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The Soviet Union’s effort to land cosmonauts on the Moon came to an explosive end 50 years ago today. The country launched its big Moon rocket on its fourth test flight. But like the first three, it ended with a giant boom.
The N-1 rocket was about the same size and weight as America’s Moon rocket, the Saturn V. Its first stage was more powerful, with more than 10 million pounds of thrust. In fact, it’s the most powerful rocket ever launched.
The N-1 also was more complicated than the Saturn. Its first stage had 30 engines. That was a lot of plumbing to go wrong. And unlike the Americans, the Soviets didn’t have the money to work out any problems in ground testing. So they had to do all their testing in flight.
And that just didn’t work out. None of first three test flights lasted for more than three minutes. One blew up just seconds after launch, destroying not only the booster but also its launch pad.
The fourth flight carried a robotic spacecraft that was supposed to fly past the Moon. 90 seconds into the flight, six engines shut down as planned. But that created a shockwave that started a fire. Seconds later, an engine exploded and the rocket broke up.
Another test flight was planned for late 1974. By then, the Americans had long since finished their Apollo missions to the Moon, and the Soviet space program was broke. So the entire lunar-landing program was cancelled — including the N-1.
Script by Damond Benningfield