Yes, There Was a Moon Race

April 1, 1990

When Apollo 11 astronauts touched down on the moon in the summer of 1969, they brought their spacecraft to rest in a lunar region whose name seemed appropriate to the occasion. The near-flawless voyage ended in the Sea of Tranquillity.

There had been, however, an earlier lunar visitor. Only hours before the US Apollo landing, an unmanned lunar probe approached the moon, flying in as part of a last, desperate effort by the Soviet Union to arrive there first. It crashed. In retrospect, it seems that the scene of that lunar mishap was equally fitting. The place was called the Sea of Crises.

The full irony of these events, however, was lost on most Americans. They were unaware of the multiple crises plaguing the USSR’s man-on-the-moon push. Indeed, few were–or are even now–aware that a serious Soviet lunar program existed. But it did.

The issue, long in dispute, is suddenly settled. In yet another startling episode of glasnost, the Soviet press has released a flood of revelations proving once and for all that the USSR raced the US to the moon and intended to win.

Now confirmed openly are Soviet moon-exploration schedules that were competitive with Apollo plans, the names and histories of Soviet lunar boosters and landers, and identities of the lunar cosmonauts. Even photos of manned lunar craft are available.

In exploding the myth that they never entered the moon race, the Soviets themselves have vindicated those few Western experts who correctly interpreted Soviet space activities. Much of the Western political and media elite had by 1963 concluded that the moon race was a fraud. After Apollo 11, the USSR sniffed that it never was interested in such a costly, perilous, marginal operation. Many bought this self-serving line.

Examination of newly disclosed evidence about one of the most intense phases of the superpower rivalry makes plain that US actions came in response to an authentic Soviet challenge.

New information also offers insights into what went wrong with Soviet plans. For those convinced that Moscow was aiming for the moon, the mystery has been why, after successful unmanned flights in the late 1960s, the Soviets never staged a manned shot. The answer is that, to the last, the program was racked by deep bureaucratic struggles and bitter clashes between competing individuals.

A Two-Part Program

We now know the Soviet lunar program was divided into two distinct parts.

The first part of the campaign was a program, called “Zond” in public and “Project L-1” in secret, that aimed to carry out a manned flyby of the moon. The second stage focused on mounting an actual lunar landing, utilizing a hitherto secret spacecraft, called “Project L-3,” and a huge superbooster, the N-1.

Even in the 1960s, Western space experts had identified the Zond project as potentially aimed at producing a manned, lunar space vehicle.

In the Soviet Union of the early 1960s, there were two main competing spacecraft teams, the equivalents of Western aerospace corporations. They were those run by Sergei Pavlovich Korolev and Vladimir Nikolaievich Chelomey, both now deceased.

Korolev operated a design bureau in Kalinin, north of Moscow, and a major spacecraft and rocket plant in Kuybyshev, on the Volga River. Chelomey’s design bureau was in Moscow, as was his rocket factory. Supporting all of the rocket manufacturers was an engine-design group based in Leningrad, headed by Valentin Petrovich Glushko, also now deceased.

In 1963, the Chelomey team was given a special task: It was to build a superrocket, known as UR-700 at the time, but soon to be known as “Proton.” Within the CIA, the rocket was called the SL-9; later versions with improved upper stages were called SL-12 and SL-13. Conceived as a military missile to carry Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s 100-megaton nuclear “terror bomb,” Proton was soon applied to space transport needs.

At the same time, Korolev’s team was designing its own superbooster to compete with Chelomey’s UR-700/Proton. It got the name N-1. In the West, the rocket became known as the SL-15 or Type G. It was the first Soviet rocket designed without a primary weapons-carrying mission.

The two premier Soviet rocket designers, Chelomey and Korolev, had competing plans for manned lunar flight. In 1962-63, as the US Apollo program gained force, the Soviets had two groups at each other’s throats, but had no overall lunar strategy.

Big Struggle, No Master Plan

Korolev’s team took its plans for what would become the future Soyuz vehicle and developed a scheme to mount a simple, manned lunar flyby mission using only the small R-7 booster. The plan called for launchings of four or five orbital refueling vehicles, followed by near-Earth assembly and fueling of a manned vehicle. The vehicle was to fly around the moon and return.

Chelomey’s team had a far different plan. It counted on using a single launch of its new Proton rocket, three times more powerful than R-7, to carry a manned space vehicle directly to the moon. Early plans called for using a spacecraft of the team’s own design, though the two-man Voskhod spacecraft was later considered.

In the struggle for preeminence, each group made an appeal to Khrushchev. Chelomey even hired Khrushchev’s son as an officer in his rocket organization. Arguments went back and forth. Finally, early in 1964, the Soviet leadership made its decision.

Khrushchev formally selected Chelomey’s team to carry out Project L-1, the manned lunar flyby program. The event likely was to take place in 1966 or 1967. Khrushchev told Korolev’s team to concentrate its efforts on hardware to support Project L-3, the manned lunar landing, and specifically on perfecting the lander itself and the N-1 superbooster. The Kremlin ordered the landing to take place in 1968, two years ahead of when NASA planned to put Americans on the moon.

The plans were thrown immediately into turmoil, however, when designer Korolev undertook constant efforts to seize and run all of the projects–Chelomey’s no less than his own. Korolev’s demands were not unreasonable. L-1 and L-3, in terms of the Apollo project, would be the “command module” and “lunar module.” Development of the two had to be tightly coordinated.

Politics vs. Science

Then came a bigger blow to stability of the program: the sudden ouster of Khrushchev in October 1964. When Khrushchev was sacked, Chelomey lost his key Kremlin patron. Korolev launched a campaign to persuade Leonid Brezhnev, the new General Secretary, and Dmitri Ustinov, minister in charge of space, to transfer authority over the L-1 lunar flyby program to his own bureau.

In late 1965, Korolev succeeded. It turned out to be a hollow victory for his team, however, as Korolev died only a few months later. His deputy, Vasily Mishin, assumed command.

At the time of Korolev’s death, the US was already more than halfway through the Gemini program and had begun to flight-test prototype Apollo hardware. A unified plan for lunar orbit rendezvous had been written. NASA centers and contractors were in harness. The Saturn 1B, with the essential liquid-hydrogen engine for the second and third stages of the Saturn V, had been proven.

The Soviet program was stumbling badly. The Kremlin’s final, official approval of the entire lunar program came only in February 1967, shortly after the Apollo 1 fire killed three astronauts and seemed to derail the US program indefinitely.

In 1967, US suspicions about Soviet intentions became fully aroused. NASA, led by Administrator James Webb, began calling attention to evidence that Moscow had embarked on a manned lunar landing program. In hindsight, it becomes obvious that US Air Force intelligence satellites had detected huge N-1 boosters at launch sites and engine tests at the Kuybyshev factory.

Having won the internal power struggle, the Mishin team–formerly Korolev’s–was now supported by Chelomey’s Proton booster. Plans called for several flight tests, leading to a manned lunar landing in the third quarter of 1968. The Mishin team was directed to begin tests, in the spring of 1967, of its own giant N-1 booster. The N-1 design, as finally approved, was a two-stage system with a payload capacity of 95,000 kilograms in low-Earth orbit. Thirty engines were mounted in pairs at the base of the first stage. Rocket fuels for all the stages, Mishin argued, should be kerosene and liquid oxygen. For Proton, however, Chelomey selected hypergolic fuels, hydrazine and nitric acid. Glushko sided with Chelomey. Glushko’s unwillingness to cooperate with Mishin dragged out the N-1 process.

Throughout 1967, the Soviet lunar program continued to be dogged by mishaps and difficulties, first with the Mishin team’s new Soyuz! L-1 command module and then with Chelomey’s troublesome Proton/UR-700 booster, which had experienced a string of launch failures. The Soyuz/L-1 project suffered a disaster in April when an accident killed a cosmonaut. Even so, L-1 was far enough along by mid-1967 that the USSR organized a special cosmonaut team to train for the lunar mission.

Cosmonauts Begin to Train

The select cosmonaut team numbered about twenty members, including Yuri Gagarin, Pavel Belyayev, Valery Bykovski, and Alexei Leonov. They were hardened veterans, and they had to be. One of them, Andrian Nikolayev, told Radio Moscow that once, as he and Gagarin watched a launch of a Proton/Zond, the booster exploded and sprayed the pair with poisonous nitric acid fumes. The would-be lunar explorers had to flee for their lives.

Well into 1968, Soviet efforts continued to flounder. The ambitious development and test schedule for the N-1 superbooster proved impossible to meet, and the whole of 1968 was spent trying to get the first flight vehicle ready for a launch.

This, of course, was not known in the West. The Soviets had completed their ground facilities and were hauling mockup N-1 rockets back and forth to test pad plumbing, wiring, and other systems. To those viewing the photographs taken from American spy satellites, the Soviet hardware and activity looked impressive.

Observations such as these led to a NASA decision to accelerate the Apollo schedule. By August 1968, NASA had chosen a bold plan. There would be no more waiting. The second manned Apollo mission, using the Saturn V booster, would be sent from Earth to carry out a flyby of the moon.

Shortly afterward, on September 23, 1968, the unmanned Zond 5 returned to Earth, confirming NASA in its decision to step up the pace. Several earlier failures of the Zond had escaped the notice of intelligence agencies. Even with the Zond 5, a failure in the navigation system had forced an emergency landing in the Indian Ocean, but this was not known. Two months later, in the fall of 1968, an unmanned Zond 7 command module did make a successful circumlunar flight, clearing the way for a possible manned mission.

Recently published Soviet diaries reveal that Soviet authorities wanted to carry out at least two more unmanned tests of the Zond module. In the US, however, no one suspected such top-level Soviet caution. US space officials saw that the Soviets would have a launch window on December 8, 1968, after which the moon would not be in proper position for flights from Soviet territory for a number of months. Moreover, Apollo 8’s manned lunar voyage was set for December 20, 1968, and the Kremlin knew it. The Americans were all but certain that the Russians would go first.

Despite this confluence of opportunity and motivation, Moscow waited. For twenty years, this mystery of “the missing lunar launch” stumped Westerners, who speculated on possible hardware problems, medical problems, even bad weather at the launch site. It seems now that, at the crucial point in the moon race, the Soviet authorities may simply have lost their nerve.

The US did not, and Apollo 8 blasted off on schedule. Not only did Apollo 8 edge out the USSR’s planned lunar flyby; in addition, the US mission conducted ten complete orbits of the moon, a feat the Russians hadn’t planned to attempt. Moscow undeniably had lost the first big round in the moon race.

It is now clear that many Soviet space officials bitterly opposed the cautious approach. Lev Kamenin, son of the cosmonaut training chief and aide to Soviet space officials, wrote in his diary for the day at the Apollo 8 launch: “For us this [day] is darkened with the realization of lost opportunities and with sadness that today the men flying to the moon are named Borman, Lovell, and Anders, and not Bykovski, Popovich, or Leonov.”

The trio of cosmonauts named in Kamenin’s diaries had in fact been designated as the commanders of two-man teams preparing for the mission.

Though its plans to be first with a manned flyby had been trumped, the Soviet Union was not out of the competition. No human yet had actually landed on the moon. Soviet space officials knew that NASA was experiencing difficulties with Saturn V’s second stage and with the lunar landing vehicle. In late 1968, few Soviets–or even Americans–expected the US to attempt an Apollo landing before 1970, and perhaps not until 1971. For the Soviets, then, the most spectacular aspect of the moon race was still on, and the L-3 lunar landing program was still in the running.

In fact, it was nearing a climax of sorts. A pair of tests of the L-3 lunar landing vehicle, two years behind schedule, were set for 1969. If these went well, a manned Soviet lunar landing would be possible by the end of 1970.

An Unsuspected Advantage

The Soviets had one advantage totally unsuspected in the West: They did not intend to use the N-1 superbooster to launch cosmonauts. Instead, plans called for Soviet cosmonauts to be launched inside their fully-fueled Soyuz/L-1 command module, stacked atop a Proton booster. Then, a few hours later, the moon craft would be launched unmanned on an N-1. The two spacecraft would immediately link up in low orbit and head for the moon.

The practical consequence was that there would be no need to put the N-1 through the immensely intricate–and time-consuming–safety verification process for manned flight.

Soviet rendezvous flights in 1967-69 followed an unusual profile of launching first the manned ship, then an unmanned ship. This was the opposite of the sequence for visiting a space station. The strange Soviet profile was evidently designed to accommodate the needs of the manned lunar landing mission.

However, much depended on the Proton being made reliable enough to trust with a manned launch. In 1968, there were grave doubts on that score. The N-1 booster also was crucial to the landing mission. Western intelligence sources have over the years leaked unflattering accounts of the doomed rocket’s flight tests. However, they seem to have entirely missed the first N-1 launch on February 21, 1969. The rocket flew well for a full minute before sensors detected a fire in the tail section and shut down all engines.

The next flight of the N-1 was prepared under the stress created by signs that Apollo’s moon landing might come far sooner than expected. None of the difficulties hoped for by the Soviets had materialized. Apollo 11 was set for a July 16,1969, launch.

Two weeks before this date, on July 3, the second N-1 prepared to lift off its pad at Tyuratam. In the final seconds of countdown, as a second-stage, liquid-oxygen turbo-pump was being spun up to flight operational speed, it disintegrated before a hole in the fuel tank. Within moments, the second stage erupted in flames. Then the rocket’s first stage exploded. The launchpad was destroyed. A massive cloud rose into the sky and drifted into the field of view of a passing US weather satellite.

With all eyes on Cape Kennedy, the disastrous events at Tyuratam went unnoticed. Apollo 11 amazed the world with its own smooth countdown. Soviet officials listened with a mixture of awe and dismay to Western broadcasts. (Soviet media minimized the event.) Then Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin walked the moon and returned with Michael Collins to Earth. The race to the moon was over.

Defeated But Not Finished

Though defeated, the Soviets didn’t quit entirely. They disbanded the special cosmonaut team but kept all the engineers working. The L-3 manned lunar spaceship was readied for testing, and nobody was yet prepared to kill the program.

According to Western intelligence sources, the first L-3 vehicle was launched unmanned in November1969, but the Chelomey Proton booster failed again. It did so yet again a few months later.

Finally, on December 2, 1970, the Proton boosted what was called the Kosmos 382 satellite into orbit. The Soviet cover story had it that the Kosmos 382 was a scientific research vehicle, but it soon began to conduct rocket burns simulating a manned lunar mission.

Three smaller vehicles went aloft in 1970 and 1971, likely to test the lunar module’s ascent stage. Spaceship’s Kosmos 379 on November 24, 1970, Kosmos 398 on February 26, 1971 and Kosmos 434 on August 12 1971, conducted large-scale rocket burns, relayed simulated manned telemetry, and showed that manned moonships had been built despite the denials.

The N-1 superbooster program continued for a while. By mid-1971, the Soviets prepared to stage a third flight. It lifted off in early summer, probably on June 27. For seven seconds the engines performed perfectly, lifting the vehicle several hundred meters into the air. Then, an unpredicted fluid dynamics effect led to a massive buildup of rolling motion, and the spin became too great for the steering rockets to fight. The booster fell back onto the newly-rebuilt launchpad, destroying it for a second time.

A fourth N-1 launch occurred on November 23, 1972. The first stage performed well, firing its full 107 seconds and shutting down on time. During the coasting period prior to ignition of the second stage, however, plumbing failures in the rocket’s tail caused a massive fire. The Soviets lost control of the rocket and had to abort the mission.

In this flight Mishin’s N-1 rocket engineers actually found some encouragement. By 1974, the Soviets had prepared two more tests of N-1 vehicles of greatly improved reliability and robustness. They expected to clear the booster for manned lunar expeditions beginning in 1975.

Political Support Fades

All the while, however, high-level political support was evaporating. The cost of the N-1 was appalling; Mishin says less than three billion rubles, but another source estimates four and a half billion. Outside of Mishin’s own group, optimism about the value of ultimate success–when and if it ever occurred– did not exist. Glushko’s attacks on Mishin’s leadership and competence became more and more credible. The Soviet Union knew there would be no glory in repeating the success of Apollo so many years after the fact. What’s more, any attempt would only confirm that a manned program–an inferior one–had existed all along.

Glushko and his allies steeled themselves for action. During one of Mishin’s frequent hospital stays, his enemies made their move. They argued forcefully to Soviet leaders that policy and personnel had to change. They won. It was decided that Mishin would have to “retire” and that Glushko would replace him. On Mishin’s first day out of the hospital, Glushko ordered him to turn in his security pass. Ustinov relieved Mishin of his duties.

Glushko was named director of the old Korolev bureau in Kalinin, replacing the disgraced Mishin. On his first day in office, he signed a decree canceling the entire N-1 superbooster program. Glushko and his staff wrote the official Soviet space histories, making sure that Mishin’s name was never mentioned.

Having dispensed with Mishin and the entire lunar program, Glushko reshaped the Soviet space program to his liking. He had by 1976 persuaded Brezhnev that Russia needed a space shuttle like the one NASA was building; over the next twelve years, the USSR spent fourteen billion rubles on the Energiya/Buran system. In many ways, the rocket piggybacked on technology developed for the N-I superbooster; it even used a surviving N-1 launchpad, after modifications. Today, however, the Soviets are wondering publicly what use their shuttle, Glushko’s legacy, really has.

The Soviets themselves have drawn bitter conclusions about their failure in the moon race with the United States.

One recent commentary in Izvestia observes that the fates of N-1 and L-3 reflected painful problems common to the rest of Soviet society: “excessive politicization of science, substitution of sham goals for worthy ones, ‘voluntarism’ [a Soviet euphemism for wishful thinking], and lack of collective decision- making on crucial issues.”

Mishin told Pravda not long ago that development of the Soviet space program had been obstructed by “monopolism and excessive secrecy, nepotism and political chicanery.” The manned lunar program failed, he believed, largely because the motives of its organizers were inappropriate: They put political goals ahead of scientific ones and were interested chiefly in enhancing the USSR’s prestige.

James E. Oberg, a former USAF captain, is a professional NASA space engineer now working on the space shuttle program in Houston. He is the author of many works on space topics, with more than 200 articles and eight books to his credit. Among the latter are Red Star in Orbit, Pioneering Space, and Uncovering Soviet Disasters. His most recent article for AIR FORCE Magazine was “The Sky’s No Limit on Disinformation” in the March 1986 issue.