“The launch vehicle created by Korolyov was to have flown to the Moon earlier than the American one”

Yury Salnikov about the Moon we lost

“The launch vehicle created by Korolyov was to have flown to the Moon earlier than the American one” Photo: gazetauzao.ru

A man went into the Moon exactly 50 years ago — American Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the natural satellite of the Earth from Apollo 11 spacecraft. The USSR had been trying to catch up with the USA in the Moon race for five years, but it didn’t work out. In an interview with Realnoe Vremya, director Yury Salnikov who shot a number of documentaries about space talked about the reasons for this.

“We didn’t believe you when it comes to the satellite, I admit. What another miracle can you perform?”

Mr Salnikov, as I understand, the Soviet Union also planed to conquer the Moon, but the information about it was classified approximately until 1965 when the USSR’s Moon programme was anyway mentioned in scientific magazines though in passing. Is it correct? Or had the Soviet people been perfectly aware of these plans before 1965? Was it an open secret?

No, people weren’t aware — the information was absolutely classified. The reason was the circumstance that the space race with Americans to become the first country to go to the Moon had already begun. Both the CIA and KGB seriously followed this issue then, and all the information on the issue was personally reported to head engineer Sergey Korolyov.

They took on the idea of conquering the Moon right after the launch of the first artificial satellite. If you remember in Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, a rocket was planned to fly to the Moon after dogs’ flight to space, and the USSR decided to do the same — ballistician from the Keldysh Institute (Editor’s Note: now Keldysh Institute of Applied Mathematics working in engine building and space power engineering since 1933) calculated that they could reach escape velocity. Orbital velocity means the possibility to take off the Earth, and escape velocity allows escaping to space, and thus Luna 1 station managed to reach it.

Luna 1 took off on 2 January 1959, but it flew by the Moon at a distance of 5-6,000 km and it turns out it became the Sun’s satellite, that’s to say, burnt down.

Luna 1 interplanetary station on Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy. Photo: wikipedia.org
Luna 1 took off on 2 January 1959, but it flew by the Moon at a distance of 5-6,000 km and turns out it became the Sun’s satellite, that’s to say, burnt down

It is said that, first of all, Korolyov was infected with the Moon programme. Is it true?

Everyone was infected — Professor Tikhonravov, academician Keldysh, Korolyov. I will note that Keldysh’s students miscounted that it was possible to reach escape velocity but explained to Korolyov that his rocket R 7 and, respectively, Vostok spacecraft had to have the fourth stage installed. This became a reality during the same year of 1959 — Luna 2 went into space that managed to reach the Moon, deliver the USSR’s pennant, take several photos of the Moon surface and send the film that was developed in the same spacecraft to the Earth. Encouraged engineers launched Luna 3 soon, on 4 October 1959, which reached the Moon and sent much more photos to the Earth than Luna 2. It was a colossal victory.

How did the authorities of the country support such a combative mood regarding the Moon? Because it is unlikely that something could be possible without his approval, both on Earth and in space.

Khruschyov supported it by all means. After the launch of the first satellite in 1957, he asked Korolyov: “We didn’t believe you when it comes to the satellite, I admit. What another miracle can you perform?” Korolyov talked about Moon plans, the launch of dogs, and though they weren’t ready for the Moon in 1957, Khruschyov liked the idea. And they began to seriously prepare for the Moon assault by creating Moon spacecraft in the same Lavochkin Design Bureau, which still manufactures them (in the term of the next four years, they are building Luna 24, Luna 25 and Luna 26 spacecraft to fly to the Moon). Unfortunately, this design bureau didn’t manage to create spacecraft to deliver people to the Moon, but their moonwalkers are still considered one of the best.

Academicians Sergey Korolyov, Igor Kurchatov, Mstislav Keldysh. Photo: wikipedia.org
Keldysh’s students miscounted that it was possible to reach escape velocity but explained to Korolyov that his rocket R 7 and, respectively, Vostok spacecraft had to have the fourth stage installed

“Engineer Mishin was said: ‘Why should we be second?’”

In general, the start was great, but then we began to fall behind the USA in the Moon race. Why?

H1 launch vehicle created by Korolyov for crewed spacecraft was very powerful and was to have flown to the Moon earlier than the Americans did. It had four tests, but, unfortunately, they all were unsuccessful. Especially the second one when the rocket dropped back on the launch pad and immediately fell. So the first reason is clear — it is a technology gap.

By the way, the American took the parameters of H1 for their flight but took them in parts, and they had Saturn V launch vehicle. When the USSR considered the development of the Americans, it turned out that the engine of H1 wasn’t completed. A year before the last test in 1972, the design bureau created by Korolyov did its best to correct the disadvantages of H1 but here they lacked money to build the test stand for this rocket or, more precisely, for the third stage. The stands for such tests were very costly for the Soviet budget.

It might seem that all the unnecessary things were eliminated from the rocket for the fifth attempt, and Minister of Mechanical Engineering Sergey Afanasyev and academician Boris Chertok were ready to support its test, but head engineer Vasily Mishin, who substituted Korolyov, didn’t have that power of penetration and that influence in competent organisations and agencies. And there was a lack of money without this influence.

In the end, Brezhnev and the Political Bureau of the Central Committee didn’t permit the fifth launch of H1, which was already almost prepared, in 1974. Mishin was said: “Why should we be second?”

Second head engineering of the Design Bureau 1 — Central Design Bureau of Machine-Building V. Mishin. Photo: trud.ru
Head engineer Vasily Mishin, who substituted Korolyov, didn’t have that power of penetration and that influence in competent organisations and agencies. And there was a lack of money without this influence

So wasn’t even money the case?

It was politics — the Kremlin admitted that at that moment USSR was second in space already. But forgive me, so what if we were second? Now the second flight to the Moon is announced around the world, and Russia agreed with the USA to create a circumlunar station, and it is logical. And Brezhnev and then-political bureau didn’t have such plans any more. Moreover, our secretary general didn’t want to go to the Moon so much like John Kennedy who gathered a US Congress meeting a month after Gagarin’s flight, in May 1961, at which he gave a splendid speech and said in particular that they had to be on the Moon in the following 10 years.

Kennedy didn’t say they should compulsorily fly to the Moon in 1968 or 1969, but after this speech, the USSR decided for some reason to catch up with the Americans regarding the Moon by all means, but they turned out unprepared by 1969. The no-matter-what approach was obviously no-win — the CC also understood it. What is more, by 1974, Brezhnev thought that the USSR’s path in space was orbital stations through which the country would develop its space plans step by step. And I must say that here we really achieved successes. In particular, the project of the ISS, which now successfully flies in orbit, was created by our country in many ways.

Could the Soyuz — Apollo project push to a joint flight to the Moon some time later?

The Soyuz — Apollo was a necessary story. The USSR and the USA learned how to work together. Moreover, astronauts did a number of successful biological experiments, particularly linked with an eclipse of the sun. And Apollo astronaut Thomas Stafford said Leonov and Kubasov after the flight: “Guys, I think we will fly to the Moon together too!”

Yes, the USA has gone ahead in the Moon race since 1969, they decided to increase successes. And they sent another seven expeditions to the Moon, only one of which was unsuccessful — it was a well-known story of Apollo 13 whose one engine failed. But as they had fuel, the astronauts managed to go back to the Earth. But this already became quite an expensive experiment in the early 70s — one flight cost $25 billion.

Soyuz — Apollo in Space pavilion on Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy. Photo: retromap.ru
The Soyuz — Apollo was a necessary story. The USSR and the USA learned how to work together. Moreover, astronauts did a number of successful biological experiments, particularly linked with an eclipse of the sun

“Americans won’t be able to compete on the Moon alone any more

How much did out astronauts live and breathe the Moon both in the 60s and 70s?

Officially, astronauts didn’t say anything in this respect, of course, while unofficially they worried and complained: “How did we lose the Moon?” Of course, Gagarin wanted to fly there. In his only interview (it was given for our film about Gagarin), Mr Gagarin’s widow Mrs Gagarina clearly says about it: “Yura really wanted to fly to the Moon”.

While Aleksey Leonov was the leading candidate for the Moon flight who was to fly with his colleague Oleg Makarov. There were another two crews, but Leonov was crazy about the Moon, and he clearly says: “It took me six years to assault the Moon”. Leonov was sure that it was certainly possible to fly around the Moon by Soyuz in the late 60s but head engineer Vasily Mishin was slow and wanted to test his Soyuz spacecraft more.

Can we say that if not Korolyov’s death in 1966, the USSR would certainly have been on the Moon? How much did the astronaut’s death — Vladimir Komarov and one of Soyuz — influenced the decision of the CC?

Many believe that if Sergey Korolyov had been alive, we would have been on the Moon. But the prudence of party apparatchiks in the 70s was the case — “if only it didn’t get worse”, and general engineer Valentin Glushko who substituted Mishin was the case. Glushko considered that after Korolyov’s death the rocket’s engine couldn’t fly to the Moon without him, Glushko. But he was hopelessly late to develop the engine.

Did same Leonov have enough authority to defend the Moon project in 1974?

It was really hard even for Leonov, moreover, in secrecy. If nowadays Dmitry Rogozin says that all addresses must go through him and he must be the first to learn about all ideas, there is no need to explain what happened then. Of course, it is wrong. The Americans had a public programme, a national programme, and this helped them win the Moon race 50 years ago.

Astronaut Aleksey Leonov. Photo: spacephotos.ru
While Aleksey Leonov was the leading candidate for the Moon flight who was to fly with his colleague Oleg Makarov. There were another two crews, but Leonov was crazy about the Moon, and he clearly says: “I gave six years to assault the Moon”

Has our country lost a lot as a result of phasing out the Moon programme?

A lot. Exactly after the decision on H1, we began to hopelessly fall behind in space. Academician Erik Galimov says that we could have become leaders when conquering the Moon, and now we are falling behind not only in space, we have lost knowledge, science, the observatory we planned to create there. The Moon programme must be declared a federal programme by the president’s order. We have a design bureau that has a lot of developments in lunar projects, and we can make progress in lunar intentions thanks to them.

The Moon is very important for our country — it has helium-3 that can give an entire energy years after processing 100,000 tonnes. Solar batteries can be located there, there is titanium there. It has almost the whole Mendeleyev table! And it is better to learn together. Americans won’t be able to compete on the Moon alone any more.

By Sergey Kochnev