Conventional wisdom about why the Russians lost the moon race is that their technology was inferior and simply could not match the sophistication of Apollo. During the 1970s and 1980s, most Western observers took the view that the Soviet Union never had the technical capacity to send cosmonauts to the moon or land them on it.

Examination of the two paths taken to the moon by the space superpowers shows that this is not the case. The Soviet Union: [10]

• Successfully tested out its lunar lander in Earth orbit (T2K: Cosmos 379, 398, 434).

• Built and flew a manned spacecraft for the moon mission that continues to fly to the present day (Soyuz).

• Tested out the key manoeuvres for landing on the moon (Cosmos 382).

• Built high-performance first-stage rocket engines, the RD-270; and the hydrogen – powered upper stages developed by the Lyulka and Isayev bureaux.

• Flew a sophisticated programme of unmanned lunar exploration, with three sample return missions (Luna 16, 20, 24), two rovers (Lunokhod 1, 2) and two orbiters (Luna 19, 22).

• Developed and tested (Soyuz 4/5) a successful spacesuit, now the Orlan.

• Built a worldwide land – and sea-based tracking network.

• Pioneered the sophisticated high-speed skip reentry technique.

It is true that the N-1 was not flown successfully. However, the balance of probability is that it would have flown successfully in 1974. The N-1 was the first rocket to have a fully digital computer control system, far ahead of its time. The engine developed for the N-1, the NK-33, was tested in the 1990s and shown to be one of the best in the world, not just then but 30 years later. There are very few rocket programmes where a rocket has not been eventually tamed. Ironically, one of the few others was Europa, cancelled at almost the same time as the N-1 (April 1973) after six failures in a row. Likewise, the roots of that cancellation were political rather than technical.

Students of history therefore cannot explain the Soviet failure in terms of techno­logical shortcomings alone, but must look deeper. The failure of the Soviet Union to reach the moon was, at its heart, a political and organizational failure, not a technical one. Writing about these events years later, Chief Designer Vasili Mishin blamed under-investment, lack of financial control, the dispersal of effort between design bureaux and poor management of the 26 government departments and 500 enterprises involved. The investment was only 2.9bn roubles or $4.5bn compared with Apollo’s $24bn. ‘They underestimated the technical difficulties involved and should have done ground-testing,’ he said.

These judgements, although some might criticize them as self-serving, probably come quite close to the mark, and it may be useful to deal with each in turn. First, the Soviet Union probably had only half the national resources to draw on in mounting a moon expedition than those of the United States. Throughout the moon race, the Soviet Union’s gross national product (GNP) was about half that of the United States. In 1957, the United States’ GNP was $450bn, the Soviet Union’s $210bn, 46.6% of the former. In 1969, the year of the moon landing, the United States’ GNP was $930bn, the Soviet Union’s $407bn, a slight relative disimprovement at 43.7% [25]. Even if the Soviet proportion of GNP spent on space was more, it was still much less than the American spending, on a dollar-for-dollar basis. American estimates are that the USSR spent about 1.25% of its GNP on the space programme during its peak years, 1966-70. Central Intelligence Agency estimates are that Russian spending rose from $1bn in 1962 to $5bn in 1966, levelling off at $5.5bn during the peak of the moon race [26]. Of this, the N-l accounted for about 20% of spending, or $4.8bn (quite close to Mishin’s figure).

A lower rate of spending was not necessarily an overwhelming problem, if those smaller resources had been very carefully spent. During the early days of the space programme, later and romantically called ‘the golden years’, the Soviet Union had clearly punched far above its weight through the astute deployment of limited resources. From the early 1960s, the Soviet Union began to squander its limited resources. The decision of 1964 authorized not one, but two moon programmes, the N-l and Chelomei’s UR-500K. It was actually much worse than that, for by the mid-1960s Russia was not only running two moon programmes, but – if space station, spaceplane and other military programmes are taken into account – no fewer than seven manned space programmes at the same time. As so many of these programmes were being run by different bureaux, few economies of scale could be achieved. The dispersal and duplication of energies was something which the Soviet economy could afford even less than the American.

The squandering of resources was exacerbated by the rivalry of the different design bureaux and the inability of the Soviet political system to cope with them. Whilst Western analysts imagined a space programme run by a centrally directed command system in which orders were given and bureaux snapped to attention, the opposite was the case, with rival bureaux relentlessly seeking the patronage and support of networks of party and government coalitions. Not only that, but the warring factions constantly sought to have decisions revised and remade, like the UK-700 project which managed to get back on the agenda several times after it was supposedly killed off. The command economy was unable to overcome these problems and command its participants to work effectively together. The spectacle of Khrush­chev trying to get his designers Korolev and Glushko into his dacha to make peace – and failing – was one never contemplated in Western understandings of how the Soviet system worked. Although its effects can never be measured, the diversion of energies into such rivalry must have exerted a huge toll on the programme.

A further political failure was the gross misjudgement of American intentions. There is no doubt that the Soviet Union failed to appreciate the significance of President Kennedy’s speech in May 1961. The documentary record shows that its implications only began to dawn on the Soviet decision-making system from mid-1963 onward. Even then, the Soviet decision to go to the moon was not made until August 1964, three years after the American one. The actual method was not confirmed until the meeting of the Keldysh commission in November 1966 and the subsequent government decision of February 1967 – when the Americans were less than 30 months away from a landing. It was ironic that the Russians, who had provoked the Americans to competing in a moon race, realized too late that there was a real race under way.

There was one particular misjudgement for which it would be harder to fault them. The American decision to move up Apollo 8 for a moon-orbiting mission clearly took the Russians aback. Contrary to Western notions of Russian recklessness with human lives, they took a cautious approach, insisting on four successful around-the – moon missions before they would put a cosmonaut on board. Yet here the Americans

decided, in 1968, to send an Apollo into orbit around the moon on the first manned flight of the Saturn V. Although the gamble paid off, it was nevertheless a risky move. Years later, some of those closest to the decision still recoil at just how risky it was [27]. Despite all the failures of Proton and N-1 on launch, it is some consolation that the launch escape system functioned every single time and no cosmonaut would have been lost on launch. Despite pressure from the Kremlin, the people running the space programme never gave serious consideration to rushing a manned Zond around the moon over 7th-9th December 1968, largely because they felt further testing was required. This must have been a difficult decision, but it was the right one.

Two other factors were also important in the outcome of the moon race. The decision to skip intensive ground-testing for the first stage of the N-1 was a bad mistake and ultimately fatal to the programme. However, some comments should be entered in mitigation. Chelomei’s Proton did have the benefit of intensive ground­testing but its miserable development history cost the Russians the first around-the – moon flight and squandered countless payloads. Korolev probably calculated that getting the ground-testing systems for the N-1 built would delay him at least a further year, possibly two, and this was time and money he did not have. Better to take a calculated risk that the problems could be overcome quickly enough, as they had been in the past. In reality, all rocket designers seem to have underestimated the problems of integrating powerful rocket engines and they continued to so do for many years. The development histories of the N-1 and UR-500K were not exceptional: but the Saturn V was.

The second factor was of course Korolev. His loss came at a crucial juncture in the moon race. The way in which he held the Soviet space programme together in its early years and his ability to organize people, bureaux, politicians and talent was legendary. The N-1 could never have got as far as it did without Korolev. The verdict of most of those who knew him was that – with Korolev – the Soviet Union might well have gone around the moon first. The USSR would probably not have landed on the moon first, but he would have given the Americans ‘a darn good run for their money’. All agree that he was the only person who could have pulled it off. Mishin, by his own admission, was never able to tame the other design bureaux the way Korolev did. Mishin: ‘If Korolev had lived, we would have made more progress.’ Though capable in his own ways, he lacked the same drive, organizational ability, relentlessness or capacity to knock heads together. Valentin Glushko had an ambition to match Korolev, but was less able to manage his political masters and flawed by a preparedness to settle scores rather than see projects on their merits. The chief designer system, which served the Soviet Union so well in some respects, was ultimately less successful than American teamwork and its clinical division between political and administrative leadership.

At its heart, the Soviet Union lost the moon race because it misjudged American intentions and resources, mobilized its fewer resources too late and failed to control its competing empires of designers and rocket-builders. Ironically, the Americans won the moon race by showing that they could professionally run a rigorously managed, state-led programme of the type that the Russians were supposed to have but which we now know they did not. Whatever the causes, the winning of the moon race by the

Americans may have had profound political consequences. Despite the Vietnam War, despite many domestic difficulties, the United States reasserted itself, through the moon landing, as the leading technological nation in the world. To John F. Kennedy, this had been the imperative of his era. Kennedy had taken the view that if the United States were to lead what he called the free world, it must prove that it was more capable than its rival. The developing countries, especially, looked to whichever country would be most successful in the mastery of space. The United States went on under the subsequent presidency of Ronald Reagan to rise to a military dominance to become, by the 21st century, the only superpower in a unipolar world. Did the moon victory play a part in this?

By contrast, the loss of the moon race became, in the eyes of subsequent histor­ians, a symbol of the Brezhnev period (1964-82), formally labelled during the time of perestroika ‘the years of stagnation and decline’. During the period 1957-64, Nikita Khrushchev was able to portray the Soviet Union abroad as an energetic, socially progressive, even liberalizing country able to demonstrate how state-led planning and space-led investment could be an instrument for modernization. Yuri Gagarin’s flight became, in the broad canvass of the Soviet years 1917-91, the absolute zenith point of the communist project. But what if Alexei Leonov had been first to step upon the moon? This was an interesting exercise explored by the British Broadcasting Corpora­tion [28]. The moon landing might well have given the Soviet system a new lease of life, a new military and political confidence. The Russians might have gone on to establish lunar bases (Brezhnevgrad?) and carry out the Mars missions originally projected by Tikhonravov and Korolev in the 1950s, bringing the hammer and sickle with them. How the Americans would have responded is difficult to predict. Unlike the case in the 1950s, they would have lost a contest in which they had specifically set down the goals. Various scenarios are possible, but it is much less easy to see the United States as the unchallenged empire it subsequently became. The moon landing may indeed have been the crucial turning point in 20th century history.