Why Has Russia Never Been To The Moon? | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Ashley Bowman WRITTEN BY: Caitlin Johnson
In the 1960s, America won the race to put a man on the moon... but, surprisingly, Russia never followed suit. In this video, Unveiled uncovers the real reasons why the Soviet Union failed to get to the moon, and why NO ONE has been back since 1972. It was originally described as "one giant leap for mankind", so what went wrong?

Why Has Russia Never Been to the Moon?

On July 20th, 1969, history was made. After the better part of a decade, the United States won the space race and put a man on the moon. But despite the fact that up until the late ‘60s the race had been neck and neck, the Soviet Union and now Russia still hasn’t matched the feat. So, just what was it that stopped the USSR’s lunar program?

This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; why has Russia never been to the moon?

One reason as to why the USSR never made it to the lunar surface could be similar to the thinking behind why the American Apollo Program was shelved in 1972, as well: lack of potential. After just a handful of manned missions, NASA reportedly felt as though there simply wasn’t much by way of profit on the moon, and few tangible benefits to sending a human up there – as opposed to a probe. The initial goal was to win the moon race, but since America had already done that with Apollo 11, the excitement and necessity for the Soviet Union to do the same thing dwindled - just as it did with NASA itself even, just a few years later. But, really, there’s much more to the story than just “one side gave up when the other side beat them to it”, and the Soviets didn’t abandon their entire moon mission just because the US got there first.

One of the Soviet space program’s biggest problems in the late 1960s was dealing with the loss of Sergei Korolev, the lead engineer whose genius had led to the USSR’s many other triumphs in the space race. They may have missed out on the first man on the moon, but the USSR actually achieved various space firsts in the build-up, including building and launching the first satellite, sending the first animals into space, and also the first people. The first uncrewed spacecraft to reach the moon was a Soviet machine, too - the Luna 2, in 1959. Korolev had been at the helm for most of these successes, but he died in 1966 and with him, according to some, went the Soviet Union’s hopes of placing cosmonauts on the lunar surface. Without Korolev, the entire program floundered.

Crucially, Korolev had masterminded the initial design of the N1 rocket, which was the Soviet equivalent of the Saturn Five rocket used by NASA – at least, it would have been, if they could have ever gotten it to work. Korolev died before his plans were fully developed, and without him leading the way its construction was rushed, underfunded and mismanaged… which led to a series of disastrous launch failures between 1969 and 1972, then a high-profile cancelled launch in ‘74, before the N1 rocket was shelved indefinitely in 1976. It was “back to the drawing board” except, without Korolev, that never really happened… and the Soviet moon mission never got off the ground, kinda literally. No matter how badly the Soviets may have wanted to send a cosmonaut to the moon, they simply did not have the technical capability at the time.

But, of course, it isn’t just the Soviet Space Program (and today Roscosmos) that hasn’t been to our closest satellite. Besides NASA, no-one has. As of 2020, there are more than a dozen government-operated space agencies with launch capability, and many more state-sponsored initiatives and private firms working towards similar goals. Of the “big six” space agencies – NASA, Roscosmos, the ESA, JAXA, the CNSA, and the ISRO – NASA is still the only one to have sent people to the moon, and again, they’ve not been back since 1972. The landscape has changed considerably since the Soviets became the first “not to go”, with the world’s priorities in space changing…. but cost is still a major sticking point. We now know and understand more about the moon than ever, but for most of the ‘80s, ‘90s and 2000s it became more and more difficult to justify the expense of flying and landing humans there. Yes, there was potential to mine for resources, but not potential enough to convince any government to provide budget enough to actually do it. In the early days, it might be argued that the USSR didn’t go because they couldn’t go; but in more recent years and decades, Russia more likely hasn’t gone because it hasn’t wanted to.

That said, it’s not as though the early Soviet plans stopped immediately after Neil Armstrong’s famous first steps. In fact, the ambitions of the USSR briefly ballooned into something much bigger. As the focus changed in the 1970s, new ideas and initiatives were pushed front and centre - by the Soviet Union and everyone else. Famously, the physicist Gerald K O’Neill hatched one of the most ambitious plans, imagining an elaborate orbital city which became known as the O’Neill Cylinder. The Soviet Space Program also moved in this direction, but specifically as part of an attempt to improve its lunar program - proposing that the N1 rocket might one day be used for multiple missions to construct a moon base, called Zvezda. Again, though, due to the ongoing failures of the N1, Zvezda’s construction was repeatedly pushed back and ultimately cancelled. And with it went the Soviet Union’s last real drive toward manned moon missions.

But where the USSR failed at sending humans to the moon, its lead in the space race wasn’t completely squandered… because they emerged as pioneers of robotic space exploration. As well as creating most of the first probes and satellites - including the first to ever impact another planet (the Venera 3) and the first to achieve a soft landing on another planet (the Venera 4), both of which went to Venus - the USSR developed the first ever lunar rover. And this proved crucial in shaping its future plans for the moon.

The Lunokhod programme successfully sent two rovers to the moon in 1970 and 1973. Sure, it didn’t quite rival the romanticism of sending people but, as the Soviets and then everybody else quickly realised, there were plenty of benefits to sending robots to space instead of humans. They were cheaper; they didn’t need food or water; they could stay up there indefinitely; with various upgrades they could do many of the same jobs as humans; and - crucially - they were safer. If anything went wrong with a rover or probe, it’s lots of money lost… but no lives. It’s one reason why, today, we’ve spent decades sending robots to Mars; they’re great explorers and provide us with so much useful information without ever risking a human life.

The Lunokhod programme, then, was fairly short-lived, but also hugely influential. It ended less than a decade after it began, when the planned launch of Lunokhod 3 didn’t go ahead, with that finished but never-used rover today displayed in a museum… but some of the science behind it had wide-reaching applications. It proved a crucial early step toward the modern Martian rovers, like NASA’s Curiosity, and the Lunokhod designers even had a part to play in the clean-up operation after the Chernobyl disaster - using their expertise to build machines that could venture into the plant ruins and help clear the debris.

Ultimately, the Lunokhod rovers were one of the final parts to the USSR’s first Luna space program, running from the late ‘50s to the mid-‘70s. In the 21st century, though, Roscosmos revived the Luna program, renaming it Luna-Glob. Luna 25 - the first mission back - was meant to launch in 2012, but due to delays is now expected to launch in 2021. After it, though, there are plans for follow-up missions all the way up to Luna 31. It finally appears as though, after years of seeming inactivity, Russia has its sights set on the moon once again. According to reports, there are now all new plans to build another moon base, this time one that will be staffed by robots… marrying together two of the old Soviet Space Program’s most prominent ideas. Meanwhile, although details are scarce, Russia reportedly has plans for further, crewed moon missions in the future, too.

Considering that NASA, too, has turned its focus back to the moon (with the Artemis program aiming to put “the first woman and next man on the Moon by 2024”)… that the ISRO in India is expecting to send a lunar rover to the moon in the next few years with the Chandrayaan-3 mission… and that private companies including Blue Origin and SpaceX have also revealed various lunar plans… could we now be on the verge of a “Moon Race: Part 2”? Some have already labelled this period in history as a lunar renaissance!

There are a number of reasons why Russia hasn’t been to the moon yet… including the loss of prestige back in the late ‘60s, the continual problems with the N1 rocket, the emergence of robotic space exploration, and the change in priorities for space travel generally… but, in the twenty-first century, times are certainly changing again. And, for Russia and every other space agency or company, the moon is definitely back on the menu!