During space race, the Russians were leading the game until the Gemini program (Gemini 6/7 rendezvous was the overtaking moment in my opinion). I do not know of any Soviet claim similar to Kennedy's famous speech. (In fact, there was no proclamation until missions ended successfully.)

Did the Russians state somehow that they could reach Moon as well? What are the political, technical or economical reasons they concentrated on low orbit instead? Could Korolëv's death be considered one of main reasons why the Soviets could not keep the pace?

  • $\begingroup$ This question would probably be better suited for History.SE $\endgroup$
    – Gwen
    Jul 18, 2013 at 16:09
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    $\begingroup$ I'm asking also about technical reasons.. I think that capability of rendezvous is a sine-qua-non condition to to a moon landing. Anycase if you decide to move this question, it's better to learn from it when creating FAQ. $\endgroup$
    – user55
    Jul 18, 2013 at 16:24
  • $\begingroup$ Answer could be simplier: "Technical reasons are not relevant to explain why, so for political reasons you should ask on History SE" $\endgroup$
    – user55
    Jul 18, 2013 at 16:29
  • $\begingroup$ @trapo I have to disagree. The Soviet moon race effort was a mix of politics and technology. see my comment below in my answer. $\endgroup$
    – geoffc
    Jul 18, 2013 at 16:43
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    $\begingroup$ @geoffc, sorry. My second comment was related to my first one but I badly expressed myself. I meant, if you moderators decide that this question is more for History SE, let's close it but motivate it saying that main reasons are not technical. From my point of view, your answer is good and full of tech details. I hope that question gets reopened and that you improve answer telling if exists any relation with Korolëv's death. $\endgroup$
    – user55
    Jul 18, 2013 at 18:23

1 Answer 1


Without overtly saying it, the Soviets too were aiming for the moon. It was only after it was clear they lost that they decided they never were even trying.

Also Gemini was post-Kennedy speech and developed to test the techniques needed for Apollo.

The problem they had was a large engine, was not something in house, and was harder to develop than expected. So for the N-1 launcher (Their answer to the Saturn-V) instead for 5 F-1 engines (about 1.5 million lbs thrust) they used 30 (!!!) NK-15s with about 370,000 lbs thrust. (In fact those engines are now being used on Antares! Just renamed to NK-33. Some seem to have actually been built back then for the N-1!).

The F-1 development was very hard, but the US succeeded. And with only 3 stages, and 5 large engines on the first stage, it was possible to launch.

The N-1 with 30 engines on the first stage, and 5 stages in total (A sure sign you lost the design battle is more stages) had all sorts of issues with interactions between so many engines, and due to political pressures was forced to test in all up configuration, with insufficient ground testing to work out those interactions. Thus it failed on all 4 launch attempts.

This is often used as a critique of the SpaceX approach where Falcon 9 is approaching that level of interaction, and Falcon Heavy with 27 main engines even more so.

Of course, that ignores the causes of the Soviet failures (insufficient ground testing before launch attempts) and just focuses on the numerical number of engines.

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    $\begingroup$ Yes, the N-1 launcher failed during its tests and the test program prior to that had its trouble, but it should clearly be noted that answer to the OP's question is politics as the root source of most issues rather than pure technological problems. Also, in the official Soviet view of that time, the Soviet Union did in fact land on the Moon - unmanned - and even returned samples. So the truth is somehow more diverse. $\endgroup$
    – s-m-e
    Jul 18, 2013 at 14:15
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    $\begingroup$ @ernestopheles I was approaching the political reason from the practical one. Soviets followed something of a 'face' or 'honour/shame' culture, so that only success could be discussed. Ergo, had they succeeded, they would have been in the race all along, and look then won. When it was clear they could not win, it was "What moon race? We were never in a moon race" Or at best sample return is better than boots on the ground. basically agreeing, it is diverse. $\endgroup$
    – geoffc
    Jul 18, 2013 at 14:42
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    $\begingroup$ Kennedy said that putting a man on the moon "serves to measure the best". The challenge being to get there first... no political points for coming in second. The Soviets were definitely in the race to the moon, but were overtaken by the Americans. Once the Americans succeeded with Apollo 11, and especially after they replicated their success with Apollo 12, there was no purpose for the Soviets to continue their manned moon program. Thus, they never went because there was no reason to. $\endgroup$
    – Anthony X
    May 11, 2014 at 19:24
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    $\begingroup$ "Numerical number" is the king of pleonasms. More generally, this answer is difficult to read. $\endgroup$ Sep 7, 2014 at 15:08
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    $\begingroup$ The NK-33 is a successor to the NK-15. They are similar, but not identical. The NK-33 was designed to be run more than once, unlike the NK-15. This meant they could run the engine on a test stand before using it on a launch. The plan was to use the NK-33 from the fifth launch of the N-1 onwards, so the Soviets produced a pile of them. When the N-1 was canceled after the fourth launch, the NK-33s (around 60 of them) were stored in a warehouse until the Soviet regime fell. $\endgroup$
    – Hobbes
    Jun 12, 2015 at 8:19

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