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Saturn V's payload was 140 tons, about 20 times that of Soyuz. The Soviets did not have a functioning rocket with similar characteristics. But couldn't they launch 20 Soyuz rockets, assemble the vehicle in orbit from 20 parts and proceed to the moon from there?

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  • $\begingroup$ Moon landing, no. Moon orbit, yes. They had no on-orbit construction ability and only very limited docking ability, so multivehicle plans were not popular. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soyuz-A . Lots of info at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet_crewed_lunar_programs $\endgroup$ – PcMan Feb 22 at 6:39
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    $\begingroup$ The Soviets got to the moon first and brought some back, they just never put a Soviet on the moon. They had basically all the noticeable firsts, they just didn't get the 'last' one. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Feb 22 at 14:46
  • $\begingroup$ @Mazura, "first rendezvous" and "first docking" were both non-Soviet firsts, and some of the other firsts have rather large asterisks after them (eg. Luna 1 wasn't supposed to be the first object in a heliocentric orbit, it was a lunar impactor that missed its target). $\endgroup$ – Mark Feb 25 at 3:42
  • $\begingroup$ "first satellite in orbit? USSR. first living being in space? USSR. first man in space? USSR. first space walk? USSR. first satellite to orbit the moon? USSR. first soft lunar landing? USSR. first lunar mission to return samples to earth? USSR. first manned mission to the moon? USA (yay finally!! good work USA)" – Why was Venus rather than Mars targeted for the first interplanetary landings? $\endgroup$ – Mazura Feb 25 at 3:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Mazura "first lunar mission to return samples to earth? USSR" Luna 16 flew a year after Apollo 11. $\endgroup$ – bobcat Feb 25 at 4:20
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To build a translunar stage of around 80 tons from the 7 ton payloads that could be launched on the Soyuz booster would require extensive assembly work to be done by astronauts in orbit, which was beyond the experience of either the US or the USSR in the 1960s.

Before settling on the single large Saturn V and lunar orbit rendezvous, the US contemplated using two or three smaller boosters such as the Saturn C-3 (never built, but intended to put around 45 tons into LEO), which would launch the Apollo spacecraft, a transfer stage, and a tanker into LEO, and fuel the transfer stage in orbit. That would require docking and fuel transfer, but no mechanical assembly.

Assembling a transfer stage from Soyuz-sized (~7 ton) components would be a much more complex undertaking. The USSR's chief designer Korolev did consider it in early 1961, but the launches of the individual components would have to occur in rapid succession in order for the entire complex to be assembled before the components ran out of consumables. This would increase both fixed costs, constructing more launch pads and control centers, and ongoing costs, with multiple concurrent launch campaigns. Furthermore, constructing a large lunar transfer stage from small modules would be less mass-efficient, requiring more structural dead weight -- multiple small fuel tanks would have to be plumbed together, for instance.

Korolev quickly turned to designing the single-launch N1 booster, nearly as powerful as the Saturn V. It managed a few unsuccessful test flights, but fell to budget cuts after the US won the race to the moon.

After 1961, it's clear that the USSR wasn't giving a multiple-launch solution any serious consideration. Assembling a spacecraft in orbit would require extensive extra-vehicular-activity (EVA) work on the part of astronauts, which the US learned was surprisingly difficult during Project Gemini. The USSR did achieve the first spacewalk in 1965 with Voskhod 2, but that was done mainly for show, and they didn't perform another EVA until Soyuz 4 and 5]8 in 1969. In addition to the first US spacewalk on Gemini IV, the last four Gemini flights (Gemini IX-A, Gemini X, Gemini XI, and Gemini XII) focused on learning how to move and work on spacewalks.

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    $\begingroup$ Actually the Apollos DID do "construction" in orbit. The CSM had to pull away from the LM, flip 180 degrees, and dock with it. Then the LM had to dock with the CSM when it returned from the lunar surface. No EVA needed. Granted, these separate parts were launched on the same Saturn V, but with a different design the parts could have been launched separately. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Feb 22 at 18:07
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    $\begingroup$ I wouldn't call that "construction"; that's the distinction I'm making in my second paragraph. You could envision 10 or more 7-ton modules that could be connected by docking maneuvers with no EVA into a usable translunar stage, but the required docking hardware, stabilization, multiple small propellant tanks instead of single larger ones, would add up to a lot of wasted mass, and the Soviet lunar program was already going to be severely mass-compromised by the lack of a powerful H2 stage. $\endgroup$ – Russell Borogove Feb 22 at 18:22
  • $\begingroup$ "would have to occur in rapid succession" -- Is that a problem? BTW Wikipedia does not include a single citation in that section. $\endgroup$ – bobcat Feb 22 at 18:29
  • $\begingroup$ @bobcat I'd think so. You'd need more launch pads, more staff to manage multiple concurrent launch campaigns, more control centers operating concurrently, and so forth. Both one-time (construction) and ongoing (operation) costs would be greatly increased. $\endgroup$ – Russell Borogove Feb 22 at 18:31
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No. The possibility of using the Universal rocket was considered.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_Rocket

enter image description here

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"Could" is very open ended. In-flight refueling is something that NASA has not pursued heretofore (lest it impact other rocket development). It would have to be worked out. Sergei Korolev proposed launching components to be assembled in orbit. Getting everything assembled would also have to be worked out (but seems feasible given Gemini 11). It seems feasible in the sense of physically possible, but keep in mind the internal factor of developing the N-1 rocket (see NASA above) and the external factor of racing with the Americans. Considering this, almost anything might change could to could-not. I think Kerbel space program has been used to demonstrate feasibility.

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