The Soyuz Programme

The Soyuz spacecraft was designed as part of the Soviet Union's attempts to land a cosmonaut on the Moon. The programme can be traced back to the early 1960s, although the first launch of an unmanned Soyuz capsule did not take place until 1966, after the successes of the Vostok and Voskhod programmes. It was in this year that two separate cosmonaut training groups were created. One of these, led by Aleksei Leonov, would train towards the landing mission, whilst the other would learn how to control the Soyuz spacecraft. This second group was led by Colonel Vladimir Mikhailovich Komarov.

Komarov himself was selected for the first manned launch of a Soyuz capsule and on April 23rd 1967 Soyuz 1 blasted off from Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome. During its flight the spacecraft experienced problems with its automatic stabilisation system and orientation detectors, whilst a faulty solar panel also caused power shortages. Despite these problems it should have been possible to return Colonel Komarov safely to Earth, but after the spacecraft's main parachute failed to open, Soyuz 1 crashed at a speed of nearly 400mph, killing the cosmonaut on impact.

Before attempting another manned mission the Russians carried out a series of unmanned launches, using Soyuz capsules, as part of the Zond program. The first of these, Zond 4, was launched in March 1968. This was followed by Zond 5 in September 1968 which carried the first animals, a group of turtles, on a return flight around the Moon. The success of this flight was followed a month later by the launch of Soyuz 3 with Georgi Beregovoi on board. Further manned launches in both 1968 and 1969 tested key elements of the proposed moon landing, cosmonauts for the mission were selected, including Aleksei Leonov, but the 18 month delay had seriously hindered Soviet progress.

N1 rockets at Baikonur Cosmondrome (NASA)

N1 rockets at Baikonur Cosmondrome (NASA)

Further problems were encountered with the N1, the massive rocket designed by Sergei Korolyov to send Soviet cosmonauts to the Moon. The first of these was tested on February 21st 1969, but exploded just 69 seconds after lift off. This was followed by three further test flights, all of which ended in disaster. The worst of these occurred on July 03rd 1969, less than two weeks before the launch of Apollo 11, when a loose bolt caused the largest explosion in the history of rocketry, destroying both the N1 rocket and the surrounding launch complex.

Within a month, the crew of Apollo 11 had successfully landed on the moon, and America had effectively won the Space race. The Soyuz program continued, but the Russian Space Program switched its focus to the development of the Salyut space stations, achieving a number of further milestones in space exploration. Although plans for a Russian moon landing continued into the 1970s, they were eventually cancelled altogether in 1974.