The Russian Dream to Land a Man on the Moon

N1 Rocket compared with Saturn V
Image: Ebs08

On July 3, 1969, the biggest explosion in the history of rocketry occurred when the Soviet N-1 rocket exploded and subsequently destroyed its launchpad. After four unsuccessful launch tries of the Soviet counterpart to the NASA Saturn V rocket the Russian Moon program was cancelled in May 1974.

Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, the leading Soviet space craft designer and rocket engineer, also known as the father of practical astronautics started directing the development of the N1 rocket. Soviet engineers set high goals. It was intended to build a  manned lunar carrier rocket and while the N1 was the largest of all three proposed designs, it was still a ‘paper project’ in the 1950’s. Korolev was able to prevail against two prominent engineers named Vladimir Chelomey and Mikhail Yangel and was enabled a decent funding to design and develop the N1. In 1961, the design was discussed and the first test launch was set for 1965.

The N1 was over 100m high and among the world’s largest launch vehicles with a total wight of 2,788 metric tons. During the process of development, a whole series of engines was installed, one more powerful and efficient than the other. NASA’s Saturn V rocket was just a little bigger and not as slender as N1. Also Saturn V was built not as wide as N1 at the base and had just slightly a better overall performance than N1. Also, the Soviet Union used kerosine fuel in all of its stages due to their lack of experience with liquid hydrogen. The NASA in comparison was comfortable to use the more efficient liquid hydrogen on all upper stages of Saturn, reducing the overall weight and increasing the payload fraction.

During construction, several issues appeared and with the given amount of funding, lots of problems stayed. Therefore, no successful flight of the rocket could be completed. In February 1969, during a launch, a pipe broke and a fire started. It reached the control system as 68,7 seconds in the flight wherefore all engines had to be shut down. Still, the rocket exploded at 12200m altitude. In July 1969, about 6 seconds after liftoff, a loose bolt was detected. It was ingested into an oxygen pump which quickly exploded. The automatic engine control shut off 29 out of 30 engines on board and the rocket began to stall. Just 23 seconds after shutting of the engines, the rocket exploded, destroying itself as well as its launch tower. This was the largest non nuclear explosion in human history and because NASA feared a moon rocket built by the Soviet’s, they had photographed the event with American satellites. After the explosion, further testing dates were delayed, because the launch pad was critically demolished.

After this catastrophe, two further tests were scheduled. In 1971 the vehicle was destroyed almost a minute after liftoff and during the very last launch in 1972 the engines cut off at 40km altitude the vehicle disintegrated. In May 1974, the program was completely cancelled.

At yovisto, you may enjoy a lecture by Dr. Wessley Huntress on Soviet Robotic Lunar and Planetary Exploration at NASA.

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