The N1 rocket was developed by the Soviets to compete with the US Saturn rocket in the cold war race to the moon. Ultimately, the rocket would be a catastrophic failure that would result in not only the Americans beating them to the moon but the Soviet Union failing to ever achieve the historic benchmark.
Development of the N1 began in 1959 under Sergei Korolev, a man many consider as the father of practical astronautics at his OKB-1 Design Bureau. It was originally designed to lift payloads of 50 metric tons including military space stations and crewed flybys of Mars and Venus. Towards the end of 1959, Korolev presented his N1 design along with a medium-lift (N2) and a small-lift (N2) variant of the rocket. The military was, however not convinced they needed a launch vehicle of that size.
Although it is unclear exactly why the design for the N1 resurfaced at a meeting at Baikonur in March 1961. Korolev was finally given limited funding to begin development with the rocket’s first launch scheduled for 1965. Just months later, however, John F. Kennedy gave a Special Message to Congress announcing the country’s plans to land a man on the moon.
Following Kennedy’s announcement, Korolev proposed the development of a new spacecraft that could be used to beat the Americans to the moon. Naturally, he proposed the N1 to deploy the spacecraft into orbit. However because the N1 was so early in its development, the military asked Korolev’s rival Valentin Glushko to design the rocket’s engine. The two men did not see eye to eye with Korolev blaming Valentin Glushko for his time in a Russian Gulag, an experience he never quite recovered from.
Glushko proposed the RD-270, an unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH) and nitrogen tetroxide (N2O4)-powered rocket engine. Korolev, however, felt that the toxic nature of the fuels would put the crew at unnecessary risk. As a result, he proposed they use a kerosene/LOX-powered engine instead. The disagreement that followed would set the programme back a year with Korolev eventually turning to Nikolai Kuznetsov for help. Kuznetsov had little experience with rocket design, a fact that would become clear after he proposed the use of the small NK-15 engine. He proposed the N1 rocket’s first stage utilize a complex cluster of the small engines, a wildly complicated solution.
With the Soviet moon mission collapsing into a political quagmire, development of the NK-15-powered N1 began. Its development would, however, be fraught with complications and problems. To compound matters, in 1966 Kuznetsov died succumbing to complications from his time in the Gulag. Responsibility for the development of the N1 passed to his ill-equipped deputy, Vasily Mishin.
Although the development of the N1 would eventually be completed, it would prove to be more akin to a bomb than a rocket. It was launched four times failing on every occasion. The second attempt on July 3, 1969, would explode before it was even launched releasing almost as much energy as a nuclear bomb. To this day, it is the largest rocket explosion in history. The failure of the N1 was primarily blamed on the wild complexity of its 30-engine first stage. To put it simply, a feud between two people derailed and ultimately killed the Soviet Union’s moon programme.