Why you should care
Until the mid-1960s, the USSR was winning the race to the moon. So what happened?
The Eagle lunar module landed 50 years ago this week, on July 20, 1969. The United States astonished the world by putting humans on the moon with its Apollo 11 mission, cementing its superiority in space and essentially ending the space race.
It was an amazing feat. But many were just as amazed by the fact that it was the U.S. and not the USSR that was responsible for the final breakthrough. For the majority of the contest between the two countries, it was the USSR that had been in the lead: It put the first satellite in orbit in 1957, crashed the first object on the moon in 1959, sent the first human into space in 1961 and made the first successful unmanned moon landing in 1966.
Indeed, for American spectators, it seemed that all the U.S. could do was play catch-up — an embarrassing position for a country that had long fancied itself technologically superior to the Soviet Union. For the Soviets, their seemingly unstoppable string of victories served as valuable propaganda for their country and for communism. But behind the scenes of those many space conquests lay a chaotic program that, by the mid-1960s, was beginning to come apart at the seams.
Perhaps the clearest indicator of the bloated nature of the Soviet space program was its N1 rocket, the design that was intended to bring a manned mission to the moon. Meant to compete with America’s Saturn V, the N1 ended up being one of the Soviet Union’s biggest engineering catastrophes. While the Saturn V had five engines, the N1 — limited by the USSR’s inability to produce small, efficient parts in country — had 30. And they still didn’t work: Not only did all four attempts to launch the N1 fail, but its second attempt also resulted in one of the largest explosions in human history, devastating the launching pad when the rocket crashed back into it.
Part of the failure behind the design of the N1 was the unexpected death of leading Soviet engineer Sergei Korolev in 1966. Not only were Korolev’s brilliant designs instrumental in early Soviet successes in the space race, but, according to Francis French, co-author of Into That Silent Sea: Trailblazers of the Space Era 1961-1965 and former director of education of the San Diego Air & Space Museum, “he had been the person able to manage overexcited politicians’ demanding results, and for the most part keep the competing, arguing design bureaus working in a common direction.”
What would seem a more socialist-style program — a government-run agency, funded by the nation — was how America ran its program.
Francis French, former director of education, San Diego Air & Space Museum
That wasn’t the only crushing death. On April 24, 1966, Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov became the first person to die in a space flight when his capsule’s parachute malfunctioned upon reentry and his capsule crashed to Earth. Komarov, along with many other cosmonauts, had considered the Soyuz spacecraft a death trap; before the mission, Komarov even joked that he wanted his funeral to be open casket (a wish that was carried out). Komarov’s death not only demoralized the cosmonaut community and damaged the reputation of Soviet engineering prowess, but it also resulted in a yearlong hiatus of Soviet space flights at a time when the U.S. was quickly catching up.
The early successes of the Soviet Union were about turning its shortcomings into strengths. “The rockets that America and the Soviet Union used at the dawn of the Space Age were initially designed to hurl nuclear bombs at each other,” French says. “The Soviets were not able to build electronics as small and sophisticated as America could. They had to build bigger bombs — and more powerful rockets to carry them.” Those same rockets proved useful in the early days of the space program. But the U.S. eventually pulled ahead with rocket design, culminating in the Saturn V in 1967, the rocket that would take America to the moon.
Soviet design was hampered by an ironic twist in the structure of the Soviet and American space programs. “What would seem a more socialist-style program — a government-run agency, funded by the nation — was how America ran its program,” French explains. “And the Soviets had a number of competing design bureaus — more a traditionally capitalist model.” When it came to the enormous scientific and financial demands that were required for a manned moon mission, NASA with its unified nature eventually outperformed its Soviet counterpart, which was beset with infighting, needless duplication of efforts and experimental dead ends.
On July 21, 1969, as the astronauts of Apollo 11 were preparing to lift off from the moon and return to Earth, an unexpected interloper began its own approach to the moon: the Soviet Luna 15 mission. The unmanned spacecraft was a last-ditch effort to upstage the Apollo mission: It would make a moon landing, collect rock samples and make its way back to Earth before Apollo 11 could return. Instead, it slammed into the moon, never to return.