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Chelomei's first foray to the Moon

At the beginning of the 1960s, the USSR's OKB-52 design bureau led by the charismatic Khrushchev's protege Vladimir Chelomei, joined the Moon Race with its own project of a circumlunar flight.

Previous chapter: Origin of the Proton rocket

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Above: Digital recreation of the LK spacecraft.

Proton's first job -- Fly me to... (around) the Moon

Although the UR-500 rocket, known today as Proton, was born as an intercontinental ballistic missile, even the Soviet military found it too big for this role. No doubt, Proton's creators understood that the rocket's real destiny was in space. As early as 1962, the rocket's chief architect Vladimir Chelomei certainly knew that with Proton he could upstage his industry rival Sergei Korolev on the way to the Moon. Although Proton could not deliver an expedition to the lunar surface, it could fly a ship around it.

At the time, Korolev hoped to fly around the Moon relying on his much smaller R-7 rocket. At least three R-7-based Soyuz launchers would be needed to assemble a "train" of vehicles in the Earth orbit for a trip to the vicinity of the Moon. However, the challenges of the yet-to-be-achieved docking in space and other engineering problems made the plan look extremely cumbersome and risky. According to Korolev's deputy Vasily Mishin, in 1961, OKB-1 proposed to switch from R-7 to the yet-to-be built N1 rocket with a payload of 75 tons in order to fly two cosmonauts around the Moon. That plan was eventually folded into the L3 project, where the flight around the Moon became just a prelude to the landing expedition. However even under the most optimistic scenario, the N1 would not be ready to carry a crew until the end of 1967. In the climate of the Moon Race with the US, it looked politically unacceptable. In contrast, as of 1963, the UR-500 was promised to enter service within just two years.

Chelomei proposed his own spacecraft designated LK, which could be launched on a mission around the Moon by a single UR-500 rocket. The launch vehicle was also identified within the industry as 8K82K. Thus, the project of Chelomei's circumlunar mission received the index 8K82K-LK.

The development of the LK spacecraft

During 1964 and 1965, in parallel with the development of the UR-500 rocket, Chelomei's OKB-52 worked on the design of the LK spacecraft. This effort was all about achieving a minimal goal with minimal resources. Although a two-seat capsule was apparently under consideration within the LK project, the final mission scenario called for a single cosmonaut flying around the far side of the Moon in a cramped conical capsule with a cabin volume of just 2.4 cubic meters without any possibility of entering lunar orbit during a week-long mission. Onboard propellant would only be enough to steer the ship behind the Moon and then immediately head back home. Depending on the situation in a particular mission, the spacecraft would pass from 100 to 5,000 kilometers from the lunar surface.

During the reentry into the Earth atmosphere, the capsule could steer itself with the help of liquid-propellant thrusters and upon entering denser layers of the atmosphere could use its aerodynamic shape for maneuvering. The descent module would achieve soft landing thanks to a combination of a parachute and solid-propellant engines suspended above the capsule on the parachute strings. (207)

Chelomei's engineers considered eventually upgrading the LK spacecraft to a two-seater, which they identified as LK-1. However it would require to upgrade the UR-500 rocket with a more powerful upper stage. For this role, Chelomei's engineers eyed a prospective space tug using a mix of liquid fluorine and ammonia! At the time, the 8D21 engine burning this exotic and very dangerous propellant combination was under development at OKB-456 design bureau led by Valentin Glushko. OKB-456 conducted the first firing of the 8D21 fluorine engine in August 1963.

Although Korolev probably saw no good technical or scientific reason for a dedicated circumlunar mission, he likely felt that he should respond to Chelomei's challenge. In 1964, Korolev proposed to launch his L3 vehicle around the Moon on the N11 rocket. The N11 would be formed by removing the most heavy and complex first stage from the N1 rocket and leaving the second (Block B), the third (Block V) and fourth (Block G) stages. In addition to its primary goal of launching a ship around the Moon, Korolev apparently advertised the N11 rocket as an alternative to Proton. (36)

In his fight against the LK, Korolev also sought the support of Nikolai Kamanin, a powerful deputy to the Air Force commander responsible for the cosmonaut training. However Kamanin sided with Chelomei, arguing that with the expansion of the space program, it would be useful that more than one organization had experience in building manned spacecraft.

The program development

According to the memoirs of Vasily Mishin, Chelomei convinced Khrushchev to endorse the LK project in the summer of 1964, when the Soviet leader made another review of ballistic missiles under development at OKB-52.

In any case, on August 3, 1964, the Soviet government gave its formal go ahead to the full-scale development of Chelomei's circumlunar spacecraft based on the UR-500K rocket. At the time, its first manned mission was planned for the end of 1966 or the first half of 1967. (509) The same decree assigned Korolev's OKB-1 to land a Soviet cosmonaut on the Moon within the L3 project.

LK flight program

During 12 initial unmanned launches, the LK capsule would carry animals and plants, take photos of the lunar surface and conduct other experiments. The critical ability of the capsule for aerodynamic maneuvering would also be tested. Unmanned launches would be followed by up to 10 manned missions. The price tag for the entire program was estimated at 380 million rubles. (209) On November 11, 1964, at the Khrunichev plant in Fili, Chelomei presented the pre-preliminary design (avantproyekt) of the LK spacecraft to industry leaders, including Korolev and Keldysh. Obviously, Korolev argued vigorously against Chelomei's lunar ambitions, directing his harshest criticism against UR-500. (209) His main argument -- the development of UR-500 takes valuable resources from the ultimate goal of lunar landing.

However, while the UR-500 rocket had already appeared in metal and was difficult to cancel, Chelomei's LK spacecraft was still on paper. Chelomei would not be able to approve its preliminary design until June 30, 1965. In addition to 40 volumes of design documentation, a full-scale mockup of the LK complex was also built. (664) A new hurdle appeared before the project when the Kremlin's Military Industrial Commission ordered the formation of an expert group to re-evaluate all key projects at Chelomei's OKB-52. Like all other Chelomei's ventures, the LK project ended up under a microscope after the fall of Khrushchev in October 1964.

The expert commission officially worked from August 5 to 19, 1965. Fortunately for Chelomei, the commission was chaired by his long-time ally Mstislav Keldysh. In fact, the commission recommended to accelerate the circumlunar project based on the UR-500 rocket. The document was signed by 47 top officials, including General Mrykin, Valentin Glushko, Vladimir Barmin, Pilyugin, Konopatov and Ryazansky. Not surprisingly, the commission members, who came from Korolev's OKB-1 -- Bushuev, Krykov and Raushenbakh -- wrote a dissenting opinion that called for the cancellation of the LK project. (209) However they apparently no longer objected to the development of the UR-500 rocket, which had made its first successful flight just a month earlier.

End of the LK

On August 26, 1965, a major meeting chaired by the head of the Military Industrial Commission Leonid Smirnov reviewed the Soviet space strategy. Keldysh again defended the UR-500 and LK projects, however Smirnov said that OKB-52 "was still drawing pictures" of the circumlunar spacecraft, even though it was suppose to fly at the beginning of 1967. Keldysh countered that switching to Korolev's 7K (Soyuz) spacecraft would postpone the flight around the Moon for at least six months. (84) However, most officials present at the meeting were inclined to combine the hardware that had already reached the launch pad: Chelomei's UR-500 and Korolev's circumlunar spacecraft.

According to Mishin, by the beginning of September, OKB-1 prepared proposals for a circumlunar mission based on the Proton rocket and the Soyuz-derived spacecraft, which could make its inaugural unmanned flight in the first half of 1967 and carry a cosmonaut duo around the Moon by the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in November 1967!

On Sept. 6, 1965, the Minister of General Machine Building, Afanasiev issued an official decree to the industry directing it to submit a schedule for the production of UR-500K vehicles. Two days later, Korolev invited Chelomei to another technical meeting to the campus of OKB-1 in Podlipki, where he presented several scenarios of using UR-500 for a circumlunar mission. (264) Korolev admitted that all plans to fly around the Moon with the help of R-7 were too difficult to achieve. Instead, a single UR-500K with the added Block D space tug and a stripped down version of the 7K (Soyuz) spacecraft could carry two cosmonauts around the Moon. To a critical question by Chelomei, whether OKB-1 had at least a preliminary design of such a spacecraft, Korolev nodded toward the wall with the portraits of already flown cosmonauts! (664, 209)

On Oct. 25, 1965, the Soviet government issued a decree formally consolidating the effort of the industry on the circumlunar mission within the UR-500K-7K-L1 complex.


In the fall of 1965, 40 volumes of the preliminary design for the UR-500-LK project was relegated to history. However the work of designers at OKB-52 was not wasted. Much of the experience obtained by Chelomei's collective in the course of the LK development and some of the design features first introduced in the LK project became the foundation for the TKS spacecraft in the Almaz project, which Chelomei initiated in October 1964. (207) The preliminary design of the UR-500K vehicle was completed in 1964. (210)

The project also paved the way to OKB-52's plans to land a man on the Moon on the UR-700 rocket and even mount an expedition to Mars.


Next chapter: Almaz project



Known specifications of the LK spacecraft (207):

Payload mass of the UR-500K-LK complex
20 tons (664)
Mass of the LK spacecraft in the Earth orbit
18 tons (664)
An altitude of emergency escape system separation
80 kilometers
A total volume of the descent module (VA)
5.1 cubic meters
A total volume of pilot cabin
2.4 cubic meters
Pilot capsule diameter
2.5 meters
Mission duration
7 days
Main engine thrust of the Earth escape stage (The 4th stage of the Proton rocket)
3,500 kilograms
Low-precision attitude control system thrusters
16.5 kilograms
High-precision attitude control system thrust of the Earth escape stage
1 kilogram
Main orbit correction engine thrust on the LK1 spacecraft
600 kilogram


Main components of the LK spacecraft:

Block G -- The emergency escape system;

Block V -- The Descent Module, VA;

Block B -- The Instrument Module and the propulsion section;

Block A -- The Earth orbit escape stage;


Chronology of the development of the UR-500 (Proton) rocket:

1962: Vladimir Chelomei's OKB-52 design bureau issues the preliminary concept (avanproejkt) of the UR-500 rocket.

1962 April 16: The Central Committee of the Communist Party and the Soviet of Ministers issues a Decree No. 346-160 approving the UR-500 project. (209)

1962 April 29: The Central Committee of the Communist Party and the Soviet of Ministers issues Decree No. 409-183 assigning OKB-52 design bureau to develop the two-stage UR-500 (8K82) rocket. (210)

1963: Vladimir Chelomei's OKB-52 design bureau completes the preliminary design of the UR-500 (8K82) rocket.

1964 Aug. 3: The Central Committee of the Communist Party and the Soviet of Ministers issues Decree No. 655-268 assigning the OKB-52 design bureau to develop the three-stage UR-500K (8K82K) rocket for the LK circumlunar mission. (509) The development of a UR-500 ICBM is discontinued.

1965 June 30: Chelomei approves the preliminary design of the LK complex for a circumlunar mission around the Moon.

1965 Aug. 5-19: The military industrial commission chaired by Mstislav Keldysh reviews the activities of OKB-52. (209)

1965 Sept. 8: The Military Industrial Commission of the Presidium of the Soviet of Ministers issues Decision No. 201 allocating 18 launches of the 8K82K rocket for the L1 test flight program.

1965 Oct. 25: the Soviet government issues a decree "On the consolidation of resources of development organizations of the industry on the development of the complex of rocket and space means for the flight around the Moon," formally consolidating the effort of the industry on the circumlunar mission with the UR-500K-L1 complex.




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Page author: Anatoly Zak; Last update: August 6, 2015

Page editorr: Alain Chabot; Last edit: June 30, 2014

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This scale model likely depicts an early configuration of the UR-500 rocket with the LK spacecraft for a lunar fly-by mission. OKB-52 presented this model to its rival OKB-1, which was developing its own version of a circumlunar spacecraft -- L1. Ironically, it was the L1 spacecraft that would ultimately ride Proton into space, while the LK project was abandoned. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak


The UR-500LK complex on the launch pad. Credit: NPO Mash


The payload section of the LK spacecraft. Credit: NPO Mash


A scale model of the LK spacecraft. Credit: NPO Mash


A full-scale mockup of the LK spacecraft and its propulsion stage. Credit: NPO Mash