Alexander Zheleznyakov, translated by Mikhail Vorobyov
AELITA, MAVR* AND OTHERS
The unfulfilled project of a manned Mars Mission was one of the most grandiose in the history of Soviet Cosmonautics. It turned out that the first Soviet manned interplanetary mission was planned for Mars, not the Moon. It was the Mars race that we, the Soviets, initially wanted to win to show our superiority over the Americans. One can only guess what guided Sergei Korolev when he gave such a task to his designers. Possibly he wanted to find out if there was life on Mars, as this question had excited minds for many generations. Anyway, the reasons are not that important. What is interesting is the project itself.
Work on the project started in Korolev’s OKB-1 in 1959. Several variants of the mission were produced. As with most plans of that epoch, the first variant was too grandiose, and therefore unrealisable. Nevertheless, it was a fascinating concept, so let me outline it briefly. It envisaged building a huge interplanetary spacecraft out of separate modules, weighing altogether 1,600 tons in Earth Orbit.
The Soviet intended to launch at least twenty heavy launch vehicles for this purpose. The Mission duration was planned to last for four years, two of which were to be spent on exploring Mars itself on the surface, as well as from orbit. The Earth return vehicle was planned to weigh 15 tons. Before the mission the experimental launch of a somewhat smaller spacecraft was planned for June 8, 1971. It would fly around and explore Mars from flight trajectory.
Soon, it became clear that the project couldn’t be realised in the foreseeable future, for it demanded too short a time, and had too many technical problems. Even now, almost forty years later, the mission parameters seemed to be of the 21st Century.
The follow-on variants seemed to be more realistic. Also in 1959, two groups of young engineers started to design an interplanetary spacecraft. First, they did it on their own initiative, and later, in accordance with OKB-1 plans. The first group was headed by Gleb U Maximov and included A.I.Dulnev, A.K.Algupov, A.A.Kashkin, A.A.Deshkov, V.N.Kubasov (who did take part in the three later flights), V.E.Bugrov (later a back-up cosmonaut) and N.N.Protesov. The project was named the “Heavy Interplanetary Vehicle” (TMK in Russian), and was based on using extra-heavy boosters designed by other engineers at OKB-1. It envisaged launching a three-seat Heavy Interplanetary Vehicle weighing 75 tons with a booster block to accelarate from the Earth's orbit to Mars.
The flight to the red Planet, the orbiting and the return to earth would be on a ballistic trajectory. The TMK was comprised of a three-man crew cabin, solar radiation protection system and plant-growing module to provide cosmonauts with oxygen and foods. The project was designed to last three years. Later, when members of the OKB-1 began the actual expedition planning, the Maximov group's design became the foundation for the "MAVR"1 project. It envisioned the flight to Mars with an intermediary flight by Venus.
The second group, headed by Konstantin P.Feoktistov, was working on the variant of the mission which delivered cosmonauts to the surface of Mars. This group included V.A. Ademovitch, O.V.Molodstov, K.S.Shustin, V.E.Lubinsky, V.I.Staroverov, L.A.Gorshkov and T.V.Solovyov. They designed a vehicle to be built from five modules in Earth orbit, the crew cabin, Martian atmosphere manoeuvre vehicle, two Mars descent modules (prime and reserve), and nuclear power reactor in protective housing. They intended to explore the Martian atmosphere using atmospheric apparatus after reaching Mars orbit, then to deliver two descent modules with three members of the crew to the surface whilst three others would wait for them in orbit. After the end of research on Mars, the vehicle would head for Earth. But at the start of the project the designers realised that their booster projection plans exceeded the limits of mass and size. Feoktsitov’s group managed to modify the project to unite all the basic parameters of the primary idea with real possibilities of the booster capacity. The new vehicle would have had a mass of about 75 tons in Earth orbit. That group’s exploits were the basis of a Mars mission project with the poetic name of “Aelita”.
Those projects of OKB-1, like those that follow, were based on electrostatic engines using nuclear power. In order to work them out, a group was formed under the management of Mikhail V.Melnikov. They started their work as a purely scientific research project, but soon, they took into consideration the idea of using the engine for an interplanetary vehicle. The work on the project was accelerated after the Central Committee of CPSU and the Soviet Government issued a decree on 23rd June 1960 to continue OKB-1 plans for the next seven years. Sergei Korolev left the theoretical task and design arrangements to his staff, understanding that their qualifications in using nuclear power were insufficient.
The work on making the reactor itself was passed to CNII-58 (a research institute), headed by chief designer Vasily G. Grobin, where they worked on creating test fast neutron reactors. Non-nuclear powered electrostatic engines were tested in the mid-60s on a Soviet Interplanetary craft but they were not widely adopted.
Both projects envisaged uninterrupted life cycle support system, taking into account the duration of the mission, and the necessity of large amounts of food and oxygen required by the crew. It was difficult to create the “natural rotation of matter” system in closed spaces but possible if oxygen and water could be taken as main components. They intended to place green houses on the board the ship for that purpose. The prototype of such system was even tested at ground level in the mid 60s with three testers – G. Manovtsev, V.Ulybyshev and A.Boshko – placed into isolated space for a year imitating interplanetary spaceflight.
However, the first plans for a Mars mission were not adopted for sound reasons. Firstly, we fond ourselves to be involved in the Moon race in the 60s. Secondly, there weren’t any boosters capable of supporting the Mars mission. Thirdly, a great deal of money was spent on the weapons race, leaving no resources for such a flight.
We have been catastrophically unlucky with Mars missions, in fact. We had launched interplanetary craft to Mars eight times by January 1,1970, but only two of them reached outer space and only one arrived on Mars, where it lost contact with the Earth. The following launches only extended the number of failures, the last of which was the break down of the Mars 96 mission.
They began to speak about interplanetary flights in the USSR in the late 60s. After the Moon race was lost, the possibility of winning the Mars race to restore the broken prestige was under consideration. Just then the “Aelita” project based on the Feoktistov group’s work appeared. His group also started to work out a new project for the manned Mars mission. It had become clear by then that the N-1 rocket must be used as a booster so designers paid attention to it.
The proposed parameters of the mission were as follows: duration 630 days; staying in Mars orbit – 30 days; the length of the stay of the descent module on the surface – 5 days. The spacecraft itself was based on two modules built on Earth, weighing approximately 150 tons, and a payload for two N-1 boosters. The first module included the orbital complex and descent module, the second being the engine module.
The plan of the flight was the interesting aspect. It envisioned docking automatically the two unmanned modules after putting them into Earth orbit then to start a slow acceleration of the group on “a gradual spiral trajectory”. The crew was to be sent to the craft after it had left the radiation zone of Earth. They would be delivered there on board the vehicle designed for the Moon project.
The “Aelita” variant was the most advanced as far as its technical side is concerned. Looking back we may say that it had a very good chance of success. It was a very risky project to be sure but really had a chance to be successful.
Unfortunately, the “Aelita” did not come to fruition and was buried together with the Soviet Moon project. The work on the N-1 booster stopped in 1974 and the work on interplanetary manned flights stopped automatically after that. It was senseless to plan anything when there was no possibility to realise it.
In the mid-80s they again started to talk about a manned Mars mission. The Energiya booster to launch a very large craft into Earth orbit was nearly finished so they started to discuss manned Moon and Mars missions.
Pre-project of the new Mars mission was out at NPO Energiya and was a very specific one. It presupposed the most modern technical achievements. They planned to deliver an unmanned descent module, a vehicle with Mars rovers on board and an apparatus module into Mars orbit. After that a four stage manned vehicle would reach Mars orbit and deliver cosmonauts to surface of the planet. The mission duration was intended to be two years including seven days ion mars; it was supposed to use all the technical tasks test on orbital stations and unmanned spacecraft. They were supposed to replace the nuclear reactor with giant solar panels to serve as their power supply. The mission was intended to start in 2003 in accordance with the project planning, but then perestroika erupted, and all the talk about interplanetary missions came to an end.
International co-operation started in the 90s permitted talks about a manned Mars mission again. Now it is planned as a joint project of the USA, Russia, Japan and Western Europe with the grandiose name “Together to Mars”. A preliminary date of 2017 has been set for the launch. But so far there are only words – far from making it come true. Moreover, the first global international project “Alpha” - the International Space Station is in a lot of trouble, partly due to Russia’s fault, so we will just have to wait and see!
("ORBIT", Journal of the Astro Space Stamp Society, Issue ¹ 45, March 2000)
* MAVR - MArs - Venera - Razom.