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Why Didn't Russia Ever Make It to the Moon?

It's a basic fact of history that on July 20, 1969, NASA astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first human beings to set foot on another celestial body, making history and defeating the Soviets in the space race.

The Soviets, of course, never made it to the moon at all. But why is that? After all, for most of the space race the Soviets were in the lead. They were the first to put a satellite into orbit, the first to send a man into space, and the first to send a spacecraft around the moon, taking pictures of the far side. Surely, even if they ultimately didn't win the race, they were close to the finish line. So what happened?

This new video from Curious Droid explains. Essentially, the answer is a combination of political intrigue, poor infrastructure, and unstable technology. Take a look:

The Soviet political structure was one of constant infighting and backstabbing, and the Soviets were often their own worst enemy. Even as they were racing against the U.S., they were also racing against each other. Different research groups were simultaneously developing competing rocket designs instead of working together. At one point there were thirty different designs, all vying for the Kremlin's approval.

Ultimately, the job went to Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, a rocket expert who oversaw both the Sputnik launch as well as Yuri Gagarin's spaceflight. His job was to build a rocket powerful enough to bring astronauts to the moon.

However, he ran into a problem. While the U.S. had the infrastructure to build the massive F1 engines used on the Saturn V rockets, the Soviets did not. They were forced to build smaller engines for their N1 rocket, which ultimately used thirty engines arranged in a circle.

The Soviet N1 Rocket needed thirty engines to provide thrust.

These smaller engines had to use a closed-cycle system, or staged combustion, which produced more thrust at a greater risk of overheating. NASA was able to use the more reliable, but less powerful, open-cycle system on the Saturn V.

While the Soviets did eventually build their N1 rocket and launch four test flights, every single flight failed and the rockets were destroyed. After those failed launches, the entire program was scrapped due to cost concerns. The Soviets never made it out of the atmosphere.

Years later, the U.S. acquired several of these closed-cycle engines, and it was discovered that the Soviets had advanced the technology further than anyone thought possible. They had managed to solve the instability problem, producing the most powerful and fuel efficient engine of that size in the world. The technology they developed was later incorporated into the scaled-up RD-180 engine, which powers the Atlas V rocket to this day.

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