The Story Of The Secret Soviet Rocket – And Why Russia Never Put A Man On The Moon

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It’s the 21st day of July in 1969, and Neil Armstrong, hampered by his bulky space suit, clambers awkwardly down a short ladder. As he steps off the bottom rung, he is the first human to set foot on the Moon. There is jubilation in the United States. But in the Soviet Union, scientists, politicians and ordinary citizens are wondering why it isn’t a Russian in that spacesuit.

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And the Russians had reason to feel that they should have been the first to put a man on the Moon. After all, they had taken an early lead in the Space Race as it was called. That competition between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. had kicked off with a Russian win in October 1957. That was when the Soviets launched the first space satellite, Sputnik 1, into orbit around the Earth.

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What’s more, the Sputnik 1 success wasn’t the only time the Russians stole a march on the U.S. Their next great triumph came in April 1961 when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space aboard a Vostok spaceship. This put the Soviets firmly ahead in the Space Race.

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So it’s not a surprise that the Soviets might have believed they’d be first to conquer the next great space exploration milestone – putting a man on the Moon. But why was there this highly competitive Space Race? After all, nowadays, the Soviets and the Americans, along with other nations, cooperate together in running and manning the International Space Station.

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But things were very different back in the 1950s and ’60s. The U.S. and Soviet conflict known as the Cold War was at its height. Earlier in the 20th century, during the Second World War, the Americans and Russians were allies in the common purpose of defeating Germany. But after Hitler and his Nazis had been crushed, that alliance was not to last.

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After the war, the ideological differences between the liberal democracy of the U.S. and the Communism of the U.S.S.R. came into stark focus. In 1947 President Harry S. Truman crystallized the position of the U.S. in a speech to Congress. This became known as the Truman Doctrine, and at its heart was a commitment to oppose Soviet expansionism.

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And this Cold War, although it never resulted in direct military confrontation, ignited a series of proxy wars around the world. That was just as well since the Soviets successfully detonated a nuclear bomb in 1949, becoming the world’s second nuclear power after the U.S. The risks of the Cold War turning hot were all too obvious.

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In Europe, the most tangible manifestation of the Cold War came in 1961 when the East German Communists, backed by their Russian sponsors, built the Berlin Wall. The East German government called the wall the “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart.” But many saw it as a barrier intended to prevent East Germans from defecting to the West.

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Although Russians and Americans did not directly meet on the battlefield – or engage in nuclear war – a major proxy war broke out soon enough. This was the Korean War, which ran from 1950 to 1953. In that conflict, the Americans and their allies backed the South Koreans against the North Koreans, who in turn were supported by the Russians and their Communist allies, the Chinese.

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Even though the Korean War ended with the partition of Korea in 1953 – another wall – relations between the Americans and the Soviets were frosty to say the least as the 1950s rolled on into the 1960s. And we can view the Space Race as another Cold War event. At least this technological competition did not involve bloodshed.

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We can track the beginning of the Space Race back to the successful development by the Nazis of rocket-powered missiles during the Second World War. The Germans developed the V2 rocket, with which they attacked England from launchpads in occupied France. The V2 had a range of 200 miles and could carry 2,490 pounds of explosives.

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After the war, American and Soviet intelligence officers grabbed as many German rocket experts as they could lay their hands on. Many of these scientists would form the basis of the teams that went on to compete with one another in the Space Race.

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Historians pinpoint the start of the Space Race to August 2, 1955. On that day the Russians released a statement in reply to an American announcement a few days previously. The U.S. government had said it would soon launch a satellite into outer space. The Russians responded that they too would shortly be launching a space satellite. The race was on.

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As we’ve already seen, round one of the race was a resounding victory for the Soviets in October 1957 as they launched their Sputnik 1. No American satellite had yet gotten off the ground. Worse was to come. President Eisenhower now personally ordered an acceleration of U.S. plans to launch a satellite into outer space.

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The big day came at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on December 6, 1957. With the world looking on via a live television broadcast, the first satellite of Project Vanguard was ready for launch. A rocket would propel the Vanguard TV3 satellite into space just a couple of months after the Soviet success with Sputnik 1.

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It was an unmitigated disaster. As the rocket took off, it exploded. The humiliation, broadcast around the world, could hardly have been more acute. Vanguard had reached an altitude of four feet before disintegrating in a ball of flame. What had gone wrong was never fully understood, although a fuel system failure was the likely culprit.

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The U.S. press had a field day. Newly coined words such as “Oopsnick,” “Kaputnik” and “Flopnik” all appeared in newspaper headlines. With their Sputnik success, the Soviets didn’t miss the opportunity to gloat over the American embarrassment. Reportedly, a Russian representative at the U.N. asked if the Americans would like some of the aid money meant for undeveloped countries.

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In fact, the Soviets were having their failures as well. But they took care not do so in front of TV cameras. In 1958, three attempts were made to launch a rocket powerful enough to send an unmanned probe to the moon. All three failed. The Soviets kept this entirely secret and the world was none the wiser.

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But another major Soviet space program triumph was just around the corner. If the U.S. had been shocked by Sputnik 1, it was stunned by Vostok 1. On April 12, 1961, this spacecraft propelled the first human into outer space and into orbit around the Earth. The Soviets had no intention of keeping quiet about that mission.

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It fell to the 27-year-old Yuri Gagarin to be the first man in space. After the successful launch of Vostok 1, Gagarin spent 108 minutes in flight before landing safely back on Earth. In 2011 Charles Duke, an American astronaut who went to the Moon in 1972, told the BBC, “When he flew, my first impression was – well, they beat us again.”

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One man whose head was turned by the Soviet success of putting a human into space was the U.S. president of the time, John F. Kennedy. Until the launch of Vostok 1, it seems that Kennedy was no great enthusiast for space exploration, according to the president’s scientific advisor Jerome Wiesner.

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Wiesner was quoted in John M. Logsdon’s 1970 book The Decision to Go to the Moon: Project Apollo and the National Interest. “If Kennedy could have opted out of a big space program without hurting the country in his judgment, he would have,” Wiesner said.

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But all that was to change after Gagarin’s space flight. Kennedy recognized the propaganda value for the Soviets of these space exploration successes. On top of that, his administration had just been through another grueling humiliation. That was the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the failed attempt to invade Castro’s Cuba in April 1961, just days after the Vostok 1 success.

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Kennedy needed some positive news about the U.S. to hit the airwaves, He now instructed Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson to report on the status of the U.S. space capability. NASA had been formed to run the space program in 1958 after the launch of Sputnik 1, and Kennedy wanted to know how the agency could overtake the Soviets.

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There seemed to be two possibilities. These were development of a space station in orbit or a manned mission to the Moon. As we know, the chosen option was the second one. Kennedy now set about winning the support of the American people. He started with a speech to Congress in May 1961.

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“First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” were Kennedy’s stirring words. Now America was committed to getting a man on the Moon before the 1960s were over.

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Kennedy’s commitment was to become NASA’s Apollo program. The Space Race had become the Moon Race. Then, in an extraordinary move in September 1963, in an address to the United Nations General Assembly, Kennedy proposed that the U.S and the U.S.S.R. should join forces to land a man on the Moon. Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev rejected Kennedy’s overture.

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Kennedy of course would not live to see the culmination of the political commitment he’d made. But after Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, President Johnson kept up the momentum that his predecessor had initiated. Even so, the Soviets continued to make faster progress than the Americans.

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In October 1964 the Russians launched a new generation of rockets. Voskhod 1 was the first spacecraft to launch with a three-man crew. It was another triumph for the Soviets. But after a coup deposed Khrushchev in 1964, the new Soviet leadership under Leonard Brezhnev scrapped the Voskhod program. Now the Russians would concentrate on the Moon mission.

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Despite the Soviets’ concentration on their Moon project, it was of course the U.S. who got to the Moon first. Powered by a Saturn V rocket, Apollo 11 took off on July 16, 1969, reaching the Moon on July 20. American astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong became the first humans to leave footprints on the Moon.

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NASA had met Kennedy’s deadline of putting men on the Moon before the end of the 1960s. Apart from a frankly unhinged lunatic fringe who believed that the whole affair was fake news, the U.S. public was jubilant. At last America had something to be truly proud of. And the Soviets were nowhere to be seen.

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But what had happened to the Russians after their years of space travel firsts? Had they simply thrown in the towel, conceding to America’s technological superiority? The truth was far from that. The Soviets had made huge efforts in their attempted to get to the Moon first. But things had not gone to plan.

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The first thing you need to get men to the Moon is a rocket powerful enough to propel them and their spaceship there. And that was where the Russians had hit major problems. They had a project to develop a rocket that could travel to the Moon. But secrecy shrouded the scheme, and it was only years later that the truth about it came out.

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The Russians had started to plan what they hoped would be their Moon launch rocket as early as 1959. Dubbed the N1, their rocket was a three-stage affair. The first stage was meant to take two cosmonauts and their Moon-landing capsule into an Earth orbit. The second would allow for course adjustment en route to the Moon and entry into lunar orbit. The last part was the spacecraft in which the cosmonauts would return to Earth.

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Russian engineers started the actual development of the N1 rocket in 1965. By that time, the Americans had already spent four years developing their Saturn V rocket, an advantage that would turn out to be crucial. And the fact that Russia’s leading rocket designer Sergei Korolev died in 1966 was hardly helpful.

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The Russian rocket project was nothing if not ambitious. It depended on a first-stage rocket powered by no fewer than 30 engines fueled by a mix of liquid oxygen and kerosene. The engines were set in a cluster of six at the base of the rocket surrounded by a circle of 24 set around its edge.

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Major problems with the N1 program appeared at the testing stage. The prototypes were numbered N1 1L through to N1 10L. N1 3L was the first prototype to be launched. It reached an altitude of a bit more than seven miles, then exploded after an engine caught fire.

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N1 4L’s fuel tanks developed cracks, and it was scrapped without launch. Then N1 5L failed to take off, succeeding only in destroying the launchpad. Subsequently, N1 6L blew up 51 seconds after take off. And finally, N1 7L had a catastrophic fuel system failure at an altitude of 25 miles. By now, enough was enough for the Soviet authorities.

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The first test launch had been in February 1969 – five months before Apollo 11 landed on the moon – and the last one was in 1972. All had failed. The ensemble of 30 engines proved to be too difficult to control with the necessary precision. In 1976 Soviets now called a halt on the N1 program. The remaining prototype rockets were scrapped.

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If the N1 project had succeeded, perhaps the Russians might have been first to the Moon, or at least a close second. But as it turned out, the N1’s longest flight was just 107 seconds. And the Soviets kept the failure secret right up until 1989. The American Saturn V rocket on the other hand successfully propelled Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins into history. The Americans had comprehensively won the Space Race.

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