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A lunar lander (foreground) arrives at the lunar orbital station, LOS (center). After a successful docking, the crew, which arrived at the LOS onboard a separate transport ship (background), will board the lander for the final leg of its journey to the Moon. The ascent stage of the lunar lander from the previous sortie to the Moon can be seen parked at the peripheral docking port of the LOS. Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak

Way station on the road to the Moon

To establish a permanent foothold on the Moon, earthlings would need more than a single manned spacecraft. As in past conquests of remote and inhospitable lands, it might be necessary to pre-position supplies and accommodations along the way. The most convenient location for a way station on the road to the Moon, would be the lunar orbit. Here, landers returning from the surface of the Moon would link up with transport ships coming from Earth. Crews and cargo could be exchanged and large quantities of propellant could be accumulated for specific “high-power” missions, such as the delivery of heavy lunar base modules on the surface of the Moon. (138)

The concept of a lunar orbital station, or LOS, appeared in early American and Soviet studies of lunar exploration. As early as 1959, Wernher von Braun envisioned the refueling of transport ships in the lunar orbit, in order to facilitate the construction of a lunar base within the project Horizon. In 1962, Sergei Korolev, the founder of the Soviet space program, considered the possibility of establishing long-duration "satellite-stations" in lunar orbit with the goal of supporting deep-space expeditions. (137) The idea was further evaluated around 1963 within the L4 project.

Still, for most of the 20th century, a lunar orbital station had remained a “luxury” item on the list of priorities of contemporary space programs. It was impossible to justify within the limited scope of lunar exploration at the time. However, the first decade of the 21st century saw a renaissance in lunar exploration, with rocket scientists on both sides of the Atlantic dusting off their ideas for establishing a permanent presence on the surface of the Moon. In the post-Soviet Russia, planners at the country’s leading manned space flight centers – RKK Energia and Khrunichev enterprise – saw a lunar orbital station as an essential element in the Earth-Moon transport chain.

Khrunichev’s LOS concept

On November 14-15, 2007, the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City hosted the 7th scientific conference on manned space flight. Sergei Pugachenko, a representative of KB Salyut, the development arm at Khrunichev enterprise, revealed ambitious long-term plans for exploration of the Moon and Mars.

The lunar infrastructure proposed by Khrunichev included two major elements – a base on the surface of the Moon and a lunar orbital station. Pugachenko’s presentation included a slide, which was perhaps the first depiction of a possible configuration of the lunar orbital station, LOS.

The spacecraft clearly traced its roots to the generations of Soviet space stations, such as Salyut, Almaz, Mir's core module and the service module of the International Space Station. Not coincidently, all these vehicles were built at Khrunichev. LOS sported six docking ports, high-power antenna for communications, maneuvering and attitude control engines, solar panels and a robotic arm, similar to the one developed by the European Space Agency, ESA, for the Russian segment of the ISS.

In an accompanying statement to the media, Pugachenko explained that the lunar orbital station would be used for the transfer and storage of cargo and propellants, as well as serve as temporary or emergency quarters for crews and a platform for scientific studies of the Moon, such as remote-sensing and cartography. LOS could also help relay signals between Earth and the lunar surface.

Both the lunar surface base and the lunar orbital station would be delivered into space by a super-heavy version of the Angara rocket with a cargo capacity of 100 tons to the low-Earth orbit. To top it off, Khrunichev drafted a family of giant rockets, with a cargo capacity to low-earth orbit ranging from 45 tons to an incredible 175 tons!

Writer and illustrator: Anatoly Zak; last update: August 3, 2015

Editor: Alain Chabot; last edit: February 19, 2008

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Animation of the lunar lander docking to the lunar orbital station, LOS. Click to play: Streaming QuickTime / 20 seconds Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak


Artist rendering of the Lunar Orbital Station, LOS, based on the line art presented by Khrunichev enterprise in November 2007. The depiction of the lunar lander is based on studies by RKK Energia and Keldysh center, the drawing of the manned transport ship is provisional and based on descriptions available at the end of 2007. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak

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