This page no longer updated from 31 October 2001. Latest version can be found at Soviet Mars Expeditions

Soviet Mars Craft
Soviet Mars Craft
Soviet designs for Mars expeditions to a common scale. Left to right, top to bottom: MPK, TMK-1, Mavr; TMK-E early concept, TMK-E final design; two alternate MEK designs; MK-700; Mars 1986; Kurchatov Mars 1989 design; RKK Energia solar-powered Mars 1989 design; NII-TP/Keldysh Mars 1994 design. The orange line is 100 m long.

Credit: © Mark Wade. 22,710 bytes. 600 x 364 pixels.

Aelita was the Queen of Mars in the famous socialist parable filmed by Jakov Protazanov in 1924. It was altogether fitting that her name would be given to the leading Soviet plan for the conquest of the Red Planet. The Soviet Union's Korolev had the same original dream as Wernher Von Braun - a manned expedition to Mars. In both cases this goal was interrupted by the 'side show' of the moon race of the 1960's. In both cases that race proved so costly and of so little public interest that political support for any Mars expeditions evaporated. This did not keep Soviet and Russian engineers from continuing design studies. The entries and links that follow the summary provide all available details on each of the projected Mars expeditions. Note that these are somewhat arbitrary - the design process was nearly continuous, and drawings, models, and films sometimes show a mixture of modules and spacecraft differing somewhat from those described here. The common technology and themes throughout the studies were:


The very first analysis of a manned Mars landing expedition, by Tikhonravov in 1956, indicated that use of conventional chemical propulsion would result in a spacecraft with a starting mass of 1,630 tonnes in low earth orbit. This would require two dozen launches of the projected N1 launch vehicle with assembly of as many rocket stages in space. It was decided early on that chemical propulsion would only be useful for a manned Mars flyby, which required only one N1 launch.

Therefore in the period 1960 to 1990 the Soviet Union developed to flight-readiness stage two forms of highly efficient nuclear propulsion: nuclear thermal (liquid hydrogen is passed through a reactor, heated, and expanded out of a conventional rocket nozzle) and nuclear electric (xenon or another element is ionised and accelerated by electric or magnetic fields to high velocities). The original Soviet Chief Designer, Sergei Korolev, favoured the nuclear electric approach, and this was the basis for all of the Mars expedition concepts of his OKB-1 design bureau (now RKK Energia). Coincident with the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of environmental consciousness, RKK Energia designs retained the ion propulsion bur replaced the nuclear reactor with vast solar panels. Other design bureaux and institutes adopted nuclear thermal propulsion for their Mars spacecraft concepts, most notably Vladimir Chelomei's MK-700. Details of the development of these technologies can be found at Soviet Mars Expedition Propulsion - Nuclear Electric and Soviet Mars Expedition Propulsion - Nuclear Thermal

Launch Vehicles

The first Soviet manned Mars flyby Heavy Piloted Interplanetary Spacecraft (TMK) was to be launched by a single N1 launch vehicle. In fact the requirements for executing the TMK project would decisively shape the specifications for the N1. One reason the Soviet Union did not beat America in the moon race was that the N1 was sized to launch the 75-tonne TMK rather than a 150-tonne direct-landing moon mission. For nuclear-electric powered manned Mars landing expeditions, several launches of the N1 or uprated N1M would be required, with assembly of the spacecraft in earth orbit.

Vladimir Chelomei proposed his enormous UR-700M launch vehicle in order to minimise the number of launches and dockings in earth orbit required to assemble a Mars spacecraft (similar analyses by NASA led to proposals for the Nova booster). Even with a payload of 750 tonnes two launches were required to assemble the spacecraft.

A Soviet state commission in 1972 terminated further work on Mars expeditions. The cancellation of the N1 launch vehicle in 1974 eliminated Russian capability to launch such spacecraft.

After rejecting Glushko's RLA series of rockets, Russia in 1976 started development of the Energia heavy lift vehicle (88 tonnes into low earth orbit). Beginning in 1978 NPO Energia updated their Mars spacecraft design for launch by Energia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, this launch vehicle in turn was abandoned, again ending any launch capability to support manned Mars flight. Revival of the Energia production line was proposed throughout the 1990's and beyond as a means of obtaining the heavy launch capability required for Russian, American, or international Mars expeditions.

Mars Expedition Living Quarters

The original TMK-1 living quarters for a crew of three on a flight to Mars and back was a 6 m diameter module, 12 m long. The TMK-E used a version of this stretched to 18 m to accommodate a crew twice as large. These modules reflected contemporary designs for 6 m-diameter N1-launched earth space stations. The MEK of 1969 and all subsequent OKB-1/Energia designs used 4.1 m diameter modules, 23 m long, later in two sections. This diameter indicates commonality with Salyut and Mir space station hardware. Interestingly the 6 m diameter module was resurrected in 2000 to provide the living quarters for the Forpost Mars orbiter proposal. Designs by bureaux outside of OKB-1 used very differently-sized crew quarters.

Mars Landing Craft

The original 1960 TMK-E landing craft were 10 tonne conical aeroshells with a blunt base, 5.5 m in diameter and 9 m in height. On the surface the shell would separate and a section of it would provide a carapace for the vehicles within. By 1966 data from American Mariner probes showed that the Martian atmosphere was much thinner than had been thought. The multiple conical landers were replaced by the large single 20 tonne MPK with an asymmetric aeroshell, about 11 m in diameter and 8.5 m tall. By 1978 this was replaced by a completely different vehicle, a horizontal-landing cylinder with a simple conical nose. This EA was 3.8 m in diameter and 13 m long. . This became the baseline for subsequent RKK Energia designs. No details of Chelomeiís proposed lander have emerged, although the control cabin and ascent stage likely would have been based on his LK-700 lunar lander.

Mars Surface Operations

The original TMK-E design called for five separately-landed rover vehicles to be linked to together to form a ĎMars Trainí to explore the surface. This nuclear-powered assembly would have provided crew quarters and even a launch platform for a VTOL aircraft for flying through the atmosphere. This was simplified drastically by 1966 with the single MPK lander containing the crew quarters. The MPK and the following EA landers were limited to one-week stays on the surface and were equipped with more modest Marsokhod surface rovers to provide crew mobility.

Earth Return Vehicles

The 1956 MPK expedition had an earth re-entry vehicle of 15 tonnes to return the crew of six to earth. The 1960 TMK-1 and TMK-E returned the crew of three in a re-entry capsule 4 m in diameter and 3.75 m long. This ancestor of the Soyuz capsule had a blunt ogive heat shield. The recovery Apparatus (VA)of the 1969 MEK design was enlarged form of the Soyuz 'headlight' re-entry capsule shape with a heat shield wider than the base diameter of the spacecraft. The 10 tonne VA would have a hypersonic lift to drag ration of 0.45 to minimise G-loads on return and a basic diameter of 4.35 m, a height of 3.15 m, and a lens-shaped base of 6 m diameter. The same design was used in subsequent RKK Energia Mars spacecraft. The earth return vehicle for Chelomeiís MK-700 was an enlarged version of his Apollo-shaped TKS capsule. A 1994 nuclear thermal Mars ship design used the EA Mars lander design for earth re-entry as well.

Spacecraft: MPK.

In Korolev's defence of the N1 draft project in July 1962 he stated that he first sketched out the N1 design in 1956-1957. The requirement at that time was to support a large manned expedition to Mars. This first serious examination in the Soviet Union of manned flight to Mars was initiated by M Tikhonravov's section of Korolev's OKB-1. The study group first considered a complete manned expedition to Mars. This followed the classic scenario worked out by Von Braun's group in their Mars Project of 1948. A spacecraft, the Martian Piloted Complex (MPK), would be assembled in low earth orbit. Using conventional liquid propellants, it would fly a Hohmann trajectory, enter Martian orbit, and a landing craft would descend to the surface. After just over a year of surface exploration, the crew would return to earth. It was calculated that the initial mass of the MPK would be 1,630 tonnes, and a re-entry vehicle of only 15 tonnes could be returned to earth at the end of the 30 month mission. At the planned N1 payload mass of 75 to 85 tonnes, it would take 20 to 25 N1 launches to assemble the MPK.

Spacecraft: TMK-1.

In 1959 a group of enthusiasts in OKB-1 Section 3 under the management of G U Maksimov started engineering design of this first fantastic project for manned interplanetary travel. The requirements for executing this project would shape the specifications for the N1 launch vehicle. The 75 tonne TMK-1 spacecraft would take a crew of three on a Mars flyby mission. After a 10.5 month flight the crew would race past Mars, dropping remote controlled landers, and then be flung into an earth-return trajectory. The first flight to Mars of the TMK-1 was planned to begin on June 8, 1971, with the crew returning to the earth on July 10, 1974, after a voyage of three years, one month, and two days.

Spacecraft: TMK-E.

Feoktistov felt that the TMK-1 manned Mars flyby design was too limited. They proposed in 1960 a complete Mars landing expedition, to be assembled in earth orbit using two or more N1 launches. The spacecraft would be powered by nuclear electric engines, with the reactor moved away from the crew quarters on long telescoping booms. Five landers would deliver a nuclear-powered 'Mars Train' on the surface for a one-year survey of the terrain. The design would be heavily modified as the 1960's progressed, as research showed the Martian atmosphere to be much thinner and the nuclear electric engines to be less efficient than assumed.

Spacecraft: Marsokhod.

Surface transports were part of all Soviet Mars expeditions. The earliest concepts had multiple articulated tracks. The elaborate Mars Train used wheeled vehicles equipped with manipulator arms so that extended surface operations could be undertaken in shirtsleeve comfort. Later Marsokhods were more austere, providing limited mobility around the landing site on short 30-day or 7-day sojourns on the surface.

Spacecraft: Mavr.

A variation of the TMK-1 scenario by Maksimov's unit would still use a single N1 launch. However a flyby of Venus would be undertaken on the return voyage from Mars. This would reduce both flight time and the earth-return velocity. The project was given the code name "Mavr" ('Moor' or MArs - VeneRa).

Spacecraft: KK.

Work on the TMK project continued, including trajectory trade-off studies and refinement of the design. In its final iteration, in May 1966, before Korolevís OKB was overwhelmed by N1-L3 development work, the design was known as the KK - Space Complex for Delivering a Piloted Expedition to Mars. Nuclear-electric propulsion was retained, but various mission designs were studied in an attempt to reduce the overall vehicle mass.

Spacecraft: MEK.

In the post-Apollo moon landing euphoria, NASA was pressing for funding for a manned expedition to Mars. The Soviet leadership reacted in kind. Development of an advanced project for the MK-700 was authorised in Ministry of Defence decree 232 of 30 June 1969. The TTZ specification document was written by the TsNIIMASH and NIITI institutes, and the project was given the code name 'Aelita'. Three design bureaux, led by chief designers Mishin, Yangel, and Chelomei, began competitive design of manned Mars expeditions.

On 28 May 1969 V Mishin, Korolev's successor as Chief Designer of OKB-1, had approved development of the N1M advanced version of the N1 launch vehicle. Feoktistov was tasked with preparing the OKB-1 version of Project Aelita and creating a design that would take advantage of the increased lift of the N1M. This spacecraft was called the Mars Expeditionary Complex (MEK). The MEK was designed to take a crew of from three to six to Mars and back with a total mission duration of 630 days; stay in Mars orbit of 30 days; landing three of the crew on the surface for five to seven days. Primary spacecraft propulsion was to be 15 MW nuclear-electric engines with liquid fuel auxiliaries.

By the end of 1969 Mishin and Yangel dropped out of the competition. This left Chelomei as the only chief designer working on Project Aelita.

Spacecraft: MK-700.

Chelomei was the only Chief Designer to complete an Aelita draft project and present it to the Soviet government. He proposed two launches of the enormous UR-700M launch vehicle to assemble a 1400 tonne MK-700 spacecraft in earth orbit. Nuclear thermal stages allowed a net functional payload (living quarters, Mars landers, earth return capsule) of 250 tonnes.

A government expert commission reviewed the preliminary draft project for the UR-700M launch vehicle and MK-700 spacecraft in 1972. Based on the decades worth of development and tens of billions or roubles required, the state commission recommended that further work on manned Mars expeditions be deferred indefinitely.

Spacecraft: Mars 1986.

NPO Energia resumed study of a Mars project once development began of the new Energia booster in place of the cancelled N1. The 1978-1986 study used some of the ideas and technical results of the 1969 study, but modified according to technical developments of the period. The 15 MW nuclear power requirement was retained, but actual development of the 11B97 rocket stage beginning in 1971 had shown earlier specific impulse projections to be hopelessly unrealistic. This lead to the mass of the spacecraft more than doubling, with the propellant fraction increasing from 17% to 45% of the spacecraft total. Other differences included the use of two reactors in the place of one; reduction of the crew size from six to four; and the use of tested systems developed on the Salyut and Mir orbital stations in placed of the untried TMK hardware. This use of tested hardware guaranteed an increased level of crew safety compared to previous concepts. The original use of a completely separate second reactor and propulsion unit ensured the safe return of the crew even in the event of complete failure of one reactor or engine cluster.

Spacecraft: Mars 1989.

In 1989 yet another Mars project was proposed by NPO Energia. The spacecraft hardware was essentially that of the 1986 design, in place of the nuclear reactor of previous designs power would be generated by huge farms of solar panels, developed from those on the Salyut 7 and Mir stations. The spacecraft itself became part of a more logical program with sequential launch of evolving hardware, beginning with unmanned spacecraft and ending with piloted expeditions. Five launches of the huge Energia booster would be required to assemble the spacecraft in low earth orbit. Mission specification was as follows:

  • Flight time - 716 days
  • Crew - 4
  • Crew on surface of Mars - 2
  • Time of work on Martian surface - 7 days.

The ship designed to perform this mission would have a mass of 355 tonnes.

Spacecraft: Mars 1994.

By the 1980's test of the experimental RD-0410 nuclear thermal rocket engine had led to a definitive flight design. The design included bimodal use of the nuclear reactor to provide electrical power during dormant or cruise flight phases by means of a Brayton cycle turbine using xenon-helium coolant. The NPO Luch powerplant produced 20,000 kgf, with a thermal power of 1200 MW, operating time of 5 hours, and a specific impulse of between 815 and 927 seconds. During cruise operations the turbine would provide 50-200 kW of electric power, requiring 600 square meters of radiators. Two designs emerged using this a cluster of three to four of these engines with a total powerplant mass of 50 to 70 tonnes. The 1989 layout of the Kurchatov Institute surrounded the crew quarters with liquid hydrogen propellant tanks to shield the crew from radiation from the reactors and cosmic rays. The radiators were positioned at the nose of the spacecraft. A more detailed 1994 design from the Keldysh Institute / NII-TP placed the radiators forward of the engines, followed by communications antennae, the living quarters (again surrounded by propellant tanks), followed by two large landing craft (one for Mars, one for Earth) docked laterally at the nose. The crew of five would complete the trip to Mars and back in 460 days. Total time of thrusting engine operation for the 800 tonne, 84 m long craft was 6 hours.

Spacecraft: Marpost.

In December 2000 Leonid Gorshkov of RKK Energia proposed a manned Mars orbital expedition as an alternative to Russian participation in the International Space Station. The expedition would also provide the means for reviving Russian ascendancy in space.

The Marpost (Mars Piloted Orbital Station) spacecraft would have a total mass of 400 tonnes and be assembled in low earth orbit from components assembled in four launches of a revived Energia launch vehicle. As in the 1989 Energia Mars design, it would be powered to and from Mars by matrices of hundreds of solar-powered ion thrusters using xenon as propellant. Unlike the earlier expedition, the crew module would be an enormous 6-m diameter, 28 m long spacecraft housing a crew of six. This module seemed to be a throwback to the TMK-derived modules of the 1960's. Over a total expedition duration of two years the spacecraft would fly to Mars, spend a month or more in Mars orbit, obtain samples from the surface by operation of automated probes, and return to earth. Evidently the large station would be braked into earth orbit on return by the ion engines and was not equipped with a re-entry vehicle.

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Last update 28 March 2001.
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© Mark Wade, 2001 .