In 1961, when Yuri Gagarin left earth's atmosphere it was the pinnacle of human achievement, a mortal man had entered a realm hitherto beholden to the gods. It was also a blow to American pride, and just over a month later John F. Kennedy announce an ambitious program to restore that pride: The US would put a man on the moon within a decade.
several years it seemed that it would be a one horse race. However
behind the scenes Sergei Korolyov, the Soviet Union's mysterious "Chief
Designer", had already started work on designs for manned flights to
By the time the Soviet Union officially announced plans in 1964 the
OKB-1 design bureau headed by Korolyov had already created a heavy
rocket capable of reaching beyond the low Earth orbit used by the Vostok
The impetuous Khrushchev had actually instituted two programmes, one for
moon orbits and one for the actual moon landing, each headed by it's
own designer. After Brezhnev had taken over power the moon program was
streamlined and Korolyov made head of the entire program. And although
two separate tracks were maintained for the orbits and the landing
Korolyov's leadership unified the efforts.
In early 1967 when both the Americans and Soviets were gearing up for
the actual moonflights disaster struck in both camps. In January a
simulated launch sequence for the American Apollo project went
disastrously wrong and a fire broke out killing the astronauts. And in
April the parachute failed to open on a Soyuz vehicle as it returned to
earth. The crash killed the cosmonauts, which included Vladimir Komarov
who commanded one of the two teams selected for the moon landing.
The unmanned orbit of the moon in May of that year went ahead as
scheduled, but the manned orbit was delayed until August of that year as
the teams were restructured and the Soyuz crash investigated.
The success of the manned orbit, and the earlier success of landing a
Luna-9 capsule on the moon's surface gave the Soviets the confidence to
push on with their effort. The Soviets also, erroneously, believed that
the US would attempt a landing in 1968 so it would be vital to maintain
the intended schedule.
After several unmanned flights of the Soyuz-7 vehicle the first manned
launch was performed in April 1968. And in June the two-man crew
launched an unmanned landing vehicle from lunar orbit. The moon landing
was given the go-ahead and crews were prepared for the mission, the
first crew would be cosmonauts Leonov Makarov and a reserve crew of
Popovich and Voronov would be on standby.
It was a tense time for all involved, especially for Korolyov who was
aware that an Apollo launch was scheduled for October. If all went
according to plan the Soyuz-7 would be in lunar orbit in september,
narrowly beating out the Americans (in fact the Apollo launch was a test
flight, the Americans would not attempt a landing on the moon until the
The September launch did go ahead and on the 25th the landing module
separated from the Soyuz7 command module and headed for the moon.
After a seemingly interminable period of radio silence a message finally
came through "Cosmonaut Leonov reporting from the surface of the
moon." Words that would immediately be spread across the globe.
Leonov dedicated his mission to Yuri Gagarin the space pioneer who had
died earlier that year.