Details of the Soviet Primate Lunar Landing Program


Padrobnosti Sovietskoy Programmiy Posadki na Lunu Necheloveko Opraznikh "



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Padrobnosti Sovietskoy Programmiy Posadki na Lunu Necheloveko Opraznikh "

Details of the Soviet Primate Lunar Landing Program"

The Soviet primate program was secret and very little information on it has been made public, particularly in the West. Early speculation by noted Soviet space experts like Phillip Clark and Jim Oberg was based upon scant evidence. The late Charles Sheldon, of the Congressional Research Service, only devoted a single line in an early 70s congressional report to this program. It has been completely overlooked in most histories of the space race. Jim Hartford's excellent biography of Korolev, for instance, contains nothing on the primate program, despite the fact that Korolev was its sponsor. However, a recent article in the acclaimed Russian space journal Novosti Kosmonavtiki ("Cosmonautics News") by Oleg Adulbaz, sheds much more light on this program. Although I don't speak or read Russian, a colleague of mine provided a rough translation, which I am going to summarize here.

The article is titled "Details of the Soviet Primate Lunar Landing Program" It is nineteen pages long and features several photographs and six tables. (I have no idea who Oleg Adulbaz is and my friend has never heard of him either. Is "Adulbaz" Arabic? Uzbekhi?) But he appears to have written an impressive piece of scholarship.

The program was initially started in 1963, around the same time that the manned circumlunar program was started. Initially, it was simply a research effort to use chimpanzees to test the life support system for the circumlunar spacecraft while on the ground. But quickly the program evolved into a proposal to fly a chimpanzee around the moon. It was under the direction of Academician Ivan Petrovich Lendel, of the Moscow-based Institute of Biomedical Problems (better known as the IMBP). Lendel was unusual in the Soviet space program. Not only was he an accomplished aerospace engineer, but he was also a doctor and medical researcher who was well known worldwide for his primate research. Rather surprisingly, although Lendel was known in the west for his work with macaques, gorillas and chimpanzees (particularly primate communications and social behavior), his aerospace credentials were not known by any of his contemporaries in the primate field.

Several chimpanzees, in addition to dogs, had already flown on Soviet earth orbital flights by 1963 and the circumlunar program was viewed as simply an extension of that work. Apparently, the program got more ambitious as it went along. At first the chimps were going to fly in early 7K-L1 Zond capsules, but the weight of the early Zonds was expected to be high and it was apparently not clear that a full life support system, plus test subject, plus telemetry instrumentation, could be carried in the early spacecraft. Furthermore, at that time, Zond was primarily focused upon the development of heatshield technology and the primate mission was considered a distraction by project engineers.

So, on 5 March 1964, the chimp program was revamped and given a formal designation that was the same as the spacecraft that was to carry the chimps: Ye-8-6. This program was for the design of a capsule and life support system to be carried by one of the Ye-8 Lunokhod spacecraft. Early Lunokhod craft were supposed to orbit the moon, performing measurements of any magnetic field or particles, and also taking photographs of the surface. The Ye-8-6 spacecraft would essentially trade the scientific package for a capsule and life support system. But the spacecraft would NOT be capable of returning to earth. Even if a retro-rocket could be developed for the spacecraft, there was no way that a heatshield could be incorporated into the small orbiter vehicle. They could not design a heatshield that could be braked into lunar orbit and then boosted back out of lunar orbit and still survive the high reentry speeds that would be encountered. Thus, just before the consumables on the spacecraft were to run out, the monkey would be euthanized by turning off the CO2 scrubbing system. Carbon dioxide would increase and the monkey would gradually lose consciousness and then die painlessly.

The project was always short of funds. Lendel was constantly scrambling to get more funding for his program, cobbling together money both from space research sources and life sciences research sources (where Lendel's impressive reputation earned him funds for the chimp training program, but not for hardware). One main problem was that the Ye-8-6 program was funded by Chelomei, who was then in disfavor with Brezhnev.

Lendel's big break came when Korolev took an active interest in the program shortly before his death. Korolev suggested that the program would serve as a precursor to his N-1 lunar landing mission. A new spacecraft, still based upon the Lunokhod, was envisioned. It was named the Ye-8-7. Instead of orbiting, the spacecraft would land. In fact, it would actually be part of a two-spacecraft mission. One spacecraft would carry the chimpanzee and the other would carry a sample return mission (the sample return spacecraft was designated the Ye-8-5, although it differed from the Ye-8-5 spacecraft that the Soviets later used for this purpose). The idea was that the Ye-8-5 spacecraft would land about one week before the other lander. It would then go into "sleeper" mode and turn off until activated by a ground command. A week later, it would be reactivated and would broadcast a radio beacon. The second spacecraft, the Ye-8-7, with the chimpanzee aboard, would home in on the beacon and land as close to it as possible. The sample return spacecraft would be equipped with a powerful strobe light that could be easily seen from the lunar horizon. The chimpanzee--who would have been in a spacesuit for the entire mission, was to leave its craft and collect rock samples which it would then deposit in the sample return spacecraft.

Upon Korolev's death in 1966, the Ye-8-7 program fell into disrepute. It was attacked from several angles. The engineers doubted the ability to land two spacecraft within sight of each other. The animal behavior specialists doubted the ability of a monkey to maneuver in a spacesuit, collect samples, and deposit them in the other spacecraft. Some thought that the whole idea was simply absurd.

Lendel was able to refute the second criticism easily. For almost a year he had been training five chimpanzees, known as Test Objects 4, 9, 12, 15 and 21, to perform a variety of tasks. None of the chimps was able to achieve all of the tasks (for instance, Object #9 could collect samples, but had problems dealing with the hatch door), but it was obvious that chimps could be trained to perform complex tasks.

The landing proximity problem was considered a major hurdle, however. Even a slight error could place the two spacecraft dozens of kilometers apart. On 15 October, 1968, the surface rendezvous project was abandoned. However, both spacecraft continued. The sample return spacecraft was redesigned with a scoop arm so that it could scrape some lunar soil from the surface and place it in a container. This design was eventually flown three times, as Luna-16, Luna-20 and Luna-24 (all Ye-8-5 spacecraft).

The chimpanzee vehicle was also continued. But by this time the ambitious goals had been scaled back. The chimp was to land under remote control. It would then leave the spacecraft to wander no more than ten meters from the vehicle (on a tether), and then reenter the spacecraft. This was to prove that primates could indeed operate on the lunar surface while wearing a pressure suit as a demonstration for later cosmonaut landings. The preparations continued in anticipation of a summer 1969 launch.

One of the more unusual aspects of the spacecraft was the communications system. The spacecraft was equipped with a series of colored buttons and lights. The chimps were trained to press these based upon their condition, spacecraft signals, etc., in response to the lights. For instance, the chimps had a button for expressing happiness, tiredness, readiness, hunger, etc., as well as more mundane things like "signal received." A yellow light might flash, indicating that the chimp was to open the spacecraft hatch door, and the chimp was supposed to respond by pressing a green button to indicate that he received the command and understood it. (Although Adulbaz does not state it, apparently this was a rather sophisticated experiment in simian communication, for the chimps actually had several responses to each message. They did not simply press the same color button as the light that flashed. Years later, Lendel's work on this aspect of the program was summarized in several scientific papers on simian communication, although no mention was made of its connection to a space program.)



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