This piece was written as a response to the question “How did the United States win the space race if it was behind the USSR?” posted on Quora and appears in an edited form there. For the purposes of my response I’ve chosen to define the space race as beginning with Sputnik 1 and ending with the successful return to Earth of Apollo 11.
I’m aware this is a definition that many may not agree with, but I feel it serves to frame the argument I wished to make. Please feel free to comment with your opinions, I’m happy to hear them just as you are giving me the time to express mine here!
One of the Unites States’ most significant moves in closing the early gap in the space race came at it’s very outset. The Eisenhower administration made the very prescient decision in 1958 to put American space exploration (and therefore their answer to Sputnik and perceived Soviet space superiority) in the hands of a civilian agency. As a result NASA was formed, based around the the existing nucleus of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).
Although I doubt Ike and his advisors were aware of it at the time, by removing the potential for inter-service rivalries and wasteful duplication of effort that multiple space programmes would have brought, they had put America in a strong position to win the space race before NASA even oversaw it’s first project.
Having one agency in charge of marshalling a strong research base in the former NACA centres and expand on the relationships NACA had built with both the military and the aerospace and technology industries meant NASA could move forward steadily with a strong sense of common purpose. It allowed big characters like von Braun to be harnessed effectively and it had a single point of contact with the politicians, the Administrator – most notably Jim Webb during the Apollo years.
Project Mercury laid the organisational foundations for the manned projects to follow, but the U.S. were to be beaten to the goal of putting the first man in space when Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth in Vostok 1 on April 12th 1961. Alan Shepard’s 15 minute suborbital hop 3 weeks later seeming a very modest response.
Of course it was Eisenhower’s successor who gathered his advisors to give NASA it’s great goal and the space race it’s finish line in the distance. When Kennedy announced that The United States would put a man on the moon and safely return him before the decade was out, he galvanised a nation and opened the way for the economic and industrial muscle of the country to be directed at winning the race.
So the United States spent their way to winning the race? Clearly they had the means to outspend the Soviets, but in reality that was only part of it. The Soviet programme collapsed under the weight of rivalries, political meddling and a general lack of organisation. There was no Soviet equivalent to NASA. No single national agency overseeing the effort.
There was Korolev, designing rockets and spacecraft, overseeing cosmonauts and planning probes to the moon and beyond. There was Glushko, his great rival, the propulsion expert with radically different ideas on how they should proceed. There was also Chelomei, the ambitious up and coming missile designer with Kruschev’s ear thanks to his timely employment of the premier’s son, and Yangel – another missile designer with space ambitions.
There was huge talent, but nobody to get them working together, managing the difficult relationships and importantly making a clear case for funding. Instead, the fortunes of the lead designers ebbed and flowed with those of their political patrons. Military considerations guided the space programme and directly competed for the Design Bureaus’ time and the limited budgets – meaning space work and booster design often had to be justified in terms of weapons systems.
An illustration of the ineffectiveness of the approach is that no less than three rockets (Korloev’s N1, Chelomei’s UR-700 and Yangel’s RK-56 ) were considered for the lunar landing mission, an effort that didn’t even begin in earnest until the mid 60s.
The only one to make it into production, the mighty N1 was essentially hobbled before it began as Korolev and Glushko failed to find common ground on the question of propellants, leaving OKB-1 to find another engine designer. As it was, the engines designed by Kuznetsov were extremely innovative, but 30 of them were needed for the first stage, and the complicated dynamics of the system were never adequately solved.
Amazingly, the Soviet’s also continued to pursue two separate lunar programmes – one for circumlunar flight, the other for landing – and both were subject to massive upheaval throughout their troubled histories.
It’s tempting to say the Soviets lost the race when Korolev died. They certainly lost their most talented organiser and visionary, but in truth the U.S. was already pulling ahead by then. NASA was hitting it’s stride with Gemini just as the lack of planning and squabbling was derailing the Soviets. Ed White’s EVA during Gemini 4 was arguably the last time that NASA was playing catch-up to Soviet achievements. While Soyuz struggled for funding and attention, America moved on with the first rendezvous, the first docking, the longest duration flight – all paving the way for Apollo.
Both sides faced tragedy over the coming years: The loss of Grissom, White and Chaffee in the Apollo 1 fire and Vladimir Komarov’s horrible death in the Soyuz 1 test flight, but NASA proved far better equipped to recover and showed a willingness to take bold decisions. The decision to send Apollo 8 to the moon in 1968 was in part a response to CIA warnings that a Soviet circumlunar flight was imminent, but also given that the Lunar Module needed for the original flight plan was delayed, because the opportunity presented itself.
The Soviets probably could have beaten America to a circumlunar flight with Zond had they rallied more effectively after their Korolev and Komarov’s deaths, but short of huge setbacks with Apollo the first landing was well beyond their reach.
Eventually they decided to concentrate on space stations in Earth orbit. Scrapping their lunar effort, insisting it had never happened, was a huge shame given the amazing stories and efforts behind it that went unknown and unappreciated for decades.