Everyone remembers the space race, and everyone knows *we* won, but it's not really a race if there's only one side, right? So what were the soviets working on? Here's a glance at their lunar lander, and there's tons more info after the jump:
The video comes from Dan Roam's old "Deep Cold" website about unrealized spacecraft designed during the Cold War. (Check it out: http://www.deepcold.com/ ) His CGI models are accurate insofar as I can see, but he sometimes shows some wishful thinking in these animations. For instance, the date of "May 1, 1969" for the soviet lunar landing is entirely fantasy. The Soviets never had any idea of getting to the moon prior to 1973 or '74. Yeah, they hoped to win the moon race, but a lot of that hope rested on the idea that we'd screw up really badly, or simply lose interest, and not make our deadline.
Their program was further hampered by the need for vastly more security than the Apollo program ever had. Whereas Apollo was open to the eyes of the world, the Soviet moon program was a covert op! Imagine how difficult that must have been!
In a nutshell, the Soviet plan went like this: They had designed and built 10 massive "N1" rockets, their equivalent of the Saturn V, and to this day the N1 is still the second-largest rocket ever. Unfortunately geography and soviet technology were both working against them, so the N1 couldn't put nearly as much stuff in lunar orbit as the Saturn did. As a result, their lunar program was inherently more modest than ours. They'd launch an N1 to the moon, where the lone Cosmonaut would spacewalk over to the lander (Couldn't afford the weight of a docking mechanism) He'd land on the moon, plant the flag, snap a few shots, make a speech, and then climb back in , blast off, and head home.
This ridiculously long video give you an overview of what it would have looked like:
Despite being inherently less ambitious than the Apollo program, the soviet N1/LK project was neck-and-neck with the US up until 1968, when we pulled waaaaaaay the hell ahead of them, and everyone on both sides knew there was no way they could catch up. To add insult to injury, those damnable Americans spent Christmas Even orbiting the moon, reading the bible over the radio to folks back on earth. How dare they mock soviet atheism!
Despite us winning the race, the Soviets were determined to at least finish it. So what happened? Simple:
The damn things kept blowing up. Of the 10 N1s built, three of them exploded on test launches. They kept plugging away at it for another three or four years.
Ultimately the Kremlin felt it would be an embarasment to land on the moon in a manner that was clearly a distant second to what the hated Americans were capable of, so they cancelled the program in 1974, and the 6 remaining N1s were scrapped. Since the entire program was a covert op, they simply covered it up saying "They'd never had any interest in going to the moon." Although the CIA knew about this from day one, It wasn't until the collapse of the Soviet Union that the Russians themselves began to talk about it, and the information finally became available to the public at large.
To be honest, despite the highly dangerous, second rate, and half-assed nature of the program, I do wish they'd gotten it to work. We wasted most of the 70s. If the Soviets had gotten to the moon in 1974, I have to think it would have forced us to do more in space than we did. Competition is a good thing...