Apollo, I still love you but…

Apollo11
Eagle stands on the Moon as Apollo 11 accomplishes Kennedy’s goal in July 1969 [IMG: NASA]
I was born into the post-Apollo generation. Whenever I’ve looked at the Moon, it’s always been with the knowledge that humans have been there, walked on that surface, brought back rocks. As a child I became obsessed with space travel, devouring any book I could find on the subject. I memorised every detail about the rockets and spacecraft I read about, absorbed the stories of the brave astronauts and cosmonauts who flew them – these people became my heroes.

At the time I neither understood nor questioned why we stopped going to the Moon. The age of the Shuttle was here. Spaceflight would become safe and routine for my generation, no longer the preserve of steely test pilots – or so I thought as a small child, glued to the TV watching John Young and Bob Crippen take Columbia on her inaugural flight. They launched on April 12, 1981 – 20 years to the day since Yuri Gagarin had become the first human to experience spaceflight. How far we’d come in two decades! Where could we go in the next twenty years?
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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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