July 22, 1969: Apollo 11 Comes Home, Soviets Debate Struggling Moon Program...


Just before 1 a.m EDT on July 22, 1969, the crew of Apollo 11 fired the Service Propulsion System rocket engine at the rear of the Service Module and broke free of lunar orbit to head home. Behind them: A successful three-day stay in the neighborhood of the moon, the first lunar landing, and a 2.5 hour moonwalk, during which they deployed experiments, gathered rock and soil samples, and tested all of the major systems needed to explore the lunar surface. Ahead of them: a July 24 landing in the Pacific Ocean, after a harrowing reentry at a lunar return speed of 25,000 MPH.

The mission had been a triumph, with all major goals accomplished, and then some.

In the Soviet Union, there was consternation. Their own lunar landing effort, already behind schedule when Sergei Korolev, their Chief Designer, died in 1966, was in shambles. Their giant N-1 lunar rocket, roughly equivalent to NASA's Saturn V, had failed twice in flight testing. Cascading electronic and engine malfunctions had caused the rocket to crash 32 miles downrange on the first test on February 21, 1969, which would have placed an unmanned test spacecraft, Zond L1S-1, into a lunar flyby trajectory (the Soviets had scheduled numerous lunar flyby tests of the Soyuz spacecraft before attempting this with cosmonauts, and these tests were designated "Zond"). During the next N-1 launch on July 3, designated Zond L1S-2, the rocket had barely cleared the launch tower when a turbo pump failed, resulting in a massive explosion as the N-1 fell back onto the launch complex.

The Soviet lunar program, intended to secretly outpace the Apollo program in the US, was not fully supported within the USSR's political and military leadership. This struggle--between the competing design bureaus developing Soviet space programs and factions within the political structure, intensified with the crowning success of Apollo 11.

Two more tests of the N-1 would be attempted, with he final disastrous (and short) flight occurring on November 23, 1972. Just under two minutes into that flight, the first stage exploded. A fifth test flight was cancelled, and the entire program was scuttled in 1974. The Soviet space program turned its attentions to building orbiting space stations in an attempt to reach parity with the US Skylab space station.

The USSR's lunar landing efforts remained a closely-guarded secret until after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. They did, however, ultimately field a number of successful orbital platforms, culminating in the MIR space station in 1986. It would fly with numerous crews through 2001, at which time the Russian participation n the International Space Station made the aging MIR redundant.

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