Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Guest Post by Marko Bosscher: April 12, 1968 - Soviets Win Space Race

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.

For 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 other planets. 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 program.

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 next year). 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.


In reality: Korolyov died in surgery in 1966 which was a serious setback for the moon program, which also fell out of political favor. The N1 rocket that was supposed to take the cosmonauts to the moon would also prove a failure, never even making it out of earth orbit.

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