A Sound of Thunder: The Rise of the Soviet Superbooster

This wraps up Part 1 of A Sound of Thunder. I hope you enjoyed it! Part 2 is in preparation, and while I don’t expect it to take the several years that Part 1 did, I’m afraid it will be a number of months. Early 2023 is likely, as in addition to the writing I have a number of new, detailed models I’m looking forward to creating to illustrate the timeline.

So thanks again for reading!


Given the beauty of this TL please take all the time you need for part II.... (Insert obligatory joke about giving you all of a this weekend to get it ready here :) )

Randy
 
A Manned soviet landing in July 1981

oh boy, Ronald Reagan will drown NASA in Money !
while US president advisors suggest, ehh maybe Mars ?
 
A Manned soviet landing in July 1981

oh boy, Ronald Reagan will drown NASA in Money !
while US president advisors suggest, ehh maybe Mars ?
"We cannot allow a manned spaceflight gap! America will colonize Mars, and show once and for all that the communist system cannot match the capability and innovation of American capitalism!" --Ronnie Raygun, probably.
 
A Manned soviet landing in July 1981

oh boy, Ronald Reagan will drown NASA in Money !
while US president advisors suggest, ehh maybe Mars ?

Actually he's more likely to withdraw money from NASA and put it towards a military Lunar mission given the circumstances. Mars is off the table unfortunately as Congress is still very much "anti-anything-for-Mars" at this point.

If NASA is lucky, (for varying degrees of the definition of "luck" :) ) they might get a boost towards Space Station Freedom, (having more "practical" applications than going Lunar again, not that I don't expect them to try mind you) but realistically Reagan has other fish to fry and a lot more priority on keeping the Soviet's spending money anywhere he can get it but keeping American money flowing to defense contractors. It's a couple years to early to really pitch SDI but it might come up but there's little chance this pushes any real response from the US.

After all, the US has just rendered the N1 "obsolete" anyway with the Shuttle and I'd expect them to triple-down on that aspect.
I'd love to be wrong though :)

Randy
 
If NASA is lucky, (for varying degrees of the definition of "luck" :) ) they might get a boost towards Space Station Freedom,
I hear already Reagan comment NASA Freedom proposal: the commies have already a Space Station in orbit, we need something better to beat them!

Actually he's more likely to withdraw money from NASA and put it towards a military Lunar mission given the circumstances.
I hear already Reagan saying: We were already there on Moon, why return ? we need something better to beat the commies!

Mars is off the table unfortunately as Congress is still very much "anti-anything-for-Mars" at this point.
Once the soviets land on Moon, Capitol Hill is in Panik mode...
 
The Soviets also kind of ignored women in their cosmonaut corps. They had a grand total of two historically, and the second was basically flown as a stunt specifically to ensure the American's didn't get any additional firsts when they flew the first women with NASA.
First woman on the moon would be quite the stunt though.
 
The Soviets also kind of ignored women in their cosmonaut corps. They had a grand total of two historically, and the second was basically flown as a stunt specifically to ensure the American's didn't get any additional firsts when they flew the first women with NASA. However, unlike NASA who have continued to recruit and fly women, the Soviets stopped completely. After Savitskaya's two Salyut flights in '82 and '84, the Soviet Union never flew another woman. After the fall of the USSR, the Russians then didn't fly another woman until Kondakova in '94 and '97, and then not again until Serova in '14. By the time Serova flew in '14, she was the 58th woman in space. Only four had been Soviet or Russian.
Yelena Kondakova, who flew on a Russian mission, was selected as a cosmonaut in 1989 when the program was still the Soviet space program. So saying the Soviets "stopped completely" after Savitskaya is going a bit far. As is saying they "kind of ignored women". The Soviets seem to have been keeping up a steady state of occasionally interrupted sexism as I see it.

fasquardon
 

Garrison

Donor
So there's now going to be some fresh emphasis for the US to get back to moon, with fears of some sort of Soviet nuclear armed moon base doubtless being raised by those members of congress with major aerospace contractors in their states. Also when the USSR collapses might they be more willing to sell their tech to some eager tech billionaire than they were OTL?
 
I hear already Reagan comment NASA Freedom proposal: the commies have already a Space Station in orbit, we need something better to beat them!

Something "bigger" and "better" which Freedom would be. And frankly that's got the most possibility of getting past Congress.

I hear already Reagan saying: We were already there on Moon, why return ? we need something better to beat the commies!

"Been there, done that" writ large actually. We "might" consider going back if they try and build a base or outpost but not likely as we can then spend more money here on Earth towards meeting the 'actual' challenge: The inevitable conflict when the USSR realizes it's "lost" the Cold War. Again it might get increased funding for near-Earth applications like Freedom or Stars Wars but there's no real incentive to "beat" the Russians as they are only repeating what the US has already done. (According to the US at least :) )

Once the soviets land on Moon, Capitol Hill is in Panik mode...

Why? After all the Soviets are ONLY following in the US's footsteps and there's really nothing to be worried about. They are not doing anything the US has not already done (and taking two launches per mission to do even that) and the US is about to field a radical, game changing technology. There are simply too many "other" issues to be seriously worried about here on Earth, (and one major one is confronting those same Russians right HERE on Earth which is after all the only 'important' real estate :) ) to worry about the USSR finally catching up to the US in space.

Reagan and Congress only cared about being militarily and politically 'on-par' with the USSR ON EARTH, and while there was some interest in 'competing' in Near-Earth Orbit even that was subdued till after SDI was in full swing.

So there's now going to be some fresh emphasis for the US to get back to moon, with fears of some sort of Soviet nuclear armed moon base doubtless being raised by those members of congress with major aerospace contractors in their states. Also when the USSR collapses might they be more willing to sell their tech to some eager tech billionaire than they were OTL?

Well NASA will certainly try to play the "we need to still beat the Russians" card but it's not likely to happen. They will of course come out with an overly-complicated and highly expensive plan to put a base on the Moon before the Russian's but it's not likely to go anywhere given they are in the middle of 're-writing' space flight with the Shuttle and till that's up and working...

Also the "nuclear armed moon base" was literally debunked and dismissed in the late 50s so that's going to get zero traction anywhere. (The ACTUAL then-current Lunar military base concept was a questionable idea of having a base as a C3I station that could {in theory} be immune from a surprise first strike therefore enhancing deterrence. But studies quickly showed that any surface or subsurface Lunar base was still vastly more vulnerable than some sort of 'mobile' base, and likely less viable than an airborne or submarine platform. So it was dropped)

Randy
 
Hey, I think there's a TL with that 😏
Oh boy I can't wait to read an interesting space ATL where the first woman on the moon comes home alive and well.
1654299023923.png
 
An excellent ending to part 1. I'm curious as to how long the Soviets' economy can sustain this program--if or when cutbacks forced by the decaying situation in that country will hit. Leonov's sentiments are noble--though, I have to wonder how true to life they are (looking at Valentina Tereshkova's recent political career, I'm wondering how cosmopolitan the cosmonauts really were). Similarly, the cosmonauts returning from lunar orbit were lucky their tour of the rest of the Warsaw Pact slipped in just before Martial Law in Poland began--Leonov might have some trouble with a similar tour.
 
An excellent ending to part 1. I'm curious as to how long the Soviets' economy can sustain this program--if or when cutbacks forced by the decaying situation in that country will hit. Leonov's sentiments are noble--though, I have to wonder how true to life they are (looking at Valentina Tereshkova's recent political career, I'm wondering how cosmopolitan the cosmonauts really were). Similarly, the cosmonauts returning from lunar orbit were lucky their tour of the rest of the Warsaw Pact slipped in just before Martial Law in Poland began--Leonov might have some trouble with a similar tour.

Rather, the Poles would not plan an attack on Leonov.
 
An excellent ending to part 1. I'm curious as to how long the Soviets' economy can sustain this program--if or when cutbacks forced by the decaying situation in that country will hit. Leonov's sentiments are noble--though, I have to wonder how true to life they are (looking at Valentina Tereshkova's recent political career, I'm wondering how cosmopolitan the cosmonauts really were). Similarly, the cosmonauts returning from lunar orbit were lucky their tour of the rest of the Warsaw Pact slipped in just before Martial Law in Poland began--Leonov might have some trouble with a similar tour.
The Soviet program so far has probably been about the same as the OTL program.

If my memory is right, the Energia-Buran system cost around about 20 billion roubles over the course of the 70s and 80s. The bulk of that money being consumed developing the RD-170 and the next largest amount being spent to develop the RD-0120. In this TL there is no RD-170 and instead the Soviets are realizing the investment they made in the NK-33. And instead of a big and difficult RD-0120, the Soviets are developing much smaller and easier hydrolox engines. Most of the costs of launching an N-1 will be in the NK engines and the salaries of the skilled manpower in the factories and at the launch pad. But with the Soviets manufacturing so many NK-33s and -43s, economies of scale will be kicking in, and while there may be more people employed at the rocket factories and at Baikonur in TTL, it is unlikely to be significantly more than OTL. So the skilled manpower will be instead more efficiently used and will be getting better at building and launching N-1s. Also, taking the slower path to the moon will mean the Soviets were more able to leverage existing military and civilian technology instead of the extremely expensive custom technology the US developed for its landing. I'd be surprised if the Soviets had spent much more than 10 billion roubles on their moon program and station program so far. (Again, going on unreliable memory, but I think OTL the funding for the Soviet moon program was around about 600 million roubles a year, and I would be surprised if the average of each N-1 launch cost much more than 500 million roubles so far. And as economies of scale accrue, that will continue falling.)

And I doubt that the large stations and the TKS are significantly more expensive than Salyut, Soyuz and Mir were in OTL. The Proton is more expensive than the Soyuz LV, but not much more so and the large TKS system and the large station will both have economies of scale to exploit.

EDIT: When talking about the development of the RD-0120, I forgot that the Soviets already developed serveral smaller hydrolox engines in OTL, so the smaller H2/LOX engines they are developing in TTL will not be new development - engines like the RD-56 used on the block Sr were developed in OTL, so wouldn't push up the costs of the program in TTL.

fasquardon
 
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Interlude: “Boris, give me back 800 kilograms.”​


- Excerpt from “Rockets and People, Volume IV: The Moon Race”, by Boris Chertok, edited by Asif Siddiqi. Original text published in Moscow, 1999. This translated version published by NASA History Program Office, 2011.


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[Note: The following exchange between Sergie Korolev and Boris Chertok took place in mid-December, 1964.]

I’ll return to the conversation with Korolev in my office. The first subject of our meeting was, of course, the L3. I remember his request/ultimatum quite well: “Boris, give me back 800 kilograms.”

Grabbing a previously prepared weight report with numerous handwritten amendments, I tried to demonstrate that “giving back” was out of the question. All the systems for which my departments were responsible already required more than 500 kilograms above our allotment. And there was still so much documentation that hadn’t been issued, dozens of expert commission recommendations that hadn’t been implemented, and not a single bit of experimental work had been completed yet! The automatic landing of the LK was the least developed part of the program. For reliability, we needed triple or, at least, double redundancy, diagnostics, and good communications with Earth, and all of this meant weight and more weight.

Korolev was not about to look at the weight report. He interrupted my explanations and calmly repeated, this time looking me straight in the eye (he had a real knack for this): “All the same, give me back 800.”

Without allowing me once again to switch to a forceful defense, S. P. said that he had held a very difficult discussion with Keldysh. He [Keldysh] didn’t believe that we had yet solved the weight problem for landing even one cosmonaut on the Moon. For that reason, in Keldysh’s opinion, the design as a whole still had loose ends. Chelomey, who had his own alternative design proposals, was putting pressure on Keldysh.

Tyulin was forming a new ministry, but evidently they weren’t going to appoint him minister of his own ministry. “Uncle Mitya” [Minister of Defence Industry Dimitriy Ustinov] had his own people, and now in the Politburo you couldn’t get past Ustinov. The only one there who really knew what we were doing was Khrushchev. Now he’s gone, and all those who had seized power were not yet accustomed to making independent decisions. The military officials couldn’t understand at all why it was necessary to fly to the Moon. It’s a big headache that since Nedelin, “infantry” marshals had been in command of space. The Air Force should have piloted programs—they had a better understanding of human capabilities. Incidentally, Air Force Commanders-in-Chief were being appointed, as a rule, from the ranks of combat pilots. They knew human capabilities, but it was difficult for them to get a sense of the scale of space systems.

“The ‘Americanese’ don’t hesitate to say that the master of space will be the master of the world,” continued S. P. “They have greater opportunities than we do. We are poorer, and therefore our leaders, especially the military, must be wiser.”

S. P. expressed these thoughts as if verifying his reasoning to justify his demand to “give back 800 kilograms.” Now, in his opinion, I knew everything and I understood everything, and by hook or by crook I must bring the weight reports down by 800 kilograms in the design materials. It turned out that he wanted to get 800 kilograms less than the limit stipulated in Bushuyev’s design materials! This was completely unrealistic. But I wasn’t about to argue. I knew that S. P. was “padding” his request. Feigning annoyance, he said that because of such obstinate people as Voskresenskiy and me, in our current situation they might cut back appropriations for the N-1. Then the “Americanese” would certainly pass us. They are getting billions for the Saturn V. The president is monitoring the program personally, while our program is divided between aviation, rockets, and agriculture. Now, after Nikita, Brezhnev is going to support Yangel. The Ukraine has a stranglehold on this Central Committee Presidium.

Here, I remember saying that perhaps this was a good thing—Pilyugin wouldn’t be able to cope with the N-1 without the Kharkov instrumentation group, and we also had the Kievpribor Factory working for us in Kiev. We would also have a difficult time without its help. As for Yangel, I reminded Korolev of the quip the military officers had come up with: “Korolev works for TASS, Chelomey’s [work] goes down the toilet, and Yangel’s is for us.”

S. P. had already heard this aphorism, but it clearly offended him to hear it repeated. His mood darkened. His facial expression, the glint in his eyes, and the position of his head always betrayed Korolev’s mood and state of mind. He did not have Glushko’s ability to maintain a completely impenetrable and imperturbable appearance regardless of his inner state.

“What stupidity,” said Korolev, “and military men from Dnepropetrovsk [where Yangel’s design bureau was located] started it. And they’ve got no grounds to poke fun at Chelomey. He’s got Myasishchev’s magnificent aviation designers and an aviation factory with production culture the likes of which Dnepropetrovsk has never dreamed. That’s precisely where Chelomey’s main strength lies, rather than any special relationship he has with Nikita Sergeyevich.”

When Korolev mentioned the factory, I couldn’t restrain myself and boasted: “The factory in Fili set me up in life and even provided me with a wife.”

“Did your Katya really work there, too?”

“Yes, all my personnel forms mention that.”

“I haven’t studied your personnel forms, but don’t forget to say hi to Katya for me.”

After that little breather, Korolev returned to his thoughts about Chelomey’s projects. “Now that they’ve given Nikita the boot, officials whom Chelomey has really annoyed have decided to show him who’s boss. Ustinov and Smirnov talked Keldysh into heading a commission to investigate the work of OKB-52. I advised him not to, but he consented. Look what’s happening. Keldysh is chairman of the expert commission on the N-1, he was chairman of the commission on Yangel’s combat missiles, and now he has been assigned the role of inspector over all of Chelomey’s work. He has taken on a very large responsibility. It will be interesting to see how he will act with the circumlunar flight project using the UR-500. After all, the deadline for that was just recently set for the first quarter of 1967. God willing, the rocket will fly for the first time in a year, and in two years they’re already planning a piloted circumlunar flight. I think that we should join forces with regard to the vehicle, rather than fritter away our strength. Now, since we’re soon going to be in the same ministry, maybe we can make some arrangement. In any event, I gave Kostya [Bushuyev] the assignment to look into whether it would be possible to adapt a 7K from a Soyuz [launch vehicle] to a UR-500 launcher. After all, honestly, I am not very convinced that your beloved Mnatsakanyan will make a system that will go through three dockings in a row without a hitch.”

“Sergey Pavlovich! According to information from our ‘fifth column,’ Chelomey hasn’t really gotten moving on the vehicle yet, while our landing on the Moon is set for a year after the circumlunar flight, and we have to make not just one, but two completely new vehicles.”

“That’s why you have to give me back 800 kilograms,” he said very sternly.



As I was editing this chapter for the new edition of my memoirs, I recalled the words of Yuriy Mozzhorin, which he managed to tell me in 1996 after that year’s Korolev Lectures.

“You described Korolev as if you, his deputies, knew about the flaws and unreliability of the N1-L3 design, and he, Korolev, stubbornly refused to look into it. As director of NII-88 at that time, at the personal request of Uncle Mitya [Ustinov], I tried to gain an understanding of all the lunar problems, including what motivated people, on whom much depended, in their attitude toward the Moon. I was convinced that Korolev, perhaps better than we, felt and understood the general situation. Those 800 kilograms that he demanded from you were a test of your loyalty to his policy. He needed a super-heavy-lift launch vehicle and as soon as possible. Even if we didn’t fulfill the mission in a one-launch version, then at least we were testing out the launch vehicle. And then we could come out with new robust proposals for the Moon and Mars.”

++++++++++++++++++++​

This excerpt is produced verbatim, if slightly abridged, from Chertok’s OTL memoirs (which I highly recommend). I feel it captures superbly not only the tremendous issues faced by the engineers developing the N-1, but also an insight into Korolev’s way of working in the complex political landscape of the USSR. If he did indeed have a full understanding of all the technical difficulties of a single-launch lunar landing mission, and was using it as a political tool to get the N-1 built before falling back to other, more achievable goals, then it would be interesting indeed to see what he may have pulled off had he lived. But that is for other alternate histories to explore!
I've just started reading "A Sound of Thunder". After reading this interlude, especially the last part, it makes me wish that you had made Sergei Korolev surviving his surgery the Point of Divergence for this story! IMHO, he had the best chance of getting the N1 rocket working properly.
 
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I've just started reading "A Sound of Thunder". After reading this interlude, especially the last part, it makes me wish that you had made Sergei Korolev surviving his surgery the Point of Divergence for this story! IMHO, he had the best chance of getting the N1 rocket working properly.
Maybe, but that's been done :)

To expand a little though, my feeling is that, if the objective is just to get the N-1 flying, they were actually agonisingly close IOTL, with an uprated launcher ready to go just a month or two after Glushko canned the programme, and several more in various stages of assembly. My approach in this TL was to try to make the smallest change I could that would achieve that aim, then see what happens.
 
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