The secret Soviet lunar program


* El programa lunar secreto soviético

History books record that on 12 April 1961 the world was informed of the first flight of a human being into space. The feat was Soviets', as was the first artificial satellite. After such success it seemed that the USSR would be the first nation to reach the moon, but they always denied having had that goal. Decades later it was discovered that in the end they did try a manned lunar landing. Here is that secret chapter of History.

In his book “Men from Earth”, (coauthored with Malcolm McConnell, Bantam Books, New York, 1989) published to mark the 20th anniversary of the arrival of Apollo 11 to the Moon, U. S. astronaut Buzz Aldrin, co-pilot in that historic mission, revealed that just weeks before their historic flight in 1969, CIA analysts discovered something troubling for the U. S. space program: a spy satellite had taken a picture of the Baikonur cosmodrome in the Soviet Union, where it appeared a giant rocket in a large pad, ready for launch. Astronauts and engineers knew by the sheer size of the device that its single destination must be the Moon.

The Americans waited and waited with great apprehension any news on the media, until days later updated satellite data arrived. The launch pad was in ruins and completely burned: the giant vehicle had exploded. The Americans breathed a sigh of relief, and on 20 July 1969 Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were the ones who wrote history by walking on the face of the Moon.

Two months after Aldrin's book was published, with Communism crumbling around the world, the official newspaper “Izvestija” acknowledged that indeed there was a rival to the Apollo program. In the 1990s, more and more data surfaced, and then photographs, technical drawings and finally the engineers themselves began to emerge from obscurity. They explained what this ambitious Soviet program was about, and why it failed.


Indeed the rocket in question, called N1, was almost as big as the U. S. lunar launch vehicle, the Saturn V. It measured 105 meters of total height, but had more stages than the U. S. 3-stage rocket. The first stage was 30,1 m high by 16,9 m wide. Above was mounted a second rocket, or second stage, of 20,5 m high and 9,8 m wide, then a third stage of 14,1 m high by 6,4 m and a fourth stage of 9,1 m by 4,4 m. On this structure was mounted the equipment that would be used to reach the Moon.

Another major difference with the U. S. rocket was that instead of using 5 large engines in the first stage, it used 30 small engines. The second stage had 8 engines, the third had 4 engines and the fourth 1 engine. The tanks were not cylinders but spheres; with the small ones at the top and the big ones down bellow the rocket took a conical shape.

The total loaded mass reached 2 735 000 kilograms, of which about 90 % was fuel, like any rocket. But unlike the Saturn V that used liquid oxygen and ultra-cold liquid hydrogen in its upper stages, the Soviet N1 used liquid oxygen and liquid kerosene in all its engines.

And as the Saturn V it could launch people at speeds close to 40 000 km/h.

The N1 rocket was designed by Sergei Korolev, the same engineer responsible for the dual success of Sputnik and Gagarin. The components were made in factories in the Samara region and the final assembly occurred in Baikonur.


The strategy of the Soviet Union lunar landing was similar to the U. S.', with a mother ship and a lunar module. The difference was that the spaceships were smaller and would had been helped by a third spaceship: a propulsion module. The three spaceships would had traveled to the Moon docked to each other, with the propulsion module forward, the lunar module in the middle and the mother ship at the back. When they would had been arriving at the Moon, the lunar gravity would have started an increase in the speed of the spaceships, as they would had been in free fall. To avoid the collision, the propulsion module (or fifth stage) would had activated its engine and would have slowed the whole complex.

The mother ship would have waited in lunar orbit. Meanwhile, the propulsion module would have continued decelerating the lunar module down to the surface; seconds before the touchdown they would had separated, leaving the lunar module’s legs free for the lunar landing.

The return trip would have been similar to the Apollos': the lunar module would had taken off (leaving its heavy legs behind) to join the mother ship. Later the lunar module would had been discarded and the cosmonauts would had set course to Earth. Nearing our planet, a small capsule with the crew inside would had detached; its heat shield would had protected the cosmonauts from the impact against the air, and parachutes would have performed the final descent.

Other additional differences were that only one person would had descended to the Moon and not a pair as in the U. S. missions, which means total crew would have been two. There was no tunnel communicating the mother ship with the lunar module, so the cosmonaut would have had to go outside and float from one hatch to another. The reentry capsule had attached to its tip a second cubicle to increase the habitable volume in a week-long mission. And the final touchdown would not have been at sea but on land, cushioned by small additional propellant cartridges.

Designed by Korolev, the mother ship (or LOK, by its Russian acronym) was 10 meters long by 2,9 meters wide, with a total mass of 9 850 kilograms. The lunar module (or LK) measured 5,2 m high and 4,5 m wide, with a total mass of 5560 kg (only one third the mass of the lunar module of the U.S.A.). And the propulsion module (or Block D), which did not exist in the U. S. missions, was 5,7 m by 2,9 m, with a total loaded mass of 18 200 kg.


The flights, with Alexei Leonov as chief cosmonaut, were as follows (data from Mark Wade's Encyclopedia Astronautica,

1961: Soyuz 1: testing of the mother ship in Earth orbit. Multiple failures and death of its single crewmember Vladimir Komarov when it crashed upon return. He was the first fatality in a space flight, a tragedy that is remembered every 24th of April.

1968-1969: Soyuz 2-3, Soyuz 4-5: unmanned tests of the mother ship in orbit around the Earth, including docking. Successful.

1968-1970: Zond 4, Zond 5, Zond 6, Zond 7, Zond 8: unmanned test of the mother ship in loop-around-the-Moon (circumlunar) flybys. All, except Zond 7, with failures that would endanger a crew.

1970-1971: Cosmos 379, Cosmos 398, Cosmos 434: testing of the lunar module in orbit around the Earth, without crew. All three missions were successful.

1969-1972: N1-3L, N1-5L, N1-6L, N1-7L: unmanned test launches of the N-1, the rocket intended to hurl the three spacecraft combined up to the Moon. Four attempts, four explosions.

After the success of the Apollo missions, the United States shifted priorities and began to develop the space shuttle. The USSR’s high command believed that this winged spaceship could become a threat, so they ordered to redirect funds from the failed N1 to build a Soviet shuttle, bidding farewell to the Moon. And so, as secretly as it had began, the Soviet lunar program came to an end.


In the United States, NASA decided what should be done, academia conducted research and private industry, through procurement, built the equipment. In the USSR, the Soviet Academy of Sciences gave the nod to each mission, but the 26 bureaus of research and the nearly 500 factories (all state-owned) each had their permanent budgets that allowed them to work separately from the others.

And the money was distributed in strange way: the team of Sergei Korolev was the most experienced, but larger items went to the team of Vladimir Chelomei, whose only previous experience was to build missiles for the military. (Coincidentally, one of its engineers was none other than the son of the dictator Nikita Khrushchev).

Chelomei’s plan was to modify these missiles for flights around the Moon, and when the time for a lunar landing mission would come, try to launch all the heavy lunar equipment by grouping several missiles into one glob. Thus, they never developed the ultracold-liquid-hydrogen rocket, more powerful than other types: it was too cumbersome for military operations.

The N1, the lunar solution of Korolev, only took priority after a change of government in the USSR. But he still could not have the best engine designer: Valentin Glushko, who was in personal enmity with Korolev, went to work with Chelomei. There was no choice but to put the absurd amount of 30 conventional engines in the first stage of the N1, a complication that led to its many flaws. To make matters worse, Korolev died unexpectedly in 1966, and his successor, Vasilii Mishin, did not have the same ability to persuade politicians, apathetic to any project without military utility.

The secret Soviet lunar program was approved only in 1964, three years after the Apollo program had begun. And worst: the Soviet project ended up receiving two to five times less money than the U. S. project received. All in all, the outcome is what you can read in the history books: the name of the first human to walk on the Moon was recorded as Neil Armstrong, not Alexei Leonov.

Aldo Loup.

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First published in ABC Color, on 29 April 2007. Photograph: Two N1 Moon rockets appear on the pads at Tyura-Tam in early July 1969. In the foreground is booster number 5L with a functional payload for a lunar-orbiting mission. In the background is the 1M1 ground test mock-up of the N1 for rehearsing parallel launch operations. Credit: R.K.K. Energiya, via Asif Siddiqi, "Challenge to Apollo: the Soviet Union and the Space Race, 1945-1974", U. S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2000, and the U. S. Centennial of Flight Commission. Reproduced with permission from Asif Siddiqi and NASA History Program Office. Special thanks to Asif Siddiqi and Steve Garber for this courtesy.