Review: “Soviet and Russian Lunar Exploration”

“Soviet and Russian Lunar Exploration” by Brian Harvey. Published in 2007 by Springer/Praxis, it weighs in at 317 pages all in. One or two minor editing errors. I can’t speak to the accuracy of the Russian details.

Most everyone knows about Apollo. There has been an endless stream of books published since that august achievement all those decades ago, and the Moon and Apollo are thoroughly intertwined in the American mythos. Less is known about Soviet efforts in that same timeframe, given the secretive and paranoid nature of that regime, and has mostly come out in dribs and drabs over the years through a variety of often surprising means. The definitive treatise on these efforts is most likely Asif Siddiqi’s “Challenge to Apollo: The Soviet Union and the Space Race, 1945 – 1974“, but its dense 1011 pages and scholarly tone make it a challenge for most.

A much more accessible primer on Soviet, and now Russian, Lunar efforts is definitely Harvey’s “Soviet and Russian Lunar Exploration”, which also fills in the post 1974 years. It’s lavishly illustrated with B&W images, tables and maps, and is a veritable who’s who of names both familiar and previously unheard, and some of the Russian acronyms are finally explained.

The story begins with a story published in Pionerskaya Pravda, a one-time Soviet youth indoctrination magazine, in October 1951. Written by a veteran of the first round of rocket enthusiasm in the 1920s and ’30s, Mikhail Tikhonravov outlined a trip to the Moon in a 1,000 tonne rocket that could be achieved within 10 to 15 years (or so he asserted). This led to an invitation to contribute to the Great Scientific Encyclopedia. He was posted at the Nauchno Issledovatelsky Institut #4 (NII-4, or Scientific Research Institut 4), which had no formal connection with the Opytno Konstrucktorskoye Buro #1 (OKB-1, or Experimental Design Bureau 1) (at least in the early years) but certainly had informal relations. It was at OKB-1 that Sergei Korolev, the Glavnykonstrucktor or Chief Designer of Soviet space efforts, headed their efforts in space exploration. More familiar names like Mstislav Keldysh and Valentin Glushko are introduced. The events and circumstances that shaped the early years are described, and how Tikhonravov became the father of the Soviet Moon programme, as well as rocket efforts up to 1957.

The next chapter looks at the first Moon probes. It offers frequent reminders that the early U.S. rockets were not the only ones to blow up on an irregular basis, but as with the U.S. programmes the use of telemetry allowed the failures to move higher up the rockets, and the Soviets were soon racking up first after first, and conducting a serious scientific programme in the process, like learning of the Solar wind. Their Cosmic Ships flew within 6,000 km of the Moon and impacted in Palus Putredinis. Their Automatic Interplanetary Station provided the first images of the Lunar farside, giving the Soviets first dibs on naming farside features.

In the third chapter we learn of early plans for a Moon landing, as the Soviets under Korolev’s guidance looked at ways to make their systems extensible to Lunar efforts. In the late 1950s and early ’60s Soviet efforts were focused primarily on Korabl Sputnik (Fellow Traveler Spacecraft) and Vostok, which was succeeded by Soyouz, which is used to this day. From the beginning the Soyouz complex was designed to be applied to Lunar efforts, and if Space Adventures can find another $100Mn passenger there will be an around the Moon flight in the not too distant future in a Soyouz capsule. Even as the engineers toiled at solving complicated hardware problems, other forces like geopolitics were at work, thereby complicating the task, and so it wasn’t until late 1966 that the Soviets came to a consensus on a plan to reach the Moon.

Just as the U.S. evolved from Pioneer flybys to Ranger impactors to Surveyor soft landings, so too did the Soviets evolve to a soft lander, although their engineering approach was quite different. Where the American Surveyors were gangly and a bit awkward looking, the Lunas were egg-shaped with petals that folded out. Rocket development efforts continued, and Lunas 4-6 proved problematic as well, but with Zond 3 the Soviets were able to fill out their farside maps. Lunas 7 and 8 had issues near the Moon, and it was about this time that the Soviet space program suffered a crippling blow, the death of their Chief Designer, Sergei Korolev. This seemed to redouble the efforts of the engineers, and the last two landers, Lunas 9 and 13, were successes. The next Lunas were devoted to working out the mechanics of Lunar orbit for eventual crewed missions (oh who am I kidding, they were going to be manned missions). Luna 10 announced the first arrival in Lunar orbit with a broadcast of the Internationale. Luna 11 had issues, but Luna 12 continued the mapping efforts and the list of potential landing sites was narrowed down. Luna 14 did some communications tests, and so the groundwork was laid for a crewed trip to the Moon.


Chapter five lays out the basic architecture of how the Soviets were going to fly around and land their cosmonauts on the Moon.
-The Universal Rocket – 500 (UR-500) would eventually become the Proton rocket, used to this day to deliver cargo to orbit. While considered rather reliable today, it did suffer many teething pains and had 14 failures in its first 29 launches.
-The L-1 Lunar orbiter, or Zond (probe), which led to confusion in the West with the previous probes that had flown to Venus, Mars and the Moon. These would carries the Soviet’s first computer, the Argon, on a spacecraft. It is described as a stripped down Soyouz.

Together, these two would provide the around-the-Moon part of the program.

-The other rocket to be used was Korolev’s N-1 rocket, which in 1960 could theoretically deliver 50 tonnes into Earth orbit, although the Lunar program would call for 95, leading to an upsizing in the number of rocket motors at the end of 1964. There’s speculation that Korolev had a more distant destination in mind when designing the rocket, and the hectic pace of the Apollo program may have contributed to the cutting of some corners. Suffice it to say that the N-1s had a 100% fail rate.
-The Luniy Orbitalny Korabl (LOK, or Lunar Orbital Spacecraft), which had many similarities to the Apollo Command & Service Module, and would remain in orbit and provide the return craft. It is described as a beefed-up Soyouz.
-The Luniy Korabl (LK, or Lunar Spacecraft) lander which would descend to the surface.

Together, these would provide the Lunar landing part of the program.

Also described are the Soviet spacesuits and communications network, as well as the many cosmonauts who would undergo training for these missions.

Chapter six tells of the the race before the race to be the first to land on the Moon, the race to be the first to fly humans around the Moon. The Soviets sent turtles and such on the Zond 5 as the first emissaries of Earth’s ecosystem to travel beyond the orbit of the Moon and return, followed soon thereafter by Zond 6, which awakened the Western press to how far along the Soviet efforts were. Still, the Proton rocket was proving fickle and difficult, and so to this day people around the world remember the Earthrise photo from Apollo 8 as the souvenir picture from the first flight around the Moon. This took the wind out of the sails of the Zond program, though both it and the N-1 rocket program continued to be funded. Renewed vigor was put into robotic probes. The Lunokhod (Moonwalker) series would rove the Moon to conduct its research. Luna 15 would provide an automated sample return mission, possibly before Apollo 11. But problems continued with the development of the N-1 rocket, and the Zond program was being wound down, though Zond 7 did fly. Political maneuverings led to the end of the N-1 program, and Soviet efforts shifted to space stations as the focus of their space efforts.


While American Lunar efforts quickly wound down after the Apollo program as scientists retired to their labs to digest and cogitate on what they had learned, the Soviets, on the contrary, continued their robotic efforts. While Luna 15 failed, Luna 16 did not and returned samples, all of 105 grams. Luna 17 delivered the first Lunokhod rover to the surface, and the world got its first taste of virtual near-real-time travel on another world. The mission lasted from 17/11/1970 to 04/10/1971, nearly a full year of results from traveling some 10.5 km across the Lunar surface. Towards the end of Luna 17s mission, Luna 18 was dispatched, but crashed into the Moon. Luna 20 soon followed, and would provide the Soviets their second sample return from the Moon, while Luna 21 delivered the next Lunokhod to the Moon in January 1973. Luna 19, in 1971, provided orbital imagery and data on sites of interest, as did Luna 22 in 1974, orbiting the Moon at the time of a joint Soviet/American Lunar conference. Luna 23 had landing issues in late 1974, and it wasn’t until the summer of 1976 that Luna 24 landed near Fahrenheit crater to provide the Soviets with their third sample return, of a much heftier 170 grams. And with that triumph, the Soviet Lunar program began to wind down. They proclaimed the 1970s ‘the decade of of the space robot’, and both Soviet and American scientists seemed to embrace the concept wholeheartedly, with a slew of missions to many of the planets.

The last chapter looks at some of the concepts that the Soviets studied in the late 1960s and early ’70s like Galaktika and Zvezda. Some interest was expressed by Soviet scientists in the 1980s and ’90s for a Lunar polar orbiter, but nothing ever materialized. In the first decade of the 21st century a Luna Glob mission was studied by the Russians, but to this day Russia has yet to return to the Moon, but running the most reliable crewed transport to LEO system in the world is a pretty big job, and luckily the Russians haven’t figured out yet that the wealth they’re acquiring from their natural resources should be invested in securing access to off-Earth natural resources. Unfortunately we Americans haven’t figured that out yet either, although the Chinese are certainly talking about it in the long run (though for the Chinese the word long can mean really looooong, like decades). Japan has always had issues with natural resources, energy resources in particular, which is probably why they seem to be focusing a bit more on solar power from space.

The book is rounded out with a list of all of the Soviet Moon probes, and where they are now. While each of the chapters is thoroughly footnoted, there’s a bibliographic note that covers some of the more authoritative sources, followed by a five page bibliography. Last up is the index. The only thing I can think of that I would ask for would be a short Russian-English glossary as well.

Overall, I’m very impressed with this book. It’s comprehensive, but not fluffy. The exposition is geared towards conveying facts and information, and it just pours out. I’d say written at about the undergrad level, it would be ideal for a course that covers governmental efforts to go to our Moon. While dense, I can see where it would be interesting to a broader audience interested in our Moon and curious about efforts other than Apollo. It provides a lot of detail on the scientific aspects of the missions, and provides many engineering details to chew on.

A must-read introduction for scholars in the field, as well as historians interested in what was happening on the other side of the Iron Curtain in space activities. For researchers it provides an extensive bibliography, and for others a gripping tale from a different perspective on the race to the Moon. I wholeheartedly give this one a Full Moon rating.

See Also:

Encyclopรƒยฆdia Astronautica
Russian Space Web
Guide to Russia
CIA: The Soviet Space Research Program [1959] (pdf)
The Zarya Diaries
FAS Russian and Soviet Space Guide
FAS Soviet Manned Lunar Program
NSSDC Soviet Lunar Missions
Soviet Web Space

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