Mishin Control: The Political Turbulence that Grounded the Soviet Manned Lunar Program

Lunar 9.jpgThe conspiracy theory that the United States falsified the Apollo moon landings in order to score points on the Russians is well-known. What is less well-known is that following America’s realization of President Kennedy’s vision for a human presence on the Moon, the Soviet Union officially disavowed any research or intention to effect their own manned lunar landings. This attitude may have contributed to the persistent notion that the Apollo program was a hoax since at the time there was nothing to which it could be compared, and the Soviets diminished the practicality and purpose of the Apollo program at every turn. On the American side, reconnaissance information about the Soviet effort couldn’t be released without compromising national security. So the true nature of Soviet ambitions in space were not revealed until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

In two complementary reports from Joint Publications Research Service (JPRS) Reports, 1957-1995“Mishin Monograph on Failure of Soviet Manned Lunar Program”by V.P. Mishin (JPRS-USP-91-006, 11/12/1991, 21 pages), and “Development of Soviet Spacecraft for Manned Missions” by I.B. Afanasyev (JPRS-USP-92-003, 5/27/1992, 29 pages), we discover that not only were the Soviets working feverishly on a lunar landingthey were designing spacecraft for a manned orbital rendezvous with Mars. It’s no coincidence that these monographs only came to light during the “glasnost/perestroika” (openness/restructuring) period in the early 1990s.

Lunar 1.jpgTo begin with, we should acknowledge the manifest achievements of the Soviet space scientists overall: the Sputnik satellites, Yuri Gagarin’s epic flight, and numerous other pioneering human and technical accomplishments. The Soviet pilots and engineers have never lacked vision, courage or ability. Even today the United States relies upon Russian technology to get to and from the International Space Station following the retirement of the U.S. space shuttles.

The real impediment to the Soviet manned lunar program came down to politics. The father of the Soviet space program was S.P. Korolev, known in the West only as the “chief designer” until his untimely death in 1966. Not only was Korolev a gifted engineer, he was uniquely qualified to navigate the communist bureaucracy in order to get what he wanted.

Lunar 2.jpgV.P. Mishin, Korolev’s successor, was first and foremost an engineer and did not have the latter’s political grace and influence. Even for Korolev the work was not always smooth sailingwitness his arrest and exile to a Siberian mining camp in 1938 during the Stalinist purges. And before he was designing rockets for scientific missions, he was designing intercontinental ballistic missiles; the tension between military and civilian objectives presented a delicate balancing act.

In Mishin's monograph, we learn,

...only in mid-1964 when the work on the Apollo Saturn program was already broadly expanded that it was decided that landing a mission on the Moon’s surface was to be a high-priority objective. (Mishin, p. 7)


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The Soviets had already succeeded with orbital lunar reconnaissance and unmanned landers. The launch system to take cosmonauts to the moon and beyond was known as the N1/L3. For the N1, their approach was to use clusters of smaller engines to generate sufficient thrust for large payloads (the N1 had 30 such units in its first stage). Initially their goal was to put just a single cosmonaut on the Moon, with another in an orbiting support module:

The early preliminary design of the N1/L3 lunar complex was signed by Korolev on 25 December 1964. In the context of that design, a Soviet mission landing one cosmonaut on the Moon while a second cosmonaut remained in circumlunar orbit would take place in 1967-1968 and would use one N1 launch vehicle and the L3 complex of spacecraft. (Afansyev, p. 12)

By contrast, the American Apollo launch vehicle used five main engines in the first stage of the Saturn V and featured a crew of three, two of whom would visit the lunar surface. The Saturn V was designed by a team headed by Wernher von Braun, who with many of his associates was brought from Germany to America following World War II.

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From the start there was dissent within the ranks of the Soviet scientists, who offered competing designs for government approval. For that reason and as a matter of policy, there was a great deal of secrecy and duplication of effort. One of the engineers, V.P. Glushko, was unwilling to work with Korolev because the former had denounced the latter resulting in Korolev’s time in prison. Then there was the military angle: the lunar program was viewed as a political, prestige project which would not result in a missile. That raised questions of funding, which exacerbated the abbreviated timeframe in which the Soviets could realistically beat the Americans to the Moon. There were production and testing problemstoo much time spent on the one, and not nearly enough on the other. All of the above came to a head with the death of Korolev in 1966.

Ironically, JPRS Reports includes an article from that very year wherein none other than Yuri Gagarin quotes K.E. Tsiolkovskiy’s fictional account of a Russian Moon landing:

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American intelligence knew about the N1, they just weren’t talking about it. They also knew that each of the four flight tests of the N1 had ended in explosionsthe second in 1969 on the launch pad, which further set back Soviet efforts. So although the competing programs were quite real, both Mishin and Afanasyev note that early on the “space race” itself was distinctly in favor of the U.S. Following America’s successful lunar mission with Apollo 11 in 1969, the Soviet N1/L3 program was dismantled wholesale and officially ceased to exist.

The end of the N1 also spelled the end of the Heavy Interplanetary Spacecraft (HIS) that was designed for a manned orbital mission to Mars and featured a nuclear power plant and ionic propulsion:

In general appearance, this HIS resembled a daisy, with the nuclear power plant in the center and the radiator-emitters serving as the petals. At the far end of the “flower-stem” was the crew cabin. (Afanasyev, p. 3)

But it was not to be:

The priority given first to the lunar program and then to the orbital stations slowed the development of the HIS. Of course, we didn’t need to hurry with the lunar program. Rather, we needed to gradually perfect the N1, which would make it possible to create a heavy orbital station and, as a result, the HIS and perform one of the most grandiose, impressive missions of the 20th century, one that would be entirely comparable to and, in some ways, would exceed the landing on the Moon. (Afanasyev, pp. 4-5)


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The Soviets had not given up entirely, however. Cosmos 434, launched 12 August 1971, included orbital test maneuvers of an unmanned lunar lander. This was not confirmed by the government until that vehicle burned-up in re-entry over Australia in the early 1980s. There was also a project undertaken by V.P. Glushko in October 1974 which included a manned lunar mission. This too fell victim to bureaucracy, and was sacrificed in favor of a reusable orbiter similar to the U.S. space shuttle. That program, the Buran orbiter, was discontinued when the Soviet Union was dissolved in December 1991.

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Mishin and Afanasyev agree on why the Americans succeeded and why the Soviets failed. First Mishin, on the American Apollo program:

The program was not cloaked in secrecy, which facilitated the free exchange of data between all the interested organizations, and the flow of information was organized not only vertically (from the higher organizations to the lower and vice versa) but also horizontally i.e., between contractors. The free flow of information made it possible to track and monitor the course of the work. (Mishin, p. 5)

And Afanasyev, on the Soviet effort and its aftermath:

Now, and especially in the near future, many Soviet space programs are at risk of remaining completely obscure to the general public. A sad lesson confirming those words will forever be our lunar program, the mandatory secrecy of which resulted in our space programand with it all of our sciencebeing deprived of the prospects of a natural course of development and taking the dead-end road of directly copying foreign equipment with all its infrastructure. However, it looks as if the leadership of the sector and of the country as a whole didn’t learn anything from that then and hasn’t learned anything from it now. Since no gains other than political gains were expected from the program, they brushed it aside, announcing to the entire world that we didn’t have such a program. In addition, the stock of completed research was almost completely destroyed: several flight models of the N1 launch vehicle were disassembled, the “lunar detachment” of cosmonauts was disbanded, lunar craft fell apart in museums and scientific research institutes that were closed to the public, and all the research projects that were associated with that area and that promised in the near future good scientific-technical results were shut down. Finally, as a result of someone’s stupid order, most of the scientific-technical design documentation was destroyed. Now fragments of the lunar program exist only in the heads and the workbooks of the remaining advocates. (Afanasyev, p. 1)

It turns out that much more was lost than ambitious machines and national prestige. Mishin and Afanasyev were heroic not only in their scientific work, but also in restoring credit and honor to their colleagues, and setting the historical record straight for us all. We started with Mishin, so we’ll give Afanasyev the last word:

...the Soviet space program during all those years was a huge iceberg only the small tip of which was accessible to the gaze of the outside observer. (Afanasyev, p. 27)

The truth is out there, in the files of the Joint Publications Research Service (JPRS) Reports, 1957-1995.

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