How The Moon Was Won

In eight short Cold War years, the USA went from second fiddle in space to The Nation That Put Man On The Moon. How?

The Americans were smart, loved their country, and had good German rocket scientists. The Soviets were smart, loved their country, and had good German rocket scientists. So what happened?

Part of it is simply that a big part of World War II was fought on Soviet soil and a big part with American supplies and arms. So while Soviet industrial infrastructure, already in poor shape for historical and political reasons, was decimated by the war, America’s was bolstered and increased.

But that aside, the Soviets made some impressive first steps, and were clearly ahead of US efforts at least up through the first few manned flights. But when it came to the moon landing, the US, bastion of capitalism and private enterprise that it is, committed itself to a single, centrally-controlled program to reach the moon. The Soviets, communists and socialists who lived and died by a centrally controlled economy, fought internally over who would do what. Weird, huh?

Paradoxically, the US beat the Soviets by launching a bigger, more coherent government program than the Soviets (who one would think would have been the preeminent leaders in big government programs).

Korolev only got funding to launch Satellites and men into space because it proved to the world they could deliver atomic bombs. But he had to have his engineers build roads and sewage treatment plants before he could do it, and like Von Braun during the earliest years of the US space program, he had to fight politics to get resources over other design bureaus.

We (the US) let pride, internal competition and, frankly, a failure of vision, cost us getting the first man in space, but made up for it by assembling the full might of our economy behind a single purpose. The Soviets made early inroads through bold action, genius, and personal initiative, but while Khrushchev was quick to make propaganda hay out of these achievements, he simply could not devote the kind of resources to a moon landing that the US could.

And because Kennedy publicly committed the nation, we all rallied to the cause. MIT designed the computers. Brassiere makers worked with industrial controls experts to build the Apollo space suit. Aerospace engineers called in surf board makers for help making cryogenic tanks.

The Soviets were late to commit to a moon landing, then they tried to do it in secret so they could pretend it never happened if it didn’t work out (which it didn’t, and they did for a long time). We (the US) had started working on the F1 engine in 1955 when we (and the Soviets) foresaw the need for giant rockets to deliver giant bombs. Although that work was abandoned as bombs quickly got smaller, it was an ace in our sleeve for the moon landing.

The Soviets, on the other hand, had addressed the same problem by clustering smaller rocket engines, and had stuck to technologically simpler hypergolic propellants. That put them a decade behind in building an engine suitable for a moon shot.

In the end, they turned to a jet engine maker to design a new big rocket engine, and he designed one so revolutionary, its principles have only become mainstream in the last decade. But you really can’t skip ahead in rocket science, and boldness and ingenuity had taken the USSR as far as it could.

So this

turned into a smoking hole. Then did it again. And again. Until it was chopped up and turned into storage buildings. Even had the N1 been a success, it could only lift 2/3 the payload of a Saturn V, or send half the payload to the moon. The most ambitious of Soviet moon plans (and there were several) had one man landing alone with minimal equipment. Apollo was designed to build moon bases, and could have, too, had the price tag not been so high.

It would be unfair to say that communism lost the USSR the space race, though the inherent inefficiency of centrally planned economics certainly handicapped its efforts to recover from the ravages of the war and Stalin’s purges. But ironically, it was America’s ability to marshal its vast economic and technical infrastructure to a common, centrally-planned goal that won the moon.

On the other hand, it was that very central control and the rush to the moon that ballooned the cost of the Apollo program and led us to abandon a perfectly good space exploration system in favor of a classic example of American overdesign (the Shuttle, no offense), thirty years of bureaucratic stagnation, and the loss of two orbiters and their crews.

Meanwhile, the Russians still make the Soyuz, and until very recently, could put a pound into orbit cheaper than anyone.

Stalin and Hitler determined the space race as surely as President Kennedy. But Kennedy figured out something we can still benefit from to this day. For all their differences, our two great nations are greater still when we work together.

Meanwhile, the whole episode illustrated something we should all keep in mind in the new millennium: Neither approach to government works very well when taken too far to extremes.


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