When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped upon the lunar surface on July 20, 1969, the Soviet attempt at winning the space race was over. They soon claimed that there had been no the race, they had not been interested in getting to the moon first, and in fact didn’t think there was much reason to be flying human beings there. At the time, it sounded like sour grapes. And of course, it was.
In reality, the Soviet Union had been working desperately to get to the moon ahead of the Americans. And they had a brilliant man in charge of their space program from its beginning: Sergey Korolyov.
Born on January 12, 1907, Sergei Pavolovich Korolev was the lead Soviet rocket engineer and spacecraft designer. He was unmatched in his ability to organize, integrate designs and to plan strategically. He ran the Soviet space program and oversaw the early success of the first satellite into orbit, first man into space, and first spacewalk. He was referred to only as “Chief Designer” at the time, since both his name and his irreplaceable role in the Soviet space program were a state secret. It wouldn’t be until after his death that his importance to the Soviet space program would be revealed.
Sadly, and disastrously for the Soviet space effort, Korolyov died in January 1966 following a routine operation. He was only 59. The projects begun by Korolyov continued, but they were shepherded by people who had neither his abilities nor competence.
Five years before his death in 1961, Korolyov had begun development of the Soviet moon rocket, N-1. Slightly smaller than the Saturn V that took Americans to the moon, it was also less powerful. It could only put 165,000 pounds into low earth orbit in contrast to the Saturn V’s 262,000 pounds. Had the Soviet’s N-1 worked, it would have taken only two people into lunar orbit instead of three, and only one would have actually landed on the lunar surface. The capsule to be launched by the N-1 was the Soyuz: the same spaceship the Russians use now to send astronauts to the International Space Station.
The biggest problem facing the N-1 was its engines. Where the American Saturn V used five powerful F-1 engines on the first stage, the Soviets had nothing comparable. The best they could come up with was the NK-15, less than one-sixth as powerful as the American F-1. That meant that in order to lift their enormous rocket, the Soviets had to install thirty NK-15s in the first stage. That made their rocket incredibly complex: there were just too many things that could go wrong.
Its first test flight was on February 21, 1969. By that time, the American Saturn V was operational. In fact, the Saturn V had already successfully sent three Americans into orbit around the moon during Christmas in 1968. The Soviet moon rocket managed to blast off, but it exploded sixty-nine seconds later. The next three test launches all ended in failure, with one blowing up on the launch pad. It took 18 months to rebuild. While other aspects of the vehicle were being modified or redesigned, the Russian company made modifications to the design of the NK-15. The new engines were called the NK-33 and NK-43. The intent was that the new engines would power a second generation moon rocket to be called the N-1F. But with the Moon race lost, the Soviet government cancelled the program. No N-1F ever reached the launch pad.
When the N-1 moon program was shut down, all the hardware built for the project was ordered destroyed. The intent was to make the whole program disappear, as if it had never happened, in order to match the narrative the Soviet Union wanted to portray: that they had never tried to go to the moon. However, the government’s orders were not completely obeyed. The builder of the NK-33 engines rescued them and hid them in a warehouse.
Three decades passed. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, word of the hidden engines leaked to the United States. Altogether, about 150 had survived. So the Russians sold thirty-six of them to the American company Aerojet General for $1.1 million each. Aerojet then modified and renamed the NK-33 and NK-43, calling them the AJ26-58 and AJ26-59, respectively.
Later, the U.S. company Orbital Sciences Corporation decided to use two modified NK-33s in the first stage of their new Antares light-to-medium-lift launcher. Orbital now has a contract with NASA to launch its Antares, bearing their Cygnus cargo ship, to the International Space Station. The first Antares rocket, powered by the Soviet Union’s old moon rocket engines, was launched from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on April 21, 2013. It was the first time that NK-33s had been used since the final N-1 exploded in 1972. A month later, Orbital lofted their first cargo ship to the International Space Station on September 18, 2013. Aerojet has agreed to recondition sufficient NK-33s to serve Orbital’s eight flight NASA Commercial Resupply Services contract. Beyond that, it has a stockpile of only twenty-three of the modified NK-33s. The Russian company that built the NK-33s stopped building them decades ago, which brings into question the long term viability of Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Antares–unless the Russians start manufacturing them again.
But that’s not quite the end of the story. A new rocket engine, an improved version of the NK-33, is currently in production. It is called the RD-180. Lockheed-Martin chose this engine to power their Atlas V rocket. The original Atlas was an ICBM designed to rain nuclear fire on the cities of the Soviet Union. Today, its descendent is powered by Russian built engines. Just last month, an Atlas V, powered by the offspring of the Soviet Moon rocket’s engines, took an American spy satellite into orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base.