Apollo 11: If the Soviets landed first

This week marks fifty years since the first manned mission to the Moon, with Neil Armstrong becoming the first person to walk on the lunar surface on July 21st 1969. To mark the occasion, I’m writing a seven-part series dedicated to Apollo 11, the mission to the Moon, with this part asking what would have happened if the Soviet Union had landed men on the Moon first.

The Soviet Union led the way in space exploration for the best part of a decade. In fact, the USSR had launched the first satellite into space, the first man and woman into space, conducted the first spacewalk and had landed an unmanned spacecraft on the lunar surface.

So when President Kennedy pledged to send a man to the Moon before the end of the 1960s, Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev was ready to beat the Americans once again, although never admitting their plans publicly.

The Soviets encountered numerous problems with the rocket they planned to use to get the cosmonauts into space and on course to the Moon. The N1 stood 105 metres tall, similar to the American Saturn V. The similarities end there, however, with a completely different propulsion system – with a staggering 30 engines to be used in the first stage.

Given the huge number of engines, this made the likelihood of something going wrong much greater. The first launch in February 1969 crashed just 66 seconds after take off, and a second in early July of the same year crashed less than ten seconds into the flight. Both were, thankfully, unmanned.

After the Americans reached the Moon on July 20th 1969, the USSR recognised that space race was effectively lost and soon began the process of cancelling the space program. With the American public and politicians losing interest in space after the lack of a competitor, the US also significantly scaled back their space program and missions to the Moon came to an end.

The issues with the N1’s engines were later fixed, but just as the entire project was being axed. Several of the engines were later sold to an American company, and their design was replicated and later used in missions to space.

File:MondlanderLK.jpg
Rendering of the ‘Lunniy korabl’ (lunar module) – Eberhard Marx

But suppose the N1 rocket was a success and was able to get a crew of two (unlike Apollo, there was only space for one person in the Soviet lunar lander) into orbit and off to the Moon, beating the Americans? Rather than ending the space race, like in our timeline, it would have instead gone to another level.

Being an undemocratic nation, without the need to care significantly about public opinion or public interest in the space program, the Soviet Union would be able to continue to pour money into space exploration to fund projects of even greater scale, such as lunar bases to begin to colonise the Moon and extract resources. The United States would have almost certainly be compelled to do the same, and would likely try to outdo their rivals.

With this in mind, it is likely that US Vice-President Agnew’s declaration in 1969 that the US would have landed men on Mars by the end of the next decade would have come to pass.

On a consumer note, technologies such as smaller cameras, LEDs, portable computers and computer mice all came about as a result of space exploration. It’s possible, given the drive to innovate to beat the other side in a longer space race, that these technologies may have been developed sooner and would have made their way into their hands of the public faster that in reality. Perhaps Americans would be staring down at camera phones in during the 1990s, rather than two decades later…

In short, had the Soviets beaten the Americans to the Moon, the Cold War rivalry between the two superpowers would have pushed both the US and the USSR to continue to try and beat the other in space, and would have led to greater exploration of the Moon and beyond, as well as greater advancement of technology, which would trickle down sooner to the wider public.

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