Vick is now working to develop the seventh N-1/L-3 book-length study. He was interviewed by 21st Century Associate Editor Marsha Freeman in July.
Question: The Soviets were the first in space, with the launch of Sputnik 40 years ago. They had the first man in space, as well. So, one of the greatest mysteries of the Soviet space program is why the Soviets never beat us to the Moon, and why they still have not sent people there to explore. When President Kennedy announced that the United States was making landing on the Moon its goal, it would seem to be undebatable that the Soviets were likewise planning to have a manned lunar mission. Were they planning it before Kennedy's announcement?
Charles P. Vick: They were in fact planning it ahead of time. What is even more interesting is that when Kennedy made his speech, the Russians did not completely understand what he was saying, and it took them some years before they actually completely understood. Once they did, then they said, ``Oh. Wait a minute. We've got to look at what we're doing.'' They were, however, committed to other priorities.
Question: Let's go back further, to when the Soviets would have been first thinking about landing men on the Moon.
Charles P. Vick: Their plan is rather self-evident, when you go back and look at their open literature, even back into the 1950s. You have to consider the fact that the Germans had the idea, and the Americans also had the thought. It was in the general, open literature going back before World War II. The Moon has always been an interesting subject.
Their lunar program was more evident once we started seeing the Russians flying unmanned lunar missions in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Plus their other public statements made it very clear that something was going on. But not until 1963 did we really have anything solid and official, built around a series of statements by Nikita Khrushchev that really revealed there was something going on. Ultimately you find that our side was looking for the evidence and not finding it until August 1963, and we were not really certain until the fall of 1964.
Question: What was it that the United States saw in August 1963?
Charles P. Vick: The beginning of the construction of the Baikonur Cosmodrome, of the TT-5, or what would become known as the J facilities. That's when the first road work and stakes in the ground were going into place. The National Intelligence Estimate of 1965, from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, which has not been released, reviews this. It is mentioned in the 1967 National Intelligence Estimate on Russian space programs, which has been released. This is confirmed by the now-declassified reconnaissance film from the Corona camera.
Even more interesting is the fact that when you compare their initial dates to what you see in the reconnaissance pictures, there can be a wide gap between when they say construction started and what the pictures show. This may be due to the fact that, of course, they have to prepare the ground and put the roads into the general area, and once they actually get the ground prepared, then, they say, ``Now we're really starting construction for real.'' But, in fact, construction had started much, much earlier.
Up to that point, frankly, America was looking for the evidence and saying: ``Are they going to give us a sporting race, or aren't they?'' We weren't seeing it in the literal sense. But Khrushchev tipped his hand about the same time as these thing were going on, so things had gotten started and we began to see it.
NASA Administrator James Webb, made statements in April and May 1964 in which he said he was not certain that they were racing us at all. In a speech to the Missouri Cotton Producers Association in May 1964, Webb said, ``There is some evidence the Soviets are working on a larger rocket, but we cannot say yet for sure.'' But in an article on Oct. 14, Washington Post writer Howard Simons reports Webb saying, ``there is increasing evidence'' that a new, super rocket was being readied for testing, in the 1967-1968 time frame.
Question: So we could see certain activity, and then later Khrushchev started making public statements saying they were going to try to land men on the Moon?
Charles P. Vick: His statements were very devious, and occurred in the fall of 1963, when there was discussion by President Kennedy about the potential for cooperative missions. In fact, Kennedy, in August 1963, mandated a reduction in the level of confrontation with the Russians, and looked more toward cooperation with them. That was government policy.
Many people were circling the wagons to protect their projects, including the Apollo program at NASA at that time, because we had not seen evidence up to then that the Russians were undertaking a lunar program.
But then Khrushchev made some statements that were not direct, but indirect, and there were arguments about whether they were racing us to the Moon, depending on how reporters interpreted what Khrushchev said. And he twisted it around and around.
Ultimately, we ended up finding out that you have to look at the money: Follow the money and that tells you the truth.
What was really startling to me, was the realization that the Russian budget, up through 1963-1964, continued to rise for the lunar program. Then it became almost flat, through to about 1970, when they added about another 600 million rubles to it. And then, it dropped off from there slowly, systematically, until 1974, when the program was cancelled, although remnants of the program continued through March 1976 for a manned circumnavigation, and manned lunar landing program. It's just amazing to realize that the budget went up to a certain point, then went flat.
Whereas, if you look at the strategic rocket area, the budget just kept right on skyrocketing, much above that of the United States. When you realize that the Soviets put the money into that program, and not into the space effort, you say, ``Wait a minute. It this a commitment by the government, or isn't it?''
In retrospect, the 1962-1964 period was critical to the events and decisions in the Soviet lunar program, as well as to commitments to the strategic rocket program. The advent of the U.S. Minuteman missile and Corona reconnaissance programs, forced the Soviets to make still larger outlays to create silo-based strategic ballistic missiles, with the ability to stay fueled in the ground, for a long time, in a ready state and with a quick reaction time. The second-generation missile systems, for which they had appropriated money, were already outdated before they were deployed, and the Soviets had to develop a third-generation system, which we would see deployed in the latter part of the 1960s.
As a result of the Cuban missile crisis, the legitimacy of the Soviet regime and the credibility of its strategic forces were being questioned. U.S. Defense Secretary and geopolitican Robert McNamara stated, after the Apollo announcement, that the Russians would have to choose between strategic systems and the space race. Our policy people hoped they would choose the space race, but they did not.
Question: Right after the war, the Soviets made the decision that they would be developing rocket technology for military purposes. In August 1957, there was the first successful test of their ICBM, and then Sputnik, in October 1957. What were they doing on a lunar program in that early period, and what approach were they taking to land a man on the Moon?
Charles P. Vick: From 1957, and even earlier, as far back as 1955, Sergei Korolev [the chief designer of the N-1 booster and the manned lunar program] was doing design studies on a heavier-lift launch vehicle than the Sputnik R-7 booster, and the derivative forms of the R-7 booster evolved as the N-1 Moon rocket. A number of variations were also developed. The initial designs that Korolev developed were a multi-block vehicle, meaning multiple modules, much like the Sputnik booster. It has multiple parallel blocks. The N-1 had six parallel blocks and one sustainer block, and then booster stages on top of that.
Question: What do you mean by blocks? Is that stages?
Charles P. Vick: Yes. It was a multiple-stage vehicle, and then they added upper stages to it. That was while they were doing design studies, until about the 1961-1962 time frame. They were looking at the rocket engines they were thinking about using. Those early rocket engines were open-cycle engines, which are not as efficient as closed-cycle engines.
Question: Can you explain the difference?
Charles P. Vick: In the open-cycle engines the actuation gas used to run the turbo-pump, the substance that actually makes the pump spin, is dumped overboard. It's wasted energy. In the closed-cycle engine, that gas is dumped into the oxygen-rich thrust chamber and burned with the rest of the fuel. The Soviets suddenly realized in 1960-1961 that they could develop those high-pressure, closed-cycle engines and get a better launch vehicle. Using engines with increased efficiency led to a dramatic change in the design of the N-1.
When they compared the two different launch vehicles, using one engine type versus another, they went to a different structural type all together. They finished those design studies officially in the July-Sept 1962 time frame. There are quite vivid descriptions of that in the open literature, published at the time. They were fascinating. They were arguing about the logistics of the vehicle, and how you get it to the Cosmodrome, and how you manufacture it, transport it, and so on.
Question: And that was published in the open literature?
Charles P. Vick: It was indeed. Part of it was published in The New York Times, and was very revealing. It described a booster that was 55.8 feet across its base, with the first stage 150 feet long, in one design they were looking at. But they ended up breaking that up into three separate stages, because a vehicle that size would be exceptionally difficult to transport, in land-locked Russia.
Question: Similar to the Saturn V?
Charles P. Vick: In some respects, but the shape and design of N-1 is dramatically different from the Saturn V. The first three stages of the N-1 actually constitute the first two stages of the Saturn V. The first stage in N-1 has a Nova, or super-Saturn/Nova-class launch vehicle written all over it, because its thrust was 10 million pounds-plus. There were 30 engines in its first stage, at 150-154 metric tons thrust each, giving it more than 10 million pounds of thrust at launch. By comparison, the Saturn V first stage had five engines, producing 7.6 million pounds of thrust.
The original N-1 design was of a somewhat smaller vehicle. The N-2 derivative of N-1 would have used the upper second stage of the N-1 for its first stage, then N-3 would have used the third stage of the N-1 as its first stage. That development was dropped, but should have been followed through; they could have finished development of the upper stages a lot sooner, having already successfully static-test-fired those in the late 1960s for the N-1. They were not able, ever, to static-test-fire the N-1 first stage. They did not have the facilities for that. They do not have them even today.
That is one of the major reasons that the first stage repeatedly failed in flight tests. It is a more catastrophic failure in flight than on a test stand, if it fails the wrong way, and there is no inflight destruction system, which the Russians, as a general rule, do not have. Their philosophy for inflight safety and destruction of the booster if it fails is very different from ours.
Until after the second flight test of N-1, which took place on July 3, 1969, the Soviets did not have a procedure whereby they could keep the engines running, just to clear the facility, before they allowed the booster to go on and fail. They wiped out an entire launch facility when they let a failing vehicle collapse on the launch pad in July 1969. The engines were on automatic command to be cut off
if there were a problem, just as it cleared the turning tower gantry. When the booster fell back on the ground, it cratered the launch pad, as well as the underground, multiple-story building that was the support facility for the vehicle.
Question: How could have they avoided doing that?
Charles P. Vick: They could have avoided that by keeping the engines on, in spite of the engines' failing. If the computer is programmed right, and it considers things in a certain way, it will not shut down the engines, for safety reasons, until the booster gains enough altitude and clears the launch facility. In this case, the Soviets did not have that built into the program. They do now in all their launch vehicles, but they learned the hard way. Your heart just drops, when you watch that thing lift off, during the July 3. 1969, test launch. The N-1 rises up and clears the tower, and then all the engines but one shut off and it just starts dropping back on to the launch pad. Those engines were shut off automatically because a fire had developed in the engine bay from the explosion of one engine at lift-off. It's unbelievable to see the films of that.
Question: I was unaware that they were not able to static-test those engines.
Charles P. Vick: They did static-test-fire a selected few of the engines. They had a batch-production capability. They'd produce so many engines, and take X number of them and test fire them. If they worked, they'd install the rest of the engines. That's the way they did it with the first stage. The first stage was originally designed for 24 engines, but had 6 additional engines added to it and then 4 additional Vernier engines, for a total of 34 engines in the final design for the first stage.
Question: Didn't they look into using more efficient liquid hydrogen engines?
Charles P. Vick: They were looking at it and developing the technology, but they were way behind the United States. Some papers were just released in Moscow on that, but I do not have them yet. We do know that Nikolai Kuznetsov, at his design bureau in Kyubyshev (now, Samara), was working on a hydrogen engine concept. M.A. Lyulka Engine Design Bureau, did successfully develop an engine, known as the D-57, D-57M, which was one of the many engines that have been proposed. It was designed to be applied to an upper stage for N-1. But the engines they actually tested all used kerosene for fuel, and liquid oxygen.
The Soviets developed whole families of engines for the N-1, and other programs. Many other engines were actually involved, wholly separate of the manned spacecraft.
The first three stages of the booster are known as N-1. When you get into the fourth and fifth stage, and then the lunar module and the lunar orbiting spacecraft, and the big, huge shroud that goes over that, that's known as L-3.
So it's called N-1/L-3, for lunar missions. The lunar part was a separate package and, in fact, they parallel-processed both vehicles, the L-3 and N-1, as separate packages, in order to process the vehicle.
From 1962 through 1967, the design underwent repeated changes. N-1 was intially designed to deliver 45 metric tons of payload to low-Earth orbit. Then it was redesigned for 75 metric tons, and then it edged up to about 92 metric tons, and, ultimately, 100 metric tons, by 1972.
Question: That would make it comparable to the Saturn V?
Charles P. Vick: Close to it. Saturn had a capability of delivering between 130 to 140 metric tons of payload to low-Earth orbit, and N-1 was comparable, but not as capable. This difference in payload capability meant that the Soviets would have been able to place only one man on the lunar surface, not two men, as we did in each Apollo mission. Their lunar module was designed for merely one man, not two; it was very tight inside. It was designed as a one-man lunar excursion module to go to the surface, and the vehicle was different from the way we did it.
In addition, the Soviets were launching at 50 to 51 degrees inclination to the equator out of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, going north to skirt the Chinese border, not going due east as we do from the Kennedy Space Center at 28 degrees. That really cuts into the launch vehicle's optimum performance capability. Because they launch at such a high inclination, they have to also do a plane change in order to go to the Moon, and it takes a lot of energy to do that.
The Soviet lunar-orbiting spacecraft was a two-man spacecraft. What would have been the third man's seat was to be taken up by the lunar samples. The lunar cabin, or module, involved the Block D rocket stage--which on Proton is its fourth stage, and on the N-1 is the fifth stage. Block D was designed to use a kerosene and liquid oxygen engine, RD-58M, to break the spacecraft into lunar orbit, and to refine that orbit, down to about 10 km above the lunar surface. Then, the Block D engine, with the lunar lander on top, would fire for the last time, to start the direct powered descent to the lunar surface. For the last 1.5 to 2 km prior to landing, the lunar cabin would have separated from the lunar braking module, Block D, and do the final powered descent and maneuvering to landing, from about 1.5 km altitude, down to the lunar surface.
Question: We had a lot of discussion in this country of how to do the Apollo landings. We considered Earth-orbit rendezvous, direct descent, and lunar-orbit rendezvous. We decided on lunar-orbit rendezvous.
Charles P. Vick: A Soviet technique, at that. Ultimately theirs would have been lunar-orbit rendevous, but it was also lunar-surface rendezvous. As we understand it today, Korolev's last directions before he died in January 1966, would have involved at least two N-1 launches and several unmanned Lunakhod launches also. Lunakhod, meaning ``Moon walker,'' was a rover that the Soviets used, designed to accompany cosmonauts on exploring the Moon. Korolev's program required multiple-launches, and had backups all the way around for the entire mission.
The Americans did their own separate studies of Earth-orbital rendezvous, direct, and lunar-orbital rendezvous. Lunar-orbital rendezvous utimately turned out to be the best option. The Soviets themselves had done lunar surface rendezvous, direct descent, Earth-orbital rendezvous, and lunar-orbital rendezvous studies.
But when the United States actually did it, and the Soviets sat down and looked at the figures, they considered our concept of lunar-orbital rendezvous to be particularly brilliant, to quote Alexei Leonov. Only later did they--and we--discover that a Russian had presented the concept many years before, and done the mathematics. They backed away from the Earth-orbital rendezvous and direct concepts, and went instead to what became lunar-orbital rendezvous and lunar-surface rendezvous, for themselves.
That would have involved two different kinds of launches vehicles. Prior to the N-1 launches, they would have launched at least one or two Lunakhod unmanned precursor surface-exploration vehicles on the Proton rocket, and landed in the general areas where they planned to do the manned lunar landing. The unmanned Lunakhods would have acted as radio beacons for targetting the landing area. Then, the Soviets would have launched an umannned N-1, with full lunar equipment, and land a lunar module, or cabin, in that preselected area for landing. That would have effectively provided an unmanned vehicle, approximately 28 days before the next mission, and the Lunakhods would have been able to inspect the lunar module to see that it was OK. The Lunakhods would then back off from the site, in order to get pictures of the areas.
In the manned lunar mission itself, which was planned to be launched 28 days later, the Soviets would have done a powered descent with the Block D. That is, a constant burn, constant thrust descent, in which very quickly, all of your forward velocity is lost and you come down almost vertically. This allows you to see your landing point very precisely, and to maneuver to see the target, very early on.
Question: Because it's right underneath you?
Charles P. Vick: Right. It's a near-vertical landing procedure. In the Apollo program, we used a gradual, throttled powered descent to the landing point, which is an elliptical approach. The Soviet constant-burn approach is a vertical landing profile that requires less energy, but can be far more dangerous. But they felt that they could do this, and had demonstrated the lunar module in Earth-orbit in 1971 and 1972 quite successfully, through three flight tests. The Block D was tested at least once in a flight test, besides its unmanned lunar missions, and Zond circumnavigation precursor missions.
Question: Was this a direct descent, or would they have gone into lunar orbit first?
Charles P. Vick: They would have gone into lunar orbit first, and the lunar orbiter would have been there along with the other [back-up] one, the unmanned one, in the same general vicinity. Rendezvous was required. Cosmonuat Alexei Leonov has said there was an incredible series of rendezvous required for the lunar mission. There are two vehicles, and two rendezvous--one on the lunar surface and one in lunar orbit--as well as one coming back from the lunar surface to rendezvous and dock with the spacecraft that is in lunar orbit. It's very complicated in that respect.
But as far back as 1965, the Soviets knew from their guidance people that they could land them within a 5-km ellipse of the landing point on the lunar surface. That was the guidance parameter they had to work with. By 1969, they had reduced that down to 2.5-km guidance quality. The cosmonauts were required to be able to walk across the lunar surface with their lunar suits on, over to the back-up lunar module if the first lunar module failed. They also looked into using a Lunokhod rover, which would carry a man across the lunar surface to the back-up lunar module. So it wasn't exactly like landing one lunar module on top of another one, so to speak; there was some distance between them.
Question: Is the reason this is so much more complicated than what we did in the Apollo program, the fact that their launch capability would not have allowed them take as much payload along in one launch?
Charles P. Vick: It's more the safety factor, in every sense of the word. They really did not trust their equipment that much. Rendezvous in lunar orbit really scared the heck out of them. They did a lot of revisions and avionics work, as well as forward vision capability systems for doing that. They would have the unmanned orbiting spacecraft as a back-up. It's the standard package that they had developed, crazy at it may seem.
The question becomes, once they had actually successfully launched an N-1, would Soviet First Secretary Leonid Brezhnev have given the orders to go with the manned lunar landing, regardless of whether everything else was in place? The bottom line is that, for political reasons, the mission would have been conducted with one single launch, with no lunar surface rendezvous available to it.
Question: As the time got shorter, and they wanted to see results, they would have gone ahead and done it, without the redundancy?
Charles P. Vick: Right. That is what is indicated. Brezhnev was making demands, and then, after a certain point, the doctrinal policies changed in Russia; as detente developed, in the early 1970s, the lunar program really lost favor. One, the Soviet Union had lost the race, and two, the program was way behind schedule, so since it couldn't come off, it wasn't worthwhile. Also, there were other programs that could be done that were already flying, such as the Salyut space station, which evolved into today's Mir space station.
Question: You've described a very expensive scenario for how the Soviets were planning to do their manned lunar program, having double vehicles and unmanned launches before they would send people. How did that change?
Charles P. Vick: It changed because of economics and the limits of the program, and the problems they were having with the booster itself. The Soviets actually had five flight test vehicles, the first one of which was expected to be flight-tested in the August-October 1968 time frame. As they built up to that flight test, in June 1968, hairline cracks developed in the huge first-stage liquid oxygen tank, and that first stage had to be cannibalized. So everything was delayed until Feb. 21, 1969, when they finally flew the first vehicle. The United States did not understand, or successfully interpret and detect, that launch. The British did, through national security facilities, but it was never accepted by the intelligence community on this side. So, in effect, the Soviets did a flight test, and we didn't know it.
Question: Was that first flight test successful?
Charles P. Vick: It lasted through 40,000 feet before the first stage failed, because of engine vibration and the rupture of some propellant lines, which created a fire. A false signal was then given by the KORD [Engine Operation Control System] system, shutting off the engines. One engine had failed, and the control system was supposed to shut off two opposite pairs of engines to maintain balance. This was an aerospike design. If you shut off an engine on one side, you have to shut off the exact opposite engine on the other side. But when the KORD instrumentation failed, it shut all the engines off. The booster began to break up from the tail end. Then the launch escape system pulled the spacecraft free at the top of the stack, away from the rest of the L-3 portion of the vehicle, which started breaking up.
But the first stage kept right on burning for some time, until it went ballistic. I think the first and second stages kept right on going for a little while, until it didn't have any guidance system to guide it. The rest of it had all broken off. It's very dramatic to watch that arching failure. You see it going fine, and then, oof! The launch escape tower pulls away from the booster, and everything just starts coming apart. Then you finally see range safety blow it up, several minutes later.
Question: What is an aerospike engine?
Charles P. Vick: The N-1 first stage was a very advanced propulsion concept. In its original design, when it had 24 engines, they were atmosphere-adapting aerospike engines, much like that being considered for the Space lifter X-33 concept that NASA is looking at, even though it has some technical problems--a lot more than NASA understands at this point, I think. The aerospike atmospherically adapts and increases thrust as the atmosphere gets thinner.
There is an achilles heel to the aerospike design, and the Russians learned this the hard way, with N-1, in two ways. One is the thermal load required to create a nozzle in which you have multiple rocket engines burning on the outside. You have a long nozzle that the expanding gas goes against, to create the thrust that you want. That nozzle has to be cooled. The thermal loads, the energy loss from that cooling in the aerospike design, veto any possibility of acquiring a better performance capability out of the N-1 booster, compared to using six additional engines with standard nozzles on them. The Soviets learned the hard way, that if you have too much surface area for that nozzle, the energy lost in cooling actually vetoes the performance.
There's also another aspect.
When the Russians transitioned to the 6 additional engines in the center, within the 24 engines, they didn't make all the revisions required to preclude the entire engine boat-tail operating as an aerospike. That produced the aerodynamic effects with the third flight test that were the hair-trigger that created that failure. The gas was coming in from the sides of the booster, as it rose up from the launch pad, and from the shock wave coming up from the bottom of it.
During the second flight test, some debris--bolts, nuts, or whatever from manufacturing--got into one or two of the engines and caused a fire to break out in the first stage. This happened to a Space Shuttle main engine that blew up on a test stand in the late 1970s, and that's what happened in the N-1 engine bay, when the oxgygen line ruptured and fuel dumped all over everything. Because everything was hot, the engine exploded into fire.
You can see the fire developing as the N-1 lifted off and cleared the tower. Soon after, the automatic control system shut off all but one engine. That explosion had, in fact, cut the lines that would have shut off that engine, so the engine couldn't be cut off. That one engine tipped the N-1 over on its side, and it collapsed sideways and fishtailed, dropping back on the facility and doing the tremendous damage that we have seen in the declassified Corona photo reconnaissance pictures.
The third flight test was on June 27, 1971. It lifted off and failed almost immediately, when an aftereffect, a shock wave produced by the acoustic gas pressure, travelled back up the vehicle--much as we have with the Shuttle--and sent the centerline of the booster spinning. The interstage between the second- and third-stage structure actually broke, and the top of the booster started falling off. As the booster continued to climb out, it gained some stability, but the whole L-3 unit started flipping over. Ultimately, the front end broke off and the booster broke up at that time.
Apparently all the launch escape systems did work as they should, and it is certainly very dramatic. Thank goodness that it did work that way, because you wouldn't have wanted to be around when that thing collapsed on the pad: It gouged out a 90-foot crater, about 20 km downrange.
I think the most dramatic pictures I have ever seen are the pictures I saw in Russia when I was there in April 1997, of the fourth, and final, flight test of N-1, on Nov. 23, 1972. It had almost worked through the entire first stage burn; it failed in the last few seconds, about 10 seconds after completing its first stage burn and going to the second stage. The programming was such that it could not start the second stage, in spite of the first stage having failed at the last minute, during the center engine shut-down procedure. There are 6 center engines and 24 outer engines, plus four Vernier engines on this fourth version of the vehicle.
You watch the vehicle lift off; it's clean, it's beautiful, and you can't believe how much fire and intensity of energy there is in the flame trench. The vehicle completely clears the facility and the flame trench; the concrete is still glowing yellow, well after the vehicle has cleared the facility. I have never, ever, seen aything like that before. That had to play hell with the concrete ... just the very energy involved in that blast furnace.
When they shut down the center six engines, there was a propellant line that fed some of the gas generator systems on the engines which ruptured. It started a fire that spread very rapidly. The severe pogo vibrations broke up everything at that point. The vehicle failed, and the engines were shut down by the KORD engine control system again. The second stage was not started. They never blew the booster up. They let it go completely ballistic downrange, some 200 to 500 km, and crash there. I'm sure some parts broke off, but a large portion of the vehicle went all the way downrange, crashed, and exploded.
Question: This answers the question of why the Soviets were never able to send people to the Moon. What was the reason that in the mid-1960s the money was not available for this program?
Charles P. Vick: You end up saying to yourself, ``Was the lunar race real?'' Yes, and no. It's a very ambiguous answer. There was clearly a greater priority than the lunar mission, and perhaps the Russian leadership felt that they had to keep the Americans in the lunar race to keep them away from the strategic rocket game. If they could keep us occupied with the lunar effort, it would make us divert a lot of funds that would have gone, perhaps, into more strategic rocket or military programs.
Question: But by that time didn't the United States have an overwhelming military superiority?
Charles P. Vick: We had the superiority and the capability, and they didn't. To a degree, they wanted to slow us down, stop us, and keep us occupied. At the same time, there was no separation between their military and space programs. Their whole space program was based on the surge capacity boosters that they produced for the military. They were made available for the space program because they were excess production. A number of boosters was made available every year, and the space program grew over and beyond the already committed military programs through those years.
It's amazing they were able to do what they did. To a large degree, when you look at the appropriations level, you realize that Korolev had challenged the leadership in Russia well before he died in January 1966, even before Khrushchev went out of office. He said, ``Are we going to do this, or aren't we going to do this?'' The ultimate answer was, ``Yes, we're going to do this, but this is all the money you're going to get. And you're going to have to make do with that.'' That's the way it was done. They went on to do the work, and I'd have to say that, so far as the government was really concerned, for all practical purposes, there was no lunar race.
But the scientists themselves with the tremendous effort that they put out, at what became the Energia Company of today, actually turned it into a lunar race--a very close one, in a lot of respects. ``They had all the wrong failures at the wrong time, and we had all the right ones,'' to quote Dr. Charles Sheldon, former chief of the Science Policy Research division, of the Congressional Research Service at the Library of Congress. If the opposite had been the case, it may have been a very different picture.
Question: Were our failures early enough in the program so that we still had enough time to correct them?
Charles P. Vick: That's right, and we did thorough ground testing, which the Russians were not able to do. They were able to test fire all the upper stages of N-1 and all the payloads, and flight test all that equipment, as a general rule. But they did not have the test stands for the entire launch vehicle stack to be dynamically tested, although they did it in subscale form. They did all the testing in Korolev, formerly known as Kaliningrad, in the Moscow area. They did test firings of the first stage at Zagorsk, outside of Moscow, and then did other tests at Baikonur, which is where they ended up building the boosters' first two or three stages.
The rest of it was built elsewhere in Russia, primarily Samara, and shipped by either air or railroad to the launch site. The first and second stages were built off site at the Cosmodrome inside the N-1/Energia assembly building. In fact, the facilities are still there and are available for use for the Energia booster.
In Samara, the Soviets destroyed a total of seven boosters. At Baikonur, they destroyed six boosters, over and above the four flight test vehicles, plus the scrapped first stage of a flight test vehicle. They had ground-test vehicles and dynamic-test vehicles. They broke three dynamic test stages at the Cosmodrome. They are very proud of that. They broke them during structural dynamic testing, to find the limit. And they broke the flight test vehicles, too.
Question: One of the incidents that it is said had an impact on the lunar program, was the death of Korolev in early 1966.
Charles P. Vick: If Korolev had lived, it would not have made any difference in the lunar effort. The Soviets were two and a half to five years behind U.S. developments, which we had already started in the 1950s. Khrushchev started the space race, but one would have to legitimately say that he also ended the space race, when the decision was made to put the appropriations into the strategic rocket programs.
But it is amazing what the Academy of Sciences and the Russians managed to accomplish--the sheer momentum of what Kolorlev and the Academy of Sciences had started. By the time Korolev died in January 1966, things were beginning to come apart for him. Even if he had lived, they would not have beaten us to the Moon. N-1 would not have been ready on time.
In terms of propulsion, the United States was already working on the F-1-class engine and hydrogen/oxygen engines, which were used on the Saturn V, back in the 1950s. The hydrogen work was done by Aerojet initially, and other work was done by Pratt and Whitney. This work led to the J-2 engine, which was used on the second and third stages of the Saturn V. Rocketdyne did the work on the E-1 engine, which was a buildup to the F-1, at a half-million pounds of thrust.
Both countries had considerable problems with rocket engines, kerosene/liquid oxygen, or LOX engines, because of rough combustion. We took quite a few years--until the late 1960s, early 1970s--to learn what is known as the ``rough combustion curve.'' If certain parameters of design are outside this curve, you won't get rough combustion in the thrust chamber; if the design parameters are inside, you will have rough combustion. It took a long time to learn that. But the Soviets developed a very robust engine that is being applied to American commercial launch vehicles today--NK-33 and the NK-43--which could even stand rough combustion.
You might ask, why so many engines? It was what was possible to be developed in the time frame required. There was also a very severe argument between Valentin Glushko and Korolev. Glushko, who headed the Soviets' prestigious Gas Dynamics Laboratory, refused to build kerosene/LOX engines, and would only build storable propellant engines for Korolev's launch vehicle for the lunar effort. There were discretionary funds available for storable propellant engines, for the military, which was using storage propellants.
Question: What are storable propellants?
Charles P. Vick: I'm thinking about UDMH [unsymmetrical dimethylmethylhydrazine] and nitrogen tetroxide, storable hypergolics. They can be stored in a normal environment chamber, but they're highly toxic and very harmful to human beings; they can kill you, if breathed in. When UDMH and nitric acid come together, they explode instantly into flames.
The other approach uses kerosene and liquid oxygen, LOX. The LOX is cryogenically cooled, and the kerosene is storable and can be super-cooled to a degree. The kerosene the Soviets use, which they still use today, is actually a derivative of gasoline. It's more gummy than our kerosene. Kerosene works quite well with those engines. The differences are really very small, as has been demonstrated in test firings in the United States. Glushko refused to develop kerosene engines because he didn't think that that a 150-metric-ton thrust engine using kerosene/LOX could be developed. He essentially refused to do it.
Question: It seems that an important factor in the Soviet lunar program was the competition that was maintained and fostered by the government between the different design bureaus. How did this affect the progress of the lunar program?
Charles P. Vick: Few people realize that Stalin, a long time ago, gave the chief designers the right to refuse to do a project or be a part of a project, without penalty. When a General-Designer is appointed, it is a rank, a military rank, quite literally. And when they're appointed, they are appointed for life. They are gods. There were the various aircraft design bureaus. Korolev was a General-Designer. The person who succeeded him, Vasily Mishin, was a General-Designer. Glushko became a General-Designer of rocket engines. Vladimir Chelomei was a General-Designer, who also had the UR-700/LK-1 competetive design to Korolev's lunar design. Mikhail Yangel was also a General-Designer with his design bureau in Ukraine; he had the R-56, based on the R-46 super-ICBM concept, another competitive design to Korolev's N-1.
Yangel was initially developing the R-46 super-ICBM, as Chelomei was developing the UR-500 super-ICBM ``city buster,'' as vehicles this size used to be called. They were designed for a 150-megaton warhead that was doctrinally in favor in the early 1960s. Chelomei's UR-500, later the Proton, won the contract; the R-46 was dropped.
But then, the lunar contract came along. Khrushchev had developed this technique of having competetive contracts, supposedly to get better designs. Intially, looking at the lunar booster, they had selected a booster for the program, but then the competetive boosters were presented midstream, when N-1 was already under development and facilities were being built.
At the same time, money was being spent on those competing programs, and wasted. The chief designers were literally out of control at that point, and the government did not rein them in, except that the R-56 was dropped when Mishin, Korolev's successor, wrote letters complaining about it to the Ministry of General Machine Building, which ran the space program starting in 1965-1966, with the new Five Year Plan.
This so-called competition was very destructive, because people were not working as a single team, for a single goal, on a single vehicle. They were saying: ``I'm going to work on this. He's going to work on that. Mishin can do what he wants to do, but we're going to do our thing.''
There also were the unmanned lunar programs, including the automatic sample programs, the Lunakhod program, plus the Zond circumnavigation program, so there were more than half a dozen manned and unmanned lunar programs in progress at the same time, in very intensely competing organizations. Pure chaos. It made it very difficult for Mishin, who succeeded Korolev as General-Designer of what eventually became Energia, because he had all these competitors to the N-1, and he didn't have the money he needed.
Mishin would make recommendations that they build test stands for the first stage, or do testing, or put on certain kinds of instrumentation to be certain that the engines were performing. Some of the instrumentation he was suggesting was very advanced for rocket engine performance observation--much of which we still do not have perfected, even today. Their computer technology was not the best in the world. Their instrument control technology for N-1 was very advanced thinking, but it just was not right. It would have been perfected over time. I think with the fifth flight test, they would have finally successfully flight-tested the booster. But Mishin never got the support he needed for these efforts.
A lot of people said Mishin messed up the managenment and everything else. You have to realize that he had 25-plus programs dumped on him when Korolev died. And he had a lot of people reporting to him, directly. It took him a while before he began to delegate authority, and he got reprimanded by the Ministry of General Machine Building for it. The actual development of N-1 was going about the pace you would expect for development of a booster, looking at the limitations of the ground testing that was permitted by the Ministry and the government.
So you end up saying to yourself, ``Hey, the government, the Ministries, and the political leadership are not putting the money in there, so they're getting what they're asking for, as a result.'' But Mishin became the fall guy, and by 1974, when the doctrinal change in detente was beginning, the lunar program no longer had its place--as was the case geopolitically and in terms of policy in the United States. Mishin was relieved of his job in March 1974, fired, in effect, in a hostile corporate takeover, sanctioned by the Russian leadership. Quite brutal.
For a long time, Mishin has been very much criticized, and has been accused of being responsible for the failure of the lunar program. In reality, he was an exceptionally intelligent deputy General-Designer to Korolev. One reason that Mishin was not very popular, is that he tried to prevent others from working on their own hidden agendas, and to get all of them working on the assigned task.
Glushko continued to fight Korolev even after his death. He fought Mishin, looking over his shoulder. Roald Sagdeev, former head of the Russian Space Science Institute, has a lot to say about that in his book, The Makings of a Soviet Scientist. Glushko was an utter zealot, egoist, demagogue, and very destructive. He ultimately brought down Mishin and the lunar program. And he even went so far as to write the manned lunar program out of history, never acknowledging it--ignoring it, as if it didn't exist.
Soon after Glushko died in 1988, and when perestroika came along, guess what? Mishin began to talk about the lunar effort.
That's not all. As far back as 1981, I did a lot of publishing in the Illustrated Encyclopedia of Space Technology. One drawing that I did there is infamous with the Soviets, because it effectively showed N-1 and said to Glushko: ``Ha, ha. You want to rewrite history, but this is what existed.'' That drawing was published in the Soviet newspapers Pravda and in Izvestia. It's not a perfect drawing; it's not dead right, but it actually shows the N-1. It was close enough to shake them up, because the book was at a big British and American book show, held in Moscow once a year. All the chief designers, including Mishin and Glushko, went out and looked in this encyclopedia. ``They declassified it!'' It wasn't exactly right, but it really shook them up, no end.
Question: During the period of the Nixon/Brezhnev detente, the planning began for the joint 1975 Apollo/Soyuz mission. But before that, there was a decision by the Soviets, in the early 1970s, to develop a series of space stations, largely for military reasons. Didn't that become the focus of their manned activities?
Charles P. Vick: The first Salyut station was launched in 1971. That decision was made in the fall of 1969, after the July 1969 launch failure.
Question: And of course, in 1969, the Americans landed on the Moon, so the race was over for all intents and purposes, because getting there second was like not getting their at all.
Charles P. Vick: Right, and with a program that was not as good, with not as many people on the lunar surface.
Question: That's why I was suprised to see that even after our lunar landing, the Soviets continued to test the N-1.
Charles P. Vick: They continued to test it well after we had nearly finished flying Apollo. Starting in 1970, they committed 600 million additional rubles to the lunar program, over and above the appropriations level, which was a total of 4.5 billion rubles from 1960 through 1974. They were looking at an advanced lunar booster that would use hydrogen upper stages--a derivative N-1 design, that is in some of my illustrations. It was going to be used to create a lunar base, which could provide 30 to 120 days on the lunar surface. That would have been possible by 1980 or so, but the program was never committed.
If the Soviets had continued N-1 development, I doubt that the Shuttle would have ever completed development. That would have changed the entire direction of our space efforts, both Russian and U.S. I doubt that Saturn V would have totally gone out of production.
Question: Because we would have continued the lunar program?
Charles P. Vick: The White House was very concerned about the continuing of the N-1 program. The Nixon White House knew about the fourth N-1 launch vehicle failure before the Kremlin did. I know that. The White House was clearly very concerned, because it would affect our space policy and what we were doing. The Air Force and other factions wanted to go to a Shuttle-class vehicle, which the aerospace industry wanted. Industry wasn't getting a lot of new, lucrative research and development contracts out of continuing Apollo. But if the Soviets had been able to launch their lunar program in the 1970s, we would have probably continued Apollo.
Question: What was mosty striking to you in your trip to Russia and the Baikonur Cosmodrome last April?
Charles P. Vick: The trip was an eye-opener for me. It's the second one I've taken with the Friends and Partners in Space. The Baikonur Cosmodrome is being consolidated, and the older facilities, which are 40-plus years old, are being abandoned. There is a lot that is deteriorated; entire apartment complexes have been abandoned in place. But people are coming back to the Cosmodrome. You don't see much out-of-control military. Discipline is being maintained.
Two years ago, there was almost no activity inside the N-1/Energia and Buran assembly buildings, but now they're moving in commercial activity, and the Soyuz and future Rus booster. The Rus booster is a derivative of the Soyuz booster, called Soyuz-2, in fact. It is an improved, upgraded version of it that will be used in space station.
They are refurbishing areas and consolidating into the newest and the best, which is the N-1/Energia/Buran facility. They have not gotten rid of the Buran orbiters, or the Energia boosters. There are two flight boosters available, although they need engines for the strap-on boosters. There are other ground-test elements associated with it there. They have a complete dynamic test tower. It's practically brand new. The N-1 facilities and the Energia facilities can eventually be refined to accommodate the Rus booster and possibly, Energia/Buran.
The Russians feel that nobody is going to abandon those vehicles totally and not utilize them. They don't want to lose the capability, because they're looking toward the future and, I'm sure, not merely in Earth-orbit, but in lunar and planetary participation, way down the road, when their economy gets better. I respect that completely. Even the Russian Space Agency has tried to develop an all new launch-vehicle family of improved vehicles, as well as new ones, utilizing old ICBMs or newer ICBMs for space boosters instead of throwing them away. They are offering them both commercially and for their own military and civilian space programs.
I saw some of the other facilities, including hardware that you had never hoped to see in your lifetime, military rocketry hardware. I saw the competitor to Chelomei's SS-9 ICBM, the UR200. I saw the R-26, which used to be one of the parade missiles, known as Sasin. I saw the R-7 ICBM, the old Sputnik booster. You could see it even inside--the details, and the guidance packages. We went to mission control. It was a beehive of activity.
We went to TsNIImash, the Central Specialized Design Bureau of the Institute of Machine Building. This is an awesome facility that is roughly equivalent to the Tullahoma Air Force facility, Marshall Space Flight Center, Lewis Research Center, and more, combined in one place. It's unbelievable to look at this, how spread out it is, and what that facility does for their strategic as well as space programs. They do primarily dynamic acoustic, environmental, wind tunnel testing--full-scale testing. That's where all stages of the N-1 were tested, not only in a scaled version, but with full-sized hardware. Each stage was dynamically tested. They never dynamically tested the full stack, unless they did on the launch pad.
Question: What did you see of the N-1?
Charles P. Vick: I saw N-1's interstage, between the first and second stage, in photographic form, undergoing dynamic testing. I also saw photographs. I wasn't able to see the model, but I saw two different versions of N-1's design--quarter-scale dynamic models, full-up vehicles--on which they did the dynamic testing. They were very confident in their dynamic testing techniques; they did not worry about doing a full stacked vehicle under dynamic testing, which we did with Saturn V.
Question: Did you see any N-1 hardware?
Charles P. Vick: Yes, I did. I saw some of the interstage truss structures. I saw many of the kerosene tanks for the first second, third, and fourth stages. I saw some additional structure where the six engines would sit on the engine boat-tail--the actual plate that sits there and is the end plate of the vehicle, where those six engines sit. I saw the erector transporter that was used, although it was revised to handle the Energia. I saw the launch pad at a distance, several thousand feet away. We were inside the N-1 assembly building, which is being used for Energia/Buran. As I said before, they are consolidating facilities in support of the space station, and are putting the Soyuz booster in there. They will be handling the Rus booster, and eventually, the N-1 pad is going to be handling the Rus booster, too. All the Soyuz pads and the assembly building are going to be shut down. It is fascinating that they are looking at the future and combining it all in one place.
Question: One major part of their activity today is commercial operations, and the other is the international space station, and, parallel to that, keeping the Mir operational as long as possible. How are the Russians positioned to carry out the space program they have going on now?
Charles P. Vick: They're not in the best of shape; that's for sure. But they are systematically consolidating in such a way as to be able to definitely support the international space station. The funding and the facilities will be ready for that. I saw a lot of feverish work going on to support that, at Baikonur as well as in Moscow, where work is being done on the Service Module. Proton launch vehicles are going to be available to launch various elements of the station. They have more than enough of those, and their commercial launches are being sold quite rapidly for Proton. They're selling the Proton booster like crazy for commercial communication satellite launches and things of that kind.
The Soyuz booster is also going to be used for that. The development of the Rus booster will almost certainly be guaranteed because of that. So, Samara will get the advanced Soyuz booster and its Molinya derivatives with various upper stages.
The international space station work, the development and construction of the individual modules, is continuing. We saw that very clearly in Moscow, now that they are apparently resolving the appropriations problems, or at least prioritizing that. The Russian budget is actually falling, with tax collections some 45 percent short of the revenue needed for financing the entire government, but the space program is a protected budget. It will get at least as much as it got last year. With the consolidation going on that I've seen, I think they will be able--or are positioning themselves to be able--with the help of the commercial launches and the money they're earning from that, to accomplish what they say they are going to do. It's going to be tight, though, because some of the commercial activity is independent companies that are not paying the Russian government, but may be contributing to the programs.
There are some direct contracts that are being paid from the United States to the companies, which is really the only way to do things. Don't go through the Russian government to give appropriations, as the United States learned the hard way this last spring and fall, because that money might get diverted to something else and never get to the Russian Space Agency. That is literally what happened in relation to the Service Module, as I understand it, at least. Something has been done to address that issue and resolve it, and work is moving forward.
Question: What reflection of their heritage from the Soviet lunar program do you see in the way the Russians have tried to deal with the June 25 accident aboard the Mir space station?
Charles P. Vick: In a lot of respects, we are very lucky that they had the accident on Mir recently, because of what we can learn in order to be ready for similar problems on the international space station. I feel reasonably sure the Russians are going to resolve that, solve it, and get it back on line.
Their tenacity is unbelievable. You fix it. That's what we do also, whether we want to admit it or not.
And Mir is a major, major technological accomplishment on the part of the Russians. Credit needs
to be given accordingly. Even their lunar program, which failed and was ultimately scrapped, has
much to teach us, and was a major accomplishment.