On July 3, 1969, just 17 days before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the lunar surface, the USSR made its second attempt to test-fire its own moon rocket, known as N1.
No official announcement about the secret mission had ever been made, but in subsequent passes over the Soviet test range in Tyuratam, Kazakhstan, U.S. spy satellites glimpsed utter devastation at one of the two launch pads known to host the moon rocket.
The Soviet Union didn’t know it at the time, but its hopes for reaching the moon also ended on that charred launch pad in 1969.
The story of the Soviet N1 rocket and the wider lunar program in the USSR is still shrouded in mystery, especially compared to the Apollo program. To this day, historians debate how and why the pioneering Soviet space program suddenly fell behind in the race to the moon and how far behind it had been at the moment when Armstrong and Aldrin set foot on another world.
The truth is no one element completely doomed the Soviet Union’s lunar program. The Kremlin’s resting on its laurels after winning the race into Earth’s orbit with Sputnik and Gagarin certainly played a role. Internal rivalries between leaders of the Soviet space program—Sergei Korolev, Valentin Glushko and Vladimir Chelomei—didn’t help things, either.
But as early as April 1961, U.S. policy makers had already singled out the lunar expedition as something that the U.S. was likely to achieve ahead of the USSR, simply because of the American economic and technological superiority.
Add to that the lukewarm support of the civilian space program by the Soviet military, which in large part held purse strings of the rocket industry, and it becomes clear that the Soviet engineers never had a chance to beat NASA to the moon.
Even half a century after the events, we’re still learning pieces of the extensive and multi-faceted Soviet effort to put humans on the moon.
Only in 2015 did the successor to the OKB-1 design bureau, which developed the giant N1 rocket, release details illustrating the growing pains of the Soviet lunar exploration program, reminiscent of the torturous path to the final mission design in the Apollo project.
The documents from April 1963 testify how the Soviet engineers just completed an analysis of 26 different scenarios for the lunar expedition and were only able to narrow them down to four diverse architectures, which still needed more detailed studies before the final plan could be picked. In retrospect, it’s stunning to see how far from the final architecture, these four finalist scenarios had been with the plan’s less-than-feasible hopes for multiple launches of super-rockets, yet-to-be-tried docking procedures, and ambitious refueling in Earth’s orbit.
For comparison, in the middle of 1962, the fathers of the Apollo project had already favored the rendezvous in the lunar orbit as the key element of the flight scenario and a single-launch architecture, thus clearing the way for a fast-paced development of the Saturn V rocket for the Apollo missions.
The Rocket That Started the Space Race
Even at this early paper phase—when serious investments of money and materiel had not been required from the Kremlin—the Soviet engineers were almost a year behind the U.S., and it went only downhill from there for the Soviets.
Various disputes on the use of propellant and design of the future moon rocket and other strategic disagreements within the industry put complicated and delayed the Soviet lunar program. Only in 1964, had Soviet engineers gotten necessary political go-ahead to join the moon race, but it was already too late.
In the next four years, myriad technical problems and flawed flight tests kept widening the gap between Apollo and its Soviet rival.
When the time came for production, the USSR also faced geographical disadvantages. For example, the launch site in Tyuratam was located far from sea ports, meaning the assembly of booster stages for the moon rocket would have to be moved to the arid steppes of Kazakhstan—along with an army of workers.
Finally, the killing blow to the Kremlin’s lunar efforts came from the main propulsion system of the N1 rocket. Initially, there were various plans to equip the N1 with engines up to 600 tons of thrust, but the lack of necessary machinery and time forced designers to settle for a much smaller 150-ton engine. It meant that a total of 24—and when that proved not enough, 30—engines would have to be working in a precisely choreographed fashion to lift the monstrous vehicle off the pad.
Building the large static-firing facility, which would allow engineers to tune up the capricious multi-engine cluster on the ground, was also abandoned to save time and money. So when the brand-new engines first met together, they were supposed to work on the actual rocket in real flight.
Lunik 1 manned lunar landing module, it was intended to operate in conjunction with the zond 9 spacecraft in 1971.
The Lunik 1 manned lunar lander planned for the Soviet lunar program. It never flew.
During the first launch attempt on February 21, 1969, the vehicle failed after one minute and eight seconds in flight due to a propulsion system failure. The leaders of the project were disappointed but not discouraged—after all, nobody died, the launch pad remained intact, and the rocket actually demonstrated some ability to fly (at least up an altitude of 30 kilometers).
Indeed, many Soviet veterans of the N1 project lived through spectacular failures of so many preceding rockets that this could almost be seen as good news. So the Soviet team pressed ahead with the second N1 launch attempt as soon as possible.
The second N1 rocket, designated 5L, reached the pad in the summer of 1969, after Apollo 9 and Apollo 10 had already completed dress rehearsal missions ahead of the actual lunar landing attempt—an American victory loomed on the horizon. As the sixth Saturn V rocket slated for the Apollo 11 mission was undergoing checks at Cape Canaveral, the second N1 vehicle reached the launch pad.
The N1 rocket No. 5L blasted off into the night from July 3 to July 4, 1969.
As it climbed to an altitude of around 100 meters, just 10.5 seconds after liftoff, some bright pieces ominously fell off from its tail section. The colossus then seemingly froze in mid-air and started tilting to its side. At the tip of the rocket, the emergency escape engines fired and pulled the capsule, meant to carry the two-person crew, into darkness. With its flight control system paralyzed by an engine explosion, the giant rocket was unable to steer itself downrange and crashed back onto the launch pad with most of its propellant.
The massive explosion almost completely wiped out half of the two-pad launch complex, a project that took several years to complete. Some pieces from the rocket were apparently found as far as six miles away and windows were reported to be blown off in buildings located nearly four miles from the launch pad.
A Done Deal
The failure of the second launch sealed the Soviet’s fate in the moon race and raised the question if a Soviet cosmonaut would ever walk on the moon. In the next several years, N1 made two more unsuccessful (though not as devastating) launch attempts before the Soviet government shut down the program in June 1974.
The Soviet space program continued making great contributions to humanity’s exploration of space, including its famous Soyuz rocket, but the dream of a Soviet cosmonaut on the moon died on a Kazakhstan launchpad in the summer of ’69.