Encyclopedia Astronautica
Why did the Soviet Union lose the Moon Race?


The reasons the Americans were first on the moon, as given by the major Soviet participants.

Why didn't the Russians beat the Americans in the moon race? Reviewing the matter with hindsight, it might better be asked -- how did they expect to win? The matrix below shows the reasons as given by the main Russian observors of the project. These are:

  • Vasiliy Mishin, the Project Manager for eight years after Korolev's death, fired in 1974
  • Nikolai Kamanin, commander of the cosmonauts and diarist, dismissed in 1972
  • Boris Chertok, design leader within Mishin's organization for guidance and control systems, who left extensive memoirs
  • Chief Designer Korolev, who confided his concerns, to Chertok before his premature death
  • The observations of key other decision-makers as recorded by Kamanin and Chertok.

The investigation team of a plane crash usually finds several causes, a chain of events and mistakes, one leading to the other, thence to the final disaster. It was the same thing with the failure of the Soviet lunar program. The table is followed by a commentary.

Systemic Problems

  • No proper organization structure to execute non-military space programmes.
    • Mishin: Lack of coordination and agreement on a programme between Academy of Sciences, Ministries, Industry
  • No recognised authority to order all involved organizations to cooperate.
    • Mishin: Lack of organization/authority - 500 organizations in 28 departments had to produce equipment for N1, but only nine took orders from VPK
    • Chertok: Without direction from above many factories refused to complete necessary components
  • Lack of Soviet quality control.
    • Kamanin: This can only point to widespread poor quality control in the factories. There is no discipline at these factories, and few qualified workers. The investigative commissions can cite specific reasons for each failure all they want, but as far as Kamanin is concerned, there is a general problem in the Soviet industrial system.
  • Incorrect management and development practices.
    • Afanasyev: Both the management and the development practices of the Soviet space programme were inferior to the Americans. Continued use of artillery development practices (many test flights instead of extensive ground test) complex systems outdated.
  • Soviet Five-Year Plan structure - cannot change 'plan', no one wants to deliver bad news to leadership.
    • Chertok: But who would want to be the bearer of such bad news? No one volunteered.
Lack of Support for Project
  • No consensus within leadership to support manned spaceflight, let alone mission to the moon.
    • Mishin: Lack of comprehensive long-term space programme. Trying to 'beat Americans' instead of orderly program leading to earth orbit infrastucture and lunar base.
    • Kamanin: No single direction, no disciplined execution when a decision is finally made
    • Korolev: Ustinov and the military were not interested in lunar spaceflight
    • Andrei Grechko: Categorically against manned space, though required to foot much of the bill. 'It was only due the political machinations of Ustinov that the Ministry of Defence even ended up paying for this'.
Leading to:
  • Started three years late.
    • Mishin: Late start - leadership not interested after early successes, then asked to beat US to moon only in 1964
  • Insufficient funding, resources.
    • Mishin: Lack of resources, Funds - one tenth funding of USA,
  • Higher priorities for state and Mishin.
    • Chertok: Mishin had to support other higher priority military programs -- the 7K-OK earth orbit version of the Soyuz, the 7K-L1 circumlunar version, the Molniya communications satellite, and the R-9 and RT-2 ICBM's.
    • Pilyugin: Concentrating on the Temp mobile ICBM, Chelomei and Yangel ICBM projects more important.
  • No funds for N1 first stage test stand, N11 flight tests, or other requested elements of development program.
    • Mishin: Inability to test engine assemblies prior to launch without reassembling
    • Chertok: For Block A first stage, only single engine tests could be undertaken at Kuznetsov's OKB-236.
    • Korolev: Military refused to spend any funds to build a test stand at Tyuratam
    • Ustinov: Ministry of Defence had not approved funds for development of engines which could be static tested prior to launch, or to build a test stand for the first stage, or for N11 rocket tests (the upper stages of the N1).
  • Single launch decision, required by time and funding constraints, leading to…
    • Korolev: leadership was only willing to fund N1 production at the rate of four per year, and Korolev concluded the only moon mission he could propose at such a rate was the single-shot lunar orbit rendezvous scheme selected by the Americans.
  • N1 - changes made to achieve higher payload….
    • Korolev: N1 would have to be upgraded using the existing Lox/Kerosene propellants. No time for preferred course of developing Lox/LH2 upper stages.
    • Kurushin, Commander of Baikonur: Mishin had made a large number of changes to the N1 to increase its payload. However these at the same time negatively impacted the booster's reliability
  • …but N1 unable to achieve payload for single-launch lunar orbit rendezvous mission anyway.
    • Chertok: The USA Apollo translunar injection payload was 45 tonnes. The nominal payload of the N1, for the same mission, which it could not really have achieved, was 30 tonnes.
    • Korolev: Korolev knew from beginning N1 could not deliver payload needed to fullfill single-launch mission he sold to leadership.
    • Glushko: the N1 could only carry air. The gross lift-off mass was about that of a Saturn V, but the stage dry masses were 2.5 x, 5 x, 3.5x greater.
  • Korolev only sold lunar landing mission to leadership in order to get N1 built.
    • Korolev: Korolev and later Mishin couldn't admit they had miscalculated the minimum payload mass needed -- that would result in the whole project being killed. They wanted to see the N1 built for a range of manned space projects to earth orbit, moon, and Mars.
  • Decision to build N1 in Tyuratam.
    • Korolev: Due to schedule constraints, decision only brute force approach would work: to build an enormous factory, launch complex, and city in the remote desert of Kazakhstan
Personal Incompetence
  • Poor leadership in government.
    • Mishin: 'Stagnation' in leadership - superficial and contradictory orders from leadership…'Korolev too could have lost his job'.
    • Kamanin: No qualified Soviet government leadership in space research. Ustinov and Smirnov operate without rhyme or reason or plan.
    • Chertok: The entire record of the leadership was one of hundreds of failed decisions.
  • Lack of Korolev's leadership.
    • Mishin: Death of Korolev - 'proverbial drive, determination, and prestige' could have pulled project off.
    • Chertok: N1 would have been successful if Korolev had not died prematurely. He would have had authority to not test until ready, and to change engine vendors if needed.
  • Mishin's incompetence.
    • Kamanin: Mishin appointment huge mistake. Cannot cope with the huge number of projects assigned. He is coarse, rude, doesn't listen to critics. Weakness in sticking to unrealistic schedules of leadership. Lack of discipline of staff, can't work with other bureaux.
    • Chertok: Mishin unable to cope with such development work.
  • 'Khrushchev's project'
    • Korolev: Only support Korolev had in the government at the time the moon project was approved was from Khrushchev
    • Chertok: Khrushchev, it seemed, was to blame for such enormous unaffordable projects. This in turn put Ustinov in danger, as Khrushchev's point man for space.
  • ..leading to Brezhnev's lack of interest.
    • Korolev: Brezhnev, a Ukrainian, backed Yangel, since it would put work into the Ukraine.
  • Mercurial support from Keldysh, Head of the Academy of Sciences.
    • Korolev: Keldysh, the 'eminence grise' -- supported Yangel for ICBM's, Chelomei for the UR-500/LK-1 manned flyby, and Korolev for the N1/L3 lunar lander.
    • Keldysh was preoccupied with the Sakharov issue and was working with Suslov to get Sakharov expelled from the Academy of Sciences.
  • Perpetual conflict within leadership and between Chief Designers.
    • Chertok: Glushko and Ustinov waged a perpetual struggle against Afanasyev, Keldysh, and Mishin. Glushko responsible for convincing Keldysh, and then Ustinov, to cancel N1-L3.
    • Korolev: Yangel had the backing of Brezhnev, a Ukrainian, since it would put work into the Ukraine. Korolev viewed Chelomei as a 'Fifth Column', working through his employee, Khrushchev's son, to undermine and hinder everything Korolev was trying to do.
Technical Approach
  • Propellant controversy: use of Lox/Kerosene propellants.
    • Kamanin: Korolev and Mishin's rejection of Glushko's engines, and the leadership's rejection of the UR-700 as an alternative
    • Glushko: I opposed these propellants in the 1960's because the required schedule and technology resulted in too many independent Lox/Kerosene engines in the N1 design. By 1974 there were many years of development, and the technology was in place to proceed with development of the RD-170.
  • ….leading to use of Kuznetsov engines.
    • Chertok: In Glushko 1961 offered - if Korolev would use the 'packet' scheme for the N1 as on the R-7, Glushko would develop needed 600 tf engines. Korolev rejected after consulting Mishin. Led to use of Kuznetsov engines - but Kuznetsov was a turbine engine designer with no experience in rocket technology.
    • Glushko: Kuznetsov engines for the N1 were rotten
  • N1 - 'inherently flawed design?'
    • Kamanin: N1 may one day fly, but it can never be a reliable booster due to the inherent design flaws
    • Glushko: There was a fundamental error in gas dynamics in the design of the N1.
  • Over-automated approach to spacecraft design.
    • Kamanin: Korolev, Keldysh, Mishin, and Feoktistov are all dedicated to automated spacecraft - 'over-automation'
  • Decision to abandon Vostok early, leading to push for early Soyuz flights.
    • Kamanin: Ustinov and Smirnov's cancellation of the 18 day Voskhod 3 mission, even though the crews had been trained, and the associated pressure on development of Soyuz. This resulted in Soyuz being flown before it was mature, resulting in the death of Komarov and
Not to mention
  • Exhaustion due to limited staff resources, demoralization due to failures.
    • Mishin: Exhaustion, demoralization due to setbacks
    • Kamanin: Death of Korolev and Gagarin both badly affected morale
    • Chertok: Engineers at TsKBEM were tired, burned out, and dispirited.
  • Bad Luck
    • Mishin: Bad luck - N1 was being debugged flight-by-flight, would have got there
  • Failure of Vasiliy Kharchev and Chertok to capture Wernher Von Braun.
    • Tyulin: "this is all Chertok's fault. In 1945 he should have stolen Von Braun from the Americans". "True", Chertok replied, "my adventure with Vasiliy Kharchev didn't turn out too well".

This is quite a list, and all the points are valid. Each actor has his own prejudices -- naturally the engineers don't see anything wrong with their design approach or development practices. But in my opinion, although all of these factors played a part, the overriding factor was very simple: they started too late. IF the leadership had taken seriously Kennedy's challenge in 1961, and given Korolev the go-ahead to build his original N1 according to his original plan, and IF Korolev had the full backing of the Soviet state, then it would have been quite possible to beat the Americans to the moon. He might have even seen the first flight of the booster before his untimely death.

At the very top level were the fundamental systemic problems. These prevented the Soviet Union from successfully completing a number of major projects begun in the 1960's. These included virtually every large-scale aerospace project attempted: the moon program, the supersonic transport, the new generation of military aircraft, and development of digital avionics. The rather personal style of Soviet project management, which depended on the force of personality of the Chief Designer, became inappropriate. Aerospace projects had grown to such a scale that no single organization could do everything and no one person could be watching everything. These problems were recognised by the Soviet leadership, and led in the late 1970's to a drastic revisions in the structure of the Soviet industry, and the implementation of American-style project management and quality assurance techniques. These were learned in part through the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, which gave the Soviets unprecedented access to the nuts and bolts of American technology and management styles.

At the next level was the total lack of support for manned space projects by the Soviet military, who at the same time were required to provide the bulk of the funding. A similar antipathy existed within the American military. (one result was that no American military manned space project, except a few military shuttle flights, ever reached flight status). In the Soviet Union, the rocketry industry had an absolute priority to beat the US in the missile race. This was seen as a matter of national survival, and the civilian space program always took a back seat to the ICBM programs. Therefore even though the moon project was authorised by the VPK Military-Industrial Commission, many ministries and factories not reporting to the VPK simply refused to deliver the equipment required. This led to work-arounds and delays.

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