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N-1 rollout
A rare photo of the Soviet N-1 rocket, developed for its manned lunar program in the 1960s, being rolled out to the pad. (credit: Asif Siddiqi)

Cosmos unmasked: studying Soviet and Russian space history in the 21st century

On June 10, 2006, a very hot day in London, the British Interplanetary Society (BIS) held its twenty-first annual symposium on Russian and Chinese space history. The BIS is the oldest of the early “rocket societies” established in the first decades of the 20th century. It currently publishes Spaceflight magazine, a glossy monthly that remains the best English-language publication devoted to spaceflight, and the peer-reviewed Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, which also produces an annual Space Chronicle issue.

On the same day that England played its first game in the World Cup (winning unspectacularly), the relatively small BIS headquarters building was filled with approximately two dozen people, including most of the more well-known researchers and writers in this field, such as Brian Harvey, Bert Vis, Phil Clark, Asif Siddiqi, and Bart Hendrickx. All have written articles and books that have shed light on the space program that long rivaled the United States. Also present were many members of the United Kingdom’s famed Kettering Group, such as Max White and Grant Thomson. Kettering was a club founded at a British grade school in the 1960s that detected the signals from Soviet spacecraft and was often the best source of open source reporting on Soviet activities. The Kettering Group was, in many ways, a public space intelligence service.

China is a recent addition to the symposium, which was started back in the waning years of the Cold War (although nobody knew that they were waning at the time). However, despite its addition, the Chinese space program remains a minor topic at the symposium, limited primarily by the lack of researchers who are focusing on Chinese space.

The field of Soviet—now Russian—space history has always been relatively small. It has also been dominated by amateurs, meaning people who do not get paid as historians or have graduate-level academic training in history or related fields. Part of the constraint on the study of Soviet space history was due to extreme Soviet secrecy. When virtually every satellite that the Soviet Union launched flew under the deliberately bland designation of “Cosmos,” it was hard to apply standard research tools and training to studying Soviet activities. As a result, for years the study of Soviet space activities was akin to detective work using very limited clues, and the people who dominated the study were usually amateur sleuths. Of course, during the Cold War, Western intelligence agencies also studied Soviet capabilities. They had greater resources, but often resorted to many of the same techniques as the amateurs.

From Gagarin to Buran

Rex Hall, the outgoing president of the BIS, gave some opening remarks welcoming the attendees, noting that most of the West’s historians and researchers on the Soviet/Russian space program were in attendance and that the symposium saw the addition of some new blood. The symposium featured speakers from numerous countries: not only Britain but also Holland, Belgium, Sweden, and the United States. He hailed the symposium as a unique opportunity for people to share their knowledge.

The field of Soviet—now Russian—space history has always been relatively small. It has also been dominated by amateurs, meaning people who do not get paid as historians or have graduate-level academic training in history or related fields.

Bert Vis from Holland led the symposium with a discussion of his visit to the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, showing photographs of some of the lost and forgotten sites at the facility where the Russians train their cosmonauts. Vis displayed photographs of buildings that had been erected for the Buran space shuttle program only to be abandoned while incomplete. One large building that was intended to house a full-scale mockup of the Soviet shuttle was never finished and left open to the elements. It is often used as the site of barbecues and drinking parties, and bears graffiti left by cosmonauts over the years. Vis explained that a large museum had also been planned for the center, but never progressed beyond the foundation, which today is covered by weeds.

Vis also showed photographs he had taken during tours of some of the buildings at the training center, including things that were not officially on his tour agenda. During one trip he was able to photograph a TKS manned spacecraft that had been developed for the Almaz space station. He also saw both a multi-axis Buran simulator and a Buran cockpit simulator, which were gathering dust long after the program had been canceled. His photos illustrated a point that is easily forgotten these days, that the Soviet Buran space shuttle program was a very expensive project pursued to an advanced state of development, before it was abruptly canceled because of funding shortfalls and lack of a clear mission. Vis also said that his guides often provided no explanation as to why some sections of the facility, and the objects that they contained, were not shown to visitors, whereas others were. He suspected that it may have been because various buildings and objects were owned by different departments and his guides lacked permission to show him unclassified space artifacts that belonged to different organizations.

Brian Harvey presented new information on the landing of Mars 6 on the Red Planet on March 12, 1974. Mars 6 was actually one of a fleet of spacecraft launched in the summer of 1973, which then suffered numerous failures and produced unimpressive results. Harvey revealed some of the inner debates that preceded the mission. Because of a manufacturing defect, the program managers determined that the electronics had a 50/50 chance of failing before the spacecraft even reached Mars. Despite this, they chose to launch anyway, because fixing the problem would have delayed the mission by two years and would have cost many rubles. As a result, because the managers expected failure, the state-controlled press underplayed the mission. Despite sending four spacecraft to Mars, the Soviets received almost no data in return, and the data that did come back was disputed. But because the circumstances of the failure were embarrassing, the entire project was essentially buried.

Bart Hendrickx of Belgium discussed the history of the BOR-4 spaceplane. (As an aside, Hendrickx’s detailed history of the Soviet electronic intelligence satellite effort appears in the latest issue of the British Interplanetary Society’s annual Space Chronicle. He first presented that paper at the 2004 BIS symposium.) According to Hendrickx, who is co-writing a book on the Soviet Buran space shuttle program, the BOR-4 was originally developed as a subscale testbed for the Spiral military spaceplane. Although Spiral was canceled, BOR-4 was launched during the early 1980s on a number of suborbital and orbital flights to test the thermal protection system for Buran, and was misinterpreted in the West as an entirely separate spaceplane program.

Despite a vast array of intelligence collection assets aimed at the Soviet Union and its space program, there were always limitations to Western knowledge of Soviet space activities.

Hendrickx showed some pictures of the small spaceplane that were taken by an Australian surveillance plane when the spacecraft splashed down in the Indian Ocean. The photos were widely published in the Western press as an intelligence collection coup. According to Hendrickx, this was actually the second time that the Australians had photographed a spaceplane recovery. The earlier photos were not as good, but the next opportunity the Australian aircraft crew flew extremely close to the Soviet recovery ship and got excellent pictures—as well as a protest from the Soviets about their reckless behavior. Hendrickx displayed photographs taken on the deck of the Russian freighter itself clearly showing the Australian P-3 Orion aircraft swooping in only a few hundred feet away. It was just another day in the tense cat and mouse intelligence collection game of the Cold War.

Unfortunately, this intelligence feat did not prevent Western observers, and intelligence agencies, from misinterpreting the purposes of the program. For instance, the 1985 version of the Department of Defense’s glossy publication Soviet Military Power depicted two Soviet spaceplane programs, the Buran space shuttle and the small spaceplane. The smaller one was reported to be a manned craft for inspection and possibly satellite attack, which was totally false.

Despite a vast array of intelligence collection assets aimed at the Soviet Union and its space program, there were always limitations to Western knowledge of Soviet space activities. My own presentation concerned new information available on American intelligence assessments of the Soviet space program during the 1960s, and examined what CIA analysts got right and wrong about the Soviet space program. (I make no claim to being an expert on the Soviet space program.)

In the early 1960s, the United States had almost no reliable information about the Soviet space program and often had little warning of an impending space launch. In fact, despite a large number of launches of the R-7 rocket (designated the SS-6 by NATO and the ancestor of today’s Soyuz rocket), American satellites did not photograph the rocket on the launch pad in nearly a decade of operations. It was not until 1967 that the Americans got a good picture of what the rocket really looked like, when the Soviets displayed it at the Paris Air Show.

The Central Intelligence Agency has declassified a large number of documents on a broad range of subjects over the past decade and many of these address the Soviet space program. It is now possible for researchers to assemble a relatively detailed picture of what American intelligence knew about Soviet capabilities and when, and what they got both right and wrong. Some of the key details are still missing, however. For instance, when exactly, and why, did intelligence analysts change their evaluation that the Soviets “probably” had a manned lunar program to determining that they “definitely” had one? And what role did intelligence assessments of the Soviet Zond circumlunar program play in the decision to send Apollo 8 around the Moon in December 1968? Currently, the best evidence indicates that the former event occurred sometime after 1965, and that the Apollo 8 decision was primarily based upon the Apollo spacecraft schedule, although decision makers were conscious of Soviet activities. But tantalizing clues, such as reports in Western media sources such as the New York Times, indicate that by the late 1960s American intelligence agencies had collected very detailed knowledge about Soviet space activities. Those details have not been declassified, in part because technical assessments of Soviet rockets were performed by the US Air Force and aerospace contractors, and so far only the CIA has declassified its records.

What my own research has revealed is that although the intelligence assessments of Soviet space capabilities were not always accurate, particularly regarding technical details of rockets and spacecraft that had not yet flown, the analysts often did a remarkably good job given the information they had available. There are no indications that the CIA had sources inside the Soviet space program, and thus they built up an assessment of what the Soviets were planning based upon satellite photography, comments by officials and cosmonauts, technical publications, and analogues of what the United States was doing. In the case of the Soviet manned lunar program this created a conundrum—the launch complex for NASA’s Saturn rocket took two and a half years to complete, and so the CIA expected a similarly-sized facility at the Tyura-Tam launch range to take no longer than that (in fact, they expected it to take far less, because the Russians were not building their launch pads in the middle of a swamp). The CIA analysts were thus mystified when construction of the Soviet facility dragged past two years, then three, then four. The analysts could only determine that the Soviets were proceeding at a slow pace and would not beat Apollo to the Moon unless NASA stumbled badly. But they had no idea that the reason was due to internal political battles and a lack of clear funding.

Asif Siddiqi, a professor at Fordham University, author of the impressive book Challenge to Apollo, and widely regarded as the foremost scholar of the Soviet space program, presented an overview of the entire Soviet space program, attempting to discern patterns and draw conclusions about their overall effort.

According to Siddiqi, the current Russian human spaceflight system is still essentially a “second generation” system with its roots in the 1960s. Most current Russian rockets have their roots in the 1950s and 1960s. Many satellite systems reached their full complement only intermittently. Almost all Soviet projects had an American equivalent, but in most cases the Soviets were technologically behind the United States by five to ten years. They also tended to be very innovative in terms of subsystems, but less so when integrated into a single system.

Siddiqi explained what the various design bureaus did and how they have fared in the post-Cold War world. Although Western observers are familiar with Energia and Khrunichev, other design bureaus have been responsible for communications and reconnaissance satellites as well as scientific spacecraft. In fact, some of these bureaus, which are virtually unknown in the West, have produced hundreds of spacecraft over the decades.

According to Siddiqi, the current Russian human spaceflight system is still essentially a “second generation” system with its roots in the 1960s. Most current Russian rockets have their roots in the 1950s and 1960s.

Siddiqi explained that it was common for the Soviet Union to use a catch-all designation of “Cosmos” for virtually all of their spacecraft, applying this designation to everything from scientific to military payloads, as well as failed missions. This deliberate obfuscation made it necessary for Western observers to deduce the missions of these spacecraft often based upon little more information than their launch times and orbital tracks—and in the case of the Kettering Group, electronic whispers captured on amateur radio equipment. We now have a far better understanding of what these thousands of spacecraft were designated and what they actually did.

But that knowledge itself presents challenges, because the Soviet approach was to make incremental improvements to a basic spacecraft design over a long period. They designated their spacecraft according to what bus (the basic structural, electrical and support framework for a spacecraft, onto which the specific instruments and other equipment is mounted) they used. The Soviets used their buses for 10–15 years, in dozens of variants. As a result, their designation system is complicated and difficult to follow, but it is possible to draw conclusions. For instance, it is possible to get a sense of how long each generation lasted and to compare how they lasted to American spacecraft.

Dr. Siddiqi also discussed some of the internal bureaucratic battles within the Soviet space program, which both caused and reflected some of the delays in the Soviet effort to land a man on the Moon. Although the general outlines of these are well-known today, Siddiqi added several details. For instance, he noted that some of the alternative projects for reaching the Moon that competed with Sergei Korolev’s N-1 and Zond programs actually reached a more substantial level of development than previously known, and they were expensive. This is in sharp contrast to the United States, where competing programs for reaching the Moon, such as a circumlunar Gemini, were quickly suppressed. NASA officials believed that such projects diluted the finite resources available for Apollo, including personnel. One of the ironies of the Moon race was that the command-driven Soviet system produced greater internal dissent than the American political system. Whereas the American system produced clear winners and losers, the Soviet system produced winners and sore losers, who then proceeded to pursue competing projects at great cost to the government and to continually lobby for reversal of the decision.

In addition, the Soviet Union spent an enormous amount of money on unfinished programs. Certainly the United States did this as well: witness the Manned Orbiting Laboratory and NERVA during the 1960s. However, Siddiqi said that the Soviet Union was far worse, and this presents a problem for researchers because it is difficult to separate the real programs from the proposals.

page 2: the three phases of the study of Soviet space history >>