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The story of a chimp named Boris landing on the Moon started as a tall tale on the Internet but took on a life of its own.

Apollo Revisited

When a chimpanzee landed on the Moon: the saga of Boris (part 2)

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Note: Part 1 appeared last week.

Padrobnosti Sovietskoy Programmiy Posadki na Lunu Necheloveko Opraznikh
“Details of the Soviet Primate Lunar Landing Program”

The Soviet primate program was secret and very little information on it has been made public, particularly in the West. Early speculation by noted Soviet space experts like Phillip Clark and Jim Oberg was based upon scant evidence. The late Charles Sheldon, of the Congressional Research Service, only devoted a single line in an early 70s congressional report to this program. It has been completely overlooked in most histories of the space race. Jim Hartford’s excellent biography of Korolev, for instance, contains nothing on the primate program, despite the fact that Korolev was its sponsor. However, a recent article in the acclaimed Russian space journal Novosti Kosmonavtiki (“Cosmonautics News”), by Oleg Adulbaz, sheds much more light on this program. Although I don’t speak or read Russian, a colleague of mine provided a rough translation, which I am going to summarize here.

The article is titled “Details of the Soviet Primate Lunar Landing Program” It is 19 pages long and features several photographs and six tables. (I have no idea who Oleg Adulbaz is and my friend has never heard of him either. Is “Adulbaz” Arabic? Uzbekhi?) But he appears to have written an impressive piece of scholarship.

The animal behavior specialists doubted the ability of a chimp to maneuver in a spacesuit, collect samples, and deposit them in the other spacecraft. Some thought that the whole idea was simply absurd.

The program was initially started in 1963, around the same time that the manned circumlunar program was started. Initially, it was simply a research effort to use chimpanzees to test the life support system for the circumlunar spacecraft while on the ground. But quickly the program evolved into a proposal to fly a chimpanzee around the Moon. It was under the direction of Academician Ivan Petrovich Lendel, of the Moscow-based Institute of Biomedical Problems (better known as the IMBP). Lendel was unusual in the Soviet space program. Not only was he an accomplished aerospace engineer, but he was also a doctor and medical researcher who was well known worldwide for his primate research. Rather surprisingly, although Lendel was known in the west for his work with macaques, gorillas, and chimpanzees (particularly primate communications and social behavior), his aerospace credentials were not known by any of his contemporaries in the primate field.

Several chimpanzees, in addition to dogs, had already flown on Soviet earth orbital flights by 1963 and the circumlunar program was viewed as simply an extension of that work. Apparently, the program got more ambitious as it went along. At first the chimps were going to fly in early 7K-L1 Zond capsules, but the weight of the early Zonds was expected to be high and it was apparently not clear that a full life support system, plus test subject, plus telemetry instrumentation, could be carried in the early spacecraft. Furthermore, at that time, Zond was primarily focused upon the development of heatshield technology and the primate mission was considered a distraction by project engineers.

So, on March 5, 1964, the chimp program was revamped and given a formal designation that was the same as the spacecraft that was to carry the chimps: Ye-8-6. This program was for the design of a capsule and life support system to be carried by one of the Ye-8 Lunokhod spacecraft. Early Lunokhod craft were supposed to orbit the Moon, performing measurements of any magnetic field or particles, and also taking photographs of the surface. The Ye-8-6 spacecraft would essentially trade the scientific package for a capsule and life support system. But the spacecraft would not be capable of returning to Earth. Even if a retrorocket could be developed for the spacecraft, there was no way that a heatshield could be incorporated into the small orbiter vehicle. They could not design a heatshield that could be braked into lunar orbit and then boosted back out of lunar orbit and still survive the high reentry speeds that would be encountered. Thus, just before the consumables on the spacecraft were to run out, the chimpanzee would be euthanized by turning off the CO2 scrubbing system. Carbon dioxide would increase and the chimpanzee would gradually lose consciousness and then die painlessly.

The project was always short of funds. Lendel was constantly scrambling to get more funding for his program, cobbling together money both from space research sources and life sciences research sources (where Lendel’s impressive reputation earned him funds for the chimp training program, but not for hardware.) One main problem was that the Ye-8-6 program was funded by Chelomei, who was then in disfavor with Brezhnev.

Lendel’s big break came when Korolev took an active interest in the program shortly before his death. Korolev suggested that the program would serve as a precursor to his N-1 lunar landing mission. A new spacecraft, still based upon the Lunokhod, was envisioned. It was named the Ye-8-7. Instead of orbiting, the spacecraft would land. In fact, it would actually be part of a two-spacecraft mission. One spacecraft would carry the chimpanzee and the other would carry a sample return mission (the sample return spacecraft was designated the Ye-8-5, although it differed from the Ye-8-5 spacecraft that the Soviets later used for this purpose.) The idea was that the Ye-8-5 spacecraft would land about one week before the other lander. It would then go into “sleeper” mode and turn off until activated by a ground command. A week later, it would be reactivated and would broadcast a radio beacon. The second spacecraft, the Ye-8-7, with the chimpanzee aboard, would home in on the beacon and land as close to it as possible. The sample return spacecraft would be equipped with a powerful strobe light that could be easily seen from the lunar horizon. The chimpanzee--who would have been in a spacesuit for the entire mission, was to leave its craft and collect rock samples which it would then deposit in the sample return spacecraft.

Upon Korolev’s death in 1966, the Ye-8-7 program fell into disrepute. It was attacked from several angles. The engineers doubted the ability to land two spacecraft within sight of each other. The animal behavior specialists doubted the ability of a chimp to maneuver in a spacesuit, collect samples, and deposit them in the other spacecraft. Some thought that the whole idea was simply absurd.

Lendel was able to refute the second criticism easily. For almost a year he had been training five chimpanzees, known as Test Objects 4, 9, 12, 15, and 21, to perform a variety of tasks. None of the chimps was able to achieve all of the tasks (for instance, Object #9 could collect samples, but had problems dealing with the hatch door), but it was obvious that chimps could be trained to perform complex tasks.

The landing proximity problem was considered a major hurdle, however. Even a slight error could place the two spacecraft dozens of kilometers apart. On October 15, 1968, the surface rendezvous project was abandoned. However, both spacecraft continued. The sample return spacecraft was redesigned with a scoop arm so that it could scrape some lunar soil from the surface and place it in a container. This design was eventually flown three times, as Luna-16, Luna-20, and Luna-24 (all Ye-8-5 spacecraft).

The chimpanzee vehicle was also continued. But by this time the ambitious goals had been scaled back. The chimp was to land under remote control. It would then leave the spacecraft to wander no more than ten meters from the vehicle (on a tether), and then reenter the spacecraft. This was to prove that primates could indeed operate on the lunar surface while wearing a pressure suit as a demonstration for later cosmonaut landings. The preparations continued in anticipation of a summer 1969 launch.

Subjects 516 and 517 were removed for unknown reasons (Adulbaz implies something that did not survive translation well, but he apparently described them as “boyfriend and girlfriend” and states that their actions were considered disruptive of the program. My colleague who did the translation implied that the two pursued an inappropriate relationship.)

One of the more unusual aspects of the spacecraft was the communications system. The spacecraft was equipped with a series of colored buttons and lights. The chimps were trained to press these based upon their condition, spacecraft signals, etc., in response to the lights. For instance, the chimps had a button for expressing happiness, tiredness, readiness, hunger, etc., as well as more mundane things like “signal received.” A yellow light might flash, indicating that the chimp was to open the spacecraft hatch door, and the chimp was supposed to respond by pressing a green button to indicate that he received the command and understood it. (Although Adulbaz does not state it, apparently this was a rather sophisticated experiment in simian communication, for the chimps actually had several responses to each message. They did not simply press the same color button as the light that flashed. Years later, Lendel’s work on this aspect of the program was summarized in several scientific papers on simian communication, although no mention was made of its connection to a space program.)

Skolzyshe’ grafic ehkepazhe shempanzye

By early 1969, both the primate training program and the spacecraft development were well under way. None of the first class of chimp candidates (the “Test Objects”) was considered for the actual mission. Apparently, they were only proof-of-concept subjects, not intended to actually fly. Instead, Lendel wanted an entirely new group, which was selected in November 1968 from a candidate pool of over 100 chimps in the Soviet Aeromedical Program. This was a subdivision of the Air Force’s Institute of Aviation and Space Medicine headed by Major Yuvenaliy Volynkin, but Lendel’s subgroup was apparently civilian-controlled even though it came from the military program. There was some disagreement between the Air Force and the Ministry of Health over control of the primate program.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Nikolay Kamanin, who oversaw cosmonaut training in the Soviet Union at the time, mentions this program briefly in his diary entry for May 26, 1967, expressing concern that the primate program was not under Air Force control. Kamanin apparently sent a couple of rookie cosmonauts—Ansar Sharafutdinov and Vasily Shcheglov—to participate in discussions on the program, but Lendel was very reluctant to have cosmonauts participate in his program. Although he allowed the cosmonauts to review the training procedures and observe the chimps during actual training, he did not allow any direct interaction, worried that this might distract his test subjects. Rather interestingly, Shchlegov died mysteriously in 1973 at the age of 32, and there were some wildly dubious rumors suggesting that his premature death was due to a rare disease he contracted from one of the chimps in the primate program. Adulbaz discounts these rumors and quotes several people who state unequivocally that Shchlegov never got near the chimpanzees.

Lendel selected two groups, known as the Primary and the Backup. The Primary group consisted of nine chimps. These chimps were:

Test Subject

Of these, three (503, 514 and 517) were female. The rest were male. The Backup group consisted of four chimps:

Test Subject

Of these, only one (528) was female.

(Note, there is no explanation of why the earlier group of chimps were called Test Objects and the latter group Test Subjects. This may be a translation problem. Also, although the Soviet Aeromedical Program included over one hundred chimps, there is no definitive explanation as to why all the numbers in the Primary and Backup groups are all low numbers. Adulbaz speculates that the Aeromedical Program numbered its chimps not on when they were acquired, but upon health, abilities, etc. Therefore, Lendel selected from the best of the group, which by design had been given the lower numbers.)

Unlike in the American manned space program, subjects in the Backup group were not backups to individual members in the Primary group. Instead, they were given a lower training regimen and were expected to refill the ranks of the Primary group if any of its members were removed for any reason. At the time, it was expected that only one or two flights would be made. Therefore, only one or two members of the Primary group would be needed. The Backups had a less extensive training schedule until they were moved into the Primary group.

Because skolzyshe’ grafic ehkepazhe are of great interest to space enthusiasts, I will go into extensive detail of them for the Sovietskoy Programmiy Posadki na Lunu Necheloveko Opraznikh. Of the original nine Primary members, two dropped out midway through the program and one was dropped late in the program. Subjects 516 and 517 were removed for unknown reasons (Adulbaz implies something that did not survive translation well, but he apparently described them as “boyfriend and girlfriend” and states that their actions were considered disruptive of the program. My colleague who did the translation implied that the two pursued an inappropriate relationship.) They were replaced by 528 and 553. Subject 507 was removed late in the program for “lack of motivation in the training regimen.” He was replaced by 501. Apparently, 501 had been placed in the Backup group because he was sick at the time of selection, despite the fact that he was considered the most alert and intelligent of all of the test subjects by far. However, even though he recovered soon after the initial selection, he stayed in the Backup group with its lower training schedule and was not placed into the Primary group until too late in the overall program. By this time, the two flight candidates had been selected and 501 simply had too much to learn to become a prime candidate.

Not surprisingly, there is a great deal of debate on Russian space newsgroups about all the fascinating permutations of the chimp crew rotation schedule.

Test Subject 509, who was named Ivan in February 1969, was by far the best of the Primary group candidates. But he got sick before the flight. Trainers noted that he seemed lethargic and not committed to the program. They replaced him with Test Subject 504, who had been named Boris (also in February) and had been named Secondary Chimp to serve as a replacement for Ivan.

Adulbaz’s article provides the first complete chimp rotation schedule for the program, which I will reprint here for the first time:

Primary Group
Mission 1
First Chimp Secondary Chimp
Ivan (509) Boris (504)
Mission 2
First Chimp Secondary Chimp
514 520
Mission 3
First Chimp Secondary Chimp
503 507
Mission 4
First Chimp Secondary Chimp
528 553

Not surprisingly, there is a great deal of debate on Russian space newsgroups about all the fascinating permutations of the chimp crew rotation schedule. For instance, if 501 had been placed in the Primary group where he clearly belonged, he would most likely have replaced Ivan as the First Chimp among the Primary group. Ivan then would most likely have been assigned as Secondary chimp. However, it is not clear if, in this event, Boris would have been assigned as First Chimp on mission 2. The problem was that although Boris was considered almost as smart as Ivan, his training lagged on some key skills which were unimportant for the first, limited mission, but were considered important for the second, more ambitious mission. Unless Boris could improve his performance, it is likely that, if 501 had been assigned to the Primary group, the rotation schedule would have looked like this instead:

Mission 1
First Chimp Secondary Chimp
Boris (504) Ivan (509)
Mission 2
First Chimp Secondary Chimp
514 520
Mission 3
First Chimp Secondary Chimp
504 503
Mission 4
First Chimp Secondary Chimp
528 507
Unassigned: 553

The mission

According to Adulbaz, initially only two missions were planned, but enough flight equipment existed to fly four. In the end, only one mission was flown. It was Luna-15, launched on July 13, 1969. This was a Ye-8-7 spacecraft, launched by a four-stage Proton (8K82K serial no. 242-01. The fourth stage Blok D was an 11S824, for all of those out there keeping lists.) By this time the Soviets knew that they had lost the Moon race to the Americans. However, the Luna-15 flight was intended to serve not only as a propaganda victory for the Soviets, but also as a mockery. The idea was that the Soviets would demonstrate that a monkey on the Moon could do practically all of the things that a human could do and accomplish the mission for far less money. However, after Luna-15 landed, something happened and the Soviets released no more information on the mission. Eventually they acknowledged that the craft had crashed, but stated that it was simply a sample return mission. This was a cover story for the truth. The fact that a chimp was on board was concealed at the time. (Adulbaz provides an extensive discussion about how the Luna-15 flight was not really a Ye-8-5 vehicle as commonly reported, but instead the Ye-8-7 vehicle and that this fact was concealed from many participants at the time. I won’t go into the details here.)

In reality, the vehicle had landed successfully, but the chimp could not or would not leave the spacecraft. Unless this problem was sorted out, the Soviets were not going to issue any other statement.

The reasons that the mission failed are still in dispute and arguments over which chimps were selected and who was responsible for picking them is the primary reason for the disputes-in other words, most Russians involved in the program feel that the problem was with the chimp, not with the hardware. Ivan (TS 509) was supposed to fly on this mission, but he came down with simian measles three days before the flight. Boris was chosen instead. What would have happened if Ivan had actually flown has been the source of constant speculation ever since and is likely to serve for constant speculation among space buffs now that the true story is emerging. Although Boris was considered the equal of Ivan in training, he was also known to be slightly more rebellious. This has caused some controversy that Adulbaz’s article finally lays to rest.

While all of this was going on, the Americans were walking on the Moon. “And we were stuck with a broken monkey program,” said one engineer.

Little information about the program leaked out over the years. The most detailed source was a 1990 article by James Oberg called “Red Monkeys in Orbit” which ran in Omni magazine. Oberg had noticed some doctored photos of the Russian aeromedical program. Unlike the famous “missing cosmonaut” photos, no chimpanzees had been airbrushed out of the photos (i.e. these were not “missing monkey” photos.) However, there was evidence that some spacecraft hardware had been airbrushed out. Oberg eventually traced enough information about the program to write what at the time was a stunning exposé of what he called “unparalleled Communist cruelty against animals.” A major part of his narrative was an account of the “monkey mutiny” (Oberg’s words) where Boris refused to leave the spacecraft upon landing. Oberg guessed that this was due to the chimp’s reaction against unfair treatment by his Communist masters.

According to Adulbaz, the problem was not Boris’ fault, and therefore discussions about how Ivan or any of the other possible candidates would have performed better are not only academic, but irrelevant. The problem was not with the chimp, but with the hardware. One problem was that there was no way to ensure that the hatch was unlocked in order for the chimpanzee to open it. There were three ways to open the hatch on the spacecraft. There was a main lever, a backup lever, and the “explosive bolts” (while this phrase implies that the hatch would have been blown off, in reality it would have simply severed the lever, allowing the hatch to be pushed open manually—something that Boris had trained to do hundreds of times).

Soon after landing, Boris pressed a button that indicated that he felt fine and was ready to go. In fact, he pressed this button several times, indicating eagerness to commence with the task (trainers had noted that in ground simulations, Boris was always the most heavily-motivated candidate and was willing to work extra hard.) Ground commands were sent to the spacecraft to unlock the hatch and then another command was sent telling Boris to use the lever to open the hatch. But there was no indication that the hatch was opening. Commands were sent to Boris again, who replied by repeatedly pressing the button, indicating that he had received the command. But the hatch still didn’t open.

Eventually, after trying this several times, ground controllers sent the command for Boris to use the backup lever. He acknowledged the command, but the hatch still didn’t open. Finally, the explosive bolts were fired by ground controllers and Boris was again told to open the hatch. He acknowledged this command, but the hatch still did not open.

Ground controllers sat mystified staring at their consoles. “We just did not understand what was happening,” said one controller to Adulbaz, years later. “We could not understand why he would do this to us. We considered it a betrayal.”

Accusations quickly began to fly. Lendel came under much criticism. While all of this was going on, the Americans were walking on the Moon. “And we were stuck with a broken monkey program,” said one engineer.

Boris continued to acknowledge receiving commands, but there was no indication that he was opening the hatch. Hatch failure was supposed to be impossible. Once the main lock had been opened, Boris should have easily been able to open the hatch. There was no other explanation besides the failure of the chimp to push the lever.

Ground controllers continued to monitor Boris’ life signs for three more days before finally euthanizing him. Reports that they waited up to ten days for him to die (in what Oberg called “an unparalleled case of Communist inhumanity”) turn out to be false.

The program was canceled. One of the flight articles was unassembled and ended up being melted down for scrap. The third flight article was apparently placed outside of a warehouse where it has rusted over the years from the harsh Russian winters. (A photo in the article shows this vehicle as virtually unrecognizable.) The second vehicle was placed in the Moscow Aviation Institute’s classified museum, but has now been lost. Attempts to locate it have been unsuccessful and anybody with information on the whereabouts of this craft is urged to write the author.

Lendel was discredited and lost his position in the Soviet space program. He managed to publish much of the training research, including the aforementioned simian communication studies, but died of a mysterious accident in 1975. There are whispering rumors that this was not an accident at all, but Adulbaz never found any information to substantiate them.

Adulbaz paints a depressing picture of an increasingly desperate Boris banging on the hatch trying to get out and carry out his mission.

In addition to the fascinating discussion of the skolzyshe’ grafic ehkepazhe shempanzye, Adulbaz has also painstakingly attempted to restore Boris’ reputation by explaining why he never left the spacecraft. He refuses to accept that Boris was disobeying commands from the ground. “Nothing in his dossier indicates that Test Subject 504 was anything other than a loyal member of the program,” he writes. “While other candidates were known for doing the work they were given and no more, there are clear indications that 504 was the most hard-working and enthusiastic member of the program. He would not have suddenly disobeyed orders on the Moon.”

Adulbaz points out what in retrospect are quite glaring lapses in the spacecraft design. For instance, there was very little telemetry associated with the hatch. There was no pressure sensor on either of the levers to indicate that the subject was trying to operate them. There was also no backup means to unlock the hatch. He even questions the entire idea of having a manually operated hatch in the first place: it would have been just as easy for engineers to design a hatch that opened automatically by command from the ground.

But his most devastating evidence is the one glaring oversight of the engineers: while there were multiple backup levers for the hatch, there was no backup for the unlocking mechanism! Adulbaz says that what most likely happened is that the hatch did not unlock. Boris tried all of the levers, but as long as the hatch was locked he could not exit. Adulbaz paints a depressing picture of an increasingly desperate Boris banging on the hatch trying to get out and carry out his mission.

Adulbaz concludes that Boris was truly committed and enthusiastic about the program, but was thwarted by substandard design and engineering.

All in all, a truly fascinating program.


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