It’s probably the most well known peacetime battle between the USA and the Soviet Union, in both technological and ideological terms of the 20th century.
Although the USA won the race to the moon, if you’d been a betting person from the mid 1950’s to 1960’s, the chances are that you would have thought the Soviet Union had a very good chance of getting there first.
So why didn’t Russia put a man on the moon?
At the time the soviets were leading the space race, they had already started with the launch of Sputnik, then launched several probes to the moon, including one in 1959 that orbited and taken photos of the far side and By 1961 they were the first to put a man in to space.
So when Kennedy made his now famous “We choose to go to the moon” speech in 1962 to rally public support, Khrushchev’s response was silence, neither confirming nor denying that they had a plan for a manned moon mission.
But at the time Khrushchev wasn’t really interested in competing with the US over the moon, he was more interested ICBM’s the Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles for the strategic rocket forces.
But there were others that had harbored plans for manned mission for a long time, these included the man whose name was a state secret and the most powerful man outside the Kremlin when it came to space.
He was Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, outside the inner circle of the top space scientists he was known only as the “Chief Designer” or by his first 2 initials SP, because the Soviet leadership feared that the western powers would send agents to assassinate him.
Korolev was the man who was behind many of the soviet space successes and the head of the OKB-1 design bureau, he over saw sputnik, and the manned missions including the first man in space Yuri Gagarin. His authority extended over almost everything to do with space, his design group worked on missions to mars and venus, communications, spy and weather satellites, ICBM’s and the soviet manned moon missions.
Korolev had a huge amount of control over the space program. In administrative power he was almost a one man version of NASA covering areas that in the US were done across multiple aerospace companies and flight centers.
But even a man with his power and connections didn’t get everything his own way. He had to continuously fight against rival designers and design groups. Although Korolev wanted the moon missions, in 1960 the job was given to his rival, Vladimir Chelomei because of his patronage by Khrushchev but his lack of experience meant that progress was slow.
The progress of Apollo on the other hand worried the chief designers and as a result of this and the in-fighting between the design bureau’s meant that there were multiple overlapping designs for the moon missions, at one point there were 30 different designs for launchers and spacecraft.
In 1964 and with the fall of Khrushchev, 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, with the aim to land in 1967 the 50th anniversary of the October revolution and get there before the Americans.
This created a problem for Korolev, in order to lift the payload weight of 95 tons he needed a very large rocket. This new rocket would be called the N1, be as big as the American Saturn 5 and would require large powerful engines, similar to the F1 rockets in the Saturn.
Valentin Glushko was the leading Soviet rocket designer and head of the OKB 456 bureau, which had a near monopoly when its came rocket design & production. He specialized in making engines that used hypergolic propellants.
These consist of a fuel and an oxidizer, that when mixed together spontaneously ignite when they come into contact with each other. Korolev thought these were too dangerous for manned missions due to the highly toxic and corrosive nature of the chemicals that made up the fuel.
Glushko said that it was not possible to create a new large engine design that used cryogenic fuel of liquid oxygen and Kerosene and get it ready in time with limited resources and cash. He also sited that at the time the Americans had been working on cryogenic Saturn engines for 5 years and still hadn’t got them to work reliably…….