The N1 "Superbooster", and the USSR's Race To The Moon

The story of the Soviet Union's attempt to beat the United States to the Moon, and in particular their massive N1 moonrocket have only come to light in the past nine years.

The existence of the program had been known to the western intelligence services since at least the mid-1960's. Recently declassified NRO Corona KH-4 satellite photos confirm as much. Outside analyists gave the N1 several designations such as "G-1-e", or SL-15. However it was not until 1989 through 1991 that details concerning this massive booster, and the Lunar program it was meant to serve have come to light with Glasnost, and ultimately the collapse of the USSR.

Designed by the legendary Sergi Korolev, the N1 fell victim to infighting when V.P. Glushko came to grips with Korolev over the design of the massive launcher, and in particular with what propellants would be used. Korolev at this point sought out assistance from others with less experience with rocketry. Combined with bitter political infighting, and budget woes, this may have lead to the failure of the N1, and loss of the Moon Race for the USSR.

The N1 was a enormous monster of a rocket, 113 meters (370ft) tall, and 17 meters (55 ft) wide at the base of the first stage. This is comparable to the U.S. Saturn V, which had an overall height of 110.6 meters (363 ft), and a diameter of 10.1 meters (33 ft) at the base of the first stage.

A key difference between the two rockets was the choice of propellant for the upper stages. For while both rockets used LOX/RP-1 for their first stages; the similarity ended there as the Saturn V used LOX/LH2 for it's second and third upper stages. Further, the N1 used five stages -- three to place the fourth and fifth stages into LEO. Stages 4 and 5 would then be used for translunar orbit insertion (ala the Saturn V's S-BVI).

The choice of LOX/RP-1 for all the stages limited the efficiency of the N1 compared to its Apollo counterpart. Despite a first stage thrust of some 10 million lbs. as compared to 7.5 million lbs. for the Saturn V's S-IC stage, the N1 could loft only about 220,000 lbs. of payload, while the Saturn V could loft 250,000 lbs.

Another restriction on the N1's performance as compared to the Saturn V was the launch site. The Baikonur Cosmodrome is located at a higher (less favorable) latitude 20 degrees further above the equator than KSC so any rocket launched from that site is not able to take nearly the same advantage of the Earth's rotation. The difference translates into as much as 500 ft per second lost.