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The Soviet Plan to Go to the Moon Was Stupid

Illustration for article titled The Soviet Plan to Go to the Moon Was Stupid

I look at the Soviet plans to go to the Moon and I wonder if they secretly contracted the Marx Brothers to design it. I guess it's easy to say that with hindsight—look at the Apollo program—but couldn't they really see that this was not a very smart option?

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This Soviet plan to go to the moon was bound to fail since inception. First, the design of the N-1 rocket was way too complicated; it was underfunded from the beginning. Envisioned by legendary rocket scientist Sergei Korolyov, it arrived too late, years after the Saturn V.

It had too many engines, which introduced too many failure points. The same was true about the number of stages. While the Saturn V only had three stages (plus the engine in the Apollo spacecraft and the Lunar Lander) the N1 had five stages—all kerosene and oxygen-based—plus the LK Lander engine and the LOK engine—the equivalent to the Apollo ship but with room for only two astronauts.

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Illustration for article titled The Soviet Plan to Go to the Moon Was Stupid

But perhaps the most surreal aspect of the program—which is described in this article about new research made by Charles Vick—was their idea for the landing. After reaching lunar orbit, the single astronaut that was going to land on the Moon had to go out of the LOK lunar orbiter through a door, fly to the LK lander, open two hatches, undock the lander, land on the moon, get back up to moon orbit, dock with the orbiter, get out again of the lander carrying a suitcase full of moon samples and whatever else, and fly back to the spacecraft that was going to take him home.

Looks stupid? That's because it is. It boggles the mind that they actually thought this was even a decent idea, let alone one that would be worth the risk of life and ruble.

Fortunately, this wacky procedure was never tested. After Korolyov died in 1966 and the Americans reached the Moon, the N1 project went down in flames—literally: Four launch attempts resulted in total catastrophe, the first one utterly destroying the launch complex from which it was fired. The cosmonauts—Leonov was going to be the chosen one—probably felt relief when Armstrong and Aldrin set foot on the Moon. Their ship looked like a trap. The secret N1 program was suspended in 1974, but the world only first learned about it in 1990.

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Image by Space.com

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DISCUSSION

steven-blyth-old
Steven Blyth

This article is stupidly short for such a bold statement.

-The number of engines isn't really the issue, the issue was more with the concentric ring arrangement of the engines causing shockwaves that ripped apart the lower stage. Large numbers of engines worked well on the R7 (and continue to do well on it's descendent). It took many iterations of design to get the F1 engines working well on the Saturn V due to the sheer size.

-The arrangement for Lunar Earth Orbit is pretty much the same as the The US one, bar having to transfer EV. It probably saved a massive amount of weight by not having to have 4 ingress-egress hatches, as well as fuel required for the docking maneuver on the moon bound leg.

-Having multiple stages is probably a half decent idea, it depends on how much weight is shed vs the excess weight for having to connect the excess multiple stages. Yes more things can go wrong with more stages, but the R7 has a far simpler method of detaching stages than the american rockets, and I'm willing to bet that the N1 had simple stage detachment.

With the singular exception of the N1, which never got past prototype stage, the russians build far more reliable and safer rockets.