aspirations to send humans to the Moon date back to the early 1960s when
legendary Chief Designer Sergey Korolev proposed a number of projects to
send Soviet cosmonauts around the Moon and back, i.e., a “circumlunar”
Korolev had also tabled plans to build a series of giant rocket boosters
known as the N1 and N2. These rockets would be used for a variety of
missions such as lunar and planetary exploration and military operations.
In 1962, the Soviet government formally approved work on the N1. The
rocket, which still did not have a single well-defined mission, was
designed to lift 75 tons into orbit.
Cosmonaut Aleksey Leonov in
training for lunar landing approaches using
a specially equipped helicopter. This photo dates from around 1969.
the tenor of the Soviet Moon plans changed significantly because of two
factors. First, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
in the United States had embarked on its Apollo program to land astronauts
on the Moon before the end of the decade. By this time, simplified Apollo
hardware was being tested in space, prompting the Soviets to reconsider
their slow path of a simple circumlunar mission. Second, Korolev had a
powerful rival within the Soviet space program, Vladimir Chelomey, who
insisted on a major role in the Moon program. Rumour had it that Chelomey
was favoured by then-Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev because Khrushchev's
son, an engineer, worked for Chelomey.
Soviet military, specifically the Strategic Missile Forces, which
controlled the purse strings of the space program, was reluctant to
support a politically motivated project like a Moon program that had
little or no military utility. Instead, the Missile Forces lobbied for
massive funding to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
The desire to build new ICBMs took away from money needed for a Moon
however, was a headstrong person, and invoking the threat of Apollo,
managed to convince an initially reluctant Khrushchev to compete with
Apollo. In August 1964, Khrushchev signed the papers approving a project
known as L3 to land Soviet cosmonauts on the Moon before the Americans.
The L3 spacecraft would be launched into orbit on the giant N1 rocket,
which had now been redesigned to lift 95 tons into Earth orbit.
Additionally, Khrushchev gave Chelomey a parallel project, known as the
LK-1, to send two cosmonauts around the Moon.
on both these programs was hindered by vicious political infighting
between designers in the upper echelons of the Soviet space program. The
most influential designer of rocket engines in the Soviet Union, Valentin
Glushko, supported developing engines for the N1 using storable
propellants, i.e., those that were suitable for use on ICBMs, which needed
to be at a constant ready state. Korolev, on the other hand, believed that
super-cooled cryogenic propellants such as liquid oxygen offered better
energy characteristics, and would be the best choice for the giant N1
rocket. The two men were unable to agree on this point, and a special
commission in 1962 sided with Korolev's recommendation. Because Glushko
refused to build cryogenic engines, Korolev was forced to ask an aviation
engine designer named Nikolay Kuznetsov to produce engines for the N1. It
was a huge gamble for Korolev since Kuznetsov had almost no experience in
designing rocket engines.
was also infighting over who would have influence in the circumlunar
project. After Khrushchev's overthrow in late 1964, Korolev mounted a
campaign to wrest the circumlunar project from Chelomey. In October 1965,
the Soviet government accepted a compromise. Chelomey's LK-1 project was
cancelled. Instead, Korolev would now use a stripped down Soyuz spacecraft
known as the L1 to send cosmonauts around the Moon. Chelomey's powerful
Proton rocket would launch the L1 spaceship. The Soviet government set the
target date of the first L1 circumlunar mission for late 1967, the 50th
anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.
1965, the Soviet Moon program had split into two parallel strands: one,
the N1-L3 to land cosmonauts on the Moon, and another, the L1 to send
cosmonauts around the Moon.
Two N1 Moon rockets appear on the
pads at Tyura-Tam in early July 1969.
In the foreground is booster number 5L with a functional payload for a
In the background is the 1M1 ground test mock-up of the N1 for rehearsing
parallel launch operations.
these disagreements cost the Soviets in terms of time and money. The
Soviet Moon program was also hampered by Korolev's premature death in
1966. He was succeeded by his deputy Vasily Mishin.
rocket (with the L3 spaceship complex attached) was a behemoth 345 feet
(105 meters) long and weighing about 2,750 tons. The first stage had 30
engines, the second stage had eight, and the third had four. All of these
engines were powered by liquid oxygen and kerosene and designed by
Kuznetsov's inexperienced organization. Because of lack of time and money,
Soviet designers decided to skip full-scale testing of the first stage on
the ground. This decision later proved to be a fatal one since
ground-testing of the first stage might have eliminated many problems that
arose during actual launches.
complex comprised a translunar boost stage, an upper stage to brake into
lunar orbit, a lunar orbiter, and a lunar lander. Unlike the American
Apollo spacecraft that carried three people, the Soviet L3 spacecraft
would carry two cosmonauts, one to land on the Moon and one to circle the
late 1960s, the Soviets finally launched a series of L1 spacecraft to the
Moon that were publicly known as Zond (the Russian word for “probe”). None
of these carried crews. Despite a series of crushing failures, Mishin
continued to persevere and planned to send the first cosmonauts around the
Moon in December 1968, a few days before NASA's planned Apollo 8 mission
that would carry three astronauts into lunar orbit. After a last test
spacecraft, Zond 6, failed to land safely, Mishin postponed a piloted Zond
mission. In the end, Apollo 8 flew to the Moon in late December 1968 and
claimed one of the great firsts of the space era. After the resounding
success of the Americans, the Soviet government decided to cancel the L1
project in 1970.
N1-L3 landing project did not fare any better. After years of delay, the
first N1 rocket was launched in February 1969. Because of a fire at the
bottom of the first stage, all engines shut down 70 seconds after launch,
and the booster crashed without ever making it into orbit. During the
second launch in July 1969, just two weeks before the Apollo 11 mission,
the N1 rocket failed to rise beyond 656 feet (200 meters) above the pad.
Because of an explosion of an engine, the booster collapsed back onto the
launch pad in a massive explosion that destroyed millions of dollars of
equipment. The third N1 launch in June 1971 also failed when the booster's
first engines shut down about 50 second after launch. During a final
launch in November 1972, just before second stage ignition, there was a
failure that caused the rocket to explode in flight. Most of these
failures could have been avoided had the rocket's first stage been tested
on the ground.
the failures, Mishin continued to work doggedly on the Moon program. By
1974, he had begun work on a more advanced project known as L3M to land
large modules on the Moon for long-term exploration. Most engineers were
confident that the fifth and sixth N1 launches, scheduled for 1974, would
be successful since they would use more advanced and reliable engines.
Soviet government did not share this enthusiasm. In May 1974, the
government cancelled the project despite protests from thousands of
engineers. They did not see any use in spending millions on a Moon program
when the Americans had already reached the Moon five years before. The
government ordered the destruction of all remaining equipment related to
the N1. Korolev's old rival Glushko, who had viciously opposed the N1
program, was now put in charge of the Soviet human space program. Mishin
was fired and blamed for the failure of the project. He was ordered to
remain silent and his name was never mentioned in any Soviet space history
book until 1989, after Glushko's death.
little hardware remains of the N1 program. A few ground models of the
lunar orbiter and lander languish in museums in Russia. Broken pieces of
old N1 rockets now serve as animal sheds in the old launching ground of
Tyura-Tam (now the Baikonur Cosmodrome), a sad legacy to an ambitious
project that could have beaten Apollo to the Moon.