With the world still reeling from the myriad of celebration events signalling the 40th anniversary of America’s greatest achievement in space to date you would be forgiven for forgetting about the primary reason they went there, to beat the Russians (then the Soviet Union). Over time the stories of the United States greatest competitor have been drowned out and there are many little know facts about their aspirations to get to the moon. Granted part of this was due to the secrecy of the Soviet Union of the time who wanted to belittle the American’s achievements by making it look like they weren’t interested in a race at all. With the arrival of Glasnost almost 20 years ago all the secrets came out, and the reds secret dream for the moon was revealed. It makes for quite an interesting story.
For a long time the Soviet Union held the lead in the space race. Back in October of 1957 they surprised everyone by launching the first ever artificial satellite Sputnik-1, which the United States played down at the time but in fact sent them into quite the flurry. With this simple move the Soviets then aggressively built upon their success by sending several more sputnik class vehicles into space. This all culminated in April of 1961 when they succeeded in sending Yuri Gagarin into space and orbit, making him the first human to travel into outer space. Yet again America was shaken to the core, as they had believed that their aggressive pursuit of space had put them ahead again. This did little to stop the Americans however, and they continued to actively pursue the further goal of landing on the moon.
The next 3 years saw the Soviets achieve several firsts in space namely mutli-manned crews, longer duration flights and extra-vehicular activities but after that their manned accomplishments seemed to end. They continued sending probes out (to Venus and to the Moon) however any further progress appear to have been ceased. The official line at the time was that they had already won the space race and were no longer interested in fighting the Americans. However behind the scenes the tale was far more interesting.
In order to win the race to the moon the Soviets developed a lunar lander called the Lunniy Korabl which would take a single soviet cosmonaut to the moon for a couple of hours and return him home safely. This was a marked change from their original plan which was to assemble a massive lunar lander in earth orbit before attempting a moon landing. The idea was that they could use only 1 of their heavy lifting rockets to win rather than the 3 they had originally planned. This was the glimmer of hope that kept their program going although they were to suffer another failure which would knock them out of the race completely.
With the United States already well on the way to successfully launching their first heavy lift vehicle the Saturn V the Soviets needed a similar launch vehicle if they were going to have any chance of getting to the moon. Enter the N1 rocket which made some different trade offs in order to achieve their goals. Whilst the rocket produced more thrust and was cheaper overall than the Saturn V it lacked the payload capacity. Additionally the insanely complicated arrangement of rocket engines on all stages (30 engines vs the Saturn’s 5) plus the added complexity of 5 stages (Saturn had 3) lead to an incredibly fragile launch system. Adding in the additional complexity that the rocket had to be fully assembled first at their construction plant, disassembled so it could shipped, and then reassembled at the launch center. All of these issues lead to all 4 N1 rockets that were built as flight ready to fail, with the longest flight lasting only 1 minute and not even making it into stage separation.
It’s an unfortunate trend for the Russian space endeavours as they are usually the pioneers in the field (check out their impressive list of firsts) but fail to take it any further then that. Whilst a lot of this can be blamed on the political turmoil they have suffered throughout their space program they also have a very ingrained belief in “if it works, don’t change it” as demonstrated by their continued use of the Soyuz space vehicles. For the most part though this works well for them, and for a while they will be the only government owned way of getting to the International Space Station (although NASA is probably more likely to buy rides from SpaceX than the Russians if they can avoid it).
As the old saying goes “history is written by the winners” and it pays to look back and see what the people who were on the other side achieved despite the eventual outcome. Truly we owe much of where we are today in terms of space endeavours to the Russians as they blazed the path that we now tread.