The Secret Soviet Moon Rocket
If you’d been a betting person from the mid 1950’s to 1960’s, you would have probably thought the Soviet Union had a very good chance of beating the USA in the race to the moon. After all, It was the Soviet Union who stunned the world with the launch of Sputnik, the first satellite ever.
On October 4, 1957, the USSR put into orbit a tiny sphere with a radio transmitter that beeped its way into history. It seemed they had a head start, so why didn’t the Soviet Union beat the USA to the moon?
History changed on October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik I. The world’s first artificial satellite was about the size of a beach ball (58 cm.or 22.8 inches in diameter), weighed only 83.6 kg. or 183.9 pounds, and took about 98 minutes to orbit the Earth on its elliptical path.
That launch ushered in new political, military, technological, and scientific developments. While the Sputnik launch was a single event, it marked the start of the space age and the space race between the Soviets and the US.
After Sputnik, the Soviets successfully launched Luna 3 in 1959 as part of the Luna program. It was the first-ever mission to photograph the far side of the Moon and the third Soviet space probe to be sent to the neighbourhood of the Moon.
Though it returned rather poor pictures by later standards, the historic, never-before-seen views of the far side of the Moon caused excitement and interest when they were published around the world.
By 1961, the USSR put the first man into space. Soviet pilot and cosmonaut, Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, became the first human to journey into outer space when his Vostok 1 spacecraft completed one orbit of the Earth on 12 April 1961.
On September 12, 1962, U.S. President John F. Kennedy delivered the famous “We choose to go to the Moon” speech to a large crowd gathered at Rice Stadium in Houston. The speech was intended to persuade the American people to support the Apollo program, the national effort to land a man on the Moon.
In his speech, Kennedy characterized space as a new frontier, invoking the pioneer spirit that dominated American folklore. He infused the speech with a sense of urgency and destiny, and emphasized the freedom enjoyed by Americans to choose their destiny rather than have it chosen for them. Although he called for competition with the Soviet Union, he also proposed making the Moon landing a joint project.
Nikita Khrushchev was the Chairman of the Soviet Union from 1958 to 1964. Khrushchev was known for backing the progress of the early Soviet space program. So what was Chairman Khrushchev’s response to President Kennedy’s speech? Silence. He neither confirmed nor denied that the Soviet Union had plans for a manned moon mission.
At the time, Khrushchev was not really interested in competing with the US over the moon. He was more interested in ICBMs, or intercontinental ballistic missiles.
An intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) is a guided ballistic missile with a minimum range of 5,500 kilometres (3,400 mi) primarily designed for nuclear weapons delivery (delivering one or more thermonuclear warheads)…and the USSR was investing a lot of resources into further development of their ICBMs.
While Khrushchev may have been busy with his ICBMs, there were others in the Soviet Union that harboured plans for a manned moon mission for a long time. One of these men was Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, whose name was a state secret during the Cold War Era.
Korolev was the most powerful man outside of the Kremlin when it came to anything related to space. Outside of the inner circle of the Soviet’s top space scientists he was known only as the “Chief Designer” or by his initials, SP. Korolev was such a big secret because Soviet leadership feared Western powers would send agents to try to assassinate him.
To say Korolev was important would be an understatement. He was the man behind many of the Soviet’s space successes and was the head of the OKB1 design bureau. He oversaw Sputnik and the manned missions, including the mission that successfully put the first man in space. But even a man as influential as Sergei Korolev doesn’t always get what he wants…
Korolev was essentially a one-man version of NASA. He covered areas that in the US were done across multiple aerospace companies and flight centres. But even a man of his power and connections didn’t get everything his own way.
Korolev had to continuously fight against rival designers and design groups and although he wanted the moon missions all to himself, in 1960 the job was given to his rival, Vladimir Chelomei.
It is rumoured that Chelomei only got the job because of his patronage by Khrushchev. Chelomei’s lack of experience lead to slow progress of the manned moon mission. Back in the United States, things were progressing quickly…
The progress of Apollo worried the Soviet’s chief designers and as a result of this and the infighting between the design bureaus meant that there were multiple overlapping designs for the moon mission. At one point there were 30 different designs for launchers and spacecraft!
In 1964, the Soviet leader Khrushchev (far left) was replaced by Leonid Brezhnev (far right)
With Brezhnev in power, Korolev was given complete control over the moon missions and pushed through his designs ahead of Chelomei’s and the decision to finally compete for the moon was given.
The aim was to land on the moon in 1967, the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution…and of course, to get there before the Americans. This, however, created a problem for Korolev.
In order to lift a payload weight of 95 tons, Korolev needed a very large rocket. This new rocket would be called the N1.
It would be as big as the American Saturn V and would require new large, powerful engines similar to the F1 rocket engines used in the Saturn.
Valentin Glushko was the leading rocket designer at the time and the head of the OKB 456 Bureau, which had a near-monopoly when it came to rocket design and production.
Glushko specialized in making engines that used hypergolic propellants, these consist of a fuel and oxidizer that when mixed together spontaneously ignite as soon as they come in contact with each other.
Korolev thought these were too dangerous for manned missions due to the highly toxic and corrosive nature of the chemicals used to make up the fuel.
Glushko said that it was not possible to create a new large engine design (like the Saturn V – F1 engines below) that used cryogenic fuel of liquid oxygen and kerosene and get it ready in time with limited resources and cash.
Glushko also cited that at the time the Americans had been working on cryogenic engines for the Saturn for five years and still had not got them to work.
There was also a personal problem between the two men. Korolev blamed Glushko denouncing him in the great purge under Stalin in 1938.
This denouncement led to Korolev’s near death serving six years in a Soviet labour camp.
Glushko, on the other hand, considered Korolev to be irresponsibly cavalier and autocratic towards things which were outside of his own competence.
The clash between Korolev and Glushko led to Glushko refusing to work for Korolev and caused delays to the mission. Korolev was forced to find a new engine designer and gave the job to Nikolai Kuznetsov.
Kuznetsov was a leading jet engine designer but had never designed a rocket engine. The Kuznetsov design bureau looked at the problem and realized that creating a rocket engine was not that different than designing a jet engine, but they ran into the same problem as Glushko.
The problem was that the Soviets simply did not have the industrial infrastructure that the Americans did to produce a new large engine. The solution they came up with was innovative but would have both positive and negative outcomes.
Where the Americans used 5 massive engines for the initial booster stage of Saturn (image above), Korolev was forced to use 30 small but highly efficient engines arranged in a ring of 24 around the base and 6 at the centre in order to achieve the thrust required.
The design of these highly efficient Soviet engines was very advanced and used a method called the closed-cycle system. This was capable of boosting the efficiency and power to levels which were believed impossible before.
The Americans had known about the closed-cycle system but thought it was too difficult and dangerous as the high-pressure, high-temperature oxygen method could cause the engine to burn up. So instead, they used the more reliable but less efficient open-cycle system with their larger engines.
The photo above shows a “cluster test” of all five F-1 engines of the Saturn V first stage. Together, the powerful engines would produce 7.6 million pounds of thrust at launch. The Americans had their big engines, but the Soviets had something the Americans had not yet developed…
It had only been possible for the Soviets to create a closed-cycle engine because they had secretly developed advanced stainless steel alloys. Something which the Americans didn’t know about at the time.
Using so many smaller engines allowed the N1 rocket to create even more power than the Saturn.
However, the likelihood of one or more of them failing and making a rocket unstable was much greater.
One of the main problems was the complex fuel plumbing that was required to supply all the engines, which in time proved to be a very fragile system.
But just as the Soviets were working on the new engines, tragedy struck…
In 1966, Korolev passed away after undergoing a routine operation.
This was a big setback because Korolev had a unique set of abilities and connections. He was the major driving force behind making sure that the moon missions would be delivered.
The work of continuing the moon mission fell to Vasily Mishin, Korolev’s deputy.
The problem with Mishin was that he didn’t have the political astuteness or power of his old boss.
The Soviets also didn’t have the facilities to test all 30 engines of the main stage at once, before they were mounted to the rocket. The Baikonur launch complex could also not be reached by heavy barges so the whole rocket had to be broken down into sections, transported by rail and then rebuilt again at the launchpad.
This meant that the development of the N1 rocket as a whole was still ongoing when it came to the launches, so it was almost expected that there would be failures…and there were.
The Soviets planned 14 launches. The first 12 would be unmanned, and the last 2 would be manned lunar missions.
On February 21, 1969 the first N1 rocket was prepared for launch. This would be the first time that the whole system had been tested. In fact, it was revealed later that only 2 of every batch of 6 engines had even been run before the launch.
Compare that to the Americans, which were fully able to test all of their massive F1 engines.
The John C. Stennis Space Centre (SSC) was built in 1961 and was NASA’s rocket testing facility. The Americans were able to test all 5 of their F1 engines here simultaneously, before the Saturn was assembled. This proved to be crucial to the success of the Apollo missions.
Once tested, the engines were removed from the assembly building to the launchpad nearby. The engines were fully assembled, tested and ready to go.
Within seconds of the first N1 launch the engine control system, which was called KORD, shut down 2 of the 30 stage one engines.
Then, self oscillating vibrations started in the fuel system due to unstable combustion in some of the engines. This ruptured fuel lines which caught fire and burned through electrical control wiring.
This then caused the KORD system to incorrectly shut down all of the engines just 68 seconds into the flight and the rocket crashed 32 miles from the launch pad.
After the investigation and subsequent modification, the second flight was due for July 3rd, 1969. The launch took place at 11:18pm and as the rocket cleared the tower the liquid oxygen turbo pump on engine number 8 exploded, causing a fire which triggered KORD to shut down all the engines except one.
The N1 fell back onto the launch pad with nearly 2,300 tons of rocket fuel on board. The resulting explosion was one of the largest ever to happen and was the equivalent of 3.8 kilotons of TNT, or a small nuclear bomb.
The explosion destroyed the launch complex, blasted debris over 6 miles away and was visible over 22 miles away. Some 30 minutes after the blast, when launch crews were allowed onto the site, they found droplets of unburned rocket fuel still raining down from the sky. Afterwards it was discovered that 85% of the rocket fuel did not detonate which actually reduced the size of the blast.
Seventeen days after the Soviet’s second N1 crash Neil Armstrong became the first man on the moon with the Apollo 11 mission, and although the race for the moon had been lost, the Soviets carried on.
The N1 blast caused a 2 year delay. The launch complex was rebuilt and further modifications were made to the rocket.
In November 1971, the third attempt also failed due to unexpected counter currents in the base of the main stage causing the rocket to roll uncontrollably and ultimately break up due to the stress on its structure, but the Soviets pressed on…
One year later, in November 1972 the fourth and final launch also failed 107 seconds into the flight after the program shutdown over 6 centre engines caused a hydraulic shock wave to rupture the fuel pipes and start a fire. The main stage then exploded shortly afterwards.
Although there had been 4 previous launch failures, the Soviets had actually made huge progress and the design by trial and error was believed to have ironed out all of the problems. However, by the time the 5th launch in August 1974, the entire moon mission was cancelled by Brezhnev.
By 1974, the Americans had been to the moon 6 times and public interest in space was waning.
One theory is that if the 5th launch had been successful it would have forced the Soviets to carry on the lunar mission where the main goal of beating the USA had already been lost. The cancellation of the project was therefore a way of sweeping a very expensive undertaking under the rug.
Vasily Mishin was ultimately fired and replaced by Glushko but by 1976 the N1 rocket program was scrapped. The rockets were broken up to hide the failure and to make the U.S. think that the space race was still ongoing.
It wasn’t until Gorbachev’s period of “Glasnost” when this cover story was blown and the true story of the failed Soviet moon mission became widely known about, and why the Russians didn’t put a man on the moon.
But there is a strange twist to the end of this story…
The NK 43 rockets that had been developed for the N1 were by the end much more reliable, and the most efficient and powerful rocket engines for their size ever made.
Twenty years after they were meant to have been destroyed on order of the Kremlin, 60 of the engines were rediscovered and sold to the Americans for $1.1 million each.
This article is from www.historyinorbit.com and posted on their website on 13th November 2018. We think it is a wonderful information article and worth noting the history value their article made.