It’s probably the most well known peacetime battle between the USA and the Soviet Union, in both technological and ideological terms of the 20th century.
Although the USA won the race to the moon, if you’d been a betting person from the mid 1950’s to 1960’s, the chances are that you would have thought the Soviet Union had a very good chance of getting there first.
So why didn’t Russia put a man on the moon?
At the time the soviets were leading the space race, they had already started with the launch of Sputnik, then launched several probes to the moon, including one in 1959 that orbited and taken photos of the far side and By 1961 they were the first to put a man in to space.
So when Kennedy made his now famous “We choose to go to the moon” speech in 1962 to rally public support, Khrushchev’s response was silence, neither confirming nor denying that they had a plan for a manned moon mission.
But at the time Khrushchev wasn’t really interested in competing with the US over the moon, he was more interested ICBM’s the Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles for the strategic rocket forces.
But there were others that had harboured plans for manned mission for a long time, these included the man whose name was a state secret and the most powerful man outside the Kremlin when it came to space.
He was Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, outside the inner circle of the top space scientists he was known only as the “Chief Designer” or by his first 2 initials SP, because the Soviet leadership feared that the western powers would send agents to assassinate him.
Korolev was the man who was behind many of the soviet space successes and the head of the OKB-1 design bureau, he over saw sputnik, and the manned missions including the first man in space Yuri Gararin. His authority extended over almost everything to do with space, his design group worked on missions to mars and venus, communications, spy and weather satellites, ICBM’s and the soviet manned moon missions.
Korolev had a huge amount of control over the space program. In administrative power he was almost a one man version of NASA covering areas that in the US were done across multiple aerospace companies and flight centres.
But even a man with his power and connections didn’t get everything his own way. He had to continuously fight against rival designers and design groups. Although Korolyev wanted the moon missions, in 1960 the job was given to his rival, Vladimir Chelomei because of his patronage by Khrushchev but his lack of experience meant that progress was slow.
The progress of Apollo on the other hand worried the chief designers and as a result of this and the in-fighting between the design bureau’s meant that there were multiple overlapping designs for the moon missions, at one point there were 30 different designs for launchers and spacecraft.
In 1964 and with the fall of Khrushchev, Korolev was given complete control over the moon missions and pushed through his designs ahead of Chelomei’s and the decision to finally compete for the moon was given, with the aim to land in 1967 the 50th anniversary of the October revolution and get there before the Americans.
This created a problem for Korolev, in order to lift the payload weight of 95 tons he needed a very large rocket. This new rocket would be called the N1, be as big as the American Saturn 5 and would require large powerful engines, similar to the F1 rockets in the Saturn.
Valentin Glushko was the leading Soviet rocket designer and head of the OKB 456 bureau, which had a near monopoly when its came rocket design & production. He specialised in making engines that used hypergolic propellants. These consist of a fuel and an oxidizer, that when mixed together spontaneously ignite when they come into contact with each other. Korolev thought these were too dangerous for manned missions due to the highly toxic and corrosive nature of the chemicals that made up the fuel.
Glushko said that it was not possible to create a new large engine design that used cryogenic fuel of liquid oxygen and Kerosene and get it ready in time with limited resources and cash. He also sited that at the time the Americans had been working on cryogenic Saturn engines for 5 years and still hadn’t got them to work reliably.
There was also a personal problem between the two men. Korolev blamed Glushko for denouncing him in the great purge under Stalin in 1938, leading to Korolev’s near death serving 6 years in a Soviet labour camp. Glushko, on the other hand considered Korolev to be irresponsibly cavalier and autocratic towards things outside of his zone of competence.
This clash lead, to Glushko refusing to work with Korolev and caused delays to the overall program.
Korolev was forced to find a new engine designer and gave the job to Nikolai Kuznetsov who was a leading jet engine designer but had not designed rocket engines before.
The Kuznetsov design bureau looked at the problem and realized that creating rocket engine was not that different to the jet engines they were used to. But they ran in to the same problem as Glushko, in that the Soviets simply didn’t have the industrial infrastructure that the Americans did to produce a new large engine. The solution they came up with was innovative but would have both negative and positive outcomes.
Where the Americans used 5 large engines for the initial booster stage, Korolev was forced to use 30 small but highly efficient engines arranged in a ring of 24 around the base and 6 centre at the centre cf, this would a profound impact on the soviet moon mission.
In order to achieve the thrust required, the design of these engines was very advanced and used a method called the closed cycle system. This was capable of boosting the efficiency and power to levels which were believed to be impossible before.
The Americans had known about the closed cycle system but thought that was too difficult and dangerous as the high pressure, high temperature oxygen method could cause the engine to burn up, so they used the more reliable but less efficient open cycle system but with massive engines.
It had only been possible for the soviets to create a closed cycle engine because they had secretly developed advanced stainless steel alloys, something that the Americans didn’t know about.
Using so many smaller engines allowed the N1 for create more power than the Saturn but the likelihood of one or more of them failing and making the rocket unstable was much greater. One of the main problems was the complex fuel plumbing required to supply all the engines which in time proved to be very fragile.
But just as the Soviets were working on the new engines, in 1966, Korolev died after undergoing a routine operation. This was a setback because he had a unique set of abilities and connections and was the major driving force behind making sure the moon missions would be delivered.
The work of continuing fell to Vasily Mishkin, Korolev’s deputy but Mishin didn’t have the political astuteness or power of his old boss and this would ultimately lead to the failure of the N1 rocket and the lunar missions overall.
The soviets didn’t have the facilities to test all 30 of the engines of the main stage at once before they were mounted to the rocket. The Baikonur launch complex could also not be reached by heavy barges, so the whole rocket had to broken down in to sections and transported by rail and rebuilt again at the launch pad.
This meant that the development of the whole N1 rocket was still ongoing when it came to the launches, so it was almost expected that there would be failures.
The Soviets planned 14 launches, the first 12 would be unmanned and last two would be the manned lunar missions.
On the 21st February of 1969, the first N1 rocket was prepared for launch. This would be the first time that the whole system had been tested, in fact it was revealed later that of only two out of every batch of six engines had even been run before the launch.
This was in contrast to the Americans, which were able to fully test their F1 engines before the Saturn was assembled. Once that had been done then, it was moved from the assembly building to the launch pad nearby, fully assembled, tested and ready to go.
Within seconds of the launch the engine control system which was called KORD shut down two of the 30 stage 1 engines, then self oscillating vibrations started in the fuel system due to unstable combustion in some of the engines, this ruptured fuel lines which caught fire and burned through electrical control wiring, this then caused the KORD system to then incorrectly shut down all the engines 68 seconds in to the flight and the rocket crashed 32 miles from the launch pad.
After the investigation and subsequent modification, the second flight was due for the 3rd of July 1969.
The launch took place at 11:18 pm, as the rocket cleared the tower, the liquid oxygen turbo pump on engine number 8 exploded causing a fire which triggered KORD to shut down all the engines except one.
The N1 fell back on to the launch pad with nearly 2300 tons of rocket fuel on-board, the resultant explosion was one of the largest ever to happen and was equivalent of 3.8 kilotons of TNT or a small nuclear bomb. It destroyed the launch complex, blasted debris over 6 miles away and was visible over 22 miles away.
Some 30 minutes after the blast, when launch crews were allowed on to the site, they found droplets of unburnt rocket fuel still raining down from the sky, and afterwards it was found that 85% of the rocket fuel did not detonate which reduced to size of the blast.
17 days later Neil Armstrong became the 1st man on the moon with Apollo 11 and although the race for the moon had been lost the soviets carried on.
The blast caused 2-year delay whilst the launch complex was rebuilt and further modification to the rocket were made.
On November 1971, The third attempt also failed due to unexpected eddy and counter currents in the base of the main stage causing the rocket to roll uncontrollably and ultimately breakup due the stress on the structure.
One year later on in November 1972, the fourth and final launch also failed 107 seconds in to the flight after the programed shut down of the 6 centre engines caused a hydraulic shock wave to rupture fuel lines which started a fire, the main stage then exploded shortly afterwards.
Although there had been 4 previous launch failures, the soviets had made huge progress and this design by trial and error was believed to have ironed out the problems but the time of the fifth launch in August 1974, the whole moon mission was cancelled by Brezhnev.
By this time, the Americans had been to the moon six times and public interest in space was waning. One theory is, that if the 5th launch had been successful it would have forced the soviets to carry on a moon mission where the main goal of beating the USA had already been lost. The cancellation of the project was therefore a way of sweeping a very expensive undertaking under the carpet.
Mishkin was fired and replaced by Glushko but by 1976 the N1 rocket program was scrapped. The rockets were broken up to hide the failure and to make the US think that the space race was still ongoing.
It wasn’t until Gorbachev’s period of “glasnost” when this cover story was blown and the true story of the failed soviet moon mission became widely known about and why the Russians didn’t put a man on the moon.
In a strange twist to the story, the NK-43 rocket engines that had been developed for the N1, were by the end, much more reliable and the most efficient and powerful rocket engines for their size ever made.
20 years after they were meant to have been destroyed on order of the Kremlin, 60 of them were rediscovered and sold to the Americans for $1.1 million each. A Subsequent new larger model, the RD-180, based on the technology of the NK-43 is now built by the Russians and is used by the Americans for their Atlas 5 heavy launch vehicle.