History of the Soviet Manned Lunar Program

History/Background: Until 1990 – 1991, little was known outside the Soviet Union (or the halls of the CIA) about the manned lunar program which was developed by the former Soviet Union to counter America’s Apollo program. The Soviet policy of keeping space projects secret until they were successful was carried out to the utmost, and the entire effort was almost passed over by history.    With the coming of glasnost, small bits of information began to emerge about the super-secret Soviet moon program. Now, photos and diagrams are available of all the major systems involved and incredibly, a few years ago, a replica of the Russian lunar module, called Lunniy Korabl, (Lunar Cabin) or LK was exhibited in a tourist hall at Eurodisney! Click here to read Marcus Lindroos’ excellent monograph on the history of the Soviet manned lunar program.  Though somewhat lengthy, it gives what I think is just the right amount of detail and background to gain a good, general understanding of this fascinating part of space exploration history.

Year+USA – Apollo Program
(Saturn V/Apollo)
USSR – L-3 Manned Lunar Landing Program 
USSR – Zond Manned Lunar Orbital Program 
1961US launches A. B. Sheppard into sub-orbital flight nearly 2 months after flight of Vostok 1. US committed to a manned lunar landing before the end of the decade by Pres. KennedyUSSR launches first manned spacecraft, Vostok 1, with Y. A. Gagarin aboard.  Original N-1 and N-2 launch vehicle programs officially approved3-stage Proton booster (in development) designated for circumlunar flight
1962Preliminary Apollo mission profile, including lunar orbit rendezvous, approved by NASA..
1964Boilerplate Apollo spacecraft launched by Saturn 1 rocketUSSR launches first multi-manned spacecraft, Voskhod 1.  Lunar landing mission adopted.  Preliminary N-1/L-3 mission profile established.  First lunar landing scheduled for 1967-1968 timeframe3-stage Proton/L-1 design and mission profile adopted.  Manned lunar fly-by scheduled for 1967
1965First flight of multi-manned US spacecraft (Gemini 3).  First spacewalk (EVA) by a US astronaut (E. White, Gemini 4) 3 months after flight of Voskhod 2USSR cosmonaut A. A. Leonov completes 1st EVA during Voskhod 2 missionMaiden flight of 2-stage Proton.  Circumlunar mission modified to utilize 4-stage Proton with Korolev L-1 spacecraft
1966First manned spacecraft docking demonstrated in earth orbit (Gemini 8)S. P. Korolev dies during surgery.  V. Mishin takes over leadership of USSR space program.  N-1/L-3 program officially adopted.  First lunar landing set for 3rd quarter of 1968.
1967Apollo 1 crew killed in flash fire aboard spacecraft during launch pad test.  Maiden flight of Saturn V with unmanned Apollo spacecraft (Apollo 4)V. Komarov killed during maiden (manned) flight of Soyuz spacecraft.  Initial N-1 flight tests delayed.  First automatic spacecraft docking demonstrated in earth orbit (Cosmos 186/188)Maiden flight of 4-stage Proton and L-1 spacecraft in earth orbit successful (Kosmos 146), but followed by 3 failures.  Cosmonaut training for Zond missions begun
1968First manned flight of Apollo spacecraft (Apollo 7), modified after death of crew of Apollo 1.  Unmanned lunar module tested in earth orbit (Apollo 6).  First manned Saturn V/lunar orbital Apollo mission (Apollo 8)Cosmonaut training for lunar landing missions begun.  Y. Gagarin, 1st human in space, killed during training flight in MiG-15.  1st successful manned flight of Soyuz spacecraft (Soyuz 3), modified after death of Komarov on Soyuz 1 mission4 unmanned Zond circumlunar missions all end in failure (3 total, 1 partial)
1969First manned flight of lunar module in earth orbit (Apollo 9).  3 manned missions to the moon, including 2 lunar landings (Apollo’s 10, 11, & 12)Maiden flight of N-1 failed after 70 secs.  (N-1 3L).  2nd flight of N-1 (N-1 5L) failed immediately after launch – vehicle and launch pad destroyedUnmanned Zond mission failed in January.  2nd mission in August (Zond 7) only completely successful mission in program, but program canceled
1970Apollo 13 lunar landing mission aborted during trans-lunar coastUnmanned prototype of lunar landing vehicle (T2K) successfully tested in earth orbitFinal unmanned Zond circumlunar mission (Zond 8) partially successful
19713rd and 4th Apollo lunar landing missions (Apollo’s 14 & 15)3rd N-1 flight failed after 51 secs.  (N-1 6L)  Advanced N-1/L-3M program proposed. 
Crew of Soyuz 11 become 1st humans to habitate a space station (Salyut 1) but are killed during reentry
19725th and 6th Apollo lunar landings.  (Apollo’s 16 & 17).  Apollo lunar program concluded.  No human has set foot on the moon since then4th N-1 flight failed after 107 secs (N-1 7L).
1973Skylab 1 OWS launched unmanned into earth orbit.  Extensive damage done to spacecraft during launch.  Vehicle manned by successive crews from Skylab’s  2, 3, & 4 missions .
1974.V. Mishin replaced by long time rival V. P. Glushko.  All Soviet manned lunar programs cancelled, and official program of denial begins with destruction of all remaining N-1 hardware.
1975Last manned Apollo mission (ASTP or Apollo 20) docks with Soviet Soyuz spacecraft (Soyuz 19).  Another American would not fly in space for 6 more years, until the flight of STS-1Soviets continue extensive program of space station missions

* Information in this table adapted from the book The Soviet Reach for the Moon, by Nicholas L. Johnson.  Additional material taken from other written sources.

Luna Spacey

Luna Spacey

Luna Spacey, a distinguished space researcher, earned her Ph.D. in Astrophysics from MIT, specializing in exotic matter near black holes. Joining NASA post-graduation, she significantly contributed to the discovery of gravitational waves, enriching cosmic understanding.With a 15-year stellar career, Luna has numerous published papers and is currently spearheading a dark matter research project. Beyond her profession, she’s an avid stargazer, dedicated to community science education through local school workshops.Luna also cherishes hiking and astrophotography, hobbies that harmoniously blend her admiration for nature and the cosmos, making her a revered figure in both the scientific and local communities.

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