Zond 8 and the Plaster-like Moon

The Moon, as photographed by Zon d 8 on October 24, 1970. Credit: redorbit.com

The Moon, as photographed by Zon d 8 on October 24, 1970. Click for the full-size image. The detail, and plaster-like appearance, is incredible. Credit: redorbit.com

It happens occasionally that I come across a picture so striking that I stop what I’m doing to track down its backstory. This morning, it was this picture of the Moon taken by the Soviet Zond 8 spacecraft that sent me hunting through books for context. It incredible how much this picture of the Moon looks like the one in Georges Méliès’ 1902 silent movie “Le Voyage dans la Lune.” Unsurprisingly, the story behind Zond 8 is a fascinating if minor episode of the Space Race.

The L1 program was the Soviet Union’s attempt to put men into orbit around the Moon in the 1960s. In essence a Soyuz spacecraft without the habitat module, the lunar version was dreamed up by the program’s Chief Designer Sergei Korolev in 1965. The program was meant to demonstrate the nation’s power, ideally with a manned lunar mission in celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of the October Revolution in 1967.

But things didn’t go according to plan. Korolev died suddenly in 1966. His deputy, Vasili Mishin, stepped in and unwittingly inherited a lunar program plagued with problems. And things got worse when, in the spring of 1969, Soviet officials issued an order canceling all manned mission to the Moon.

Mishin. Credit: Associated Press (via The Economist)

By early 1970, Mishin couldn’t deny there was no longer a political need to send cosmonauts to the Moon – not only had NASA landed two crews on the Moon, the Soviets’ success with unmanned missions proved they had a knack for robotic exploration. Undaunted, Mishin argued that there was still a technological reason to pursue the mission. The hardware – spacecraft and launch vehicle – were ready to go. Sending a crew would prove the Soviet Union could do it, and would also provide valuable experience for future complex manned mission to the Moon and beyond. So convinced was Mishin this manned mission should happen that he briefly considered launching it without permission.

He didn’t, but he did strike a compromise with Soviet authorities. He was cleared to continue with robotic missions. The compromise mission was prepared in the fall of 1970. On October 20, twenty-two seconds after 10:55 in the evening Moscow time, Zond 8 launched to the moon.

Zond 8 was fitted with a suite of science instruments. Among them was a series of aluminum foil “targets” like the ones on the Apollo solar wind experiments mounted outside the spacecraft to gather data on the solar wind’s isotropic concentration. This mission also followed a different trajectory than previous Soviet lunar missions. It was designed to fall back to Earth over the Northern Hemisphere rather than the Southern to give radio operators in Soviet territories a chance to follow and control the mission throughout reentry.

A ghostly Earthrise as seen by Zond 8. Credit: redorbit.com

A ghostly Earthrise as seen by Zond 8. Click for the full-size image. It’s worth it. Credit: redorbit.com

Zond 8 also carried cameras to the Moon. It photographed the Earth during it’s transit to the Moon. When it reached its target on October 24, 1970, it turned its eyes to the Moon. Zond 8 got as close as 745 miles to the surface, taking pictures of the surface in both colour and black and white. The spacecraft took 20 full-Moon pictures before focusing on the surface and snapping 78 more detailed images.

After leaving the Moon and making two mid-course corrections, Zond 8 made a nearly pinpoint splashdown at five to five on the afternoon of October 27 near the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean. It brought with it a series of high quality images of the Moon and the Earth.

The mission was a striking success, one of the few of the Zond program that was dogged by politics, poor planning, and a healthy dose of bad luck throughout its lifetime. It was another Soviet program that was never able to realize its full potential. It’s incredible to think that had the official order been different, Zond 8 mission could have carried Soviet cosmonauts around the Moon in 1970.


  • Another cool article, thanks! Was a little thrown by your use of “colour”. Did you move to Britain or Canada recently? :-)

  • stuyoung38 says:

    Thank you, Amy, for uploading this article! I was aware of the Zond circumlunar missions, and of the Lunakhod rovers and sample return mission, but I had never come across a description of the Zond 8 mission. I didn’t know that the Soviets were capable, in 1970, of (in essence) an Apollo 8-type mission: actually into lunar orbit and back to Earth, rather than merely around the Moon.

    Off the cuff, I’m wondering if a two-Proton launch scenario could have accomplished a Soviet manned lunar landing. Did Zond 8 use a Blok D stage for lunar orbit insertion and trans-Earth injection? If so, and if the LK lunar lander was of equal or lesser mass than the Zond, then the 2 spacecraft could have rendezvoused in lunar orbit, and taken a single Soviet citizen to and from the Moon. Time to do some research…

    Alternate history: after Apollo 17 in 1972, the USSR starts manned lunar missions. In Pravda, the official Soviet line is that the U.S. “abandoned” their manned lunar program due to the “unsustainable” expense of the Apollo program on the federal budget, in concert with “social unrest” caused by American “inequalities of wealth,” and the economic demands of the “imperialist war against the people of Vietnam.” In contrast, the “peace-loving” culture of the Soviet Union, using its “relatively economical technology and mission architecture,” was able to afford a manned lunar program into the indefinite future.


    -Stu Young

    • phuzz says:

      Stu, a good book that covers all of that (and more) is “The Challenge to Apollo” by Asif Siddiqi, although I have to admit that I’m only up to about a chapter before this (thanks for spoiling the ending Amy ;).
      You can find a copy here:

      • stuyoung38 says:

        Phuzz, thanks for the link! I’ll check it out!

      • Jack Hagerty says:

        Asif was also the series editor for the English version of Boris Chertok’s massive four volume history of the Soviet space program, “Rockets and People.” Right now NASA has it available for just the price of shipping ($12), the books themselves are free. It’s a tremendous deal for more than 2,500 pages of hardbound history!

        • stuyoung38 says:

          Thanks for that info. That is too good an offer to pass up. I need to make space on my shelves…

        • Will Fischer says:

          Could you please supply details of how you ordered this fantastic deal? I’ve been able to get PDFs from http://www.nasa.gov/connect/ebooks/rockets_people_vol1_detail.html (and vol2,3,4), but the only ordering info I could find ( http://history.nasa.gov/SP-4110/flyer-chertok-vol4.pdf ) has prices of $25 and $79 for the 4th volume only …

          • Jack Hagerty says:

            Will (and others) –

            I heard about this last month when NASA made an announcement that they were clearing out inventory from their Information Center and essentially giving the books away.

            The process was amazingly primitive for NASA. You had to phone the store at (202) 358-0000 (yes, the number is all zeros) to make sure they have the books in stock. The catalog number for “Rockets and People” is SP-2005-4110. Then you have to send them an order form by real, physical mail to:

            NASA Headquarters
            Information Center
            300 E St. SW Suite 1N24
            Washington, DC 20546

            You have to include a check or money order for $12 (that’s to cover the shipping charge of $3 per book) and the books show up about a month later.

            The only part of the process that’s even slightly 21st Century is downloading the order form (PDF format) from their website: http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/hqlibrary/ic/request_form.html

            The form says “NASA IC Publications Order Form” at the top.

            Hope this helps!

          • Will Fischer says:

            Thanks, Jack, for that thorough reply! Lots of good stuff available for nearly nothing!

    • Jack Hagerty says:

      Stu –

      What you’ve described is essentially the N1-L3M mission that Mishin tried to get approved in the 1970’s. It was a two booster launch (N-1 rather than Proton) with a lunar-orbit rendezvous and a complete vehicle descent to the surface followed by a direct ascent back to Earth. This is all covered in a new book on the N-1 being published by ARA Press in a few months.

      • stuyoung38 says:

        Great…back to the bookshelves for some more clearing…
        You said “a few months”…think it will be out in time for Christmas?
        (Man, that sounds so geeky…Oh well; no sense denying it…).

        • Jack Hagerty says:

          Stu –

          The book should be out by the end of the summer. I’m doing the final edit now along with the grunt-work (index, table of contents, etc.) I do periodic progress posts on the ARA Press FB page if you want to follow it there.

          Thumbnail description: Hardcover, ~220 pages 80 lb coated stock. Massive numbers of illustrations, both original and some wonderful CGI work by Nick Stevens in England. Research is by three guys in Russia (including Alex Shliadinsky who knows more about the vehicle than anyone else on the planet). Illustrations are all color except when when the source material was only B&W. $39.95. We’re going to do a Kickstarter campaign to help underwrite some of the production costs in order to keep the price that low (by normal pricing guidelines based on production costs it should be ~$20 higher).

      • stuyoung38 says:

        As I understand it, the 2 N-1 launch scenario was proposed to “own up” to a fact of which Korolev was aware, but which he neglected to mention to the Soviet political establishment – the N-1’s payload capacity was insufficient to launch the L3 lunar spacecraft “complex” in one shot – even after plugging the “hole” in the base of the first stage (originally meant to augment thrust by allowing external combustion of exhaust gasses) with 6 more engines. Improvements were incorporated into the last couple of airframes (the so-called N-1F variant), but they were scrapped when the program was canceled. Perhaps the new book will offer new and fascinating revelations.
        All this N-1 talk made me “cave-in” last night; I’ve started constructing the first stage of a (hopefully) flying model. Our rocketry club had a dismal record of launch failures of all manner of Russian and Soviet models – until last month, when a member incorporated the playing of the Soviet National Anthem over his iPad during each flight. The success rate immediately improved to 100%. (Counting down in Russian, so far, appears to be optional).
        Video proof is below:

  • Greg Maynard says:

    Interesting story and great photo. One thing surprised me; I thought that all the Zond spacecraft used a free return circumlunar orbit i.e. they did not slow down to enter lunar orbit but only swung around the moon. If you are right about Zond 8 entering lunar orbit then Stu’s hypothetical rendezvous mission is conceivable. I would love to hear if you can confirm or refute the lunar orbit aspect.

  • stuyoung38 says:

    So far, to me at least, the numbers don’t appear to add up, based on info from Encyclopedia Astronautica. The gross masses of the Zond and the LK spacecraft were similar (5680 kg. and 5560 kg. respectively). However, just the unfueled mass of the Blok D, needed for LOI and initial descent to the lunar surface by the LK lunar lander, and LOI and TEI of the Zond, was 1800 kg. The translunar payload of the Proton UR500K, used to launch the Zond spacecraft, is listed as 5390 kg. Obviously, it must have had another 300 kg. or so capability in practice, but not enough to send the Zond or LK, plus a partially-fuelled Blok D, on a translunar trajectory.
    Of course, Encyclopedia Astronautica’s numbers may be off. And I’m a psychotherapist, not an aerospace professional.
    I have yet to read the rather large pdf from the NASA archive which Phuzz referenced; perhaps the answers will be found there.
    -Stu Young

  • stuyoung38 says:

    It’s official; I found the account of Zond 8’s flight on p. 742 of the document which Phuzz referenced above (http://archive.org/details/nasa_techdoc_20000088626). Like all of the other numbered Zond flights, it was circumlunar, not entering lunar orbit.
    The USSR would have required a perfected N-1 (of course, all of its flights were failures), the development of the UR-700 booster (which never happened), or the Energia (which wasn’t flown until 1987) to accomplish a Soviet manned landing.
    Pity; it would have made an interesting alternate history novel…
    -Stu Young

    • asteitel says:

      Just wanted to drop you a quick note – and everyone else who noticed the mention of Zond going into orbit. I double checked my sources and turns out the mistake was mine. Somewhat ambiguous terms like “circled the Moon” gave me the impression it went into orbit but it was indeed a flyby. I’ve corrected the article. Thanks for keeping me on my toes!

      • stuyoung38 says:

        Yes; when I read the words “circled the Moon” in some reference (it might have been the one by Siddiqi), that made my hopes rise momentarily. Thanks for being so open to feedback! Your “accuracy” rating is still “A+” – especially considering your exploration of the “nooks and crannies” of space history.

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  • phuzz says:

    And the Astronomy Picture of the Day today (well, yesterday in my time zone) is:
    “The Moon from Zond 8″, and alink back here no less :)

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