N1 No. 6L


N1 No. 7L


N1 No. 8L





50 years ago: USSR kills its Moon rocket

On May 21, 1974, the Soviet government issued a historic decree ousting the leader the nation's piloted space program and essentially discontinuing its secret effort to put a cosmonaut on the Moon. In the re-shuffle, Valentin Glushko, a long-time rival of Sergei Korolev, the de facto founder of the Soviet space program, replaced Vasily Mishin, who had led the N1/L3 lunar expeditionary project from the time of Korolev's death in early 1966.

Block V

The EU-16 experimental unit representing the third stage of the N1 rocket (Block V) after ground tests.

From the publisher:


Mostly unbeknownst to engineers and mid-level managers working on Vehicle No. 8L for the fifth test launch of the N1 rocket, the political climate around the project had worsened drastically by 1974. By that time, the United States had long ended the Apollo program, discontinued the production of the Saturn rocket family and fully embarked on the development of a reusable space transportation system, promising to revolutionize every aspect of space exploration.

In early May 1974, the Secretary of the Central Committee for the defense industry Dmitry Ustinov gathered top industry officials for a critical meeting on the fate of the N1 rocket. Among those present were the Head of the Academy of Sciences Mstislav Keldysh, the Chairman of the Military Industrial Commission Leonid Smirnov, and his deputy Boris Komissarov, Sergei Afanasiev, Minister of MOM, which supervised the rocket industry, his deputy Georgy Tyulin, and the Director of the TsNIIMash research institute Yuri Mozhorin. The Minister of Aviation Industry Dementiev was also there, because he supervised the OKB-276 design bureau which worked on engines for the N1 rocket, the most problematic element of the entire Soviet lunar program. Neither Vasily Mishin, Chief Designer at TsKBEM, nor Nikolai Kuznetsov, who led OKB-276, were invited. (685)

Well before that faithful gathering, the industry leadership and the political brass in the Kremlin were convinced that OKB-276 would not be able to improve the reliability of the engines to the point where the 30 units installed on the first stage of the rocket would operate flawlessly on multiple flights. (36) (The subsequent flight history of the the US Antares rocket, which adopted leftover engines from the N1 rocket, did show that it would take far fewer than 30 units to have a catastrophic explosion in flight.)

Therefore, it is not surprising that, according to Mozhorin, all those present supported discontinuing the N1/L3 project, including Afanasiev and Dementiev, despite major involvement of "their" industrial conglomerates into the ongoing lunar effort.

Keldysh admitted the absence of science projects justifying the N1, while also claiming that, for scientists, the Moon was no longer a priority which would require the construction of a lunar base. At the same time, the proposed exploration of Mars would have to be preceded by the development of a reusable space transportation system and by the construction of a large Earth-orbiting station, Keldysh apparently argued, clearly echoing the latest US space strategy.

Mozhorin reportedly tried to argue for proceeding with the launch of Vehicle No. 8L, citing the availability of new engines, which greatly increased chances of success, though he obviously could not guarantee a successful flight.

In any case, the final verdict from Ustinov was predetermined — to curtail the N1/L3 project. Due to the huge implications of such a decision for the rocket industry and beyond, the move would require a joint decree from the Soviet of Ministers and Central Committee of the Communist Party.

The death of the N1 also sealed the fate of Vasily Mishin, who was the strongest proponent of the Soviet lunar program. As the Chief Designer at TsKBEM, Mishin bore personal responsibility for the N1 rocket since he was the successor to the late Sergei Korolev, who stood at its roots in the early 1960s. Essentially, Mishin would have to take the blame for the aborted multi-year effort, given the fact that his relations with Ustinov and with some of his own associates had already been strained due to policy disagreements, in particular, after the 1969 decision to pursue a space station project at TsKBEM. To replace him, Ustinov picked Valentin Glushko, an old rival of Korolev and a fierce critic of the N1 rocket. Glushko would obviously have a strong motivation in steering the firm during its painful U-turn after the cancellation of the N1, while commanding a level of respect within the whole industry during what surely expected to be a difficult transition.

At the time, Glushko led the OKB-456 propulsion center, but as one of the pioneers of Soviet rocketry himself, he had well known ambitions and the necessary experience to run the Soviet space program.

News about the impending shakeup at TsKBEM first reached Mishin's deputy Boris Chertok. Around May 15, Chertok got a call from Nikolai Pilyugin, his main supplier of flight control avionics, who gave him the scoop about the imminent replacement of Mishin with Glushko. The next day, at lunch, Chertok could only confirm that Mishin was out of office for some business at the ministry, but still in some disbelief, he called Pilyugin back. This time, Pilyugin broke him the news that the N1 rocket was on the chopping block as well and that Glushko was fully ready (and eager) to implement the decision, something he had already confided to Pilyugin. He advised Chertok to urgently get in touch with Glushko, who, according to Pilyugin, was expecting his call.

With some reluctance, Chertok dialed Glushko on a classified line and immediately got an invitation for a talk at Glushko's office at OKB-456 propulsion bureau in Khimki.

In a 20-minute conversation, Glushko tried to assure Chertok that it was not his initiative to get into Korolev's chair and that he was just following the Politburo's orders. At the same time, Glushko confirmed to Chertok his intention to kill the N1 and "quickly" develop a new family of launch vehicles, capable of supporting a permanent base on the Moon with regularly exchanged scientific crews. To Chertok's argument that TsKBEM already had a strategy for building a base using multiple N1 launches within four or five years, Glushko replied that it would not be possible to build anything with "rotten" engines.

During the May 16 meeting, Glushko told Chertok that the official decision on the management reshuffle at TsKBEM could be issued as soon as the next day, but it would not appear until May 21, 1974. According to the decree, Glushko took the newly created position of Director General, instead of Designer General previously occupied by Mishin. TsKBEM itself was merged with OKB-456 and it was reorganized into the Energia Scientific and Production Association, or NPO Energia.

The day after the official decree, Glushko summoned former Mishin's deputies to the old Korolev's office and outlined his own vision for space exploration which had no use for the N1 rocket. All prospective payloads of the N1 rocket, such as lunar exploration vehicles, modules of the giant MKBS space station, Mars sample return probes and heavy space observatories would have to be re-tailored for new rockets at the cost of at least eight more years and untold millions of rubles.

For a few weeks, Chertok and other veterans of the N1 project held some faint hope that the ministry or the Kremlin would overrule Glushko, but to no avail.

On June 24, 1974, Glushko summoned Boris Dorofeev, the Chief Engineer for the N1 rocket, and offered him to write a directive for the company about the cancellation of the project. When Dorofeev refused, Glushko wrote the document and signed it himself. Such a momentous decision for the entire industry was made without a traditional Chief Designer Council meeting or even an informal gathering of the technical leadership in the bureau. The Military Industrial Commission, VPK, which would normally be involved in decisions of this scale, was also essentially bypassed. Obviously, Glushko and Ustinov had little interest in hearing the reaction to this clearly unpopular move. Still, in the relatively benign political atmosphere of the 1970s by the standards of the Soviet regime, the move triggered a shockwave of complaints from multiple contractors to their ministries and to the government and even caused some spontaneous protests.

The local Communist Party committee of the 6th Test Directorate in Tyuratam, which was responsible for flight testing of the N1 rocket, held an night-long emergency session which produced a rare protest letter from the officers to the Presidium of the 25th Party Congress. Clearly, this unsanctioned move could potentially end with insubordination charges against the officers, but in this case, they got away with a lecture about the new directions of the Soviet space program.

It is also known that Andronik Iosifyan, the head of a major contractor involved in the N1 project, sent a personal protest letter to the Central Committee. Fortunately, his acquaintance at the high echelons of party bureaucracy called Iosifyan on a classified line and asked to come and pick up his letter in order to avoid some real consequences. (685)

In the meantime, Glushko appeared to set about not just canceling N1 but also erasing any memory of its existence. He reportedly ordered the complete disposal of the surviving N1 hardware and associated documentation with no effort to preserve any artifact for posterity, though, given the gargantuan size of the vehicle, it would probably require a considerable expense.

In 1976, the fully assembled N1 rockets No. 4L and 8L, along with the 1M1 full-scale prototype, as well as the components for as many as seven rockets, had been all dismantled. Some pieces of the rockets were recycled into strange gazebos, storage sheds and playgrounds spread across Tyuratam.

Glushko also displayed an equal animosity toward Mishin. On Aug. 19, 1974, just four days after the former head of TsKBEM made his last trip to Podlipki, where he had worked since the bureau's foundation in 1946, to finalize his transfer to a new job at Moscow Aviation Institute, MAI, starting in September, he got a call from a colleague, who said that he was instructed not to let Mishin on campus without an explicit permission from Glushko. (774)

Epilogue to the N1


Although proponents of the N1 project believed that they were closer than ever to resolving engine problems on the N1 and that the work was progressing well toward the fifth test flight (INSIDER CONTENT) of the rocket, the Soviet leadership had already decided to move on and to essentially mirror the development of the reusable Shuttle orbiter that had been initiated in the United States and was increasingly perceived by Moscow as a military threat.

After spending an estimated four billion rubles and a decade-worth of efforts by the industry, the N1-L3 project was abandoned without fulfilling its objectives.

Ironically, the newly imposed strategy of duplicating the Space Shuttle would also bury Glushko's own ambitions in space exploration. His grand vision that he had spent almost a lifetime formulating was quickly re-directed from permanent lunar settlements to a misguided and ultimately wasteful response to the US in the form of the Energia-Buran program...



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Page author: Anatoly Zak; last update: June 20, 2024

Page editor: Alain Chabot; last edit: May 27, 2024

All rights reserved


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NK-33 engines left over after the cancellation of the N1 program. Click to enlarge.





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