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I know that 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 why? They had a head start in the space race by focusing on it early on. What kept them from building a powerful rocket?

I think I saw a documentary that mentioned that large rockets like Saturn V could have vibration problems that would destroy them, but why couldn't the Soviets solve them? It's not like they lacked the relevant talent. They built an H-bomb and wrote the most comprehensive Theoretical Physics textbook around that time.

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    $\begingroup$ mayyyyyyyyyyyybe not a duplicate, but certainly very related to What caused the N1 to become a failure $\endgroup$
    – Erin Anne
    Commented Nov 26, 2023 at 23:11
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    $\begingroup$ They did build a powerful rocket, the N1 (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/N1_(rocket) ). They lost the space race mainly because they couldn't match the US's spending. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 26, 2023 at 23:28
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    $\begingroup$ This is a very broad question, it's almost a book topic. Not that it's a bad topic, it's actually very interesting, just that there may not be a single, factual based answer as it's a mix of ego, design faults, politics and several other factors. $\endgroup$
    – GdD
    Commented Nov 27, 2023 at 9:03
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    $\begingroup$ What kept the Soviets from going to the Moon? Mostly gravity. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 28, 2023 at 0:50
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    $\begingroup$ If anyone wonders about the physics textbook, I guess OP meant Landau and Lifshitz. It's still in wide use! $\endgroup$
    – Trang Oul
    Commented Nov 28, 2023 at 10:28

8 Answers 8

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Conveniently, NASA has a report which explains the Soviet moon-lander program at great length. It is available for free here.

As usual, the only real answer is "the totality of circumstances." There was no one smoking gun that killed the Soviet program.

For example, other answers mention Korolev as central to their space program (which I mention purely because it's a good illustration of this point, not because it's a bad answer). But why should that be the case, when Russia produced one of the three generally-recognized pioneers of rocketry, and leaned into rockets harder and earlier than anyone except (maybe) Germany? It's easy and correct to note that Korolev was a key dependency, but that's more a symptom of several other underlying causes than an explanation of why.

Unfortunately, Mencken had the right of it when he said that "For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong." So, I'll point you at Siddiq's work (the NASA one above) as muddy, complex, and thorough instead.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 and thanks for the link. They do give a "simple" root cause though (p. 858), which is, basically "Their politicians did not understand the tech, and so their techies got too much power, which they abused". I don't think anyone would argue that the US politicians are great scientific minds. So this kind of reads like "the US managed to keep the techies in their place", which is ... interesting. $\endgroup$
    – MWB
    Commented Nov 27, 2023 at 20:01
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    $\begingroup$ @MWB In a manner of speaking, we did, by keeping an insulating layer between the engineers and politicians: the NASA administration. A dedicated management who can play politics and push the merits of various missions, while letting their subordinates focus on the technical details, changes the calculus immensely. For instance, read up on the Apollo debate between Earth Orbit Rendezvous and Lunar Orbit Rendezvous and then imagine that each side had their own bureau complete with their own political patrons! $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Commented Nov 28, 2023 at 8:48
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    $\begingroup$ To this day, NASA is very strict about having Headquarters in between engineers, and Congress and the public. There's also a realization that NASA had talented politicians on board during Apollo... one of them got a space telescope named after him. $\endgroup$
    – user71659
    Commented Nov 28, 2023 at 9:09
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    $\begingroup$ @Cadence "the NASA administration" -- And then these admins commissioned a study to find out why the US won the space race, and the study discovered that it was the admins? :-) $\endgroup$
    – MWB
    Commented Nov 28, 2023 at 9:15
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    $\begingroup$ @mwb make sure to check the sources, and the dates. There was a lot of new, or at least newly formalised project management stuff that came out of Apollo (waterfall) that gets credited for the success. There is also some modern re-assessment that maybe some of what they did only worked with an Apollo sized budget and should only be directly copied by your business if you also want to spend money like they did. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 28, 2023 at 13:04
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Russell Borogove's comment deserves to be an answer - the Soviets did not have the resources to put into it. Designing, building, and testing all the components of a moon landing mission takes an immense amount of staffing and other resources, and the US outspent them by a lot.

A second reason is that Sergei Korolev died in 1966. He was central to their space program. If von Braun had died it would have set the American program back as well.

I think they would have eventually gotten the N1 to work. They just ran out of time due to a combination of fewer resources and bad luck.

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    $\begingroup$ It also didn't help that the Soviet military didn't view the N1 as having military potential, so they weren't championing its development. There were also historical personal issues between Korolev & Glushko (Soviet chief rocket engine designer) & a difference of opinion between the two regarding what fuel the N1 should use. Glushko wanted hypergolic fuel. $\endgroup$
    – Fred
    Commented Nov 27, 2023 at 5:45
  • $\begingroup$ The TV series For All Mankind follows up on the second reason (with the general assumption that the Soviets could maintain their spending power). $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Commented Nov 27, 2023 at 13:23
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    $\begingroup$ @Fred, Glushko winning the argument probably would have made the path to the Moon even harder -- hypergolics don't have the specific impulse needed for really large payloads. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented Nov 28, 2023 at 4:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark The issue wasn't that they disagreed about the N-1 specifically, they had this argument about every big Soviet rocket, even before Sputnik. But eventually Glushko went behind Korolev's back to another rocket designer who would actually put nitric acid/UDMH engines in an ICBM and pitched it to the military (kerolox is great for space but bad for nuclear deterrent) and that led to tremendous friction between Korolev and Glushko, Korolev and Khrushchev, and Korolev and the military at a critical time in the space program's development. $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Commented Nov 30, 2023 at 12:23
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I think I saw a documentary that mentioned that large rockets like Saturn V could have vibration problems that would destroy them, but why couldn't the Soviets solve them?

Only the first of the four N-1 launches had this type of problem (pogo oscillations), suggesting the Soviets had solved this.

What kept them from building a powerful rocket?

Internal politics. They didn't take the Apollo program seriously at first, then there was infighting on what type of rocket to use. Only in 1965 did the N-1 program get underway. As @Russell Borogove said, they didn't (couldn't) pour money into the program at the rate the US did (the N-1 program was funded at about 1/20 the level of Apollo), which meant development progressed more slowly. Being behind the Americans, they tried to skip steps, e.g. by not building a test stand that could handle the first stage. This meant they had to do a lot of testing by launching complete rockets instead.

Then they hit another setback in 1969, when the second launch of the N-1 not only failed, but destroyed both launch pads (which were right next to each other).

Once Apollo 11 had landed on the moon, they basically gave up. The new head of the Russian space program didn't like the N-1 (he designed a competitor to the N-1).

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I will assume that by "going to the Moon" the question is about landing humans on the lunar surface, not just circling the Moon. If so the question seems to make an assumption that all that is needed to land humans on the Moon is a powerful enough rocket. While a rocket with sufficient lifting capability is of course required, what is also needed are spacecraft capable of carrying astronauts to the Moon, landing them safely on the surface, bringing them back to Earth, and reentering Earth's atmosphere at much higher speed than reentering the atmosphere from low Earth orbit. Accomplishing all of this using 1960's technology was a monumental effort which involved hundreds of thousands of people over nearly an entire decade, and it required pushing technology and innovation to the limit.

While the Soviets during the early space race period were successful in their rocket designs (other than the N1), they had mixed results in their attempts to send probes to the Moon, Venus and Mars. Although they did have several successes and historic firsts, reliability of their spacecraft was something that the Soviets seemed to struggle with more than the U.S. did. The U.S. certainly had failures also, but seemed to demonstrate more technical capability operating spacecraft beyond low Earth orbit. It's a good possibility that even if the Russians had developed the N1 rocket, they may not have been able to successfully land cosmonauts on the Moon and return them safely to Earth before the U.S. did.

"They (Soviets) had a head start in the space race by focusing on it early on."

Discussions about U.S. vs. Soviet space programs are always susceptible to a bit of nationalistic bias, but in terms of the early space race I think it's pretty fair to say that both sides were pretty evenly matched. In 1945 both the U.S. and Russia scooped up German rockets, rocket plans, and rocket scientists. The U.S. had a slight advantage by getting lead German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun and his team, but the Russian rocket scientists had no problem reverse engineering the V-2 rocket.

Both sides worked diligently over the next decade to put the first satellite into orbit (while simultaneously developing ICBM capability). Political complications in the U.S. delayed the launch of the first U.S. satellite, allowing the Soviets to claim that title in 1957, beating the U.S. by several months. This takes nothing away from the Soviet achievement, and the credit is well deserved. But it was not the indication of a lack of capability on the part of the U.S. that Soviet propaganda at the time tried to claim.

The Soviets also put the first human into orbit in 1961, again an important achievement. But Soviet spacecraft development after that was slow compared to the U.S. The introduction of the Gemini capsule in 1965 put the U.S. in the technical lead, and this was followed soon afterwards by the Apollo capsule in 1968 and Lunar Module spacecraft in 1969, which made eight successful trips to the Moon out of nine attempts, and in all nine cases returned the astronauts safely to Earth. We have since learned that many of the Russian failures (and some of the successes) were due to pushing by the Soviet leadership to move faster than the engineers considered safe. While this certainly happened in the U.S. also, as evidenced by the Apollo 1 fire, this seemed to be a persistent problem in the early Soviet space program, and in fact is what many blame the N1 launch failures on. While all we can do is speculate, there would seem to be a greater possibility that a rushed Soviet human lunar landing attempt prior to July 1969 would have ended in failure and possibly disaster.

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    $\begingroup$ Not helping things was a general trend for Soviet missions to focus on setting records. Every manned mission in the Vostok/Vokshod program was a "first" or a "longest", while Mercury mostly concentrated on figuring out how to do things in space. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented Nov 28, 2023 at 4:58
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Generally, I think that there's this mythos about how the Soviet Space Program was superior to the US one, or, more specifically, "red"washing on this topic that paints them as far more competitive with the US than they actually were in reality.

While it is true that the Soviets were able to eeke a handful of notable "firsts" like "satellite in orbit" or "man in orbit" against the USA among others, these calendar-victories almost always came at the cost of scientific rigor and long-term sustainability. While both nations placed great value on the prestige aspects, the Soviets repeatedly showed they were willing to accept more risk, achieve less scientifically, and expend less capital resources, to take the lead in the milestone-footrace.

One great example of this is Sputnik itself. Yes, they beat the US and shocked the world, however Sputnik was pure "PR-machine". It had absolutely no scientific instrumentation, and all scientific value gained from it could've come from putting literally anything into orbit.

Meanwhile, the USA's very first satellite, Explorer 1, contained a multitude of important scientific experiments including multiple temperature sensors, a comprehensive micrometeorite detection system, and a radiation sensing system that allowed Van-Allen to detect (and name) the Van-Allen radiation belts around the Earth.

Now consider that Explorer 1 was launched less than four months after Sputnik.

So, yes, the Soviets "won" the sprint, but even in the earliest moves of the space race, their moves show that they're willing to sacrifice the marathon performance for a shiny medal.

Now, this plays into why they lost the space race and were never able to get the N-1 and many of their more ambitious fantasies to work: the foundation they were building on was simply too focused on short term public-relations victories and military applications, and not focused enough on scientific and engineering rigor to succeed at what is still, to date, probably the most complicated and technically impressive feat in the history of humanity (landing on the moon). This, of course, compounds with what other answers have pointed out like lack of funding, interest, and the death of key figures.

Here's a video (warning, long) on the topic that I believe takes a rather fair and only slightly biased take on this topic.

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    $\begingroup$ To my understanding the sputnik was such a chock because if you can put things into orbit, you can send nukes to anywhere in the world, including continental US. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 28, 2023 at 18:41
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Sergei Korolev was the man in charge of the Soviet moonshot N1 rocket, and I'd argue that the root cause of that program's failure was his insistence on using oxygen/kerosene-powered (cryogenic propellant) rocket engines for this endeavour - as opposed to the existing, proven hypergolic-propellant designs of Valentin Glushko.

Glushko took this demand for cryogenic propellant engines... poorly, and consequently refused to work with Korolev in any way shape or form (including in supplying or assisting with the use of his existing hypergolic ones). Given that Glushko's engines were used to power the USSR's ICBM fleet, which were critical to deterring a USA nuclear strike, he was one of the most important men in the nation and this temper tantrum was thus ignored by the Soviet leadership.

So the Soviet moon program started without any engines (on top of being 3 years later than the USA's). In order to get the engines he needed, Korolev was forced to turn to Nikolai Kuznetsov, a brilliant aircraft engine designer. That's right, Kuznetsov had zero experience designing rocket engines - but he was able to relatively quickly create the oxygen/kerosene NK-15. While this was a fundamentally sound design later developed into the very successful NK-33 and -43 engines, it had never been fully tested - and especially, not in orbit.

Kuznetsov's engine was also a relatively small powerplant, with correspondingly low thrust; compared to the American Saturn V rocket that used five F1 engines, the Soviet N1 needed thirty NK-15s. Yes, thirty engines of a completely new design, that had never been verified... what could go wrong? Predictably, the first two N1 launches were complete failures resulting in the complete destruction of the launch vehicle (and the pad in the second instance), caused entirely by the engines and their interactions with each other and the rocket's other systems.

Given that the second launch attempt occurred only a few months before the successful American manned moon landing, by the time the NK-15 had been thoroughly debugged for the third launch in 1971 (which also failed, but this time not due to the engines), the Soviet moonshot was as dead as Korolev. Glushko eventually took over the entire Soviet space program, and one of his first acts was to (arguably mercifully) terminate the N1 program.

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  • $\begingroup$ It's not clear that the Korolev-Glushko disagreement was as important as it sounds. In 1963, when the decision to go with Kuznetsov was made, Glushko's biggest engine was comparable to the NK-15. It took Glushko seven years to develop the RD-270 as a counterpart to the F-1 -- solving combustion instabilities in a large engine is at least as hard as getting the plumbing right for a massive engine cluster. The big issue with the NK-15 was a lack of testing (and lack of resources for testing). $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 5:26
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark Glushko's biggest engine wasn't starting from scratch like the NK-15, though. The time it took Kuznetsov to design his engine from scratch is time that could have instead been used to integration test Glushko's engines. $\endgroup$
    – Ian Kemp
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 10:55
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    $\begingroup$ @MWB Both men were victims of Stalin's idiotic purges. To save his own skin Glushko was forced to make false charges against Korolev, who ended up in the Gulag as a result. Arguably, the deprivations Korolev suffered there eventually necessitated the 1966 surgery that killed him. Such a tragic waste of such a brilliant mind. $\endgroup$
    – Ian Kemp
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 17:39
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I think I saw a documentary that mentioned that large rockets like Saturn V could have vibration problems that would destroy them, but why couldn't the Soviets solve them? It's not like they lacked the relevant talent.

There's another significant factor unmentioned here: the Soviet mentality of risk aversion. Both the US and Soviet programs experienced failure, but the Soviets had a crippling aversion to culpability. The Apollo 1 disaster taught the US a lot of lessons at a very high cost.

[NASA policy] declared, "It is NASA policy to investigate and document the causes of all major mission failures which occur in the conduct of its space and aeronautical activities and to take appropriate corrective actions as a result of the findings and recommendations."

The subsequent investigation sussed out the causes of the fire and why the astronauts could not escape the fire. That lead to a major redesign of the Command Module. The Soviet engineers, however, had to find reasons for failure that would not kill the N1 program (emphasis mine)

Investigators were picking up debris from the blast including engines as far as one kilometer from the pad. They discovered that the turbopump of engine No. 8 had signs of melting and damage from an internal explosion, unlike the other 29 engines. The force of this blast was fatal for the entire rocket. Various arteries leading to other engines were severed. A huge fire likely fed by the severed propellant lines started the immediate destruction of the lower portion of the first stage. Still, Chertok admitted that, at the last moment, the KORD system registered out-of-limit parameters on pressure and turbopump rotation rates in engines No. 7, 19, 20 and 21 and cut off all these engines. The telemetry did not reveal how or why other engines had been shut down. Investigators apparently could never establish why engine No. 18 continued firing in the midst of total pandemonium.

Under pressure to find a culprit in the initial explosion, propulsion engineers at the Kuznetsov design bureau insisted that some foreign object must have entered the pump. They hypothesized that a steel diaphragm from a pulsation pressure sensor could have been torn off and ingested into the oxidizer pump. The evaluation of the sensor and various experiments trying to simulate this scenario brought inconclusive results. No other candidates for a "foreign object" in the pump could be identified.

Any suggestion that the pump could explode all by itself was politically unacceptable, since it would stall the entire Soviet lunar program. Chertok quoted a theory first put forward by TsKBEM engineer Ivan Raykov according to which a very slight shift of the pump's rotor off its rotation axis could cause its blades to scrape the static part of the pump and produce sparks. In the presence of liquid oxygen, it would lead to an immediate explosion. Again, it was impossible to prove or disprove such a scenario. Therefore, from then on, a "foreign object" became a favorite excuse for engine failures for the lack of better explanations.

This "pass the buck" mentality meant that real problems were sometimes not addressed adequately, if at all. Subsequently, none of the N1 rockets ever made it to orbit, let alone to the Moon.

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The Soviet attempt to reach the moon before the US was a marred by conflict with military priorities and conflict between designers over rockets, mission design and engines. Formal approval for a realistic lunar-dedicated super-heavy N1 booster was only given in 1964, 4 years after the US began the Apollo-Saturn project. The untimely death of the chief designer, Sergei Korolev, in 1966, likely derailed the N1 project entirely. Subsequently the N1 suffered a series of catastrophic launch failures. The project was suspended in 1974 and officially cancelled in 1976, dooming any Soviet moon landing.

When the Soviets became aware of the US intention to land a man on the moon (at Kennedy's May 1961 announcement) Sergei Korolev, the chief designer behind both the military and civilian Soviet rocket program, sought to develop a super-heavy N1 entirely for a manned lunar mission. However, the N1 was poorly funded for many years as the military considered ICBMs were the priority.

Much like the early US space program, the Soviet space program grew out of the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). Soyuz itself was part of the R-7 rocket family, primarily intended as an ICBM. The first test launch of the family was the ICBM R-7 Semyorka on 15 May 1957. The "civilian" Sputnik 1 satellite - the very first satellite - was launched using an R-7 variant, the Soyuz, in October 1957. The R7 Semyorka would later carry a 3-5 Mt warhead, becoming the USSR's first operational ICBM in September 1960, about a year after the SM-65 Atlas.

An early proposal was to use multiple Soyuz launches to assemble a lunar "package" in Earth orbit. Complex, expensive and impractical, this was ultimately abandoned.

Another designer, Vladimir Chelomey, proposed a mission based on multiple UR-200 ICBMs and later a single UR-500 booster. The UR-500 was designed to launch a single 100 Mt warhead. It later became the very successful, and largely civilian, Proton rocket family. The Proton would allow a lunar mission with a single Cosmonaut, but only on a lunar flyby, not a landing. It was hoped this would be achieved prior to the US's first lunar (non-landing) mission, Apollo 10. The USSR rocket forces were also reluctant to divert resources to Chelomey's proposed mission.

Meanwhile, Korolev sought to draw funding for his N1 design by trying to sell it as an ICBM for the Tsar Bomba, the largest nuclear bomb of all time. But the military saw a Soviet lunar mission as an expensive distraction, that could not be justified unless it was a minor modification to its ICBM program.

Korolev also clashed fiercely with Valentin Glushko, who had a monopoly on Soviet rocket engine design and production. Glushko's designs used (toxic) hypergolic bipropellants for his ICBMs, which Korolev considered too risky for a manned mission. Glushko refused outright to design an engine using Korolev's preferred LOX/kerosene fuel.

Korolev ultimately sought the help of Nikolai Kuznetsov, a jet engine designer - with limited rocker design experience - to build the NK-15 LOX/kerosene fueled rocket motors. The NK-15 was much smaller than the Saturn V F-1 engines. As a consequence 30 NK-15s were required for the N1 booster.

Much like the SpaceX Super Heavy the first stage had a large number of smaller engines (30 vs 33 for the Super). Like the Super Heavy the Soviets were using a new fuel for the first time (RP-1/LOX, like the Saturn V Stage 1, methane/LOX for the Super). And much like the Super Heavy and the SpaceX Starship, the rushed development resulted in the N1 suffering multiple early failures.

During testing, which began in February 1969, 3 years after Korolev's death, there were 4 consecutive failures after launch, one of which was a spectacular explosion. At the time of the last test launch failure in November 1972, Apollo 16 had already landed on the moon. The final of the six US lunar landing missions, Apollo 17, touched down on the moon in December 1972. Interestingly, Apollo used a lunar orbit rendezvous mission, the same design intended by Korolev for his N1.

After Korolev's death and the N1 launch failures, Glushko, who by then had been appointed manager of the program, suspended the N1 development. He ultimately cancelled it in 1976, and then, teaming up with other designers in that year, commenced the development of the successful Energia super-heavy booster. However, the propaganda and national pride incentive for a Soviet lunar mission had long been lost.

Korolev was the father of the Soviet space program. Under his leadership the Soviets achieved many space milestones prior to the US, but given the N1 development was started so late, initially underfunded, rushed and then mired in conflict between designers (Korolev vs Glushko and Korolev vs Chelomey), it's unlikely - even if Korolev lived - that the Soviets would have got to the Moon first. It was too late to compete with the US Apollo program.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/N1_(rocket)

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  • $\begingroup$ Your answer seems to be self-contradictory: "It was Korolev's death, but when he died it was already too late for the USSR to compete" $\endgroup$
    – MWB
    Commented Mar 20 at 14:01
  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Space Exploration Stack Exchange! You may want to read through the other previous answers as most of this was already covered. As you mentioned the loss of Korolev may not have made a difference in the end, because as you said (and mentioned by others) the program started late. Would you be able to elaborate on this aspect, i.e. some details on how and when the Russian program started and maybe how early they would have needed to start it? $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 20 at 14:08

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