Americans tend to talk a lot about the Space Race and how we made it to the Moon and we were first and no one else was second because we are the best. It's put into context by the fact that the Soviet satellite Sputnik was the first in space, but by the time we get around to discussing the moon landings no one mentions why. And this enormous, absolutely insane rocket is the reason.
Sure, one could go in and argue that the failure of the Soviet Union to make it to the Moon was a result of an incompatible governing system, or economic hurdles, or a myriad of other factors contributed to the communist nation never placing a human on the lunar surface, but they all culminated in this, the N1 rocket.
If you were an alien observing earth sometime around January 1962 you may be forgiven for placing a bet on the Soviet Union as the eventual winner of the Space Race. They had gotten the first satellite into space, the first animal into space, and not only the first human into space with cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, but they also had him orbit the Earth. Americans had managed to come in second every time, and the only manned spaceflight they accomplished was a simple suborbital flight. And in case you're not sure what that means, it means that they had astronaut Alan Shepard shoot straight up and straight down, and that was it.
He was in flight for less than half an hour.
The Space Race effectively ended with the landing of the Apollo 11 mission on the Moon in July of 1969. Where were the Soviets though? Shouldn't they have been the ones saying "медведь приземлился" on the powdery gray landscape?
The N1 rocket that they created to take them there was almost as big as the Saturn V that took Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the Moon. It was a bit shorter, and a bit lighter, but it had more thrust out of the gate. How it got that massive boost was probably its downfall.
As you can see from the picture above, the N1 had a lot of engines. Whereas the Saturn V was powered by only five enormous engines, the N1 had thirty little ones. 24 of them formed a ring around the outside of Block A, the name for the first stage, with six placed in the center to provide roll control. The thinking was that if one of these small little engines was good, then strapping them all together would be great. This idea went horribly wrong though.
Think about it this way. The Saturn V, with its comparatively simple system, still had over six million different parts. If only .1% of those parts broke during the horrifically violent event that is a rocket launch, over six thousand would still break leading to (hopefully) instantaneous fiery death. Not good.
And yet the Saturn V itself never resulted in a fatality. (The Apollo 1 astronauts were tragically killed, but that was due to a failure in the command capsule oxygen system). The Soviet system was infamous for poor quality work, and when you get thirty engines in one single stage, place them all right next to each other, and light the match, a failure of one would lead to an extremely fast domino effect, which would lead to a massive explosion.
Which is exactly what happened.
Of the four N1 test launches, all of them failed. None so spectacularly, though, as the second launch attempt.
The N1 seemed to adhere to the rule of "what goes up, most come down" more than any other in Newtonian physics, and shortly after lifting off from the launch pad it came right back down, crashing to earth and combusting.
It turns out a bolt had come loose and was sucked straight into an oxygen pump fueling one of the thirty little engines, which then promptly exploded, setting off a chain reaction.
The rocket exploded with the force of seven kilotons of TNT, equivalent to a small nuclear bomb. It remains one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in human history. The destruction was so vast, in fact, that it let the Americans know what the Soviet Union was up to when satellites photographed the wrecked launch pad. It took 18 months for the USSR to rebuild it. This time, they installed fuel filters.
Oh, and the entire thing was fueled by kerosene. It's not quite a lamp, this thing.
The fourth and final unsuccessful N1 launch, in 1972, also resulted in a massive explosion, this time from a phenomenon known as pogo oscillation. Pogo oscillation is exactly what it sounds like – a violent up-and-down motion that could make anybody sick, but makes rockets really really sick. It results from a variation in thrust from different engines, and with thirty unreliable ones, you can get a lot of variation. Once it starts, it's very hard to correct, as the variable acceleration leads to variable fuel pump pressures, which leads to more variables acceleration, and so on and so on until eventually you match the vehicle's resonance frequency and vibrate the whole thing to death.
Protip: Name your next band "Pogo Of Death," the kids will love you.
This time, the N1 managed to get up to 40 kilometers in altitude before it encountered the dreaded pogo oscillation. An orderly shutdown of the engines was begun, which sounds easy enough. Of course, because this was the Soviet Union and the N1, it didn't exactly go according to plan. Instead of shutting down, one of the liquid oxygen pumps of course exploded.
Another enormous boom resulted.
With that, the Soviet Union decided to pack it in on its plans to put a person on the moon.
Although the US found out about the whole program due to satellite overflights, it was officially denied by the USSR until 1989 as it was thought to be such a huge embarrassment. By then, it would only be two years until the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics would disintegrate itself.