Once around the Moon: The Soviet circumlunar race

The final leg of the race to the Moon as visualised by TIME magazine

Whilst the complexities and expense of a lunar landing mission always looked difficult for the Soviet space programme to achieve before the end of the 1960’s, the possibility of a simpler circumlunar flight certainly seemed within reach. Unfortunately one of the fundamental truths of the Soviet programme was that the so called Space Race was in reality always as much an internal  battle for influence and funding between the competing design bureaus as it ever was a clash between superpowers.

But in spite of missed opportunities, tragedies and political indecision this was a race that nearly went right down to the wire.
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A Cosmonaut on the Moon: Korolev’s N-1/L3 plan

The monumental LK-3 lunar lander (engineering model, 1969) in the Cosmonauts exhibition ©Science Museum
The monumental LK-3 lunar lander (engineering model, 1969) in the Cosmonauts exhibition ©Science Museum

On May 25th 1961 President John F. Kennedy took to the floor of Congress and announced that the United States would land a man on the Moon and return him safely before the decade was out. As he spoke, NASA’s total manned spaceflight experience amounted to Alan Shepard’s 15 minute sub-orbital flight in Freedom 7. The President, in consultation with his advisors, had determined that this goal gave the United States its best chance of catching and surpassing Soviet space capabilities.

In 1961 this seemed like quite a gamble with the Soviet Union announcing a succession of space firsts, but as the history books show Kennedy’s goal was met and America put a man on the Moon before both the end of the decade and the Soviets. But how much of a race was it? For decades the Soviet Union officially denied that it had ever engaged in a manned lunar programme. In the West, only those with access to classified satellite photography knew this wasn’t the case but it was only following the collapse of the Soviet Union that the true story would emerge.

The Soviet Union had indeed intended to land Cosmonauts on the Moon, but whereas NASA spent a decade working steadily towards the triumphs of Apollo, the Soviet situation was very different.

This is the story of the Soviet response to Apollo: the N-1/L3.
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How the race was won


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!
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