history, Science, space Why Soviet Union didn’t make it to Mars

11.03.2015 17:48    ,


Ballet and space were considered to be showcases of the Soviet Union. In modern Russia ballet is rarely mentioned but space news regularly make the headlines. Russia and China are negotiating joint projects of Mars and Venus exploration, as Russian Federal Space Agency official declared last year. Not sure if space official is aware, but the USSR had similar plans in early 1960s.

Science fiction writers were the pioneers of Mars exploration. In early 1920s Alexei Tolstoy wrote novel Aelita about socialist revolution on Mars that was sparked by Soviet engineers who became cosmonauts. Although revolution attempt failed, the novel was brought to the Silver screen in 1924.

Aelita, Queen of Mars.

In February 1956 the Ogoniok magazine published a remarkable article by Boris Lyapunov with the prediction of the Soviet landing on Mars in 1995. His vision sounds a lot like opening narration from the Star Trek original series.

“Following the launch of artificial satellite of our planet, the storming of skies has begun and the first lunar flight paved the way for piloted space flights”, the author predicted. He even tried to describe the spacecraft, two years before the Sputnik and long before world first saw the Yuri Gagarin’s smile: “The Mars One spaceship is an engineering marvel of last quarter of the XX century. Engine, equipment, living conditions – all adapted for the long journey with the landing on the planet”.

Best way to explore Mars according to Boris Lyapunov? The Martian rover, of course. “After first steps near the landing site we shall go for a long trip by the rover… Let’s take an adequate supply of food, oxygen and water. The cockpit of durable transparent plastic allows 360 degrees of visibility. Atomic engine provides the necessary speed”. The thought of nuclear rover on Mars in 1956, imagine that, NASA!

In 1969 Soviet kids almanac called I want to know everything predicted: “It is indisputable that before the end of this century, people will be able to visit not only the Moon, but the closest planets such as Mars and Venus”. Pretty sure nuclear spaceships would have something to do with it.

And then there was engineer’s turn.

The Soviet Union considered possibility of a manned flight to Mars even before Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. One of these projects called Martian Piloted Complex (MPK) was being developed in 1956-1962. With its help Soviet engineers hoped to send a six-man crew to Mars by 1975. Total weight of the complex was planned to be around 1630 metric tonnes, almost four times heavier than International Space Station today.

Modern depiction by Mark Wade / Astronautix.com.

According to early white papers Martian Piloted Complex had to be constructed on low Earth orbit from parts delivered by series of heavy N-1 rockets launches. These rockets were really huge, standing 105 meters tall, and were developed to compete with NASA’s even taller Saturn V rocket designed by Wernher von Braun, the famous German-born mastermind behind V-2 rocket and the Apollo program.

The N-1 became the last pet project of the Soviet genius chief engineer Sergei Korolev, who put to orbit both the first artificial satellite and the first cosmonaut. The N-1 program, which he first envisioned as Martian one and later adopted it for the lunar race, was badly derailed after his sudden death in 1966.

After successful landing on the surface of Mars brave crew of the Martian Piloted Complex were designated to work there for a full year before launching back home on a spacecraft with a mass of 15 tonnes – about 10% of the initial weight.

Heavy Interplanetary Spaceship (TMK-1), the key element of another Martian project, was supposed to make manned non-stop flights to Mars and Venus. The project was developed by two teams of engineers simultaneously. The leader of one of the groups was Konstantin Feoktistov. He actually flew to space (although not to Mars) aboard the first Soviet three-man spacecraft in 1964 and became the very first civilian to make a space flight.

Drawing by Gleb Aleksushin / Astronautix.com.

Two projects were later consolidated in a joint venture. The first flight to Mars of the TMK-1 was planned to start on June 8, 1971, when distance between Earth and Mars would be minimal.

Mission had to take three years, one month and two days: the landing was planned for July 10, 1974. However, the infamous Soviet planning failed there: all four unmanned flight tests of the N-1 rocket ended up with failure. The Soviet Union lost the lunar race and plans to conquer the Red planet were forgotten.

Ironically, the strengths of the Soviet regime, which allowed it to get ahead in the space race, doomed the Martian project. The complicity of decision-making, often changing goals and lack of a unified space agency led to cancellation of flights to the Moon, Mars and other planets. Instead, the Soviet space experts focused on perhaps less ambitious but no less complex program of colonization of the Earth’s orbit.

1. Lost In Space by Greg Klerkx.
2. Russian Planetary Exploration: History, Development, Legacy and Prospects by Brian Harvey.
3. Encyclopedia Astronautica.