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Race to the Moon Overview

When did the race to the moon actually begin?
Formally, the race began on May 25, 1961 when President Kennedy made his famous speech calling for the landing of men on the moon before the end of the decade. Informally, the race had started about two years earlier for both sides.

In 1958, the Soviet Union's Chief Rocket Designer Sergei Korolev wrote a paper that contained a moon landing objective.

In early 1959, NASA gave the go ahead to start development of a rocket engine with enough thrust to support a manned mission to the moon (the F-1 rocket engine.) Also, during the same period a working group was created to study lunar exploration.

Why did the US beat the USSR to the Moon?
The major reasons why the Soviet Union lost the race to the moon are:

  • The death of Sergei Pavlovich Korolev in 1966. Unknown outside the Soviet space program until his death, Korolev was the Chief Designer and mastermind behind the Soviet space efforts. The Soviet Union was unable to replace the drive, leadership, and political acumen Korolev brought to the program.

  • The US space effort had more funding than the Soviet space program. NASA spent about $23 billion dollars on manned programs from 1961 through the first lunar landing in July 1969 (Mercury: $.4 billion; Gemini: $1.3 billion; and Apollo: $21.3 billion). Estimates for the Soviet manned programs range from $4.8 billion to $10.1 billion or less than 50% of NASA's budget.

  • The US had a single moon program with a unified set of goals while the USSR had duplication of effort in their space operations. Instead of consolidating limited resources within a single program, the USSR created two separate operations: one for landing people on the moon and one for sending people around the moon. Each program had separate teams and relied on different launch vehicles and spacecraft. The moon landing program developed the N-1 launch vehicle while the moon circumnavigation mission developed the UR-500K rocket. Further confusion and dilution of effort occurred when a third moon booster, the UR-700, was proposed in 1964 and again in 1967. While the UR-700 rocket program was terminated before it reached the development stage, it was yet another distraction for the moon landing team.

  • The US executed their moon strategy better than the Soviets. In the mid-1960s, the US implemented the Gemini program, a series of two-person space flights that bridged the gap from Mercury to the Apollo moon missions. Gemini allowed the US to develop the skills (such as long duration flights, rendezvous and docking) required for a successful moon landing. During the same time, instead of pushing forward with their next-generation spacecraft (Soyuz), the USSR took a detour and focused their limited resources on a set of politically inspired missions (Voskhod) using converted Vostok spacecraft. Cramming three people into a converted Vostok allowed the Soviets to claim they still held supremacy in the space race but provided little skill development and technological advancements. This strategic error caused the delay of Soyuz for almost two years and derailed their moon landing effort.

  • The USSR failed to keep pace with US technology. A prime example is the failure of the Soviets to develop a high-end rocket engine with enough thrust to power a manned moon mission. The US developed the high powered F-1 rocket engine for the Saturn V (five were used in the first stage of the Saturn V). The Soviets failed to develop such an engine and, therefore, their ill-fated moon launch vehicle, the N-1, used 30 less powerful rocket engines in its first stage. The complexity of controlling 30 rocket engines in unison was one of the main reasons why all four N-1 test launches failed. Furthermore, even with the large number of engines, the N-1 lift capability was still 25% less than the Saturn V. This meant that the Soviets planned on a two-person moon mission, with a single cosmonaut landing on the moon. This greatly increased the risk of the mission.

What does the flight record tell us about the race?
The table below compares the manned space program milestones of the US and the USSR from 1961 to 1969.

    Number of
    Manned Flights
      Time in Space
      Number of
    Earth Orbits
    1961 2 2   27 0.02   18 0 1961
    1962 2 3   165 19   112 12 1962
    1963 2 1   189 34   129 22 1963
    1964 1 0   24 0   16 0 1964
    1965 1 5   26 650   17 407 1965
    1966 0 5   0 319   0 198 1966
    1967 1 0   26 0   18 0 1967
    1968 1 2   94 407   64 163 1968
    1969 2 3   144 628   97 151 1969
    Total 12 21   695 2057   471 953  

    Data in this table is from January 1961 to July 1969.
    Prime sources: NASA Historical Data Book Volume II Programs and Projects 1958-1968. Washington DC, 1988. Lindsay, Hamish. Tracking Apollo to the Moon. Singapore: Springer, 2001. Shayler, David J. Gemini Steps to the Moon. Chichester, UK: Springer-Praxis, 2001.

How much did the race to the moon cost?
According to NASA Historical Data Book Volume II Programs and Projects 1958-1968, page 121, "Totals for any one program are hard to determine, but NASA issued the following figures for its major manned ventures: Mercury, $392.6 million; Gemini, $1.283 billion; and Apollo, $25 billion ($21.35 billion through the first lunar landing in July 1969)."

According to Asif Siddiqi and James Harford (see sources), the Soviet Union spent betwen $4.8 billion and $10.1 billion on their manned moon programs.

The table below provides a break down of the costs of the by each US space programs. All figures in $ millions.

    Total NASA
    Budget (1)
    Mercury (2)
    Program (3)
    Program (4)
    1959 369 46 0 0 1959
    1960 485 84 0 0 1960
    1961 967 124 0 1 1961
    1962 1,825 31 55 160 1962
    1963 3,674 21 289 617 1963
    1964 5,100 0 419 2,273 1964
    1965 5,250 0 308 2,615 1965
    1966 5,175 0 197 2,967 1966
    1967 4,968 0 22 2,916 1967
    1968 4,589 0 0 2,556 1968
    1969 3,995 0 0 2,025 1969

    (1) NASA Historical Data Book Volume III Programs and Projects 1969-1978.
    (2) NASA Historical Data Book Volume II Programs and Projects 1958-1968.
    (3) Shayler, David J. Gemini Steps to the Moon.
    (4) NASA Historical Data Book Volume II Programs and Projects 1958-1968 and NASA Historical Data Book Volume III Programs and Projects 1969-1978.

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