lunar base




Plans for a permanent lunar base

In the 1960s, the Moon Race between the United States and the Soviet Union made many scientists in both countries believe that human colonization of the Moon was at hand. Lunar bases became a frequent subject for the popular press and sci-fi novels; however, the space community also started looking at the problem seriously.


A rare depiction of an unidentified design for a Soviet lunar settlement.

Early proposals

Advocates of lunar settlements believed that a permanent outpost on the Moon would allow extensive exploration of the Earth's natural satellite for future mining of its resources, for the use of its surface as a platform for astronomy research and as a "proving ground" for further planetary exploration. In Russia, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a visionary of space exploration, suggested use of the Moon as a source of raw materials for the human quest into space. (136)

In October 1957, just weeks after the launch of Sputnik, Professor Aleksandr Aleksandrov, a rector at Leningrad University and a corresponding member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, was quoted in the Izvestiya daily as saying that the Mirnaya (peaceful) observation station could be established on the Moon "soon." Missions to Mars were also hinted in the article. Not surprisingly, the western press could not fail to see an ominous military significance of the lunar base prospects. (806)

Project Horizon

In June 1959, Wernher Von Braun and his group working at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala., issued the first part of the study of a "Lunar Military Outpost" for the US Army, called Project Horizon. Saturn-I and Saturn-II rockets, whose development started about a year earlier, were to resupply the base. The study estimated that total 245 tons of construction materials, hardware and supplies had to be shipped to the lunar surface. (138)

Korolev studies

In the 1960s, Sergei Korolev, the father of the Soviet space program, was one of the first leaders in the country's space industry, to raise the possibility of building a long-term outpost on the surface of the Moon. In 1960, in the wake of the first Soviet successes in sending unmanned probes to the Moon, Korolev published an article in Pravda, the official publication of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In the article, bylined "Professor K. Sergeev," Korolev outlined in general terms his plans for space exploration, including lunar expeditions: "The opportunity for direct exploration of the Moon causes a particular interest, first with the landing of automated scientific probes... and later by ways of sending researchers and constructing a habitable scientific station on the Moon." (137)

In 1962, Korolev further discussed the idea of the lunar base in the "Notes on Heavy Interplanetary Spacecraft and Heavy orbital Station," which were not been published until two decades later. In the "Notes" Korolev discussed developing infrastructure to support interplanetary travel, including a base to store consumables for interplanetary spacecraft.

The topic came up during a meeting of the Chief Designers Council, an informal governing body in the Soviet space industry, when it considered future tasks for the N1 moon rocket.

The consideration of a lunar base than reached the government level, which reacted with a decree on November 17, 1967, giving the green light to a "Galaktika" (galaxy) project. The plan assigned the industry to evaluate a broad range of issues associated with human exploration of the Moon, Venus and Mars.


A foldable hangar for a lunar lander circa 1960s or 1970s.

KBOM studies

Ironically, it wasn't Sergei Korolev's team, who started the first detailed studies of lunar outposts. It could be explained, perhaps, by the fact that in the 1960s Korolev's organization was overloaded with the immediate task of sending a man to the Moon.

Instead, the KBOM design bureau, the developer of launch complexes for Soviet rocketry and led by Vladimir Barmin, pioneered the in-depth studies of lunar outposts. Even before the November 1967 decree came out, KBOM design bureau established Department 29 led by A. P. Chemodurov. This group had the responsibility of evaluating potential scientific, economic and military goals which could be achieved with the lunar base. (112)

Department No. 29 at KBOM started its activities by establishing contacts with a broad range of academic and research institutions throughout the USSR, specialized in such disciplines as biology, medicine, astronomy, architecture, nuclear technology and communications. A partial list of the institutions, which cooperated with KBOM on the study of the lunar base includes:

  • The Crimean and Abastumansk observatories of the Academy of Sciences USSR
  • The Institute of Space Research, IKI, of the Academy of Sciences USSR
  • The Geology and Chemistry Institute, GEOKhI, of the Academy of Sciences USSR
  • The Physics Institute, of the Siberian Branch of the Academy of Sciences USSR
  • The Kiev Research Institute of Theory and History of Architecture
  • The Electronics Institute of the Academy of Sciences of Uzbek SSR
  • The Research Institute of Electrical Sources
  • The Research Institute of Thermal Processes
  • The Institute of Medico-Biological Sciences
  • The Research Institute of Nuclear Physics, NIIYaF, of the Moscow State University

On March 22, 1968, the Military Industrial Commission, VPK, issued Decree No. 62, authorizing the so-called "Tema: Columb" (Columbus study) within the Galaktika project. The document allowed KBOM to involve Design Department No. 15 and Theoretical Calculations Department No. 9 into the study of a prospective lunar base.

Combined, these groups evaluated different configurations of the lunar settlement, which would be able to provide working and habitation space for the crew and also to deploy equipment, sources of energy, astronomical observatory and oxygen-producing systems.


Unidentified design of the lunar base module circa 1960s or 1970s.

Power supply

The KBOM team considered several types of power sources for the prospective lunar base (Insider Content), including:

  • Nuclear thermo-emission systems
  • Solar panels in combination with fuel cells
  • Solar panels in combination with storage batteries
  • Helio-concentrators

The group also evaluated different sources of light for the base, including some, which would take advantage of the natural sunlight on the surface of the Moon.

Life support

The study of different concepts of life-support systems, including both biological and chemical sources, led to the proposal to include following elements in the initial configuration of the base:

  • A greenhouse which would be used to enrich the atmosphere of the base with oxygen, as well as a rest area for the crew.
  • A waste recycling facility
  • An oxygen and water recycling facility

Designers expected to use lunar regolith for the construction as well as for the a soil of the greenhouse.

Science equipment

Designers proposed the following science hardware to be deployed on the early lunar base:

  • Drilling equipment to drill up to 3 meters in depth;
  • A soil heating and chemical analysis lab;
  • An X-ray emission spectrograph for age determination of the soil samples;
  • A magnetometer;
  • Gravitational sensors;
  • Equipment for active seismic studies.

KBOM researchers also conducted a detailed evaluation of the moving vehicles, which were to be employed at the very early stages of the construction of the base.

Final design of lunar base from KBOM

In December 1969, in cooperation with its partners, KBOM issued a special report called Principles of the Construction of Long-Functioning Lunar Settlements. The document proposed a project of a base built in three phases with eventual increase of its crew from 4 to 12 people and the duration of their stay on the surface of the Moon at least one year.

The settlement included the main habitable section, a power-supply center, an astronomy lab, auxiliary facilities and transport vehicles.

The main facility included several pressurized modules, delivered from Earth and it was expected to be buried under the layers of regolith in order to protect it from meteorites and radiation.

The facility contained life-support, power, thermal control, communications and data-processing systems, a control room, a science lab, a repair shop, a habitation section, a kitchen and a gym.

The power supply facility was located on the surface in the protected blockhouse and contained radioactive sources of energy and power distribution unit.

Also on the surface were located an astronomy lab, a storage and a garage.

A lunar rover included in the project had a range of 250 kilometers and it could provide life support for three crew members during 14 days.

The project also included preliminary designs of lifting, construction and transport equipment.

The total mass of equipment, including consumables, which had to be delivered to the surface of the Moon during the construction was estimated at 52,000 kilograms. The N1 and Proton rockets were to be used for transport operations.

In the first half of the 1970s, the KBOM bureau built a full-scale mockup of a habitation module, which was used to test different technological and ergonomic solutions for the prospective lunar settlements. However, with the cancellation of the Soviet lunar landing program in 1974, the module had to be dismantled and further studies of the permanent lunar settlement at KBOM ceased. (135)

NPO Energia studies: The Zvezda project

In 1974, the Soviet government appointed Valentin Glushko, a longtime critic of the ill-fated N1-L3 program, to lead NPO Energia, the prime developer of the manned spacecraft. In one of his early steps at the helm of the organization, Glushko advocated cancelling the development of the troubled N1 rocket, and replacing it with an entirely new line of heavy-lift launchers. Valentin Glushko hoped that the creation and support of a permanent lunar settlement would be one of the primary applications of the future vehicles. If program was approved, the first Soviet cosmonauts would be able to land on the Moon around 1980. (142)

By the end of 1974, NPO Energia made first technical proposals for the lunar expeditionary complex, dubbed Zvezda (Star). The Vulkan heavy-lift rocket, proposed by Glushko, would launch the system. A single Vulkan booster would be able to deliver 230 tons to low-Earth orbit, 60 tons to lunar orbit and 22 tons on the surface of the Moon.

The payload would consist of the Lunar Expeditionary Craft, or LEK, and a transport craft, both developed under the leadership of K. D. Bushuev, the leading spacecraft designer at NPO Energia. I. S. Prudnikov was responsible for the hardware of the permanent base itself.

Lunar Expeditionary Craft, LEK

A three-seat LEK spacecraft was designed for a "direct" flight to the Moon, without separation between the lander and the orbiting spacecraft and the consequent docking in Earth or lunar orbit.

The craft consisted of the landing stage, which provided the descent on the surface of the Moon; the ascent stage, which would be used to take off from the lunar surface; and the reentry craft to bring the crew back on the surface of the Earth. The LEK had a mass of 31 tons on the surface of the Moon, 22 tons at the moment of takeoff and 9.2 tons during the flight to Earth. The reentry vehicle of the LEK had a mass of 3.4 tons.

Laboratory-Habitation Module, LZhM

The lunar expeditionary complex also included a 21.5-ton laboratory-habitation module, providing accommodation for three people. Its pressurized volume reached 160 cubical meters consisting of 25 square meters of lab space and 35 square meters of living space. Resting on its non-returnable landing platform, the module stood nine meters tall and had a width of eight meters. The module carried its own 3.2-ton solar panel power unit, generating 8 KW of electricity.

Laboratory-Production Module, LZM

The third element of the Zvezda base was a 15.5-ton laboratory-production complex, serviced by a single cosmonaut-operator. The module stood 4.5 meters tall and included 100 cubical meters of pressurized volume, providing access to a 950-kilogram biotechnology lab, a 1.92-ton physics and technology lab and a 3.2-ton oxygen-generating facility.

Lunar Rover (Lunokhod)

A 8.2-ton rover conceived for the Zvezda base was expected to have a range of 200 kilometers, a speed of 5 kilometers per hour. Its crew of two people would have 25 cubical meters of space inside the vehicle. Carrying up to 200 kilograms of consumable resources and a 2.25-ton solar panel-based power system, providing 8 kVt of electricity, the rover would be able to conduct "drives" along the lunar surface of up to 12 days long. The rover had a length of 8 meters, a width of 4.5 meters and a height of 3.5 meters. It would be carrying drilling and soil-moving equipment.

Finally, the hardware of the lunar base also included a nuclear power unit, supplying energy to all modules.

Zvezda base construction plan

The deployment of the lunar base planned for the 1980s, would be preceded by detailed mapping of the Moon conducted by an unmanned lunar spacecraft developed at NPO Lavochkin.

The construction of the base would be accomplished in three phases:

Phase I (three launches of the Vulkan rocket):

  • Laboratory-Habitation Module;
  • A two-seat rover, science equipment and consumables for 1.5 years;
  • Lunar Expeditionary Craft with a crew of three during three launches of the Vulkan booster;

Phase II (two launches of the Vulkan rocket over a six-month period):

  • The Laboratory-Habitation Module and a light-weight rover;
  • The Lunar Expeditionary Craft;

Phase III (three months after completion of Phase II):

  • Laboratory-Production Module and science equipment;

Zvezda base capabilities

The total crew of the Zvezda base at the end of Phase III would reach six people and it would be rotated once a year. By the end of the deployment, all power-generating facilities of the base would be able to produce 300 KW of electricity. The mass of the hardware on the surface of the Moon, not counting landing stages would reach 130 tons. Around 21.5 tons would be science hardware and other payloads.

Energia-based short-term lunar expedition

Glushko's proposals for lunar settlements did not come at the right time. In the mid-1970s, the US Apollo program wrapped up after seven lunar expeditions, without establishing any long-term American presence on the surface of the Moon. As a result, the expert commission of the Soviet government, rejected Glushko's proposals about lunar settlements in favor of the development of the Soviet equivalent of the US Space Shuttle.

Undeterred Glushko tried to adapt his lunar plans to the development of the Energia rocket, which had the primary goal of launching the Buran reusable orbiter, the Soviet equivalent of the US Space Shuttle. Glushko scaled down his previous ambitious plans for a permanent lunar base to a short-term expedition to the Moon. Still, if completed, the scenario would have overshadowed the scale of the Apollo program.

Two Energia heavy-lift rockets were to launch an unmanned Lunar Lander, LK, and a manned Lunar Orbiting Spacecraft, LOK, carrying five people. Two 29-ton craft would rendezvous in the lunar orbit and three crew members would board the LK. The craft then would descend on the lunar surface, where its weight would reach 14.5 tons. The expedition would be able to stay on the lunar surface between 5 and 12 days, depending on the amount of consumables delivered to the site by unmanned landers.

The 8.5-ton ascent stage would then blast off from the surface of the Moon, heading toward rendezvous and docking with the LOK spacecraft. The LK crew would transfer to the LOK spacecraft for a trip back home. The crew would reenter the atmosphere onboard a 4.9 vehicle, resembling the enlarged reentry capsule of a Soyuz spacecraft. (52)

A lunar dream on hold

In the 1980s, at least one optimistic prognosis expected to see several long-term settlements on the Moon in 2005 built by the Soviets, the European Space Agency and the US. From six to 15 people were predicted to live on the lunar surface and by 2010, the lunar population was expected to grow to 100 or even 500 people! By that time, private enterprises were expected to join researchers in the quest to explore the Moon and use its resources. (136)

The capabilities of the Soviet Energia rocket and the US Space Shuttle to launch lunar expeditions and to maintain lunar bases had been widely discussed in the press in academic forums during the 1980s, however, in reality such plans had never gone beyond conceptual studies. In fact, any prospects for not just a lunar base, but any manned space flight beyond the Earth's orbit all but dissipated by the end of the Cold War.

In 2001, Arthur Clarke's famous novel, set in that year and picturing lunar bases and manned missions to Jupiter, read like a naive and overly optimistic dream. Nevertheless, with the improvement of the Russian economy in the second half of 2000s, RKK Energia resumed planning for a permanent lunar base. The political decision to explore the Moon followed in 2013 and, in the following years, Russian engineers worked on the next-generation transport ship designed for lunar missions and a super-heavy rocket, which would be used to launch it.

In September 2017, at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, Roskosmos was expected to present one of the early concepts of a lunar base, which could be developed in conjuction with the cis-lunar station project also known as Deep-Space Gateway, DSG.


Sirius-23 to simulate lunar expedition

On Nov. 14, 2023, Moscow-based Institute of Medical and Biological Problems of Space Flight, IMBP, started a year-long isolation experiment, which it said was designed to simulate the conditions of a flight to the Moon. The crew consisted of two men and four women, including one researcher from Belarus:

  • Yuri Chebotarev – commander;
  • Anzhelika Parfenova – Flight engineer;
  • Kseniya Orlova – Physician;
  • Olga Mastitskaya – Researcher (Belarus);
  • Kseniya Shishenina – Researcher;
  • Rustam Zaripov – Researcher.

As in previous such studies, the participants were housed in the refurbished isolation facility originally built at IMBP in the 1960s to simulate an expedition to Mars.


Next chapter: Lunar base design in 2019 (INSIDER CONTENT)

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Artist depiction of the American lunar base propsed under project Horizon in 1959.

Scale models of transport systems and habitation modules for the lunar base developed at KBOM. Copyright © 2002 Anatoly Zak

A scale model of a lunar rover proposed by KBOM. Copyright © 2002 Anatoly Zak

One of the early concepts of the lunar base, considered at KBOM. Copyright © 2002 Anatoly Zak

A scale model of a habitable portion of the lunar base developed at KBOM bureau. (Power station and astronomy lab is not shown) Copyright © 2002 Anatoly Zak

Views of a scale mockup of the lunar habitation module and its interior, which were used by KBOM bureau to test technologies of lunar settlements. Copyright © 2002 Anatoly Zak

A concept of an advanced lunar settlement. Credit: KBOM

A scale model of the lander for the Lunar Expeditionary Complex developed as a follow-on to the N1-L3 program. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak


A lunar base concept based on inflatable modules developed at Bigelow Aerospace at the beginning of the 21st century. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2012 Anatoly Zak