The Red Moon that never was

Exactly 50 years ago today, at 02:56 UTC July 21, 1969, an American named Neil Armstrong took “one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind” and set his left boot on the lunar surface. Why was the first man on the moon an American and not a Russian, when the Soviet Union was the “Space champion” of the 1950s and 1960s? And why did the Soviets people never set foot on the moon?

The feature image atop this post is obviously a photomontage, that is a picture I created in Photoshop by combining two images available in the public domain (here and here)

The Space Race

The Space Race officially took off when the United States announced its intention to launch an artificial satellite, on July 31, 1956. Two days later the Soviet Union proclaimed its intention to do exactly the same and then proceeded to launch the Sputnik 1  on October 4, 1957, beating the USA and stunning people all over the world.

You can read more about the Sputnik 1 here: Happy birthday Sputnik1!

Happy birthday Sputnik 1
The Sputnik 1 on display in the in the Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow

The list of “Soviet firsts” in space up to that point goes on and on:

  • 1957: First animal in Earth orbit, the dog Laika on Sputnik 2
  • 1959: First rocket ignition in Earth orbit, first man-made object to escape Earth’s gravity, Luna 1
  • 1959: First probe to impact the Moon, Luna 2
  • 1959: First images of the moon’s far side, Luna 3
  • 1960: First animals to safely return from Earth orbit, the dogs Belka and Strelka on Sputnik 5.
  • 1961: First person in space (International definition) and in Earth orbit, Yuri Gagarin on Vostok 1
  • 1961: First person to spend over 24 hours in space Gherman TitovVostok 2 (also first person to sleep in space).
  • 1962: First dual manned spaceflight, Vostok 3 and Vostok 4
  • 1963: First woman in spaceValentina TereshkovaVostok 6
  • 1964: First multi-person crew (3), Voskhod 1
  • 1965: First extra-vehicular activity (EVA), by Alexsei LeonovVoskhod 2
  • 1966: First probe to make a soft landing on and transmit from the surface of the MoonLuna 9
  • 1966: First probe in lunar orbitLuna 10
  • 1968: First living beings to reach the Moon (circumlunar flights) and return unharmed to Earth, Russian tortoises and other lifeforms on Zond 5
Vostok Roket in VDNK, Moscow, Russia
Vostok Roket in VDNK, Moscow, Russia

Today you can admire the Vostok Rocket in the VDNK Park in the center of Moscow, I’ve talk about it here: A Rocketship in the center of Moscow.

So, from the outside it might have looked like the Soviet space program was a smooth running well oiled machine. But the truth was much more complicated and it was these very complications that in the end prevented it from winning the “moon race“.

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Power struggles

Unlike the American space program, which had NASA as a single coordinating structure directed by its administrator, James Webb through most of the 1960s, the USSR’s program was split between several competing design groups. Despite the remarkable successes of the Sputniks between 1957 and 1961 and Vostoks between 1961 and 1964, after 1958 Korolev‘s OKB-1 design bureau faced increasing competition from his rival chief designers, Mikhail YangelValentin Glushko, and Vladimir Chelomei. Korolev planned to move forward with the Soyuz craft and N-1heavy booster that would be the basis of a permanent manned space station and manned exploration of the moon. However, Ustinov directed him to focus on near-Earth missions using the very reliable Voskhod spacecraft, a modified Vostok, as well as on interplanetary unmanned missions to nearby planets Venus and Mars.

Yangel had been Korolev’s assistant but with the support of the military he was given his own design bureau in 1954 to work primarily on the military space program. This had the stronger rocket engine design team including the use of hypergolic fuels but following the Nedelin catastrophe in 1960 Yangel was directed to concentrate on ICBM development. He also continued to develop his own heavy booster designs similar to Korolev’s N-1 both for military applications and for cargo flights into space to build future space stations. Glushko was the chief rocket engine designer but he had a personal friction with Korolev and refused to develop the large single chamber cryogenic engines that Korolev needed to build heavy boosters.

Chelomei benefited from the patronage of Khrushchev and in 1960 was given the plum job of developing a rocket to send a manned craft around the moon and a manned military space station. With limited space experience, his development was slow. The Apollo program’s progress alarmed the chief designers, who each advocated for his own program as response. Multiple, overlapping designs received approval, and new proposals threatened already approved projects.

Nikita Khrushchev, who headed the Communist Party and the USSR from 1953 to 1964, was known to be an emotional, unpredictable man and his approach towards the moon landing program was no exception. While meeting with Korolev in 1963 he told him state money for the moon program was drying up. However, only a year later in 1964 he told Korolev the exact opposite: «We won’t give up the Moon to the Americans! Take all the resources you need!»

So in August 1964—more than three years after the United States declared its intentions—the Soviet Union finally decided to compete for the moon. It set the goal of a lunar landing in 1967—the 50th anniversary of the October Revolutionor 1968. At one stage in the early 1960s the Soviet space program was actively developing 30 projects for launchers and spacecraft. With the fall of Krushchev in 1964, Korolev was given complete control of the manned space program. But it was too late.

Korolev died in January 1966, following a routine operation that uncovered colon cancer, from complications of heart disease and severe hemorrhaging. Kerim Kerimov, who was formerly an architect of Vostok 1, was appointed Chairman of the State Commission on Piloted Flights and headed it for the next 25 years (1966–1991). He supervised every stage of development and operation of both manned space complexes as well as unmanned interplanetary stations for the former Soviet Union. One of Kerimov’s greatest achievements was the launch of Mir in 1986

Gagarin's glory
The town of Gagarin, named in honor of the first person in space: Yuri Gagarin

You can read more about the town called Gagarin and the legacy of the first human being in space in this post: Gagarin’s glory.

End of the Race

Although the USSR had the upper hand in the space race after Gagarin’s success, it was revealed that Washington possessed 20 times more weapons than the Soviet Union. The latter, feeling threatened by this, was compelled to act and started to allocate more and more money to beefing up its armory (both under Khrushchev and the leaders after him) at the expense of space exploration.

This led to the Soviet Union being left in the wake of the U.S. regarding space technology. The American Saturn V rocket, which launched Apollo 11 into space in 1969, was capable of carrying up to 140 tons, while its closest Soviet analogue, the N-1, created by Korolev and his successors could carry only 75 tons. Also, American rockets used liquid hydrogen, which was far more energy-intensive than the kerosene fuel used by the Soviets.

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A most precious legacy

After the USA had put a man on the moon, the Soviet moon program actually progressed for some years, more out of inertia than renewed belief in its importance and commitment from the state echelons.

  • 1970: First soil samples automatically extracted and returned to Earth from another celestial body, Luna 16
  • 1970: First robotic space rover, Lunokhod 1 on the Moon.

As mentioned before, the Soviet rockets just didn’t have enough power to send a spaceship with enough fuel and equipment to both land on the moon and then take off again and make it back to Earth (a rather important feature if there are people, and not robots, on board).

While the U.S. had the infrastructure to build the massive F1 engines used on the Saturn V rockets, the Soviets did not. They were forced to build smaller engines for their N1 rocket, which ultimately used thirty engines arranged in a circle. These smaller engines had to use a closed-cycle system, or staged combustion, which produced more thrust at a greater risk of overheating. NASA was able to use the more reliable, but less powerful, open-cycle system on the Saturn V.

While the Soviets did eventually build their N1 rocket and launch four test flights, every single flight failed and the rockets were destroyed.

Years later, however, the U.S. acquired several of these closed-cycle engines, and it was discovered that the Soviets had advanced the technology further than anyone thought possible. They had managed to solve the instability problem, producing the most powerful and fuel efficient engine of that size in the world. The technology they developed was later incorporated into the scaled-up RD-180 engine, which powers the Atlas V rocket to this day.

Museum of Cosmonautics
The Museum of Astronautics or Museum of Space Exploration in Moscow, Russia

Today a beautiful museum in Moscow, the Museum of Astronautics or Museum of Space Exploration celebrates all these and the other great achievements of the SovietUnion and Russia in space.


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