Thursday, October 21, 2010

Red flag over Luna

I grew up during the space race. I remember watching every satellite launch on television, holding my breath for the first Americans in space, and sitting out one cold night to watch a real satellite pass overhead. I could name all of the astronauts. I built plastic models of capsules, rockets, and satellites. I mourned for Apollo 1, cheered Apollo 8, and held my breath for Apollo 13. But the space race wasn't just the United States rushing into the starry yonder; it was a race against an opponent: the fearsome Soviet Union.

To us civilians, the other side was something of a mystery. We knew they were a powerful and formidable adversary. At the end of WWII, they collected their German scientists and we collected ours. Both sides set their Germans to work doing sciency things that would eventually lead to one of us beating the other and conquering the stars. Yes, the reality was a lot more complicated than that, but that was how things were portrayed to this second-grader in a government town. When I was old enough to first understand, the Russians (as we always called the Soviets) were winning. They built the first intercontinental ballistic missile (the R-7 launcher). They put the first satellite in orbit (Sputnik 1). They put the first animal in orbit (a well-behaved mutt named Laika). They launched the first man to orbit the Earth ( Yuri Gagarin on Vostok 1). They sent the first satellite to the moon (Luna 2). They beat us to Venus (Venera 3). They put the first woman in space (Valentina Tereshkova on Vostok 6). The first spacewalk (Alexey Leonov from Voskhod 2). Basically, until the Gemini program began in 1965, they were kicking out butts. When Castro announced the Russians would be putting missiles in Cuba in 1962, it looked like Russian technology was ready to overwhelm and obliterate us.

And then they didn't. We went to the moon and they didn't. We went again and they didn't. We went six times and they never did. We put a lander on Mars and flew past the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn and they didn't. Our image of Russia as a serious competitor whose German scientists were just as good as, if not better than, ours slowly faded away. Then the Soviet Union faded away.

The American space program was everywhere during my childhood. The launches were broadcast live on television. Magazines had pictures of the astronauts, the capsules, the rockets, the satellites, the ground crew, and the instruments. After the flights, the capsules toured the country. I built plastic models of all off it. Werner von Braun regularly appeared on the Wonderful World of Disney to explain the American space program to us. By contrast, the Soviets space program was a mystery. Some of that came from our side refusing to give them credit for doing anything except being scary. But most of the mystery came from the Soviets themselves. Launches were not announced in advance and never televised. All we heard were after-the-fact announcements that this or that milestone had been achieved. We had only vague ideas what the hardware looked like and who anyone in the program was except for the successful cosmonauts.

All of which leads me to this. This is the Soviet LK (Lunniy Korabl - Lunar Craft) manned moon lander. The Soviets never publicly talked about it and never released pictures of it. Every thing we know about it has come out since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. This lander survives in Moscow Aviation Institute.

The LK was similar in design to the American Lunar Excursion Module, but smaller. The two space programs come up with nearly identical solutions to the problem of putting a man on the moon quickly and on a budget. Two modules were to be launched on a single rocket and docked face to face. Once in lunar orbit, a cosmonaut would enter the landing module for a decent to the surface. After planting a flag and setting up some instruments, the cosmonaut would be launched back into lunar orbit from the landing module. In orbit he would have to reentered the command module. The landing module was to be jettisoned, while the lunar team returned to Earth in the command module. The differences were mostly of size and budget. Only one cosmonaut would have landed on the moon as opposed to the two American astronauts who did during the Apollo missions. There was no direct connection between the landing and command modules; the cosmonaut had to make a spacewalk to move between the two modules. The LEM used one rocket to decent to the lunar surface and another to ascend from it. The LK would have used the same rocket.

None of it ever happened. The LK is a piece of alternate history, a prop for Nixiepunk. But still, it's very cool.

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