Quirks & Quarks

The race to the moon — what the Russians were doing behind the Iron Curtain

While Apollo was working towards a moon landing, the Russians were still in the space race

While Apollo was working towards a moon landing, the Russians were still in the space race

A mockup of the Soviet N1 rocket on the launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in late 1967. (National Reconnaisance Office / NASA )

This season we've been looking back to what was going on in early 1969 in the run up to the 50th anniversary of the moon landing on July 20th.

So far in our series we've heard about the earlier Apollo missions and how they paved the way to the moon.

But little was known then about what was happening on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

The moon landings were, of course, the culmination of an intense competition that had been going on since the early fifties - The space race.

And that race wasn't just about beating John F Kennedy's 1961 promise to land a man on the moon "before this decade is out."

Our guest for our retrospective on the run up to the Apollo 11 anniversary has been space enthusiast Amy Shira Teitel. Amy's a Canadian space flight historian, author, and host of her own YouTube channel 'Vintage Space'.

In this segment Amy and Bob McDonald look back on the Soviets ultimately doomed attempt to get to the moon first.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

Bob McDonald: So Amy, we've been talking about the missions that were happening in late 1968 and early 1969, the last few legs of the American side of the space race. But before that the Americans were behind at the beginning. The Soviets were first with Sputnik, the first satellite, the first man in space, the first woman in space, the first robot past the moon, the first robot to Venus. But by the late 60's the Americans has sort of done a catch up. So where were the Soviets at that point?

Amy Shera Teitel: The Soviets weren't exactly keeping pace by the late 1960's and I attribute a lot of this to the death of Sergei Korolev. On the American side the name Werhner Von Braun is pretty familiar as the lead architect behind the Saturn 5 program. His Soviet equivalent was Korolev, and he was spearheading a lot of the early technology that achieved a lot of those firsts for the Soviet Union. And when he died in 1966 it really did throw the Soviet program into disarray. And that was where they really started dropping off in terms of scoring these firsts and keeping pace with the Americans. So in the late 1960's the Soviets were trying to keep pace with America through developing the N1 rocket which was almost their Hail Mary to try to match the American accomplishment and get to the moon. But it wasn't nearly keeping pace with where it could or should have been if it was going to seriously compete. But the Soviets were still giving it a fighting chance.

Bob McDonald: That N1 in rocket was impressive and it was as large as the Saturn 5. It looked a little different, it looked like a big cone. It was pointed at the top and really broad at the bottom. The Americans were very public about everything that they were doing; all their launches were live on TV, but the Soviets were extremely secretive about everything. Nobody even knew what they were up against.

Satellite image of Soviet N1 rocket on the launch pad from September 1968. (National Reconnaissance Office / NASA)

Amy Shira Teitel: Interestingly the Soviets only really put energy into its own lunar landing program in 1964. So this was a pretty late start for something that was designed to go to the moon. So the N1 rocket was not originally intended to be a moon rocket. It was intended to launch a manned flyby of Venus or Mars. Then when it was retooled it wasn't powerful enough to get to the moon and was behind schedule in matching the Americans. So there was a lot of scrambling done in the Soviet Union and finally the N1 was rolled out onto the launch pad in 1968 with a launch scheduled for February, 1969. That launch ended in a rather significantly large explosion. To get more power in this rocket, instead of developing a new fuel or bigger engines, they just smacked more engines onto it. There were 30 engines in the first stage of the N1 rocket!

Bob McDonald: That's unbelievable, 30 engines in one rocket, and all had to work exactly right. The Saturn 5 had five big ones, the Russian approach was to have a whole bunch of little ones. It was an ambitious program that they had though because had the rocket worked, their plan was to send two people to the moon. The Apollo program sent three, but the Soviets were going to send two, Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, and Alexei Leonov, the first space walker. Leonov was to be alone going down to the moon's surface. But the interesting corollary to all of this is that those 30 engines were actually quite efficient and more efficient than what the Americans had. After the N1 program was cancelled they went into storage and later on they were discovered and the Americans actually bought them to use on their own rockets. So the technology that the Soviets had was actually quite advanced even at the time. To have 30 engines on a rocket didn't work for the Soviets, but today we have the Space X Falcon Heavy rocket It's got twenty seven engines on it. Three sets of nine.

Well even though the N1 program itself did not succeed, the Soviets did try to still get to the moon around the time that Armstrong and Aldrin were walking on it. They tried to try to get around their problems with a robot lander.

Amy Shira Teitel: This is a great little story that often gets buried but there was almost a literal race to the moon in July of 1969. The Luna program was a series of robotic missions launched by the Soviet Union, and in July of 1969 the Soviets launched Luna 15 which was actually neck and neck with Apollo 11 for most of its journey. It got into orbit around the moon on July 17th and started its own descent to the surface just hours after Apollo 11 had landed. It was a day later but it was sort of neck and neck for a while. The Soviets were trying to eke out that tiny last victory of you may have got people to the moon but we got our lander down right before you did. Alas it didn't work. There was a delay in doing a couple of correction burns to the lunar orbit before landing and that delayed the Soviet Luna 15 landing just enough for Apollo 11 to win.

Bob McDonald: Let's make it clear though Luna 15 was unmanned, it was robotic. It was designed to go to the moon scoop up a sample and then get back before the Apollo astronauts did. So the Soviets could say well we don't need to send men to the moon. We did it automatically, but it didn't quite work.

Amy Shira Teitel: Exactly, but it's likely from the data that they were able to analyze that it crashed into a mountain somewhere.

Bob McDonald: So even though the Soviets lost the race to the moon, it was still pretty close competition. And we don't often hear about what was going on on the other side of the track. But let's get back to the Apollo mission and our little leap back in time here. What was going on on the American side in early April 1969?

Amy Shira Teitel: In early April of 69 Apollo 10's Saturn 5 launch vehicle was rolled onto the launch pad, pad 39 B at Cape Kennedy. So America was getting ready to send its second ever mission to the moon.

A pair of N1 Rockets, both exploded during or after launch attempts. (NASA)


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