Post 13: Another Small Step
"What struck me most was the silence. It was a great silence, unlike any I have encountered on Earth, so vast and deep that I began to hear my own body: my heart beating, my blood vessels pulsing, even the rustle of my muscles moving over each other seemed audible. There were more stars in the sky than I had expected. The sky was deep black, yet at the same time bright with sunlight."
Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, Voskhod 2
The return of the Zvezda 2 cosmonauts to Earth on 4th May 1981 was justly celebrated by the Soviets as a great achievement. At a time when relations between East and West were at their lowest point since the Cuban Missile Crisis, with the USSR facing global condemnation over their invasion of Afghanistan, and following high profile boycotts of the Moscow Olympics the previous year, the flight of Khrunov, Ryumin and Serebrov around the Moon was a rare feel-good story, and the Soviet propaganda machine milked it for all it was worth. In scenes not witnessed since the early days of the Space Race, the three cosmonauts were made Heroes of the Soviet Union in a marquee event in Red Square, then immediately dispatched on a tour of Warsaw Pact capitals and Western Europe. However, if all went to plan, these celebrations would pale compared to those following the next mission in the sequence. With Baikal refit work finally completed at Baikonur’s Pad 38, the road was open to complete the mission that Korolev had set forth for N-1 eighteen years earlier: a piloted landing on the Moon.
Early July of 1981 produced a sight not seen at Baikonur for almost a decade: two N-1 Groza rockets standing together at the Rasket launch complex. To the East was Pad 38, holding N1-23L and the unpiloted GB-1 Zvezda 3 crasher stage. On the western side, distinguishable by its SAS launch abort system, N1-24L stood at Pad 37 with the Zvezda 4 GB-2 Lunar Exploratory Complex vehicle. Assembled in parallel in the MIK, the two rockets had been pulled out to the pads within three weeks of one another, and would now undergo a further month of on-pad testing and preparations. The mission plan called for Zvezda 3 to launch on August 1st, to be followed by the crew of Zvezda 4 at the next launch window 14 days later.
The crew of Zvezda 4 were the best and most experienced of the Soviet cosmonaut corps, each having trained for a decade or more for such a mission. In the Flight Engineer role was 51 year old Anatoli Fyodorovich Voronov, veteran of the Soyuz 16/Zarya 1 mission, and a member of the TsKP-2 selection group of 1963. Piloting the LEK was Ukrainian cosmonaut Pavel Popovich. Originally selected alongside Yuri Gagarin in the TsPK-1 group of 1960, the 50 year old Popovich had flown on Vostok 4 and had commanded the challenging Soyuz 12 mission to Almaz 1, before re-joining the group of lunar cosmonauts training for L3M. Commanding the mission was the legendary Aleksei Arkhipovich Leonov. Leonov was famous across the globe as the first man to walk in space on Voskhod 2, as well as the commander of the Soviet half of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. The 51 year old Leonov had also flown on the Soyuz 9/10 joint flight, and for more than a decade had been the front runner to command the first Soviet mission to land upon the Moon. Like the other members of his crew, Leonov expected Zvezda 4 to be the final, crowning achievement of his spaceflight career, and all three were determined to ensure its successful completion.
The three cosmonauts, plus their back-ups, were present at Baikonur on 1st August for the launch of Zvezda 3. Unfortunately, a problem with the hydrogen fuelling system on Pad 38’s newly refurbished rotating service tower meant that the attempt had to be scrubbed, and the window was missed. Engineers stood down the vehicle and took the opportunity to make some additional checks while they waited two-weeks for the launch window to open again. The additional care apparently paid off as the early morning of Saturday 15th August 1981 saw a flawless liftoff for Groza vehicle N1-23L. Its early teething problems now a distant memory, the giant rocket worked precisely to program, putting the GB-1 spacecraft and its Blok-Sr upper stage into a parking orbit at 220 km altitude and 51.8 degrees inclination.
The action now moved to the Mission Control Centre at Kaliningrad, outside Moscow, as the upper stage and its payload were checked out by ground controllers. With the Soviet ground control complex augmented by the twin Space Control Monitoring ships “Gagarin” and “Korolev”, TsKBEM engineers had almost complete coverage of Zvezda 3’s orbit, and were soon able to confirm that the spacecraft were functioning correctly. Three hours after launch, they issued the command for Blok-Sr to fire its engines and put the booster and its GB-1 payload on a trans-lunar trajectory.
On 17th August, as Zvezda 3 cruised towards the Moon, space fans were treated to a second significant spaceflight milestone, as the first American shuttle Columbia completed a Flight Readiness Firing test at Kennedy Space Center’s pad 39A. Coming two months after the futuristic new spacecraft had been rolled out to the pad, the successful FRF gave NASA managers confidence in scheduling the first launch for the end of September. If everything went to plan, this would come just over a week after the return of Leonov, Popovich and Voronov to Earth.
Zvezda 3 entered high lunar orbit on 18th August. Its job done, the Blok-Sr stage was discarded, while the controllers at Kaliningrad confirmed that the GB-1 stage was stable and functioning correctly. In parallel, final preparations were underway at Baikonur to ensure Groza N1-24L and the Zvezda 4 LEK were ready for their historic flight. Ten days after Zvezda 3 entered lunar orbit, on the evening of 28th August, the State Commission confirmed Zvezda 4’s readiness for launch. The mission was on.
As the sun rose at 07:03 local time on 29th August 1981, three cosmonauts stepped off a bus at Baikonur’s Pad 37 and formed a line in front of the assembled military and Party dignitaries. Saluting in his Sokol pressure suit, the recently promoted Lieutenant General Leonov reported to Defence Minister Dimitri Ustinov - the same “Uncle Mitya” who had been instrumental in establishing the Soviet rocket programme - that the crew of Zvezda 4 were ready to undertake their mission. In front of the recording cameras of Soviet Central Television, Marshal Ustinov returned the salute and gave official authorisation for the crew to proceed. With a crowd of Baikonur workers, family members, and government officials cheering them on, the crew and their support team climbed the steps at the foot of the rotating service tower and entered the lift that carried them to Platform 13. Stepping onto the metal walkway connecting the platform to the LEK payload shroud, the three paused briefly to wave to the cameras, then entered the hatch to the spacecraft within.
With the crew now strapped into their couches in the GB-2 Return Capsule and the launch pad cleared of spectators, the final preparations for launch began. With the SAS escape system armed and ready in case of disaster, the pipes of the rotating service tower began loading the first three stages of the rocket with super-chilled kerosene and oxygen. By 10:30 the cavernous tanks had been filled to capacity, and it was time to fill the Blok-Sr’s tanks with their hydrolox payload, while the lower stages were kept topped up in order to squeeze out every last m/s of performance. The LEK’s own hypergolic propellants had been loaded at the MIK before roll-out, so the completion of Blok-Sr fuelling at 11:20 marked the completion of the major pre-launch milestones.
At 12:17, the NK-33 engines of N1-24L’s Blok-A first stage roared into life, lifting the giant rocket from the pad. Although the launch was not shown live, multiple television and movie cameras captured the moment for rebroadcast on evening news bulletins around the world. They showed a perfect liftoff, with all thirty engines functioning to program as the launcher arced through the thin, high cloud deck and headed for the horizon.
Outside Moscow, the TsUP Control Centre followed the rocket’s progress via the network of NIP tracking stations, including live audio and video of the crew inside the VA. All staging events occurred as planned, and the cosmonauts reported no problems as the rattling of the engines subsided and the LEK and Blok-Sr upper stage glided into their parking orbit. Leonov, Popovich and Voronov now removed their helmets and gloves, but remained strapped into their launch couches as mission controllers checked their orbital parameters. After a break in contact with the crew over the Eastern Pacific, communications were re-established via “Kosmonaut Yuri Gagarin” in the Atlantic Ocean. By the time the Zvezda 4 was passing over the Mediterranean, the flight dynamics team at Kaliningrad were able to confirm their orbital elements and began uplinking the final parameters for the Blok-Sr’s Earth departure burn, to be initiated on the next orbit.
After a minor issue requiring a manual re-set of one of the LEK’s triple-redundant digital computers, the departure burn was performed successfully, and the crew of Zvezda 4 were finally able to unstrap themselves and remove their Sokol pressure suits. After stowing the suits in the VA, Voronov cracked open the interior hatch to the Cocooned Habitation Blok (OB), and all three cosmonauts entered the main compartment of the ship. The crew ran through some initial start-up procedures, then recorded a brief “Cosmovision” television programme for worldwide release. As Mission Commander, Leonov praised the efforts of the many engineers, technicians and support personnel who had worked on their craft. He expressed his excitement at finally being on his way to the Moon, and a hope that their mission would inspire the people of the world to work together in future endeavours.
The three-day voyage to the moon passed largely uneventfully. The crew continued to make daily television recordings, including one aimed at children in which Voronov illustrated the effects of zero gravity with a small stuffed toy version of Cheburashka, the large-eared bear from the popular “Gena the Crocodile” films. Away from the cameras, the crew devoted most of their time to check-outs and preventative maintenance of their ship and equipment. Apart from some basic astronomical observations, there were very few scientific experiments to run during the cruise, with the bulk of Zvezda’s scientific payload devoted to lunar surface operations.
Lunar orbit insertion occurred on 1st September, after which the Blok-Sr stage was discarded and Zvezda 4 started hunting down the Zvezda 3 GB-1 stage, following the call of its Kontakt beacon. Phasing manoeuvres consumed the rest of the day, until on the morning of 2nd September the two spacecraft were less than a kilometre apart. Under the constant gaze of Leonov and Popovich, the LEK rendezvous computer guided the ship slowly towards the Kontakt plate atop the kerolox booster stage. For the final approach, the cosmonauts had to rely on CCTV images, as the GB-1 was hidden from direct view by the bulk of the LEK’s descent stage. Fortunately, Kontakt proved more reliable than the old Igla system, and guided Zvezda 4’s probe to penetrate dead-centre of the GB-1 target plate, locking the two vehicles together.
The next day was spent on further check-outs, both in space and on Earth, of the joined ship and its ground support systems. Then, when the combined GB-1/2 spacecraft was in the proper position, the D2 stage’s engine lit and started the crew on their descent towards the Mare Serenitatis.
The hatch cracked open, and brilliant, unfiltered sunlight poured into the capsule. Leonov quickly pulled down the gold visor of his Krechet moon suit and peered out at the barren surroundings of their landing site. Magnificent desolation
. That was how Buzz Aldrin had described the lunar landscape. Finally, Leonov was witnessing with his own eyes the awesome truth in that description. The sun was low on the horizon at this early hour, just a dozen or so hours after the dawning of a day that would last for two weeks. The long, ink-black shadows of rocks and craters contrasted with the grey dust of this ancient lava plain bright in the morning light, while above him the sky was a pure black deeper than he had ever experienced.
Pulling the hatch fully open, Leonov turned to back his way out of the Zvezda’s Cocooned Habitation Module and onto the small platform and descent ladder. Just a metre or so from him, inside the ship, Pavel Popovich stood in his own Krechet suit, squeezed against the side of the Return Capsule, holding a camera. Pressed against a window in the Return Capsule, Leonov could see the face of the third member of their crew, Anatoli Voronov. Mission rules were that Voronov had to be ready to return to Earth at a moment’s notice should anything go wrong, but he wasn’t about to miss seeing this historic event for himself.
With Popovich taking pictures, Leonov backed out onto the platform, and into the view of the small external TV camera. Assuming no “bobkins” were screwing up the feed, Leonov knew he could now be seen by billions of people. Even on his famous first walk in space, Leonov had never been exposed to such scrutiny during a mission. And a good thing too
, Leonov thought. How many heart attacks might I have caused if people had been watching live as I tried to re-enter Voskhod?
There could be no such mistakes this time.
Grasping metal handrails, Leonov moved one boot off the platform and stepped onto the first rung of the ladder. The world is watching. What is it that they see, I wonder? Last year, they were watching our wonderful Olympics in Moscow. But many could only see that America was absent. They saw our war in Afghanistan. Is that what they are seeing now? Do they see a glorious achievement, for mankind and for the socialist homeland? Or do they see an exhausted runner-up, chasing the moon to win propaganda trinkets for a decrepit leadership?
No. Leonov had been a propaganda tool for most of his career, ever since the success of Voskhod 2 had thrust him into the limelight. But he knew he was more than that. Space travel was more than that. When he’d shaken Tom Stafford’s hand, all those years ago, it had meant something to the world. Though their nations had differences, they had worked together back then to do something special, something that Leonov had been proud to be a part of. Relations with the Americans had got a lot worse since then - perhaps as bad as any time since Cuba - but Leonov had to believe that they could get past these differences. That there would again come a time when Soviets and Americans could work together as friends, as brothers.
Leonov stepped off the ladder onto the surface of the Moon.
“My footprints join those of Neil Armstrong, and the other brave explorers of Earth. Like them, for the people of the Soviet Union and all the world, we come in peace for all mankind.”
 IOTL this milestone was passed on 20th February 1981. STS-1 is running a few months late ITTL due to the impact of modifications to the programme relating to Shuttle-C.