By 1967, the space race to the moon was neck and neck, and the Soviets were cutting a lot of corners to get there first. And it didn't help that their moon plan was Rube Goldbergian in its complication. The cosmonaut in the Russian program would have to physically go outside the orbiting craft and do a spacewalk just to get into the moon landing craft. And on the way back from the moon, he would have to carry a huge specimen bag of moon rocks. Through the vacuum of space.
So the program had to hit some major milestones to make this crap shoot possible: they had to figure out how to rendezvous in orbit, how to exit and spacewalk between crafts and, oh yeah, how to actually land on the moon. All in about 18 months. And PS, their rockets suuuuuuuuucked.
The design was based off of a bored 7-year-old's math class doodling.
And the cosmonauts knew it.
When Yuri Gagarin inspected Soyuz 1, the capsule that was supposed to eventually get the reds to the moon, he found no less than 203 structural problems with the thing. So naturally, he recommended a postponement of its practice launch. Officials gave a hearty "NYET CAN DO" because they wanted that first space docking in time for 50th anniversary of the Communist revolution.
But it wasn't Gagarin who was scheduled to make the flight, it was his best friend Vladimir Komarov. And Vladimir wouldn't back out of a sure suicide mission because Gagarin was his back-up; if he didn't make the flight Yuri would, and he didn't want to kill his best friend. And Yuri felt the same way. Apparently he showed up on launch day as well, demanding to go in Vladimir's place.
It was the greatest bromance in Soviet aeronautic history.
But it would be Vladimir who would make the trip, and his problems started the minute he got into orbit. His solar panel didn't work, so the power to his systems failed. His orientation detectors froze, so he couldn't maneuver the craft. His automatic stabilization system died and his manual stabilization system was only partially working. In other words, Soyuz 1 was up space creek without a paddle.
After 13 orbits around the Earth, the mission was aborted and Vladimir was ordered back home. Unfortunately, his parachutes got tangled on re-entry and he never had a chance slow his stupid Soyuz down. And did we mention that he had radio contact with Earth the whole time, where US scientists listening in reported hearing Vladimir and his flight commander crying and cursing, or that his wife was on the call, asking him what to tell their children? If you click here, you can hear his last words and see what remained of him after landing. But only click there if you're already dead inside.
"Sorry our negligence got you burnt to death. Here's a tasteful stamp."
So that was Soyuz 1. Soyuz 5's landing was so hard that it broke the pilot's teeth, and he was so off course that he had to find shelter at a peasant's house before he was rescued. Soyuz 6, 7, and 8 all failed to dock together. But by this point, it didn't matter anymore, because Apollo was already on the moon.
This post card is the closest the Soviet Union ever got to a moon landing.
By this point, anyone with a lick of sense knew that the space race was over and Uncle Sam won. Yet the Soviets figured if they had to go out, they might as well go out with a bang (uh...hopefully not literally). Thus the program to get cosmonauts on Venus and Mars were pursued.
The soviets decided to cut out the middle-man and power the rockets entirely with cosmonaut blood.
You have to hand it to them, the plans had moxy. First off, the three man mission to Mars would take three years. And to keep those cosmonauts alive during the three years, Russian scientists came up with some pretty ambitious systems. Like, "growing 20 to 50% of the crew's food in hydroponic greenhouses" ambitious. And "just hoping for the best when it comes to periods of prolonged weightlessness since no one had gone longer than a few days in space before" ambitious.
Pipe dreams based on uninvented technologies excluded, the mission itself was made of insanity. In one version, the cosmonauts would orbit around Mars, swing back to Earth, bypass Earth to go to Venus, just for fun, then come home. Total trip time: four years. In another version, a six man crew would actually land on Mars and live there for a year as they explored the Red Planet from pole to pole. Also, while there, they'd construct a nuclear powered "Mars Train" for getting around and stuff. Because that sounded totally doable by this point.
Via Mark Wade
Developing this tiny plastic train model cost fourteen men and eleven dogs their lives.
Shockingly, neither program got past the testing stage. The rocket they were supposed to use went through four flights from 1969 to 1972, and came back in pieces every single time. Turns out the flaw was simply not trusting American methods. Instead of using liquid oxygen and hydrogen like NASA, the Soviets went with the method of mixing benzene with kerosene. While being anti-American, they were also pro-explosion: kerosene mixed with benzene is a dangerous mix that is more combustible than gasoline.
Unfortunately for all involved, the Soviets directed their energies toward their space station instead. We say "unfortunately" because the first three cosmonauts to visit it tragically died before re-entering the Earth's atmosphere. Although, considering the alternative was thrusting a nuclear powered disastercraft away from the Earth, we should probably be grateful for the distraction their little space station provided.
We're beginning to think the whole Soviet space program was a diabolical ruse by the stamp industry.
For more on space, check out 5 Retarded Space Travel Ideas (That Might Actually Work) and 6 Reasons Space Travel Will Always Suck.