TMK-E: The Nuclear Mars Train

Last week I posted a review of the 1963 film A Dream Come True, about a Soviet expedition to Mars, and today I’m going to share the Mars mission the Soviets were actually planning when that movie came out. It was… ambitious, to say the least. “Nuclear-powered Mars train from pole to pole” levels of ambitious.

The Red Planet is an appropriate destination for communists.

TMK-E was a 1960 design study under the direction of OKB-1’s Konstantin Feoktistov. Mars was, at the time, the ultimate goal of the Soviet space program, with Korolev and his colleagues dreaming more of Martian sands than lunar craters, and during the 1960s there were several competing proposals to visit the Red Planet. Feoktistov’s was the  most ambitious, featuring 150-ton atomic spacecraft and a crew of six cosmonauts. Two launches of the N-1 (a notoriously explosive launch vehicle, as it turned out) would have been needed to assemble it in orbit, and its nuclear reactor would have powered an ion engine for high-efficiency, low-thrust travel.

TMK-E, © Mark Wade from Encyclopedia Astronautica. From top/left to bottom/right: Nuclear reactor, radiation shield, four out of five Mars landers, propellant tanks and ion engine, final Mars lander, Mars ascent vehicle, Earth descent vehicle (essentially a Soyuz capsule), crew habitat.

The plan was for TMK-E to undertake a three-year expedition, spiraling slowly out of Earth orbit and then, upon reaching Mars, assembling a train on the surface for a year-long journey of exploration. This would have been an epic undertaking: the train concept included a drill rig and a nuclear powerplant and even a small scout plane. Truly, these were engineers who were not afraid to dream big. The cosmonauts would have thoroughly studied Martian geology, meteorology, and perhaps even biology as they ventured from pole to pole, discovering sights never before seen by humans. It’s the sort of thing that would be one heck of an adventure in Kerbal Space Program.

A model of the nuclear Mars train, © Mark Wade from Encyclopedia Astronautica.. Note that the ascent vehicles on the left look an awful lot like LK moon landers.

Alas, the project never made it beyond little metal models. I can’t find an official cancellation date for the TMK-E, but I believe it morphed into various other Mars studies, all of which lost steam with the suspension of N-1 development in 1974. Ultimately the Soviet manned space program only went as far as LEO, unless they actually did launch TMK-E and covered it up due to a catastrophic reactor failure that killed the cosmonauts as they left Earth, turning the ship into a giant radioactive tomb that orbits the Sun to this day. It’s another bittersweet example of early Space Age engineers dreaming higher than they could actually reach. Would it have worked? Probably not as designed–going to Mars is hard, and Korolev’s people operated off of very optimistic timetables. Yet, if the Soviet Union had only invested the necessary resources, it could quite possibly have bypassed the Moon and gone straight to the red sands of Mars.

Sources: (Great, detailed website, you should check it out)


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