Why didn't Alexi Leonov take that one small step?

Jason Torchinsky is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Jason has a book out now, Ad Nauseam: A Survivor's Guide to American Consumer Culture. He lives in Los Angeles, where he is a tinkerer and artist, started a webcasting company, and writes for the Onion News Network. He lives with a common-law wife, five animals, too many old cars, and a shed full of crap.

I'm still all hopped-up on moonwalk sauce today, so I thought it would be worthwhile to take a moment to consider the other end of the Space Race-- the Soviets. After all, without a competitor, it's not really a race, now is it?

At the beginning of the 1960s, a betting man would have likely put his cash down on a hammer and sickle getting planted into the lunar regolith before Old Glory. It makes sense-- the Soviets had a hell of a space program, which, by certain metrics (endurance, space station systems) can still be considered the best in the world.

But they didn't get to the moon. They came close-- closer than most people realize-- and for years they denied they were even trying. They were close to scooping the US's Apollo 8 trans-lunar flight (they did get some turtles to fly around the moon), they had a massive moon rocket, a one-man lander, and an impressive mother ship-- but they didn't have the money, time, or, really, leadership to get it all together.

In the end, they had too many technical problems with the N-1 moon rocket (it had many engines that had to all work together-- a technical nightmare), and just not enough money or time to fix it. They did eventually get lunar samples returned robotically, and sent some delightfully jalopy-like lunar rovers to the moon. These rovers were long suspected to have had human (midget or child) drivers, so, who knows, maybe they did get some comrades up there after all.

Anyway, as we happily remember Buzz and Neil, spare a thought for our lovable loser pals. Things would have been lots more exciting if they made it up there, too, and I bet we'd still be there now if there was a Moskvaluna next door to Moon-Newark.


  1. First!!

    Just kidding… I myself am over the moon with remembering that day. I was 13 years old and it was the first time in my life that I stayed up all night. I don’t really know why Leonov didn’t beat Armstrong to the moon, but I don’t think it matters anymore. At least a few of us humans got there, and we got to see pictures. (Conspiracy theorists, please go fuck yourselves, just for today). It is something that has captured my imagination, and will inspire me for the rest of my life.

    I actually got to meet him (Alexi Leonov) a few years ago when he was visiting the KSC. And I love him. He is a huge Russian bear of a guy with a twinkle in his eye.

    Let’s go back to the moon, or to Mars, or just SOMEWHERE out in space. I miss it.

  2. My mom worked at the Space Studies Institute at Princeton around 1980. Lot’s of cool dudes hanging around, Gerry O’Neil(terraforming mars), Max Anderson (famous ballonist) and a bunch of other stuff like the mass driver (shooting ore from the moon back to earth). Her office at one point was next to the machine shop, serious geek heaven.

    Let’s remember that the Russians are the one’s who are going to save our spacewalking butts when we phase out the space shuttle and oops don’t have something to replace it in time.

  3. All right…
    Now my nightmares will be fuled for years by visions of a nameless, jetlagged russian midget, dieing the most lonesome death ever trapped on the surface of the moon locked inside an immobile makeshift rover.
    Thank you for that image.

  4. There was also a huge accident that wasn’t public knowledge for decades that really set them back by killing a lot of their first class staff. A rocket failed to ignite until they’d given up on it and had gone out to see what was wrong. A the time people just noticed a sudden drop in the number of USSR launches.

  5. Nadreck is referring to the Nedelin catastrophe which killed 120 people. That, coupled with Sergey Korolyov’s untimely death (he was their version of Von Braun) at the hands of a drunk surgeon during an appendectomy, left the Soviet space program spinning in the mud for a few years. Which was enough time for the USA to take the lead.

    Sadly after taking the lead, the US literally threw away everything they’d built. Which left Russia with the safest, most reliable, most affordable space program in the world. For the cost of the first Ares I rocket, the Russians could fly 1750 Soyuz flights.

  6. We’re remembering a lunar landing that took place in 1969.

    Since the 1980s, U.S. manned spaceflight has existed to justify NASA’s investment in the neato but massively oversold Space Shuttle system. The result has been that astronauts haven’t gone beyond low earth orbit since Apollo 17 in 1972.

    Ah, who are we looking down our noses at again?

  7. You know, if you’d never seen a rocket, ever, and you put pictures of American rockets in one pile and pictures of Soviet space hardware in the other pile … it’d still be obvious which ones were designed by Germans and which ones came out of Mother Russia. The Russian design ethic is just trippy.

  8. USA is really not even a competitor.
    Without Russia – human kind simply wouldn’t explore space today.

  9. There were several reasons the Soviets didn’t make it to the Moon first.

    The early Soviet manned space programme was piggy-backed on the military missile and satelite programme, using the same launchers and much of the same technology. And there wasn’t a military requirement for lunar exploration, or for the really big boosters that were needed to do it. So they didn’t get started until they realised that the USA was really serious about Apollo, in about 1964.

    Of course, there were plenty of Russians in the programme who wanted to do space exploration, so there had been some designing. But no hardware development. Development costs a lot more than design, with rockets. And there were several teams who wanted the job, and rather than an equivalent of NASA running things, there was political in-fighting over the decision.

    So they picked Korolev’s N-1 project for development late, in August 1964, and with much less budget than NASA had for the Saturn family. They didn’t have the budget for a proper test stand, for example, so the only way to test the rocket was to fly it. And their main designer of rocket engines, Glushko, didn’t want to design the big cryogenic engines that were needed. He wanted to carry on building military engines using storable hypergolic propellants. But Korolev felt that they weren’t safe for manned flight, and nobody could change either of their minds, so he had to get a jet engine firm to take up rocket engine design: more delays. The N-1 first stage had 30 engines, rather than the 5 of the Saturn V first stage, and they weren’t that reliable. There was a very clever computer system to manage failures, but that ws built with Soviet computer technology of the sixties, to run in the harsh environment of a rocket take-off, so it wasn’t reliable at all. One launch failure happened because the computer turned off all the engines.


    Then Korolev died of complications from minor surgery. That really didn’t help. They were behind, taking big risks to try to catch up, and not getting lucky. Eventually, they gave up.

    A fairly good view of what might have happened had it worked a bit better can be found in Jed Mercurio’s novel Ascent.


  10. Nanuq @ 3 – There are lingering rumours that the Americans didn’t land on the moon, you know, and that 9/11 was an inside job and the Holocaust didn’t happen. And as with the Gagarin-not-in-space but Ilyushin-flew-first, they’re just bollocks.

    It’s now well known – from the likes of James Oberg and others and the loads of documentary evidence – what happened in the Soviet programme. And the identity of formerly secret or airbrushed cosmonaut trainees like Bondarenko, who died in a training fire in pure oxygen, or Nelyubov, who could have been a top cosmonaut but was fired for disciplinary reasons.

    Gagarin’s flight was announced when he was in the middle of it, and press releases were prepared for TASS in case he had a disaster in orbit or crashed to earth outside the USSR. Plus Komarov’s fatal first Soyuz flight and the real disaster to the first Salyut crew were all extremely public. Formerly secret military events like the Nedelin disaster – which didn’t involve a Korolev rocket but a Yangel one – are now well-known.

    Here’s a summing up of the Ilyushin situation:

    “There are also hundreds of photographs released of the cosmonauts in training, of preparations for the launch, of the recovery of the capsules. Even during Soviet times censors would make mistakes and release photographs showing unknown cosmonauts or spacecraft. These provided material for Soviet space watchers of the time to penetrate the secrecy around the program. But in all of these hundreds of photographs released before and since the fall of the Soviet Union there is not one to substantiate Ilyushin training as a cosmonaut, let alone his launch.

    “Against this incredible mass of documentation the supporters of the Ilyushin theory have presented not one document, not one first-hand witness account except the brief statements of Mr Gruschenko, and not a single photograph to document their case.”

  11. @ #5 – I will never be able to look at the moon again without seeing dead midgets. Dammit!

  12. My favorite cosmonaut disaster story comes from a friend who was a sat. systems engineer back in the early 80’s…he told me that sometime in the early 70’s there was a case of 2 cosmonauts who “skipped off of the top of the atmosphere” during a re-entry attempt. They took off towards the sun and somewhere out there in the inner solar system there is a capsule with the 2 bodies still inside, intact and just floating in orbit…..forever.

  13. One of the best pieces of ammo against moon-hoax-conspiracy theorists is “If it was all a hoax, why didn’t Soviets debunk it as part of their propaganda?”

    Of course that just makes the conspiracy even deeper.

    (Now I’m scared!)

  14. The collapse of the Russian moon program forced them to refocus on things closer to home. It is only because of their years of work on reliable launch platforms and orbital habitations that we have the ISS (and the only way to get to and from there, after the Shuttle is retired).

  15. The moon landing was a great historic event. I’ve always been fascinated by it. But I have to admit a preference for the mars missions. I guess mars is just more exciting.

  16. While doing research for my undergrad degree, part of the research was US Space Policy and NASA management of same. I came across a book “The Space Station Decision: Incremental Politics and Technological …”
    By Prof. Howard E. McCurdy. In the book he stated that for the cost of the space station program as of the date of publication in 1991, NASA could have sent approximately 165 Saturn-5/Apollo missions to the Moon. We might well have had an established and operational Lunar Base long ago. Such a base on the Moon most likely would have achieved self-sufficiency or be nearly so by now. If we had invited the Russians in to the mix it could well have created a stronger bond between the two nations and might have led to other joint efforts like building on that effort to go on to Mars. Though I myself do not support such an effort at this time, I believe we should master working in the Lunar Environment first, before venturing on to a Mars Shot. The valuable knowledge and experience we will gain from colonizing and exploiting the Moon will make Mars a far less risky proposition.
    Also: For those interested in seeing a picture of the Apollo 11 Landing Site Posted July 20, 2009, taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, go to this address http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=39408&src=eoa-iotd

    The book’s full information is: “The Space Station Decision: Incremental Politics and Technological …” McCurdy, Howard E (Author) ISBN: 0801887496

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