July 3, 1969: Largest Rocket Explosion in History (Soviet N1)

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A Brief History

On July 3, 1969, the Soviet Union’s dreams of a moon rocket went up in smoke and fire on the launch pad as the largest explosion of any rocket in history.  The Soviet N1 rocket booster was a giant rocket meant to carry objects or people beyond Earth orbit, basically to the moon.  Its first stage is the most powerful single stage of any rocket ever made, and that includes the American counterpart, the Saturn V.

Digging Deeper

The 5 stage monster N1 rockets were 344 feet tall and almost 56 feet in diameter.  Weighing in at over 6 million pounds, they were designed for a payload of 200,000 pounds into low earth orbit or 58,000 pounds past earth orbit.  The heavy lift rockets were expected to carryout reconnaissance of possible landing spots on the moon and then carry manned flights there. 

This render by Fac-tory-o depicts the N1-5L rocket.

Unfortunately for the Soviet space program, all 4 attempted launches resulted in failure, with the launch of July 3, 1969 resulting in a giant explosion that destroyed the launch pad.

Investigation showed that a loose bolt was sucked into an oxygen pump causing the rocket motors to automatically shut down and the rocket to fall from its maximum lift off of nearly 200 meters.  It took a year and a half just to rebuild the launch pad, putting the Soviets far behind in the “space race.”

When the United States successfully landed on the moon and returned the crew safely in July of 1969, the Soviet space program was given other priorities.  The 4 failed launch attempts of the N1 would be their only missions, and no more would be built.  

We cannot say how much each of these rockets and the destruction of the launch pad cost in terms of money, but it certainly had to be a lot, money that could have been used for all sorts of humanitarian purposes other than racing the US to the moon.

N1 imaged by US KH-8 Gambit reconnaissance satellite, 19 September 1968.

The bottom line is, space programs are incredibly expensive. 

Question for students (and subscribers): Are they worth it?  What should their priorities be?  Please let us know what you think in the comments section below this article.  

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Chertok, Boris and Asif Siddiqi.  Rockets and People: Volume IV: The Moon Race.  CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by Laika ac from USA of the Memorial Museum of Astronautics, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.  This image was originally posted to Flickr by Laika ac at https://www.flickr.com/photos/68240136@N02/6995717351. It was reviewed on  by FlickreviewR and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-sa-2.0.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.