N-1 was a super rocket, which might have been a start of the new space exploration era
The project of a Russian manned flight to the Moon was called Project N-1. The press has been publishing a lot of reports about the USSR's Moon ambition lately, especially on the threshold of the Space Day, on April 12th. However, very few of them can be called objective reports. They usually talk about the rocket, whereas people are pushed somewhere far into the background.
The Soviet rocket to the Moon was developed in the Kuibyshev region of Russia, the project was launched in 1958 by Sergey Korolev, the chief engineer of the Soviet space industry. Korolev dreamed about a manned flight to space, he even dreamed of travelling to other planets. Sergey Korolev chose Kuibyshev-based company Progress to build the rocket. Back in those years, the company produced heavy Tu-16 bomber planes. The first rocket was built a year later - it was R-7, the would-be Soyuz carrier rocket. The modification of that rocket glorified Yury Gagarin, the first man in space, in the spring of 1961. Later on, the rocket became the basis for the creation of the missile shield of the USSR - R-9 long-distance ballistic missile.
The Soviet government was satisfied with the results of the company's activity. Sergey Korolev put forward the idea to launch the series production of rockets, and the production turned out to be economically profitable.
In 1960, the Soviet government issued a decree about the creation of a new N-1 rocket. The rocket was capable of taking up to 50 tons of cargo to the orbit. Academician Mstislav Keldysh approved the sketch plan of the first mission to the Moon in 1966. The N-1 rocket was not meant as a moon rocket only. In case of successful tests, the rocket was supposed to be used for delivering space stations, cargoes, satellites and orbital spacecraft to the near-Earth orbit. Nevertheless, the prime goal of the N-1 rocket was a Soviet mission to the Moon. According to the approved plan, one Soviet cosmonaut was supposed to land on the Moon, while the second cosmonaut was supposed to wait for his comrade on the Moon orbit.
The company Progress started working on the rocket in the beginning of 1966. The Soviet government had to set a very short term for the implementation of the project. The Kremlin found out that Americans were going to fly to the Moon in 1969, so Soviet scientists had only three years to excel.
It became known during the projecting stage that the traditional rocket fuel - kerosene and liquefied oxygen - was not good for a moon mission. There was a strong need to develop new engines, new fuel, so this objective was entrusted to academician Valentin Glushko. Glushko was an ambitious person – he believed that nitric acid and fluorine would be the best fuel for the first moon rocket. Yet, Sergey Korolev was aware of the damage that those toxic substances could cause to environment, so he suggested an alternative: hydrogen and liquefied oxygen. The two scientists argued with each other, and Korolev asked another academician, Nikolay Kuznetsov, to develop a rocket engine. Kuznetsov completed the task during a very short period of time.
Lev Nikitin worked as the deputy chief engineer of the company Progress at the time when N-1 rocket was being built. "The rocket was huge! It was 104 meters high, the diameter of the lower stage was 17 meters! One may say that a lot of technical decisions that Progress made for the rocket were revolutionary. However, the size of the rocket did not allow to carry it over to a cosmodrome. We eventually decided to assemble the rocket right there on the Baikonur cosmodrome. More than 10,000 specialists took part in the assembling stage of the project. That was a very hard and responsible work for all of us. If someone did not obey the rules - they were sent home immediately. I am very proud of the people that I worked with in Baikonur - they were all first-class professionals," Nikitin recollects.
The Progress administration believed that they could proceed without any pre-launch tests. Only the Communist Party managed to convince them to test the rocket before launching it.
When the N-1 rocket was finally completed, preparations to the moon flight started experiencing one failure after another. Troubles started with Sergey Korolev's death in January of 1966, which eventually led to numerous discrepancies between his deputies. Vasily Mishin was appointed for the position of the chief engineer of the space industry. Mishin invited a group of Progress's leading specialists to discuss final problems connected with the N-1 rocket.
Gennady Soshnin was the chief of the control station of the rocket at that time. "We received about three thousand various remarks from the government about the first rocket. It took us three days to consider them all. As a result, we issued a positive permission for our rocket: the first flight took place on February 21st, 1969. When the rocket took off for the height of 100 meters, we all believed that out creation would fly. However, a fire occurred in the back part of the rocket several seconds later. Yet, the state committee considered the first flight "partially successful." The second test flight took place in about five months, but it was not a success either. A powerful explosion happened on account of the oxygen pump defect, which destroyed the unique start complex. The third test flight was performed in July of 1971. There were four test flights in total, and all of them were not successful. It was a horrible experience for all of us," Gennady Soshnin remembers.
The fifth launch was scheduled to take place in August of 1974, and the sixth - at the end of the same year. However, they were not meant to happen. The Soviet government ruled to stop all works about the Soviet moon program. Dmitry Ustinov, the head of the industrial and military committee of the Cabinet of Ministers of the USSR said at one of the meetings: "Americans landed on the Moon in 1969. We, Russians, are not supposed to come second. If we failed to leave the USA behind, we will deal with the Moon exploration program with the help of the automatic spacecraft." Indeed, Soviet scientists achieved great progress, exploring the Moon with rovers.
When the moon program was stopped, several N-1 rockets were destroyed. Huge spherical tanks were used for dance floors, rocket pipes were used for water supplies. The government blamed Progress specialists for the fact that the N-1 project had failed. The company's director, Afanasy Lenkov was courageous enough to take the governmental criticism.
Nine years later, Valentin Glushko developed another powerful carrier rocket Energia, which launched the Soviet shuttle Buran. If the Soviet government had prolonged N-1 tests in 1974, space shuttles had appeared in the USSR by the end of the 1970s, probably. N-1 was a super-rocket, the Soviet Union might have launched the new era of the space industry with its help.