The final steps and legacy: The North American X-15 – Part 3

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The proposed Delta-Wing conversion was just one of many X-15 follow-on projects discussed during the programme [IMG: NASA]
When NASA pilot Bill Dana brought the X-15 to a halt on Rogers dry lake on October 24th 1968, it marked the end of the research plane’s flying career. At the time there were hopes that a final 200th flight could be made before the end of the year, but following a number of cancellations and aborts it wasn’t to be.

The X-15 programme drew to a close just as the world’s attention turned to the Moon with Apollo 8’s successful lunar orbital flight and the push towards a landing during 1969 to meet Kennedy’s goal.
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Apollo, I still love you but…

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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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Once around the Moon: The Soviet circumlunar race

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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

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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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