The announcement of the Soviet Union hit Washington D.C. like the political version of a small nuclear device. No one had expected the Soviets to make such a bold claim, especially since the United States had beaten the Soviet Union before by putting man on the moon. Then again, exactly that (besides the prestige to gain) was the main reason for Brezhnev’s decision. It was the ‘red’ planet after all.
At that time however, the lack of results of the Soviet Space Program, outside of some puttering around in Low Earth Orbit, made everyone else believe there was not much to fear of the Soviets claim.
Unknown to the outside world, in the Soviet Union, Brezhnev acted decisively. He knew very well that the internal competition and petty rivalries between the various design bureaus of the space program were stifling the program and with it, any chances to land a man on Mars. In a single move, he consolidated the bureaus into a single office that was going to be responsible for the whole Soviet Space program; from rocket engines to entire spacecraft.
The new NPO Energia was headed by Vasily Mishin, whose first act was to make sure that Valentin Glushko, an old rival of his and Korolev would not be able to endanger him and his position. To placate Glushko however, Mishin ordered the development of a number of high energy rocket engines, as well as further the development of the high energy Hydrolox Block Sr for the N1, with the intention to use them on the spacecraft that would send Soviet cosmonauts to Mars.
NPO Energia got a massive increase in funding, as landing a man on Mars was becoming a top political priority. It allowed Mishin to speed up the production of the new NK-33 engines, allowing to refit of N1 serial number 7L with the new and improved engines, making it the first N1F.
On December 6th, 1972 the 7L launched from pad LC-110 of the Baikonur Cosmodrome. 105 seconds into the flight, the computer of the first stage deactivated six of the thirty engines of the stage, according to the program for the ascent trajectory. The sudden change of thrust caused an effect known as ‘pogo oscillation’ within the rocket, something that had also happened before during two launches of a Saturn V. The oscillations stopped on burnout of the first stage fifteen seconds later and the launch was successful in the end, sending a Soyuz 7K-LOK lunar orbiter and an LK functional model into a Lunar flyby trajectory.
The first successful launch of the N1 sent a wave of euphoria throughout all of the Soviet engineers and scientists, but Mishin remained cautious, the pogo oscillations were making him nervous. He knew that the N1 was flawed and he intended to remove those flaws to the best of his ability.
The remains of the 7L First stage were recovered and Mishin was determined to find the cause of the pogo oscillations.
Late April 1973 the first report was completed. It noted that the shutdown of the six central engines of the first stage had caused a hammering within the propellant lines due to the sudden stop of fuel flow. More concerning however, was the fatigue in the propellant lines that had been uncovered. Had the stage thrusted for just three more seconds, one of the propellant lines could have burst and cause the explosion in one of the engines and the loss of the entire rocket.
The best solution for the problem was simply to not turn off the six central engine. The safety margins of the rocket’s construction would allow it to launch without a problem even with the higher G forces of the modified ascent profile.
With more financial support, Mishin was able to complete the next N1, serial number 8L, and integrated several changes into the main control program of the first stage as well as strengthening the interstage structure between the first and second stages to account for the stronger G forces during lift off.
8L launched on July 7th, 1973, and reached low earth orbit without complications, inserting an unmanned Soyuz 7K-LOK orbiter and a working LK lander into a translunar trajectory. Both entered lunar orbit on July 10th, and the LK was landed on the moon automatically like the unmanned Luna probes, where it remained for two days before returning to the Soyuz. The Soyuz then returned to Earth, proving that the combination did work.
The next launch would be carrying a crew of two cosmonauts to the Moon.
Meanwhile, in Washington DC, the political firestorm ignited by the Soviet declaration began to finally cool down.
James Fletcher had been named Administrator of NASA in the year Mariner 9 returned its images from the surface and he had been one of the first to see the closer images of FRA-1. He had been struck by their complexity, and had become determined to find out what they were. He even went as far as to say that they should make landing astronauts at FRA-1 a top priority.
For that, Fletcher knew that NASA had to prepare. Much like with the road to the Moon, Fletcher decided that they needed to answer a few important questions first.
The first question was, whether or not it was possible for an astronaut to survive the multi month journey to Mars in microgravity. To answer that, NASA had to conduct a long term experiment and keep one or more astronauts in orbit over an increasing length of time.
The second set of questions was about operations on the martian surface. An Opposition-class mission would allow thirty-to-ninety days of surface operations, while a Conjunction-class mission could allow stays of up to five hundred days. How would the astronauts be housed? How could they be supplied with food? How could space suits be made more reliable and easy to service for the long EVAs that were to be expected on Mars? How could Earth stay in contact with a Mars mission during the entire trip and the stay on Mars?
The third question was about the construction of large structures in space. A spacecraft needed to launch a crew of astronauts to Mars and return them safely to Earth was bound to be big. On the other hand, with size and weight came constraints on how strong attachment points needed to be and how large an item could be launched into space.
The first question and parts of the third could be solved relatively easy. NASA had three Saturn V boosters available with the cancellation of Apollo 18 through 20 and was already preparing to launch the first NASA space station into orbit, called Skylab.
Skylab would allow scientists to do studies on the effects of long-term microgravity on the human body, as well as determine how people would interact on such close quarters over the length of time.
To answer the second question, there was already a very good place for experimentation nearby, the Moon. NASA already knew how to land there and conduct surface operations. Longer term operations could be conducted with just slight modifications of existing hardware by using existing plans for the LEM Shelter and other systems from the Apollo Applications Program. A short term goal for the way to Mars had to be a permanently inhabited lunar station.
To gain the skills needed to construct one or more spacecraft for Mars within Earth orbit, a large multi module space station could be constructed in Earth orbit. A bigger station would also allow more astronauts in space at the same time, enabling a greater amount of crew rotation on the space station.
NASA just had a small problem. They only had a limited supply of Apollo Command and Service modules, as well as vehicles capable of launching them into space. Another problem was the Space Shuttle, which was still in its early stages of design, and it was unlikely that NASA would be able to develop the Shuttle while pursuing the Mars Program.
Apollo 17 launched on December 7th 1972, but the government and NASA were distracted by the Soviets first successful launch of the N1 rocket a day before and the lunar flyby of the 7K-LOK-LK combination. With the N1, the Soviets actually had a heavy launch vehicle that was able to rival the Saturn V in payload capacity and would bring the Soviets to the Moon. Even more importantly, it would provide the basis for the Soviets Mars program.
The successful launch of the N1 finally got Nixon to make a decision about the Space Shuttle program. He decided that NASA was to scrap the Space Shuttle program in favor of a program to get the United States to Mars, before the Soviets could.
The United States had just taken on the challenge the Soviets had issued a year earlier.