A few years ago there was a vogue among historians to write about ‘counterfactuals’.A counterfactual examines the importance of an event for subsequent history by asking what if that event had taken a radically different course.What if the Nazis had invaded the UK in 1940? What if Napoleon had won at Waterloo? What if Cleopatra’s nose had been more pert? To these I will add another plausible scenario, what if the USSR’s 1960s space program had succeeded in landing a man on the Moon before the US?

image of N1 on pad

1969:A giant Moon rocket is prepared for launch…but it’s not in Florida.(Image credit:wikimedia.org)


It does not seem a far-fetched notion.The Soviet Union began the Space Age with an early lead over the Americans.The first satellite in orbit, first man in space, first spacewalk and first probes to the Moon were all achieved by the USSR.In 1967, NASA’s Apollo project appeared to be faltering following the deaths of three astronauts in an accident which had indicated fatal flaws in the spacecraft design. Political opposition to the project’s cost was growing, perhaps NASA could have been ordered to delay or halt the moonlandings.Taking advantage of the delay, the Soviets could have continued to forge ahead, by test launching the huge N-1 moonrocket.Unmanned orbital tests of the spiderlike Lunniy Korabl (LK) lunar landing spacecraft could have been performed simultaneously.Finally possibly as early as autumn 1968, a single N-1 could have blasted skyward an LK and Lunniy Orbitalny Korabl (LOK), essentially a stretched Soyuz spacecraft.Two cosmonauts would have flown into lunar orbit in the linked vehicles.

In this imaginary scenario, above the Moon’s cratered surface one cosmonaut would have transferred to the LK by making a spacewalk, the craft would have carried him to a gentle touchdown on the dusty plains of our satellite.This automated lunar descent would have been guided by a radio beacon on an already-landed unmanned Luna probe.Within hours the heroic cosmonaut (Alexei Leonov perhaps?) has made a permanent name for himself in history, leaving the first human footprints in the regolith.After planting the Red Flag and gathering a bag of soil and rock samples, the lone explorer would blast off to rejoin his comrade in the LOK for the return to Earth, landing in a Kazakhstani wheatfield. Worldwide applause for this epic achievement would be tempered with gloom in the humbled US.Soviet communism has proven itself superior to capitalism and a slow realignment of the geopolitical landscape begins…

Of course this did not happen, but it could have. Prototypes were tested of the LK lunar lander (successfully) and  N-1 booster (catastrophically unsuccessfully). Four circumlunar flights in the Zond series were essentially unmanned Soyuz missions with experimental animals and a dummy cosmonaut on board.Why did it not happen?

Although the USSR had announced plans to send people to the Moon in 1960, serious planning did not begin until 1964 (in contrast the Apollo project had been underway since 1960).From this late start, the project was continually underfunded.Early Soviet space projects had achieved miracles but a Moon mission was an endeavour of a staggeringly greater complexity and expense yet the Politburo expected to succeed on a shoestring budget.A landing in late 1968 was expected. Meanwhile the hugely influential Soviet military establishment actively opposed the lunar program, fearing human and technical resources would be diverted from their projects to the more civilian-orientated space program. This attitude slowed the project too. The moon project was led by Sergei Korolev, architect of the early Soviet space successes. He hoped to use a long term plan of his own devising which would see steady progress building into an elaborate Moon program culminating in the construction of a lunar base.  Sadly for him, he was not given the support he needed and the plan was scaled down to simply landing the first cosmonaut on the Moon.Even this reduced plan quickly ran into problems.

To say that the development of the gigantic N-1 rocket was troubled is a major understatement.This booster was originally designed by a team led by Sergei Korolev himself. To launch a heavy lunar spacecraft the N-1 needed engines burning a high-energy propellant, ideally liquid hydrogen and oxygen.However he was forced by his political masters to use rocket engines designed by  a rival rocket designer, Valentin Glushko. Ignoring reality, Glushko insisted that less powerful fuels would be adequate .This was more than a technical disagreement.Glushko and Korolev had long detested each other and in fact Korlev believed that his brutal imprisonment in the 1930s and ’40s was a result of Glushko denouncing him to the Communist authorities. Korolev was probably correct, but in fairness to Glushko he was already in prison at the time and he may have been tortured into giving Korolev’s name.

Image of N1rocket

In contrast to the Saturn 5, N1 rockets were assembled and transported lying on their sides.Note the plethora of first stage motors.(image credit:wikiimedia.org)


Relations between the two engineers were appalling, slowing an already behind-schedule project to a crawl. Glushko was eventually replaced by Nikolai Kuznetsov, a jet engine designer with little experience in rocket design. Kuznetsov’s team’s best effort was a fairly small engine called the NK-15.The N-1 would need a staggering thirty of these clustered together on its first stage (compared to 5 F-1 motors on its US equivalent, the Saturn 5) .Rocket engines and their plumbing are temperamental beasts at the best of times and to hope to have thirty operating perfectly in unison while screaming and vibrating side by side demonstrated great faith in the design or great ignorance of its pitfalls.Meanwhile a third engineer, Vladimir Chelomei, another rival of Korolev had persuaded the Politburo to sponsor his alternative scheme to send cosmonauts around the Moon.This led to the Zond flights described earlier but nowhere else and diverted even more funds from the moonlanding plan.

Korolev  died in 1966 and any hope of beating the Americans perished with him. It took months to appoint his deputy Vasily Mishin to manage the project. Mishin was a less than inspiring figure and under him the project stagnated. A further blow was the fatal accident which ended the first piloted flight of the Soyuz spacecraft.


Behind the scenes the faltering Soviet Moon project was a dysfunctional mess of rivalry and incompetence but propaganda and secrecy largely concealed this from the outside world.It still looked as though the Communists could pull off a triumph. American spy satellites recorded steady progress at the Soviet launch facilities, and assembly of the first N-1. This was a very large rocket indeed, standing 105 m (345 ft) tall.It was second only to the Saturn V in height, mass and payload (until the 1990s western observers believed that the N-1 was actually bigger than the Saturn, it was also known as the G-1 to westerners). Ready for a lunar mission, an N-1 consisted of five stages in total, three of these were for boosting the remaining two into orbit.These two stages would boost the lunar spacecraft to their destination.Fully loaded and fueled, the unique- looking N1 weighed 2788 metric tons (6.1 million lb). Its size made it impossible to hide on the launch pad, so American intelligence agencies were fully aware of the first N-1 being prepared for a test launch in January 1969. The Americans had no idea how inefficient and flawed the vehicle was.

On 21 February, the titanic rocket took off, rising majestically into the sky. later it was doomed. Somewhere in the first stage a fire had started.An automatic sensor detected this and took action to shut down the engines near the fire.Unfortunately all thirty engines were shut down 69 seconds into the ascent and the whole mighty machine collapsed back on the launch pad causing massive destruction.Mercifully no cosmonauts were on board and no one was hurt on the ground. Three more attempts were made to launch N-1 rockets but all ended in spectacular fireballs. The rocket’s development was stopped in 1972 and virtually all equipment related to it was destroyed, such was the embarrassment.


The LK, the USSR’s equivalent of NASA’s Lunar Module, was being developed separately and was relatively successful despite an overly complex control system. This small vehicle was designed to travel to and from lunar orbit and the Moon’s surface entirely automatically with zero input from its occupant. The cosmonaut was simply a passenger. This design philosophy is common to all Soviet (and Russian) manned spacecraft. What would have happened should it have descended towards an unforeseen field of boulders (as happened with Apollo 11) does not bear thinking about. Four LKs were secretly put through a successful programme of unmanned test flights in low Earth orbit in the early 1970s. Today LK prototypes appear as intriguing public exhibits  or even appear in  Hollywood movies.

Compared to Apollo, every aspect of the USSR’s Moon project was unimpressive. American astronauts could make multi-hour EVAs, while the Soviet Kretchet lunar space suit was limited to just 4 hours on the surface at a time. As well as planting the flag, the first Soviet moonwalk was to consist of deploying of a very limited array of scientific instruments, taking soil samples, photography of the landscape and recording a commentary on the lunar surface. In contrast, at the very least from Apollo 12 onwards NASA astronauts left behind the elaborate Apollo Lunar Surface Experimental Package to monitor the Moon’s geophysics and environment. The later Apollo missions involved very comprehensive sets of experiments indeed and included traverses of many kilometers in the lunar rover. Both American and Soviet spacemen were professional pilots rather than scientists, but NASA trained its crews to be proficient geologists whereas the cosmonauts received no such training. Any cosmonaut who walked on the Moon would be far less useful as a scientific explorer than NASA’s crews.

Even after Apollo 11’s triumph, the Soviet Moon project stumbled on in secret for a few years before being closed down. Surviving N1 hardware was cut up and reused as structures such as bandstands and shelters in public parks (see some amazing pictures). For nearly two decades the Soviet authorities denied it had ever existed, claiming that their priorities lay in unmanned missions and space stations.This lie was widely believed in the West.

If ever there was a ‘Moon Hoax’ this was it.


Leon · November 17, 2018 at 15:38

This is a great summary of a little-known part of space history! Your knowledge of this whole thing is impressive (though the N1 test launch you mentioned, the one that caused so much damage, was the second of four rather than the first; it occurred in July 1969).

I do think you overstated the automation though; the cosmonaut wouldn’t have been simply a passenger. The guys in the N1-L3 program trained extensively; they used a helicopter with LK controls to train for the landing. Probably the landing was largely automated, but the cosmonaut would have been ready to take control: that’s why he was given a downward-facing window on the LK, after all. However you’re right that the Soviets did a lot more automation than we did; they achieved automated docking, for instance, which we didn’t, but that gets little press.

The US-Soviet space race was made into a computer game back in the 90s, and has been ported to modern operating systems – though the Soviet lunar landing equipment isn’t entirely accurate. Anyone interested in playing a game that relives the Moon race can download it for free: https://sourceforge.net/projects/raceintospace/

Tod · November 28, 2011 at 05:17

great article. I had no idea. I knew about Buran. but I had never heard of the N-1. fascinating.

    admin · November 29, 2011 at 07:37

    Thanks, I enjoyed writing it too.

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