On July 3, 1969, the Soviet Zond L1S-2 was getting ready to head into space when disaster struck. For a few moments, the craft lifted into the night sky. Then, it exploded.
(Welcome to Today in History, the series where we dive into important historical events that have had a significant impact on the automotive or racing world. If you have something you’d like to see that falls on an upcoming weekend, let me know at eblackstock [at] jalopnik [dot] com.)
In 1969, the Space Race was at its peak. Two Cold War adversaries, the United States and the Soviet Union, were accomplishing more and more impressive feats — and suffering more and more catastrophic failures — than ever before. It was all in an effort to lay claim to having the first man land on the moon and establish dominance over a heretofore unclaimed area: space.
The Soviet Union’s answer to the Space Race question was the N1 rocket, which was the Soviet counterpart to the US Saturn V. Basically, this was a rocket that could thrust humans out of Earth’s atmosphere and, theoretically, onto the surface of the moon.
In 1969, Soviet scientists were coming off the back of a failed N1 launch, where its first stage set the record for the most powerful rocket stage ever built — one that stands today. They’d toned it back a little to get ready for the Zond L1s-2 and prepared to launch at 11:18 p.m. in Moscow. There was just one problem: the Soviets hadn’t conducted static test firings to make sure everything was in working order before they got ready to launch a whole lot of money into space.
So, this N1's very brief flight ended when it fell back onto the launch pad at a 45-degree angle. There were almost 2,300 tons of propellant on board that promptly exploded, shattering windows and launching debris in a shock wave that spanned almost a six mile radius. Half an hour after the accident, drops of unburned fuel were still raining from the sky. And the Soviets were even lucky, because a later investigation revealed that as much as 85 percent of the propellant didn’t explode. Had it done so, there could have been much wose consequences.
That lack of test firings proved to be the Soviets’ worst nightmare and was the reason why no N1 rockets ever made it up to space, even though the country tried two more times.
Mere days after the N1's second misfiring, on July 20, the Apollo 11 deposited the first crew of men onto the surface of the moon.