Moon of Alabama Brecht quote
July 09, 2021

The Space Race: Technical Facts vs Popular Narrative - by Gordog

by Gordog

lifted from a comment

A little while ago, commenter Karlof1 asked me about the space race, the Apollo Program, and the role of Nazi scientists recruited under Operation Paperclip.

This is a fascinating subject that has also been severely distorted by the American narrative.

What prompted Karlof's query was my earlier, and somewhat lengthy technical discussion of today's state of space technology, where the media narrative is that the US is greatly advanced, due mostly the 'exploits' of Space X---when in fact the situation is quite the opposite.

The US is far behind important core technologies like advanced rocket engines and space station tech, both of which it acquired from Russia. China has similarly acquired nearly all of its core space technology from Russia, but has built impressively on that technology transfer---including developing its very own space station tech, and its own advanced rocket engines.

During the 1990s, many important Russian industries were on the verge of collapse due to the disintegration of the USSR. Hence there was something of a firesale of Russian space tech, something that would have been considered unthinkable previously. The Chinese acquired their entire manned program, Shenzhou, lock, stock and barrel through direct technology transfer from Russia, resulting in the first Chinese man in space in 2003.

The US similarly bought its way into the Mir2 space station that was already built, but not yet launched, abandoning its own effort to build an indigenous station to rival Mir---the Freedom space station that was killed on the drawing board. Those Mir2 modules, now known as the Russian Orbital Segment, would become the functional core of the ISS.

The US also acquired advanced Russian engines and key engine technologies, mostly the RD180, which is in fact the undisputed workhorse for both high profile Nasa missions [such as the current mars rover mission], and the US Space Force, which launches nearly all of its mission-critical payloads on the Russian engines.

Other Russian engines, including the RD190 and even the 1960s era mothballed NK33s were also bought up and pressed into service by the US. That the Russians possessed this advanced engine technology was completely unknown in the west until the 1990s, which had regarded the 'closed-cycle' technology as technically 'impossible.'

So let's take a look back to the 1950s, when spaceflight was first achieved. This was an exciting era, and there is much to discuss here, so I will leave the Apollo story for another time.

By the latter stages of Word War 2, the Germans were the undisputed leaders in rocket technology. The V2 rocket, which was used to bombard London, was a hugely impressive piece of engineering for the time.

Russia, whose rocket technology in the 1930s was considered comparable to the Germans, had fallen behind. But the country did develop smaller, albeit usable rocket engines, for instance the experimental Bereznyak-Isayev BI1 interceptor aircraft. The US really had no rocket engine technology to speak of during this era.

But the US would import most of the German rocket engineers, as well as some working copies of the V2 itself. This would provide a strong base to build on, not just for the space race a decade later, but also the far more important race for strategic weapons, namely the intercontinental ballistic missile.

A quick tale of the tape on the V2: It had a mass of 12.5 metric tons, and a thrust of about 25 tons, from a single engine burning alcohol and liquid oxygen. It could reach a speed of 3,500 mph, and a flight range of about 300 km. Incredibly, over 3,000 of these were built during the war!

Von Braun and over 100 key V-2 personnel surrendered to the Americans, and many of the original V-2 team ended up working at the Redstone Arsenal. The US also captured enough V-2 hardware to build approximately 80 of the missiles.

The Soviets captured the V2 manufacturing facilities in Eastern Germany and used some of the remaining German engineers and technicians to build 30 V2s of their own by 1946.

The following year, a group of these engineers were transferred to Russia to work under the direction of Sergei Korolev, on the R1 missile, a copy of the V2, but built using Russian industrial plants.

This was quickly followed by the substantially improved R2, which first flew in 1949, and featured a number of key design improvements. R2 achieved double the V2's range, and a much higher speed of nearly 5,000 mph.

By 1953, the Russians started on what would become the world's first ICBM and also the world's first space launch vehicle---the R7 'Semyorka' rocket.

This was a huge leap forward in rocket technology. The R7 first flew in 1957 and launched Sputnik, the first satellite in earth orbit, later that year. It was also the launch vehicle for the first TWO humans in space, Yuri Gagarin in April, 1961 and Gherman Titov in August of the same year.

In the meantime, the US launched its first 'astronaut,' Alan Shepard on a suborbital 'spaceflight' atop a Mercury-Redstone rocket that was basically a slightly improved V2, comparable to the Russian R2 of a decade earlier.

In this photo from 1961, we see the Mercury-Redstone rocket that carried Shepard on America's first 'spaceflight' [more on that in a moment]. Joachim Kuettner, the Mercury project manager, and former V2 engineer is seen at left. 'Astronaut' Gus Grissom is sixth from left.

The size difference between the Mercury Rocket and the Russian Semyorka is obvious. With a mass of 30 tons, it was barely one tenth the mass of the R7. The latter's thrust of over one million pounds was more than TWELVE times the power of the single engine Mercury rocket with its 78,000 pounds of thrust!

Crucially, the single-stage Mercury could only reach a speed of about 5,000 mph, less than one third of orbital velocity of 18,000 mph [8 km/s].

A little basic physics to explain what 'space flight' really means. In short, it means achieving orbit, which is a function of SPEED, not altitude.

To understand this, a spacecraft must generate enough centrifugal force to overcome the earth's gravitational pull. When the spacecraft's centrifugal force is exactly equal to the earth's gravity, the spacecraft will continue orbiting the earth indefinitely, just as the space station stays aloft [provided it is high enough above the atmosphere that collisions with few and far between air molecules don't slow down its speed, which will cause it to descend, and require an engine burn to speed back up].

A good way to visualize this equilibrium of forces is with the Olympic hammer throw. As seen here, the athlete swings a metal ball attached to a length of cable he is holding. As he swings it around, the centrifugal force builds up and wants to hurl that ball off into space. But the cable is like the force of gravity keeping it from spinning off. The two forces are in exact equilibrium, until he lets go.

The only difference with an orbiting spacecraft is that the earth's gravity never lets go! Once equilibrium is reached the two opposing forces are equal and opposite, as per Netwon's Third Law. And since centrifugal force is a function of speed, it is necessary to reach a speed of about 8 km/s [18,000 mph] to counter the earth's gravitational acceleration of 9.8 meters per second squared.

[Here is the math: centrifugal force = mass x velocity squared, divided by radius of the circular motion. Since the radius of the earth is about 6,400 km, and we assume a unit mass of 1 kg, then it is a simple matter of algebra to solve for speed: square root of (earth's radius in meters x acceleration of gravity), which gives...square root of (6,400,000 m x 9.8 m/s^2) = 7,900 m/s, or ~8 km/s]

I am dwelling on this because it is important to understand what actual spaceflight means. Simply flying to any given height above the atmosphere is not spaceflight---anymore than a ski jump is 'flying.'

Similarly, feeling weightlessness also does not require actual spaceflight. Astronauts regularly train on large commercial jets that have had their interiors removed and the pilots fly the airplane in a ballistic arc that provides up to several minutes of zero g flight inside the cabin training space. In fact, you can have several seconds of zero g flight in a little Cessna student training aircraft!

So let's continue with the relevant stats for the first American 'spaceflight' of Alan Shepard. His 1961 flight aboard that Mercury rocket [a souped up V2] covered a total distance of 263 miles over the ground! While staying aloft for a grand total of 15 minutes!

Now compare that to Gagarin and Titov's real spaceflights, Gagarin making a complete orbit of the earth in about 90 minutes, which is 25,000 miles, almost one hundred times greater than Shepard's distance flown. Titov Orbited the earth 17 times in 25 hours aloft just a few months after Gagarin---covering a distance of 425,000 miles!

Obviously the US has been willfully deceiving folks about what spaceflight means for all of these decades.

And they have been doing it because they desperately wanted to show they could 'match' the Russians by sending a man into 'space.'

And the reason they could get away with this is because they knew that the majority of folks simply don't have any knowledge of physics.

It is a cynical charade that plays upon the public's lack of understanding!

It was only John Glenn's 1962 flight aboard a much more capable rocket, the Atlas, which put the first American in space. He flew three orbits, covering a distance of 75,000 miles in about four hours aloft.

This was in fact an incredibly daring feat, considering the shortcomings of the early Atlas rockets. This was also the first US ICBM. It was far less capable in both mass and thrust than the Soviet R7, and could only carry a fraction of the latter's payload. More importantly, it was prone to spectacular explosions.

After watching an Atlas ICBM explode shortly after launch, Mercury astronaut Gus Grissom remarked "Are we really going to get on top of one of those things?"

The numerous failures led to Atlas being dubbed an "Inter County Ballistic Missile" by missile technicians...

An 'inter-county' ballistic missile? Why not?...considering the first American 'astronaut' Shepard made an inter-county 'spaceflight.'

But hats off to John Glenn, who showed remarkable grit to fly one of these things at this stage in the game, where the Americans were clearly desperate to keep up. Glenn flew into orbit again at age 77, aboard the Shuttle STS95 mission.

What is clear to this point in time is that both the Russians and US piggybacked off the German V2 technology. The big difference in results was due to the Russians having their own, indigenous rocket capabilities that were not that far behind Germany.

The impressive Soviet buildup of higher education was perhaps the key, which built greatly on top of already world-leading institutions like the Bauman Moscow State Technical University, which pioneered the use of deep practical education in concert with industry, alongside the classroom theory. This influence was in fact adopted back in the latter 19'th century by MIT and other American technical universities.

During the Stalin era, 'Baumanka' founded more than 70 technical universities in the USSR. Among them some of the more storied names in specialist fields like rocketry, aviation [TSAGI] and many more.

I will leave the story at this point, but perhaps some interesting and hitherto unfamiliar aspects of the early space race have been presented.

There is still much more ground to cover before we get to the moon race, but it is worth noting that the R7 Semyorka evolved into the Soyuz launch vehicles, which have made nearly 2,000 spaceflights to date and are still carrying cosmonauts and astronauts to the space station.

There are many interesting technical details here, as the engines on the Semyorka-Soyuz are remarkably similar to the original V2. The Russians simply refined this basic engine technology and literally perfected it. However, the advanced closed-cycle engines would come along later, for larger and more demanding launches.

By comparison, the US space program was far more discontinuous. Neither the V2 nor the early Atlas technology was ever refined or taken to its logial evolutionary limit. The same was true for the Saturn V of the Apollo program, which was abandoned after just 13 flights. And so on down the line.

There is still lots of very interesting technical discussion engines to explore. And engines are of course the heart of any spacecraft---in the same way a turbojet engine is the beating heart of an aircraft.

Posted by b on July 9, 2021 at 16:17 UTC | Permalink

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Interesting background on the German role in the US space program, some of which I already knew.

But in your zeal to show how inferior the US space program was to Russia's, you neglected to explain why it was that the US that ended up on the Moon and not the Soviets. Did the Soviets decide it was not a worthwhile expenditure of effort?

Posted by: Oscar Peterson | Jul 9 2021 16:37 utc | 1

yes, Oscar Peterson,I'm also looking forward to read about the moon landings. Gordog is certainly very educational. Although you might be quite disappointed with the 'moon landings'

Posted by: Paco7 | Jul 9 2021 16:57 utc | 2

@Oscar Peterson: Gordog already mentioned that he would discuss Apollo in another article.

Posted by: anonymous human | Jul 9 2021 17:01 utc | 3

Oscar Peterson | Jul 9 2021 16:37 utc | 1

The man says, "There is still much more ground to cover before we get to the moon race*

Posted by: Guy Thornton | Jul 9 2021 17:06 utc | 4

The Soviet successes in rocketry in the pre- and post- World War 2 period can be significantly attributed to Sergei Korolev.
There are many who believe that the only reason the USSR didn't precede the US to the moon, was the death of Korolev in 1966 (and he was in really bad health before that), but personally I see Khrushchev as the reason.
There were 2 leading figures in Russian rocketry in that era - and Khrushchev had worked under the other guy...

Posted by: c1ue | Jul 9 2021 17:18 utc | 5

Oscar Peterson @1--

Not to spoil Gordog's next installment, but the Soviets felt the effort was worthwhile. In February 1966 with Luna-9, the Soviets made the first soft landing on the moon, while NASA followed with Surveyor-1 in June 1966.

Posted by: karlof1 | Jul 9 2021 17:30 utc | 6

Gordog's assessment is incomplete. It doesn't include recent advances like SpaceX's

Everyday Astronaut description of the Raptor Engine notes that:

"... the Raptor engine is only the THIRD attempt at making this crazy type of engine. It’s the first to ever do any work and leave the test stand! And fingers crossed, it’ll be the first full flow staged combustion cycle engine to reach orbit too. Well, actually, just about everything this engine does will be a first.... The Soviet Union was able to solve the crazy hot oxygen rich closed cycle problem, but they were unable to solve combustion instability of large engines, so instead of one large combustion chamber, they made multiple small ones!

And testing of the Raptor Engine is proceeding well:

The first flight test of a Raptor engine, SN6, occurred on 25 July 2019 ... On 5 May 2021, Starship prototype SN15 using 3 Raptor engines, was launched to an altitude of 10 km. SN15 successfully performed the bellyflop maneuver, lit 2 engines and successfully landed on the pad.

The reality is that the "Space Race" is fully "on". USA has/is catching up.

Also note: Although USA has yet to field a hyper-sonic missile, they are testing them.

<> <> <> <>

'Missile gap' angst is overblown. USA may have fallen behind, but no substantial technical deficiency is going to bring down the Empire. We must do that heavy-lifting ourselves (if we can).


Posted by: Jackrabbit | Jul 9 2021 17:48 utc | 7

@ Posted by: Oscar Peterson | Jul 9 2021 16:37 utc | 1; @ Posted by: c1ue | Jul 9 2021 17:18 utc | 5

After the "discovery" of water on the surface on the Moon, which was widely covered by the media some months ago, some unclassified documents from the Soviet era were released or remembered in some Russian media outlet (don't remember which).

From what I inferred from them, the Soviets already knew the Moon didn't have significant water sources (only superficial "sweat"), and, as such, it wasn't economic to send a man to the Moon because a Moon base wasn't viable. They then abandoned this path to dedicate to unmanned missions only.

So, my initial take is this: the Soviets never sent a man to the Moon because they never really tried. By the time they received the first soil samples from unmanned missions, they realized it would not be worth it. They may, however, have desired and kind of rehearsed some effort to do it when they didn't know if the Moon didn't had significant sources of water.

If that really was the case, then subsequent events vindicated the Soviet decision. The Americans made some more manned missions to the Moon for one decade or so and outright stopped - going to the point where NASA admitted it "forgot" how to send a man to the Moon many decades later. The USA never gained any military supremacy over the USSR by sending men to the Moon.

Posted by: vk | Jul 9 2021 17:55 utc | 8

Robert H. Goddard?

Posted by: rickan | Jul 9 2021 17:58 utc | 9

@ Posted by: Jackrabbit | Jul 9 2021 17:48 utc | 7

This is disputable.

I think Rogozin or some Russian rocket engineer from Roscosmos made a statement some months ago (it was in Russian, that's why I cannot recover the article) stating that this raptor engine is an inferior and very dangerous design and is definite proof the Americans couldn't dominate the technology of a single engine. The problem is that if one single unit fails, the whole thing either won't work or, worse, will explode instantly, and it's very difficult to perfectly synchronize all of the little engines. Most importantly, he stated it was not an innovation, but simply gluing many little engines together, and praying they'll work together and produce sufficient power to get the whole thing out of orbit.

Posted by: vk | Jul 9 2021 18:01 utc | 10

vk @Jul9 18:01 #10



Posted by: Jackrabbit | Jul 9 2021 18:03 utc | 11

The development of ballistic missiles from 1945 in both the USA and USSR had manly been military driven. The USA had air and missile bases all around the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union couldn`t reach the USA with bombers which is why the development of ICBM`s had a higher priority. As a side effect the R-7 could also be used as a space carrier.

Posted by: m | Jul 9 2021 18:08 utc | 12

@vk | Jul 9 2021 17:55 utc | 8

The Americans made some more manned missions to the Moon for one decade or so and outright stopped - going to the point where NASA admitted it "forgot" how to send a man to the Moon many decades later. The USA never gained any military supremacy over the USSR by sending men to the Moon.

As we all know the first manned Moon landing was 20. July 1969 with Apollo 11. The final Apollo Moon landing was Apollo 17, December 7-19 1972.

So your "decade" was just ~3.5 years.

Posted by: Norwegian | Jul 9 2021 18:08 utc | 13

thanks gordog! and thanks b for highlighting it! good stuff!

get together - the youngbloods

Posted by: james | Jul 9 2021 18:18 utc | 14

The reality is that the "Space Race" is fully "on". USA has/is catching up.

Yea, and the world is flat, isn't it JR?

Posted by: BM | Jul 9 2021 18:21 utc | 15

Rockets, as space access devices, are 1950s tech in the year 2021, even the best Russian developed engines.

Posted by: Jay | Jul 9 2021 18:36 utc | 16

I do recall much of this space-race competition between the Soviet Union and the US while it was happening. It does seem to be accepted that Soviet rocket engines were superior to those of the US. The one technology that we had that was better was guidance systems. That is why the US was the first nation to put a man on the moon.

In the early 1970s I heard a story that might shed some light on this difference. The US obtained a fully functional Soviet fight jet. The technicians that dismantled the aircraft were amazed to see that its electronics contained vacuum tubes! This was at a time that Radio Shack was selling hi fi equipment to the public using transistors. And of course there is no doubt that the US was far more advanced in incorporating transistors in their electronics than were the Soviets in the early 1960s.

That was then, today of course is different.

Posted by: ToivoS | Jul 9 2021 18:37 utc | 17

@ Posted by: Jackrabbit | Jul 9 2021 18:03 utc | 11

Amazingly, I found it:

Elon Musk's rocket engine is a planetary bluff, by Alexander Artamonov, for Pravda

Just one correction: Artamonov doesn't mention his source for the specific statement I said at my original comment. He just states it as a journalist specialist and with experience in the are (he's from the "Science" section of Pravda). However, he phrases it as if it was common knowledge for people with minimum contact in the area, not as some made up information:

All the talk about the fact that Elon Musk has created a new rocket engine using his SpaceX Dragon program for more than a year is nothing more than talk.

Musk did not create any engine. Its "unit" is just a bunch of more than 20 units of engines, not the main course, not marching, but shunting ones. This is the Merlin engine, a small engine about 4-5 times less powerful than the RD-180.

He tied them, roughly speaking, into a single mechanism, with the help of which it was possible to launch the rocket into orbit. Quite dangerous, by the way, an event, because a slight imbalance of one of the power plants is enough for the impulse to be not at all the one that is needed. The bottom line in this case is obvious.

And the whole planet has seen him several times. Live.

He also completes this with information by two experts on why reverse engineering some technologies simply is not a realistic possibility:

Petr Lyovochkin , chief designer of NPO Energomash:

"I would say that they all agree on one thing, that it is basically impossible to create such an engine if you do not have alloys, if your alloys do not withstand the extreme temperatures of the combustion chamber and you do not fully know how to achieve the non-flowability of the walls so that the walls retained their hardness, density at those exorbitant temperatures in the combustion chamber that arise. The issue of materials science, the issue of alloys, the issue of the correct injection of fuel - all these issues the Americans cannot solve, despite the fact that they even have access to design documentation. we do not lock ourselves in, we pass it on to them. "


When in the 50s in the USSR they decided to copy the English Rolls-Royce, they could not understand how the gearbox works: for some reason, the teeth of the gears did not fall into each other. It seemed that the diameter corresponded, but the clutch did not occur when the mechanism was assembled. I had to literally through intelligence (yes, yes!) Buy information that at the plant these same gears are pre-frozen, that is, they lower the temperature of the metal, and thus the teeth cling to each other, and then, naturally, the metal in the process of dilatation would sit tightly - and everything worked.

Another example:

The Lobaev rifle is the longest-range rifle in the world. Shoots at 4200 meters. And why? Because there is a secret of barrel cutting and a secret of alloys, which Mr. Lobaev knows, but the Americans, who once learned it, do not know.

A technological secret can indeed remain a mystery for decades. It seems that everything was copied, but the machine does not work. So it is with the RD-180.

Posted by: vk | Jul 9 2021 18:43 utc | 18

@ Posted by: ToivoS | Jul 9 2021 18:37 utc | 17

If I'm not mistaken, rocketry is a completely different field from the part that takes care of the modules, life support system etc. etc.

The construction and design of modules requires many engineers from many different areas. It is more the art of fitting something to an extreme environment, an area that requires more time, human resources and sophistication and brainstorming than anything else (so I've heard, that's not my area).

It seems to me the rocket (the thing that gets you out of planet Earth) is the truly revolutionary technology, the "hard part" of space technology.

Posted by: vk | Jul 9 2021 18:50 utc | 19

@VK and @JackRabbit

I read that article too VK, i cant find it at the moment but i believe it was on "ria. ru" or "ukraina. ru".

@JR have you seriously bought the musk narrative??
I think you should do some math after you have checked out the teslaq gang on twitter, on Teslacharts timeline you will find ALL the professionals. Search after spacex on his timeline for more.

Posted by: Per/Norway | Jul 9 2021 18:54 utc | 20

in the treaty of versailles, it was forbidden for germany to build and maintain heavy artillery. Rockets where not forbidden, the allies considered them as a firework thingie. Motor airplanes where also forbidden.

So the germans where the germans and did what wasn't forbidden and developed glider planes and - big fat rockets. They researched the topic before the nazi regime, for example Wernher von Braun started experimening with liquid propelled rockets from 1928 on.

Posted by: balu | Jul 9 2021 18:57 utc | 21

vk @Jul9 18:43 #18

Your referencing a completely different engine. The Merlin Engine was an engine developed prior to the Raptor Engine.


Posted by: Jackrabbit | Jul 9 2021 19:01 utc | 22

@ ToivoS #17

Yes, some of our experts were flown in and had a really good look at a stolen Soviet fighter jet in the 1970s and it used some vacuum tubes.

As it turns out, one of the reasons for that was EMP immunity. The Soviet electronics was hardened against destruction from the EMP that would have occurred in a nuclear war. Fragile semiconductors would have been instantly fried.

Posted by: Billb | Jul 9 2021 19:01 utc | 23

Wow! This is a surprise. I appreciate the honor of having my comment highlighted into an article---especially on a website with this quality of original analysis and reporting.

Posted by: Gordog | Jul 9 2021 19:06 utc | 24

Per/Norway @Jul9 18:54 #20

JR have you seriously bought the musk narrative?

I'm not a Musk fanboy. Musk didn't develop rocket tech, that was the SpaceX team.

... on Teslacharts timeline you will find ALL the professionals ...

Please just tell us what your complaint is about the Telsa professionals. Are they Russian? LOL.


Posted by: Jackrabbit | Jul 9 2021 19:06 utc | 25

I'm glad b had lifted this comment as a post of its own. Gordog's comments on this topic has been one of the highlight readings for me of late.

Posted by: Oscar Peterson | Jul 9 2021 16:37 utc | 1

I'm sure Gordog will chime in if he sees fit but they were at the bleeding edge of staged engine scale-up given the state of material science and testing. There were also political pressure to race the Americans so they pressed ahead and had to use what they have and the only way is to use multiple engines.

As Gordog have outlined elsewhere, when you up the number of critical components you also scale up the failure probability. This showed in their N1 failed launches with 30 engines. When every engine is relied upon for max thrust there isn't much redundancy. Lack of sophisticated controls like we have today just compounded the issue.

Sure there's nepotism and the "don't question your superior" mentality in the USSR at the time (you know its there, don't sugarcoat it) but this is of ancillary interest and not the prime reason for failure. The tech they had was simply underdeveloped for the mission.

Sometimes the right tech for the job takes a much longer route than a dead end which may seem successful at first.

We are watching the same thing play out with multiple-small-engine projects in USA. They are betting on modern controls and derating to give satisfactory outcomes. But on the efficiency front when you want to have max thrust for heavy lift missions its basically an admission of technological defeat.

Any derating or over-provisioning, regardless of excuse, means you'll be carrying extra weight and less payload.

Because maths.

Posted by: A.L. | Jul 9 2021 19:07 utc | 26

When comparing rocket development between the USSR and USA in the cold war era, it is helpful to think about there individual military situation. The US had airports and airbases round the communist bloc and a lot of airplaines with nukes in there bellys around the clock circling the evil communists and even made occasional sight seeing tours inside (you remember the U2 Gary Powers circus)

On the other hand, the USSR didn't have this and were not able to build this up (Remember the Cuba thing). So the only option was to threat shooting directly from there own ground to the US, and that requires a near space flight capable rocket.

I think this is the true reason behind the advances of russion space technology relative to the US. This situation hasn't change much since the 50s. China is in a similar position.

For the US, space flight is rather a marketing gag.

Posted by: balu | Jul 9 2021 19:12 utc | 27

When comparing rocket development between the USSR and USA in the cold war era, it is helpful to think about there individual military situation. The US had airports and airbases round the communist bloc and a lot of airplaines with nukes in there bellys around the clock circling the evil communists and even made occasional sight seeing tours inside (you remember the U2 Gary Powers circus)

On the other hand, the USSR didn't have this and were not able to build this up (Remember the Cuba thing). So the only option was to threat shooting directly from there own ground to the US, and that requires a near space flight capable rocket.

I think this is the true reason behind the advances of russion space technology relative to the US. This situation hasn't change much since the 50s. China is in a similar position.

For the US, space flight is rather a marketing gag.

Posted by: balu | Jul 9 2021 19:12 utc | 28


they used vacuum tubes for better emp resistance in case of nuclear war.

Posted by: rok-x | Jul 9 2021 19:15 utc | 29

@ Posted by: Jackrabbit | Jul 9 2021 19:01 utc | 22

This may be a failure of the machine translation, but it is implied that the author is referring to the newer engine (probably this Raptor you mention of) as essentially the Merlin engine but a little better.

Either way, it is heavily implied the author states the problem is with the design, not the execution of the design, so no matter how better you make it, a rocket engine made of multiple smaller rocket engines is an inferior design.

I'm not an expert on this area - I'm just giving you the Russian side of the story. Artamonov's narrative was corroborated by Rogozin himself some months later (where he states the RD-180 is still by far the best), just type RD-180 in cyrillic in Ria, Pravda etc. and you'll find his widely covered statement.

Posted by: vk | Jul 9 2021 19:17 utc | 30

Posted by: vk | Jul 9 2021 18:43 utc | 18

Yes, how'd they know? They've been there, bought the T-shirt, it didn't work.

Posted by: A.L. | Jul 9 2021 19:18 utc | 31

Thanks for throwing Gordog's rocket-mania open for discussion, b. I'd never heard of closed-cycle rocket engines until Gordog mentioned them and couldn't comprehend the apparent difficulties AmeriKKKa encountered in making them work. So I Googled them and up came Wiki's screed on Staged Combustion Rocket Engines aka closed-cycle rocket engines, and now I'm surprised that ANYONE was able to make them work...

When I was a kid a friend and I mucked around with sulphur + aluminium powder rockets using 6mm duralium tubing as a rocket body. It took hours to file enough grit off a piece of aluminium for 1 10" rocket. So each weekend we'd take our 2 or three rockets down to the sea-side to test them. The ones which didn't explode before they could take off swished around violently in the undergrowth starting little fires.
Net result: out of circa 20 rocket tests only ONE flew like a rocket for about 2 - 3 seconds and an altitude of ~ 150 ft.
Then we discovered guitars and girls.

Until Elon Musk builds an electric rocket, my favourite rocket will remain the Soyuz. Wiki has a good screed on it and there's a great pic of the business-end of a Soyuz with its 5 clusters of 4 rocket motors. Awe inspiring - in looks and performance.

Posted by: Hoarsewhisperer | Jul 9 2021 19:21 utc | 32

Jackrabbit, about SpaceX and the Raptor engine, you cite this:

On 5 May 2021, Starship prototype SN15 using 3 Raptor engines, was launched to an altitude of 10 km.

Yes, this engine flew to a height of 33,000 ft, where commercial jets operate all day long. But the Raptor rocket only reached 180 mph, only a third of jet speed.

To reach orbit this engine will need to reach 18,000 mph---one hundred times faster!

If and when such a flight is demonstrated, carrying an actual payload of known mass---only then can we independently confirm claims that Musk is making about this engine.

I will just say that it is pointless to carry out a 'test' program on a new engine by seeing if you can land it from this mickey mouse height and speed.

Every single rocket engine that has ever existed has been flight tested by attempting to reach orbit. That is the entire point of a spacecraft, lol!

Reach orbit first, and then work on landings!

There is much more I could write about the Raptor engine, SpaceX etc etc---and probably will at some point, lol!

Posted by: Gordog | Jul 9 2021 19:22 utc | 33

Reuse is BS when the payload is significantly more valuable than the vehicle.

How'd you like reusable syringes?

Great for low value, almost disposable LEO space junk and not much else.

Posted by: A.L. | Jul 9 2021 19:24 utc | 34


I believe the Russian space tug project Zeus has a nuclear powered electric thruster, though I would guess it will still use conventional rockets to get off the ground.

Posted by: Peter AU1 | Jul 9 2021 19:43 utc | 35

The technicians that dismantled the aircraft were amazed to see that its electronics contained vacuum tubes!

Did the Russians just stick with tubes in those days because the are far less susceptible to EMP? Did they choose not to expend the resources on microelectronics early because they knew nuclear war was quite possible in that era?

They could have easily stolen the manufacturing details from us and probably just as easily built chip factories in those days if they put their mind to accomplishing that mission. Russia is where radio enthusiasts can still purchase brand new vacuum tubes.

The United States is frequently crossed by picture-taking Cosmos series satellites that orbit at a height of 200 to 450 kilometers above the earth. Just one of these satellites, carrying a few pounds of enriched plutonium instead of a camera, might touch off instant coast-to-coast pandemonium: the U.S. power grid going out, all electrical appliances without a separate power supply (televisions, radios, computers, traffic lights) shutting down, commercial telephone lines going dead, special military channels barely working or quickly going silent." -- from "Nuclear Pulse (III): Playing a Wild Card" by William J. Broad in Science magazine, pages 1248-1251, June 12, 1981.

My question and thoughts are, was this a feature of state planning in those days i.e. constrained resources and/or military planning? Today Russia is quite different than yesterdays Russia.

Russian conscripts were not uniformly intelligent nor uniformly adept at the Russian language back in that era. Things have changed and will continue to change.

Posted by: circumspect | Jul 9 2021 19:50 utc | 36

I remember wondering at the time how many failed attampts had preceeded Gagarine into Space in 1961. It has taken 60 years and Gordog, to find out that it was the Americans who ran the most risk.

US propaganda in 1961 was pretty good.

(Or maybe I didn't question the ongoing narrative enough?)

Posted by: Stonebird | Jul 9 2021 19:55 utc | 37

Gordog @Jul9 19:22 #33

I'm not an aero engineer so I can't comment on the specifics of the testing regime. However, I think that it does make sense to test a new engine prior to attempting to reach space. That testing has been going on for about two years now.

There also appears to be two versions of the Raptor: one optimized for space and one optimized for in-atmophere. Perhaps it's the in-atmosphere Raptor that has been being testing in the atmosphere?

It seems that some want to think that it's all baloney. But SpaceX is a real company that has accomplished multiple launches and is competing against Blue Origin, ESA, Roscosmos, and others. It makes little sense for SpaceX to attempt to fool the world.

In any case, we may soon see the use of Raptor to get to orbit:

First Raptor Vacuum engine arrives at Starbase; First orbital Starship launch still planned for July [2021]


Posted by: Jackrabbit | Jul 9 2021 20:02 utc | 38

We in the US were not really fooled by the 1961 US space flight by Shepard, although not told of the great difference in rockets required for the USSR orbital flight of Gagarin. I was 9 and soon tried to build rocket engines in the basement but had to wait a little while for more education.

But the USSR’s better rockets probably explains why the US put short range nuclear missiles in Turkey, causing the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis that was resolved by removing the missiles from Turkey (see RFK’s Thirteen Days). By then the US had the Atlas rocket so MAD was assured without the short response times of nearby missiles.

Posted by: Sam F | Jul 9 2021 20:02 utc | 39

billb #23

Thanks for that information. I do remember how some high tech people were ridiculing Soviet technology because one the Soviets high tech fighter planes were still using vacuum tubes. My source at the time was a recently released US Navy officer whose job was to design (or at least to test) antiship and antiaircraft missiles for the US Navy.

Posted by: ToivoS | Jul 9 2021 20:19 utc | 40

@ Posted by: Jackrabbit | Jul 9 2021 20:02 utc | 38

The problem isn't that companies like SpaceX exist, but that the USA bet the family farm on it.

NASA virtually doesn't exist anymore. It was de-funded and essentially converted into a SpaceX department.

I went to your sources (Space Explored and Everyday Astronaut), and they don't seem to be reliable. Looks more like a bunch of paid non-expert enthusiasts than anything else.

Posted by: vk | Jul 9 2021 20:24 utc | 41

My thoughts on a few of the comments here.

1. I cannot remember where I read this information but the US still must use the actual Soviet RD-180 rocket engines because reverse engineering has failed. Supposedly, US scientists still cannot manufacture some of the alloys used and the US made engines burn up with rocket engines made with NASA grade stainless steel or whatever alloy is used.

2.Anyone referencing Elon Musk and SpaceX should know there is a sizeable community of dissident investors and scientists that consider Musk and his companies complete frauds.

3. As to the moon missions. Many it consider it extremely suspicious that the US was so far behind the Soviet Union in rocket technology during the 1960s until suddenly BAM! the US shoots decades ahead and sends men to moon. Interestingly, the US cannot seem to replicate the success of the Saturn V rockets and reportedly has lost the technology to do so. This would be analogous to stating we simply did not have the technology to restart production of the 1969 Ford Mustang 428 Cobra Jet. HAHA!

4. I have also read the vacuum tubes in old Soviet military gear were because of EMP pulses knocking out solid state components. The Russians supposedly still follow the doctrine of EMP hardening all military gear assuming they will still be using it AFTER nuclear strikes. One can only assume this means they plan on surviving and have serious plans for conventional military assaults during/after a nuclear war. Think on that.

Posted by: Mar man | Jul 9 2021 20:26 utc | 42

@ A.L #26: Thanks for this comment that is technically spot on!

You're somewhat foreshadowing the key issues of the sixties moon race, with your correct comments about multiple small engines!

Posted by: Gordog | Jul 9 2021 20:27 utc | 43

US space propaganda - Put a man on the moon an all out one of. Now to beat China and Russia, they talk about putting the first woman and black person on the moon. That should end well.

Good comment Gordog and thanks to b for putting it up. More US myths bite the dust.

Posted by: Peter AU1 | Jul 9 2021 20:29 utc | 44


For the last 20 or 30 years I've been shaking my head every time someone in the US says "It's okay if we outsource all our manufacturing jobs...we're going to re-train people to work SMARTER!! We'll be the ones inventing things, designing things, being leaders, and let the grubby little worker bees elsewhere slave away at the undesirable and lowly making of things." Bullshit. As you note, it's in the physical making of things that we learn the most, and in overcoming obstacles to production is where inspiration most often springs forth. I've spent many years in design/engineering AND fabrication, mostly of racing vehicles and components, and I always kept my "box of doom"--where I would keep samples of some of my brilliant ideas that failed miserably when actually turned into metal. Inventors/designers/engineers have to be at least somewhat involved in actual manufacturing, or they will never understand why their ideas keep failing, or never make it past the drawing board. THIS is why Russia and China keep making unexpected gains and coming up with creative solutions to space, aeronautical, and military challenges--because they not only have a strong educational foundation for their citizens, but they actually produce a wide variety of things, and necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention.

Posted by: J Swift | Jul 9 2021 20:38 utc | 45

James, thanks for that golden oldie. Funny thing is, people used to really mean that back in the day!

Posted by: Gordog | Jul 9 2021 20:38 utc | 46

Peter @ 44, thanks man! Glad to you see you back! And btw, never got a chance to thank you for those gyro videos.

Birdy flying his feral Gyrocopter.

Posted by: Gordog | Jul 9 2021 20:43 utc | 47

Hi guys,

Just letting you know that the Raptor engine is the real deal. It is the first rocket engine to fly that converts all of the fuel and all the oxidizer to gas before mixing them in the combustion chamber. The turbopumps for the fuel and oxidizer are separate, eliminating the risk contact between fuel and oxidizer in common-shaft designs. Because all the fuel and all the oxidizer are converted to gas, there is much more power to drive the turbopump, so they can run the drive turbine at lower speed and pressure, improving the pump life. Methane fuel burns cleaner than kerosene, so the Raptor avoids producing soot which would otherwise clog the injectors. I don't know whether they will reach Musk's targets of a thousand launches per engine, but some Spacex Merlin engines have already flown eight times. We have reason to believe the Raptor engine will last far longer.

Posted by: bolangi | Jul 9 2021 20:48 utc | 48

I wonder how many developers from former Soviet countries took part in these private US space companies like Space X & Co. This ressource is limited and likely to retire soon without proper replacement.
The US used to have a lot of talented newcomers from foreign countries, this is true not only for rockets but also for many of the major developers of fission and fusion (Szillard, Teller etc.), less known is Sikorsky from Russia who fled because of the communist revolution after having build the plane Ilya Muromets (first ever 4 engine bomber, named after Russian mythic hero), contributed a lot to develop and build helicopters.
If gifted pupils and students stop to go to woke land they can't do it with their own educational system. Just have a look at the list of participants at IOI or IMO (informatics / mathematics international olympiads) and you will see that the US team got good results similar to China, Taiwan, Hong-Kong, Vietnam, Russia, Iran, Poland and Romania but strangely enough the US and Canadian teams consists only of people with very American names like Hoo, Lee, Chang etc.

Posted by: BG13 | Jul 9 2021 20:51 utc | 49

whisperer #32

I too remember testing rockets in early 60s. I recall using potassium chlorate as the oxidant. Also I was not near any sea shore so I used the roof our garage as the launching pad. My first test resulted in blowing off the gutter and leaving a six inch hole in the roof of the garage. I was responsible and had a garden hose available and was able to put out the resulting fire. My parents were at work at the time and never noticed the damages.

Posted by: ToivoS | Jul 9 2021 20:52 utc | 50

I believe the Russian space tug project Zeus has a nuclear powered electric thruster, though I would guess it will still use conventional rockets to get off the ground.
Posted by: Peter AU1 | Jul 9 2021 19:43 utc | 35

Wikipedia has an interesting entry on Ion Thrusters which covers many, many variations of the concept of electric and/or plasma propulsion. I haven't read all of the entries but the output of an ion drive is measured in kg whereas rocket output can be thousands of hp. Also, firing anything out of the back of a rocket means that the source of the particles is reduced in mass - just like any other 'fuel'.

So there's a "no free lunch/no fee thrust" conundrum. Apparently.

Posted by: Hoarsewhisperer | Jul 9 2021 20:56 utc | 51

Mar man @42--

I mentioned a few days ago that Russia and China both take Civil Defense very seriously whereas most NATO nations don't any longer. This article is dated but such exercises still occur within Russia which is the only nation I know of that has a specific Civil Defense Day annually. Here's an article that tells us more, most importantly the fact that Soviet Civil Defense was begun by Stalin in 1932, well before the Bomb. Some may find this 1986 Soviet Civil Defense Brochure displayed in a series of jpgs interesting--it reminded me of a similar pamphlet given to me by the US Army during my NBC training.

For me, there's a simple message sent by NATO governments to its citizens by the discontinuance of Civil Defense drills--We don't care about you.

Posted by: karlof1 | Jul 9 2021 21:08 utc | 52

The SU and now Russia never placed as much importance on the "Space Race" as the US. Their manned lunar effort was not well funded and started late. If there are any doubters about the SU's aerospace capabilities look no further than the Energia and the Buran space shuttle - an example of science and engineering far superior to the US counterpart.

Many of the commentators here seem enamored with Musk. So was I before looking at this schemes in detail. This link takes apart every Musk scheme without mercy and Musk deserves no mercy for what he has done to those who were in his way.

Posted by: Patient Observer | Jul 9 2021 21:16 utc | 53

karlof1 @52--

As an American, I get the distinct feeling Washington DC would consider it "good riddance" if most of the US population died.

The only thought in their heads would be loss of the "tax base"

Posted by: Mar man | Jul 9 2021 21:22 utc | 54

Mar man @ 54

They can print that thought away...

Posted by: Digital Spartacus | Jul 9 2021 21:30 utc | 55

Some time ago, a very interesting program about space rocket engines came out on Russian television. In particular, the launch of a space engine was shown at close range. Literally close range. Here is a video (starting the engine - at 33'55, images from multiple angles - from 30'30), a truly spectacular sight! However, I recommend watching the full program.

Posted by: alaff | Jul 9 2021 21:31 utc | 56

Posted by: ToivoS | Jul 9 2021 20:52 utc | 50
(Youthful adventures in rocketry - Potassium chlorate)

When I read my comment on Sulphur-aluminium rockets I was wondering how they react with each other? Now that you've mentioned it I have a vague recollection that potassium chlorate was probably also involved in fueling our rockets. I remember I had some PC and that the "-ate" meant oxygen/oxidiser.
All this stuff (how to & formulae) were in the many hobby magazines such as The Experimenter in the 1950s. < the only hobby mag name I can remember. I do recall that tamping the propellant into the tube had to be done gently and with great care because it COULD explode if tamped too vigorously...

Posted by: Hoarsewhisperer | Jul 9 2021 21:31 utc | 57

Patient Observer @Jul9 21:16 #53

The "Space Race" followed the "missile gap" scare-mongering. It was simply a way to justify pouring loads of money into missile tech (as a nuclear delivery mechanism). Just as "UFOs" were a way to obfuscate and discredit anyone claiming to witness tests of US aerospace tech.

AFAICT No one here is knocking Russian rocketry and tech. Russia had the undisputed lead in rocket engine tech for decades. We are all away that the West and USA relied on Russian rockets to supply the Space Station for years.

AFAICT No one here is "enamored with Musk". The media build a cult-like image around Musk that any thoughtful person finds disturbing. But we shouldn't make the mistake of discounting the technology simply because Musk has some involvement.


Posted by: Jackrabbit | Jul 9 2021 21:40 utc | 58

At the moment, Russian developers are creating a fundamentally new space engine - an ionic electric rocket engine, based on the use of electrical energy. It is stated that these engines will be capable of delivering speeds of 45-50 km/s, and will become the basis for missions to other planets.

Posted by: alaff | Jul 9 2021 21:49 utc | 59

Re Musk.

As a broad generalisation most geniuses have a fruit-cakish aspect to their personalities. Music, Art, Literature, Mechanics etc, etc. I recall reading, as a kid, that Edison made 10,000 experimental light globes before he came up with a 'good' one.
Even if it was really only 1000, you have to wonder "How 'normal' is that?"

Posted by: Hoarsewhisperer | Jul 9 2021 22:04 utc | 60

@ Bolangi:

There is nothing new about the Raptor engine using two turbopumps, nor about 'full gasification.' This is just meaningless buzzwords from Musk's publicity mill!

The huge RD270 from the 1960s was a full-flow, staged combustion design. [In Russian, but worth translating.]

It made 1.5 million pounds of thrust on the test stand [three times as powerful as Raptor]. But the engine was canceled before flight tests because of Rocket chief Korolev's feud with the engine designer Valentin Glushko. [I'm planning to get into this in my follow on comment in a future open thread].

Glushko later went on to design the world's most powerful and most advanced engine, the RD170/171, which is 1.8 million pounds of thrust and has been flying into space for more than 30 years.

The RD180 that the US buys is a spinoff of this engine, with about half the thrust. The newer RD190, used by Northrop Grumman's Antares launch vehicle and various Roscosmos launch vehicles is an even smaller spinoff, with about one quarter the 171's thrust. Raptor is about this size.

This is an entire modular family of engines spanning the entire power spectrum! All based on the same design---and these have flown with the highest standard of reliability for many years and hundreds of flights. The Raptor is a long long way from that kind of 'real.'

To briefly address what you said here. The full-flow scheme does not come with any inherent benefits. In fact it has real drawbacks.

That's why Glushko went with oxydizer-rich staged combustion, on a single-shaft turbopump, in his subsequent engines---even though he built and tested a full-flow engine first.

I will get into some technical details on this in that planned future comment. But that explanation requires a deeper dive, and explaining it in a way that non-technical people can make sense of it.

Right now, I would bet that not one person on this thread knows what any of those technical things you just mentioned actually mean!

Posted by: Gordog | Jul 9 2021 22:05 utc | 61

There's a lot of butthurtness going on about the United fake of America's failed space program, i realise that but for a settler state built upon the bones of millions of genocided natives and millions and millions worldwide, with that kind of history in such short period of time must lie a lot. that's what they're really the best and the greatest at.

So after years and years of fiascoes and catastrophic failures, rockets blowing up and all while SU was setting new records every day almost, suddenly they did something right, and landed on the moon. Just like the president said. In live broadcast tv at that all over the world just like 9/11. Yeah right.

Obviously it was a fake. A PR stunt. A Hollywood production. That's something the US is really good at. That's at least something real you fan boys can be glad over.

Posted by: mikhas | Jul 9 2021 22:26 utc | 62

Posted by: karlof1 | Jul 9 2021 21:08 utc | 52

A clip by a group called Grazhdanskoe Oborona, that is Civil Defense, like the first page of that manual that you linked to.

All goes according to plan, that's the name of the song.

Posted by: Paco | Jul 9 2021 22:28 utc | 63


Wow, that 1986 Soviet Civil Defence Brochure is trippy. The artwork is quite detailed with a real psychedelic feel. What I particularly like about it is that it seems to assume the reader is not an uneducated moron but rather someone who understands the realities of a nuclear explosion. Clearly some time and thought was put into it, another argument that it was produced by a community concerned for its population's safety. Here in Australia they can't even order covid vaccines even if Amazon were selling them. She'll be right... maaaaate...

Posted by: Patroklos | Jul 9 2021 22:39 utc | 64

Gordog @61--

Some of us do understand and even know where to find appropriate info. "Flow Simulation in Secondary Flow Passages of a Rocket Engine Turbopump", a paper prepared for 1998's Joint Propulsion Conference. Has some good diagrams, charts and related discussion. You might also use this video in some manner. Then there's the Atomic Rockets website that'll likely take several days at minimum to peruse just the section on engines.

As you're discovering, most of the very intelligent people who read MoA don't often comment, and some that comment constantly shouldn't.

Posted by: karlof1 | Jul 9 2021 22:52 utc | 65

What a splendid article. Thank you Gordog and b!

Posted by: Deltaeus | Jul 9 2021 22:59 utc | 66

Paco @63 & Patroklos @64--

Thanks for the song link, Paco. I read a few of the comments but really need to know what the lyrics are saying since the video tells its own story that's open to differing interpretations. On Lavrov's lecture, I thought his several answers related to Japan were very instructive and his entire performance masterful.

Patroklos, that the USSR's Civil Defense program was initiated by Stalin shows us an aspect of him few in the West would ever know--he cared for the fate of his people despite how we've been conditioned to think.

Posted by: karlof1 | Jul 9 2021 23:24 utc | 67

Thanks Gordog. Your posts here are most informative. I agree with J Swift@45. Innovation can not happen through scientific research alone. There must be a collaborative process where the research interacts with the shop floor to get the best results. The US off shored most of its manufacturing and IMO explains how innovation suffers as a result.

Posted by: Michael Crockett | Jul 9 2021 23:25 utc | 68

In reply to Oscar Peterson@1,

While I'm not an authority on the matter, I can relay what I've heard from a supposedly authoritative source, or at least the gist of it.

First off, the Soviet space program primarily served a military purpose, with any civilian or scientific endeavor having to take a back-seat and piggy-back off of vehicles developed as payload delivery platforms. Of course, publicized achievements also served a military function, since a demonstration of Soviet capability created a certain deterrence, but one couldn't expect the central government to allocate enormous resources towards stunts or strictly esoteric experimentation.

In that context, the N1 was drawn up and sold to the top brass as a weapons delivery system first and foremost, with a potential moon-mission as essentially a cover story. If I recall correctly, there was a bit of a panic internally over Soviet targeting systems being inaccurate and/or unreliable and, while this problem was being worked out, the government was receptive towards a stop-gap solution of a super heavy-lift delivery system that could carry multiple warheads or a giant warhead that didn't need to be very accurate. This issue was subsequently resolved in another way by a different design bureau while the N1 was still being worked on, which essentially made the project obsolete and the justification for it shaky, meaning that the "moon mission" under Korolev was under a constant threat of being cancelled outright.

So, that would be a good general primary reason -- the Soviets, at least the ones whose opinions mattered when it came to allocating resources, weren't all that interested in going to the moon in the first place.

Secondly, this was a period of particularly fierce competition and intrigue in the Soviet space program, with multiple parallel developments going on which generally showed more success and a higher utility than Korolev's project. Even Korolev was, arguably, less focused on the moon mission than he was on retaining his primacy in the space program and outmaneuvering his competitors, which potentially impacted on his decision making ability as project lead. I can't seem to find the name, but Korolev's death was predated by the death of another key figure in the project, which placed an even greater pressure on Korolev with which he was ultimately unable to cope.

So, as a secondary reason I would argue that a lot hinged on the people directly involved in the project, and on the circumstances under which they worked. Had this been a concerted effort of the best that Soviet engineering could muster, the results would have been different. Instead, the central government was called on to break up conflicts between rival bureaus several times. Korolev himself was, supposedly, paranoid, vindictive and uncompromising, and sidelined several brilliant engineers out of fear that they might steal his thunder.

Finally, there was the proposed rocket itself and the technical side of things. The USSR had, at that time, no means of creating sufficiently durable cylindrical fuel tanks for liquid fuel -- I can't recall at the top of my head if it was a welding issue, a materials shortage or what. But, at the end of the day, they went with spherical tanks which, I guess, are better at handling pressure. That, however, created a chain reaction in the design which forced several other decisions that in turn added a lot of complexity to the build and caused a lot of problems. At the end of that long chain, you ended up with 30 separate engines, for the first stage, that had to be perfectly synchronized so as not to rip the whole construction apart, which meant having double the amount (?) of fuel lines and pumps operate in perfect synchronization or else you had massive failures. In other words, it was a mess.

So, for the third reason, the supposed lack of a crucial component or piece of technology made for a design which was never very likely to work. That said, without the first or second reason, I'm fairly certain there wouldn't have been a third reason and the Soviets would have come up with a functional alternative within the allocated time frame. The engines themselves are reputably reliable. Towards the end we saw alternative fuel mixtures (which were deemed unfeasible due to cooling requirements iirc) gradually become available, as did cylindrical fuel tanks. But, I expect the race was over much earlier for the people involved than for the general public.

Posted by: Skiffer | Jul 9 2021 23:29 utc | 69

Karlof, I didn't mean to come off sounding patronizing.

Yes, the community on this site consists, in the main, of very smart and interesting people. A terrific group for sure!

But yeah, I guess I could have worded that a little better. Thanks for the links! [And PS: thanks for that Pepe article on the open thread...seems to align with a lot of the Afghanistan talking points around here lately.]

@ Patient Observer # 53, who doesn't seem to buy the Musk personality cult, lol!

Thanks so much for that steer to the youtube channel! Just watched this one, about Musk's plans to send space tourists on a trip to moon orbit by 2023, lol!

Wow, what a clownshow. This is not any kind of technical debunking, just some very good, factual, common sense stuff. Really good stuff.

@ Deltaeus: thanks for your kind words!

Posted by: Gordog | Jul 9 2021 23:31 utc | 70

Michael Crockett, who notes:

Innovation can not happen through scientific research alone. There must be a collaborative process where the research interacts with the shop floor to get the best results.

Yes! I have made the acquaintance of several Russian aerospace engineers over the years, and this kind of hands-on training is big part of it. A lot happens between the drawing board and the fabrication shop!

Posted by: Gordog | Jul 9 2021 23:44 utc | 71

I remember my elder brothers sending off ‘rockets’ from the arroyo behind our southern California us childhood home in the late 1950s. I don’t know what the chemical composition of their explosive power was but we were linked into JPL and CalTech as dad was a geochemist so it may have been substantive — given our limitations. That was the era of us school children ducking under school desks to avoid nuclear fallout. Lol.

Thank you to b and Gordog for this conversation. I usually have little of substance to offer to MOA conversations but almost always follow along to the last slog. I almost always learn something. Thank you. Thanks to all who participate, especially our host b and Gordog on this line.

Posted by: suzan | Jul 10 2021 0:14 utc | 72

Some interesting points made here about the need to work in the building of a thing in order to learn more about the very sustaining principles that make it possible in the first place. In short, as people have noted, progression can't happen purely in design or theory.

This reminds me of what Apple CEO Tim Cook famously said in 2017 about his production chain in China. Apple is in China for the quality of the workforce throughout the entire chain. A product isn't simply designed in California and specified for production in China: there are countless innovations that occur throughout that entire process, and the Chinese with their educated intelligence bring priceless improvements to the product that Apple can't get any other way:

It's not designed and sent over--that sounds like there's no interaction. The truth is, the process engineering and process development associated with our products require innovation in and of itself...You don't do it by throwing it over the chasm. It would never work. I can't imagine how that would be.


The vocational expertise is very very deep here, and I give the education system a lot of credit for continuing to push on that even when others were de-emphasizing vocational. Now I think many countries in the world have woke up and said this is a key thing and we've got to correct that. China called that right from the beginning.

"Vocational expertise."

Posted by: Grieved | Jul 10 2021 0:17 utc | 73

When I was a kid growing up my father programmed computers for the Atlas ICMB force, directly under all those Operation Paperclip scientists (he sure was sympathetic to their politics...). In retrospect I think he was trying to groom me to follow in his footsteps as he always used to speak of what he was doing as "strategy games"—"We won a simulated nuclear war today, only 290 million people dead, mostly in Europe". He brought home reams of doubtless highly classified computer printouts, on the backs of which I used to color sagas of spaceships, dinosaurs and yes, nuclear wars.

Regarding the so-called race to the Moon, he told me when I was a little older that the Soviets weren't even trying to get there, figuring it wasn't worth the effort. He also mentioned that the US considered exploding a nuke on the Moon; when I asked why he answered, "Just to show the Russians we can". At the time I didn't know this was classified info, only becoming aware when I read of this "revelation" about 20 or so years ago.

Posted by: Vintage Red | Jul 10 2021 1:25 utc | 74


ICMB should of course be ICBM

Posted by: Vintage Red | Jul 10 2021 1:27 utc | 75

Patient Observer @Jul9 21:16 #53

The 'Debunking Musk' videos were great. What a self-promoting jerk.


Posted by: Jackrabbit | Jul 10 2021 2:00 utc | 76

what a great read. and so are the comments.....although i couldn get through them all....

i watched a documentary about the usa vs ussr rocket race. the main gist i got about the approach by the engineers was that the russians were very hands on with trying out ideas and having failures and learning from them and going back to the drawing boards....the americans on the otherhand, did everything on paper. with the final product being being mapped out from beginning to end.

Posted by: smaug | Jul 10 2021 2:07 utc | 77

The most robust argument against US Apollo program putting anyone on the Moon is the Van Allen Belts.

Any spacecraft traveling from earth to the moon and back must traverse the van allen belts and will encounter massive
radiation in doing so. I've seen estimates of the crew acquiring a fatal dose before completing return to earth orbit, assuming they did not acquire a fatal dose during the trip out and their residence time on the moon and in lunar orbit.

Ie: the apollo crew would have been DOA on returning to earth orbit.

As for the Saturn V.... I'm reliably told that the engines didn't work... that substitutes of lesser thrust were used... sufficient to take the Apollo Spacecraft into earth orbit.... and little else..


Posted by: George W Oprisko | Jul 10 2021 2:47 utc | 78

Regarding the reality of the US landings on the moon, check out these links:

Posted by: Perimetr | Jul 10 2021 3:01 utc | 79

VK @8

The Russians seem to have changed their minds about the moon. They recently announced they wanted to go build a base there with the Chinese. So, is that some useless prestige project or is there something of interest up there?

Posted by: Robert Macaire | Jul 10 2021 3:23 utc | 80

@ Posted by: Robert Macaire | Jul 10 2021 3:23 utc | 80

The Chinese have announced they're not into the space sector for propaganda purposes, but because they think it is a legitimate economic sector.

Times have changed. Maybe now a lunar base is economically viable.

Posted by: vk | Jul 10 2021 3:35 utc | 81

Thanks Gordog, looking forward to your article on the Moon Race and any further comment on the relative benefits of 'full-flow' vs oxygen-rich staged combustion, just one of the many questions I was hoping to pick your brain regarding.

If anyone is interested in a first person account of the Moon Race, I would recommend Boris Chertok's Rockets and People if you have the time for a deep dive. Chertok was the real deal, paid his respects at Lenin's funeral as a child, worked on the Berezneyak rocket interceptor as a young man, was deployed to Germany to examine V-2 technology, then became one of Sergei Korolev's top designers working on almost every major Soviet project up to and including Mir-2/ISS.

From the introduction:

I regretfully became convinced of how many gaps there are in the history of the gigantic technological systems created in the Soviet Union after the Second World War. Previously, such gaps were justified by a regime of secrecy. Currently, however, it is ideological collapse that threatens the objective recounting of the history of [Soviet] science and technology.

The consignment to oblivion of the history of our science and technology is motivated by the fact that its origins date back to the Stalin epoch or to the period of the “Brezhnev stagnation.” The most striking achievements of nuclear, rocket, space, and radar technology were the results of single-minded actions by Soviet scientists and engineers. A colossal amount of creative work by the organizers of industry and the scientific-technical intelligentsia of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan—and to one extent or another all the republics of the former Soviet Union—was invested in the creation of these systems. The alienation of the people from the history of their science and technology cannot be justified by any ideological considerations.

I am part of the generation that suffered irredeemable losses, to whose lot in the twentieth century fell the most arduous of tests. From childhood, a sense of duty was inculcated in this generation—a duty to the people, to the Motherland, to our parents, to future generations, and even to all of humanity. I am convinced that, for my contemporaries and me, this sense of duty was very steadfast. This was one of the most powerful stimuli for the creation of these memoirs. To a great extent,the people about whom I am reminiscing acted out of a sense of duty. I have outlived many of them and will be in debt to them if I do not write about the civic and scientific feats that they accomplished.

Posted by: S.P. Korolev | Jul 10 2021 3:40 utc | 82

"both the Russians and US piggybacked off the German V2 technology"

Surely that should be "piggybacked on". Piggyback is one person on the back of another.

Posted by: RoHa | Jul 10 2021 3:51 utc | 83

Thanks Gordog and B -
btw. is gordog an acronym, or a figure from a celtic fable?

Posted by: bystander04 | Jul 10 2021 3:58 utc | 84

@ 80 Robert Macaire
Many people think the main motive for a possible return to the Moon is the idea of mining Helium 3, which may have potential as a possible fuel in fusion reactors.

Posted by: Fnord13 | Jul 10 2021 4:16 utc | 85

@ 78 George W Oprisko

I treat the lunar base station as an event of tremendous significance. As you point out, the principal physical fact that doubters of the moon landing are stuck with is the Van Allen radiation belt surrounding Earth - enough to fry electronics, enough to kill life forms.

Somewhere I even saw that the Pentagon in its single-minded lunacy detonated a nuclear device in the Belts to try to force a passage through them, but it made the radiation worse. Don't know what's true.

There is said to be a slot between the overlapping belts with little radiation - but if this formed the passage of the moon landing, why did it not go into legend and lore of lunar travel? Why so obscure?

Anyway, sorry to digress, but my point is that the real nations of Russia and China WILL go to the moon, and in reality. I assume the radiation shielding will be real, and explained. And we will finally see what it takes to send a human to the moon and back again, safe from Van Allen.

And just as it took the real response of China to persuade me of the seriousness of the novel coronavirus, so too it will be the real maneuvers of China and Russia that show me how one actually goes to the moon.

And from this, perhaps we can then compare logistics, and finally decide if the US actually had the chops to cut the mustard, or whether Los Angeles studios were given that task.

Posted by: Grieved | Jul 10 2021 4:25 utc | 86

The Apollo Saturn V is always said to be the most powerful launch vehicle ever. This is incorrect.

Saturn V produced 7.6 million lbs thrust at launch. The Soviet N1 rocket produced 10.2 million lbs thrust.

The problem was N1 relied on a complex circular arrangement of 30 engines and the Russian engineers couldn't manage to sync all 30 engines to maintain optimum thrust. The plumbing too was said to be very complex.

Of course the N1 was a failure. All 4 launches ended in disaster, and the Soviets gave up their moon program in the early 1970's. But the N1 remains the most powerful rocket ever flown.

Posted by: firebird | Jul 10 2021 4:39 utc | 87

alaff @ 59
At the moment, Russian developers are creating a fundamentally new space engine - an ionic electric rocket engine, based on the use of electrical energy. It is stated that these engines will be capable of delivering speeds of 45-50 km/s, and will become the basis for missions to other planets.

What I find amusing is that the beltway bandits would charge trillions at an attempt like this and the other side will do it for pennies on the dollar. So who will win that race? Who will exhaust themselves economically trying to get there? The Empire is hoisted on their own petard.

Posted by: circumspect | Jul 10 2021 4:49 utc | 88

Jackrabbit, here's one you probably won't like either! 😁

Posted by: Gordog | Jul 10 2021 4:56 utc | 89

Request Sir Gordog would speak of Soviet ramjet-rocket ICBM program, which as I recall was well underway with large very high atmospheric simi ballistic machine. (and I note that present Russian machine set seems derivative)

I have seen, long ago, a picture of machine and a brief article...alas, lost!

Many thanks fellas.

Posted by: Walter | Jul 10 2021 5:26 utc | 90

Walter @90

While you're waiting...

Posted by: S.P. Korolev | Jul 10 2021 5:42 utc | 91

Or this bizarre beast...

Posted by: S.P. Korolev | Jul 10 2021 5:50 utc | 92


Might be something different to a ion thruster. Thinking about the Russian nuke powered cruise missile makes me think it will be a little more advanced

Posted by: Peter AU1 | Jul 10 2021 6:01 utc | 93

Walter "ramjet-rocket ICBM"

Ram jets are somewhat slow for an ICBM. Turbine, Ram jet, Scram jet, then rocket engines I think is the order.

Posted by: Peter AU1 | Jul 10 2021 6:16 utc | 94

I forgot the pulse jet.

Posted by: Peter AU1 | Jul 10 2021 6:22 utc | 95

The German VI of WWII was I believe a pulse jet. The doodlebug.

Posted by: Peter AU1 | Jul 10 2021 6:25 utc | 96

Peter AU1 @93, Hoarsewhisperer

This article discusses the Russian nuclear-powered spacecraft. It does involve a kind of ion engine, but uses a nuclear reactor to overcome the power limitations of solar panels (ion engines use an electric field to accelerate an ionized propellent to a very high velocity). It seems to be derived from the Soviet ocean-reconnaissance satellites that used the reactor to power a ship-tracking radar rather than an electric thruster.

Apologies for the numerous posts, at least they're short..

Posted by: S.P. Korolev | Jul 10 2021 6:35 utc | 97

S.P. Korolev

I read something not long back on Russia having a breakthrough and being able to produce a large amount of power from a small reactor. Like drawing large amounts of power from a battery, heating I take it was the issue to be overcome.

Posted by: Peter AU1 | Jul 10 2021 7:09 utc | 98

@87 firebird
The N-1 never flew. There were four tests and all four of them were failures.

In fact that`s the point that Gordog made at another thread with the SpaceX Starship. With it`s ca. 30 engines in the first stage it will never become a workable design. The propability that at least one of the engines will have a catastrophic malfunction is just to high.

Posted by: m | Jul 10 2021 7:09 utc | 99

@52 karlof1
The discontinuation of civil defense in the West indicates that after 1989/91 the possibility of a nuclear war was ruled out in principle. In fact NATO didn`t consider war with Russia a possibility after `91 and accordingly didn`t make any preperations for even a limited war with Russia until 2014.

Posted by: m | Jul 10 2021 7:33 utc | 100

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