Thursday, January 19, 2012

Space Race Photo Finish

On July 4, 1969, the CIA's Corona orbiting spy satellite had returned a series of photos disclosing that the Soviets had brought an enormous rocket to the pad of their Baikonur Cosmodrome. Were they also preparing to go to the Moon?

There was so little information on the Soviet program that nearly anyone in a position of authority at NASA or the Department of Defense still considered the Space and Missile Race an extremely close call.

If the Soviets suddenly announced they had established a Moon base, after all, it would not have been any more surprising than many of their previous achievements, from Sputnik to Laika and Gagarin.

On one orbit, the Corona's pictures revealed the giant N1 rocket and its spacecraft, the L3, on the pad being tanked with fuel.

When the satellite returned in its orbit to take another series of pictures, however, the rocket had vanished, as had the launch pad's lightning towers. 

Its turning tower gantry had been blown off its rail track and the crossbeams holding the rocket above its flame ducts were missing.  Instead, there was a strange blur, and a scar upon the ground.

Later the Soviets would reveal that there had been an electrical short. When fuel in stage three had subsequently ignited, it blew apart the fuel lines of LOX, causing a fire that spread to consume the three thousand tons of propellant.

The greatest fear of everyone who works with rockets came true again on July 4 at Baikonur: a never-ending cascade of fire, smoke, and explosion as a giant rocket collapsed upon itself and died.

Had Apollo 11 failed, it turned out, the Russians were planning to immediately use this rocket to send cosmonauts to the Moon.
HT: Rocket Men, pp. 30-31.

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