Russian Rocket Tech Comes In From the Cold

Decades after the end of the space race, an American rocket took off from Cape Canaveral. This was a routine launch to send a communications satellite into orbit, but the situation was an historic first. The rocket in question was driven by a powerful Russian engine unlike any ever built in the States. Although this particular engine was new, the design dated back to the space age.

By the early 1960s, the Russians were leaps and bounds ahead of the United States in terms of space exploration. They had already launched Sputnik and sent Yuri Gagarin to orbit the Earth. All in all, the Russians seemed poised to send a man to the moon. Russian technology had the Americans worried enough to spy on them with satellites, and the images that came back revealed something spectacular. Out in the Kazakh desert, the Russians were building an enormous causeway and two launch pads. As it turns out, the US had every reason to be worried.

The closed-cycle rocket engine design. Image via Wikipedia
The closed-cycle rocket engine design. Image via Wikipedia

The Russian space program was largely controlled by one man, Sergey Pavlovich Korolyov. It was his design workflow that made the Russians so successful. Instead of spending thousands of hours at the drawing board, they would simply build rockets, fly them, and improve them based on the result. Once President Kennedy announced the Americans’ intent to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, the race was on. Korolyov was well aware of the awesome amount of rocket power required to send a man to the moon. Because of this, he sought a new manufacturer for rocket engines, and he found one in Nikolai Kuznetsov.

In a Saturn V rocket engine, liquid oxygen and kerosene fuel are pumped separately into the engine at high pressure. They first travel through a pre-burner, which dumps exhaust into the air. Korolyov and Kuznetsov designed a closed-cycle engine that would recycle the pre-burner exhaust back into the system instead of wasting it. For the first N-1 launch, the rocket was powered by 30 of these closed-cycle engines, each running at about 1/6 of the thrust of a Saturn V engine. Whether you’re shaking or nodding your head at how awesomely dangerous this design is, you’re right. An issue with any one engine is likely to cause an explosive chain reaction in the other engines.

An NK-33, renamed the Aerojet AJ26. Image via Wikipedia
An NK-33, renamed the Aerojet AJ26. Image via Wikipedia

Change of the Guard

Korolyov died in 1966, and rocket engineer Vasily Mishin took over the program. The first N-1 rocket was assembled beginning in early 1967 and stood 35 stories tall. Tensions were high in February 1969 as the Russians geared up for the first unmanned launch. The N-1 took off from the launch pad and things were looking good. About a minute into the flight, some metallic debris got into one of the engines and the rocket exploded.

Over the next few months, the team made improvements and scheduled another launch for early July 1969, just a few weeks before the Apollo 11 mission. The N-1 took off and promptly crashed down on the launchpad with incredible force. Although the success of Apollo 11 effectively ended the space race, Mishin and Kuznetsov persevered. Improvements were made on the NK-33 including the addition of filters to keep debris out of the engines. Test launches continued until the Kremlin canceled the program and ordered the destruction of all N-1 rockets in an effort to keep a lid on the technology. Some of the parts were used to build pigpens.

A Forest of Engines

After the end of the Cold War, American engineers started hearing about secret rocket technology developed in the 1960s by the Russians. Engineers from Aerojet and Lockheed were eventually invited to check it out. Kusnetsov took them far out into the desert to a large warehouse where more than 60 of the closed-cycle engines had been sitting secretly in storage.

Aerojet wanted to prove the power and capabilities of the engines and they were allowed to take one back to Sacramento for testing in October 1995. It did everything they said it would do and hit all the advertised benchmarks. Shortly thereafter, work began on a new engine, the RD-180. It would be twice as big as the NK-33, with five times the thrust of a jumbo jet.

The RD-180 was not a slam dunk design, however. Because of the closed-cycle design, the engine created very high combustion that was hot enough to melt the engine metal. A new, high-temperature stainless steel was created by the RD-180’s designer, NPO Energomash, and the RD-180 successfully launched an Atlas III rocket in May of 2000.

Thanks for the tip, [M]!

Retrotechtacular is a column featuring hacks, technology, and kitsch from ages of yore. Help keep it fresh by sending in your ideas for future installments.

80 thoughts on “Russian Rocket Tech Comes In From the Cold

      1. I think purchase is the word your thinking instead of use. We all know the US government has no qualms about using its own citizens patents and designs without permission. Now that we’ve had our hands on a bunch of RD-180s with time tear them down and document the particulars of the design, there’s no reason a US company couldn’t be contracted to produce them for NASA.

        1. Aerojet bought the rights to build the RD-180 domesticity, but didn’t have the capability to produce the parts with the specs required. Rather then invest figuring out the metallurgy to build it themselves (or really investing any money in actual development of their own without blank checks from Uncle Sam), they decided to to have the Russians just keep making them for us.

          The Russians have some magic they use in the particular metal they use that the US can’t currently reproduce. Whether they are doing that research now with the AR-1, moving to another alloy like Inconel, or just building it to lower spec I can’t say I know.

        2. Without the decades worth of research, it would be a very expensive lesson in that just copying the design without understanding the problems in manufacturing won’t be enough…
          The whole reason for using the RD-180 on Atlas is cost, the original engine was better with the specs, however quite expensive…

          What will likely happen is that Aerojet will bribe it’s way to get congress to fund development of something similar, only to find out that they can’t do it as cheap AND reliable as the Russians, wasting millions of state $$$ and still ending up using a LH/LOx engine like the Atlas did before the RD-180…more delta V, but several times the cost…

          I have yet to see a American state funded program that develops and actually builds something cheaper then a Russian equivalent :D

  1. great stroy, I love cross border technology sharing storys. I hope the ISS project does’nt get damaged by recent political problems between USA and Putin. Would be a shame to let politics get in the way of something so great.

    1. Yes, great article. Also worth noting that some of those new old-stock NK-33 engines were refurbished and sold as AJ-26 engines and used in the Orbital Antares booster to launch Cygnus cargo craft to the ISS. One AJ-26 exploded on a test stand during qualification, and another a few seconds after launch causing a catastrophic loss of the launch vehicle, cargo and millions of dollars to the commercial spaceport at Wallops Island, VA.

          1. It is very rare for a rocket engine to not fail at least once. I can think of only a few examples, and then only because they had a limited service life and a very conservative design: the F-1 engine on the Saturn V first stage and possibly the H-1 on the Saturn IB first stage. The J-2s flown on the second and third stages of the Saturn rockets were not perfect; one failed to restart on Apollo 6 and two others on the same flight shut down due to excessive POGO and a wiring error. Even the RS-25, otherwise known as the Space Shuttle Main Engine, one of the most reliable US rocket engines (and probably the most expensive) had its share of failures, 5 pad aborts (prior to liftoff) and 2 in-flight failures requiring an early shutdown.

        1. Actually closer to about 25 yrs, and needless to say each was overhauled before firing – lines, valves, gaskets, o-rings, terminals, connectors, all the peripheries gone over. But the engines themselves were in great shape owed in part to both their storage and their design – just not a lot there to perish. And most at least that were lit up did perform flawlessly.

    2. “USA and Putin” Interesting how you particularly chose to write Putin instead of Russia. USA has a problem with Russia not with Putin.(And the problem is that Russia exists and can challenge US) The former doesn’t want to lose the position of the undisputed world leader. Also, its not the Putin that’s creating the problems, its the USA with its aggressive NATO expansion into the east and sponsored “colored revolutions” in different countries.

  2. Good article. Some minor nits: the F-1 engine on the Saturn V didn’t actually use a pre-burner. It used the “gas generator cycle” in which some of the fuel and oxidizer were fed to a gas generator (basically a small combustion chamber) that drove the turbopumps that forced most of the propellants into the rocket engine itself. The gas generator operated very fuel-rich to keep combustion temperatures tolerable. The turbine exhaust was dumped into the inside surfaces of the nozzle to help cool it, producing that odd-looking plume that’s dark brown for a short distance outside the engine, then bright white beyond that.

    The Russian engine approach is properly called “staged combustion”. All of the oxidizer and some of the fuel are run through a preburner, producing a hot mixture of gaseous oxygen and some combustion products. That drives the turbine, but instead of dumping the exhaust overboard it all goes into the main combustion chamber where it meets the rest of the fuel.

    Staged combustion was hardly new to the US when the Russians introduced them to the NK-33. The RS-25, better known as the Space Shuttle Main Engine, uses fuel-rich staged combustion: all of the liquid hydrogen and a little of the oxygen pass through the preburners, producing a lot of hot hydrogen gas and a little steam to drive the turbopumps (one for each propellant). Then the turbine exhausts are fed to the main combustion chamber where they meet the rest of the oxygen.

    The main difference between the two is that the Russian oxidizer-rich preburner is far harsher on materials than the American fuel-rich design. The Russians seem to have solved those materials problems, which was their real achievement.

    Staged combustion is more efficient than a gas generator but it is considerably more complex and costly. This could be justified for the SSME because it was reusable. I note that the Merlin engines developed by SpaceX use the old-fashioned but simpler gas generator design.

      1. Very good point. I wonder if the Americans knew of the NK-33 design before they did the RS-25, but I was thinking of their “official” introduction to the NK-33 in the 1990s. I read that at some point the US considered oxidizer-rich staged combustion but considered it impossible because of the materials problems; that does seem to be the Russians’ main achievement. The list of staged-combustion engines from the Russians is certainly longer than the US list, though.

        There’s also full-flow staged combustion with two pre-burners, one oxidizer-rich and the other fuel-rich. The former is used to drive the oxidizer turbopump and the latter drives the fuel turbopump, eliminating the need for tight seals to isolate each propellant from hot gases containing the other propellant. I don’t think any such engine has actually ever flown, but the SpaceX Raptor engine under development is a full-flow design that will use liquid methane/LOX. I think it will also be the first engine to use that fuel.

  3. The N-1 launches all failed due to poor quality control of Soviet metallurgy and manufacturing. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the companies who smelted the metals and made the alloys used in the engines were not told what they were for. Just “make this alloy to these specifications”. So if a little of something else went into the crucible or the mix wasn’t *exactly* right, the smelting plant could pocket a few extra Rubles.

    Requiring 30 engines in the first stage, and almost that many in the second stage, to all function flawlessly, was asking for trouble. Too many potential failure points VS only 5 engines in each of the first two stages of the Saturn V.

    The R-7 rocket family has had 113 failures, that are known, out of the known 1,634 launches of all variants. The U2 version has ? by its numbers.

    Even with all the effort that’s gone into making sure the complex R7 rockets don’t go kablooey, some suppliers still try to cut corners. In the 80’s one exploded due to a substitution of the wrong type of solder in some fuel filter screens. Another one was prevented from the same fate when the screens installed were checked and found to have the wrong solder. “Hmmm, this other solder is less expensive. Solder is solder so let’s use the cheaper kind.” I wonder what was the fate of the persons responsible for that? Wouldn’t at all be surprised if the majority of the failures were due to a supplier cutting corners, especially in the Soviet era when they may not have known the parts they were making were rocket parts. Have to keep things secret so someone doesn’t sell copies of the plans to a decadent capitalist country!

    1. I agree with you that the complexity of 30 engines is what killed this rocket. As Alexander Yakovlev put it “Simplicity does not mean backwardness”. Designers of this monster clearly were not heeding his advice, and created a bomb with thousand fuses, where each one could be triggered by a mosquito flapping its wings a kilometer away.

        1. Independent engines that can restart on flame out… the whole reason there are that many is fault tolerance. The reasoning behind the russian design seems to be to build something bigger out of smaller engines…

          The spacex engines are much simpler as well… and take a few tradoffs such as reduced power output in certain cases to simplify the design (for instance the fuel isn’t circulated around the nozzle/combustion chamber.)

          1. Rocket engines generally can’t be restarted unless the mission calls for it, e.g., upper stages with coast intervals and SpaceX first stages with return capability. They don’t just randomly “flame out” like jet engines; they shut down in flight only when there has been a serious failure, and then a restart capability is superfluous (and probably quite dangerous).

            Only the early versions of the SpaceX Merlin engine lacked regenerative cooling (circulating fuel around the combustion chamber and nozzle). The early versions used ablative cooling, which seems suboptimal for an engine you eventually want to reuse. Regenerative cooling (with the RP-1 fuel) was introduced with the Merlin 1C.

            The vacuum (upper stage) versions of the Merlin regeneratively cool only their thrust chambers; their nozzle extensions are radiatively cooled, which is practical because they’re so much longer.

    2. It’s ironic that the success of the US moon program was mainly down to the top down control, and tightly enforced co-operation between different suppliers, whereas the downfall of the Soviet program was because different suppliers were each bidding independently to the government for work and there was no unifying plan.
      Pretty much the opposite of what one would expect from their respective political systems.

        1. As ever, corruption. There’s a certain percentage of psychopaths, as well as just plain buttholes, in every population. Politics is attractive to these people.

          Communism would work if nice, decent, community-minded people ran it. Or perhaps some sort of computer that loved us… anyway… Democracy has the same poisonous butthole problem, because of faults in humanity. People are stupid and easy to mislead. Advertising exists and has made great dives into psychology to effectively get people to act against their best interest. Etc. It’s all very depressing.

          Probably our best bet is a post-scarcity economy. Like Star Trek TNG, yes! Everyone can have whatever they want, all the time. Should solve most problems. Just needs complete control of matter and free energy.

    1. You need some nontrivial amount of power to hurl about one swimming pool per second of oxidizer and propellant into the burner. This power is generated in the pre-burner, picked up by turbines and delivered by compressors.

      1. The turbines powered by these gases are among the most powerful that move with the vehicle ;-)

        btw they’re not compressors, but pumps. It’s called a liquid fuel engine for a reason…

        1. Yes. The turbopump on the SpaceX Merlin engine generates almost 2 megawatts, roughly comparable to a typical diesel locomotive. Needless to say, it’s much smaller and lighter than a typical locomotive.

      2. That swimming pool metaphor is unimaginable. I suppose you don’t mean an Olympic-size one? I’d like to see a rocket up close, I think it’s the only way to really get the scale of it into your head.

  4. The world wasn’t destroyed by the evil non-Americans thanks to Americans.. Notice no mention of the forced Nazi scientists that didn’t go to MIT, Harvard, or CalTech, or Berkeley..

  5. My guess is that the pre burner supplies the mechanical power to drive the pumps for the fuel and oxidizer. The fuel and oxidizer need to enter the engine at very high pressure, that’s why you need so much power to drive the pumps. Look at the design of the Bloodhound SSC landspeed record car. It uses a 700 HP formula 1 piston engine _just_ to drive a pump to get the fuel into the rocket engine that actually powers the car.

    1. That is correct but in the Russian’s case the exhaust of the pre burner was actually used to produce thrust. In the American F-1 there is something very similar to the pre burner in the Russian RD-180, however the exhaust is vented into a lower portion of the nozzle to help cool the engine by using the soot produced in the fuel rich burning of the gas generator after it drives the turbo pumps. You can see this when the engine is fired as the plume coming out is at first dark and then further from the end of the nozzle it is brighter.

      1. The exhaust of the NK-33 pre-burner doesn’t directly produce thrust, it is mixed with the fuel in the main combustion chamber which *then* produces thrust. All of the oxidizer and a little bit of the fuel go through the turbine, as opposed to a little bit of the oxidizer and a little bit of the fuel going through the turbine in a “gas generator” cycle engine like the F-1 or the SpaceX Merlin.

        In the gas generator cycle, the turbine exhaust is then vented rearward, either into the main nozzle (F-1) or through a separate exhaust pipe (Merlin and many others). This produces a small amount of additional thrust, but much less than if the propellants driving the turbines had been burned in the main combustion chamber. This is the price you have to pay to generate such huge amounts of power in a tiny space to pump those enormous propellant flows. Extremely high power-to-weight ratios don’t lend themselves to highly efficient designs.

        The main advantage of staged combustion is that the much greater mass flow through the turbine(s) lets them operate at lower temperatures and pressures, increasing their reliability at the expense of greater overall complexity. It also increases specific impulse by making better use of the mass flowing through the turbine(s) than just dumping it overboard at relatively low velocity.

        1. The pre burners is somewhat of a misnomer in that the expansion of the combusting gas is through a turbine. So as far as dumping overboard providing thrust, that would depend on various factors and the efficiency of the entire -pre-burner and turbine combination.

          Unless remaining combustion expansion is still possible , dumping near fully combusted gases for the mixture that web into a pre-burner, you just expanding any remaining fuel or oxidizer to current outside pressure, unlikely to provide much in the way of thrust, and that then is dependent on a nozzles and structure to transfer that thrust to the vehicle.

          Hence, with that in mind it would make a lot of sense to utilize the result of pre-burner stage within the main engine rather than dump overboard, and in fact would lead to tuning of the pre-burn process flows for serving the main engine more directly than just supporting.

    2. (The Bloodhound team have switched to using a Jaguar V8 as the fuel pump, partly because Jag are sponsoring them now, but also because it will require much less maintenance than a race engine)

  6. I’ve read the same information in a science magazine like 10 years ago.
    What is missing are 2 things: 10 years after the engines were built, the US engineers were thinking that this technology will be available ten years from then (ie they were 20 years behind) and that the project paperwork was made very well (not like that time ISO specs, but covering mostly the same issues).

  7. To the extent that the U.S.S.R. was ‘leaps and bounds’ ahead of the Yanks in space exploration in that period it was only because first they set the bar lower in that missions were designed more for the potential propaganda value than scientific, and second because they could hide most of their failures.

      1. And? Other than First Nation peoples, the U.S, population is all from somewhere else, and none of the Germans recruited to NASA likely considered themselves prisoners. And while these people made a contribution, the idea that they were only ones engineering these programs is risible.

      2. Prisoners in the sense that they begged to be taken before the Soviet Union scientist hunters could kidnap them. That episode would make a heck of a movie. I don’t think the Russians under the Soviet system were very motivated. Did they invent anything significant? Stalin kept a Superfortress that landed at a Russian emergency field near the end of the war and had it reverse engineered and copied exactly – down to the lettering on the nicely copied vacuum tubes in the radios. Missile tech was from captured Germans. Nuclear tech and hydrogen bomb was from spies in the U.S. etc etc. The whacky 2-cycle cars might have been original but did they have a German engine? It would make an interesting study – inventions of collectivist societies. Even more interesting, does it apply to open source / open hardware? Does it dry up as it gets more collectivist?

        1. The MIG-15 used a copy of a British Nene engine (which ironically the Soviets purchased, with the promise to use it only for peaceful purposes).

          Expanding on that theme, China has a reputation for copying Western Tech., though they are moving away from the conventional “collectivist” model, at least economically. Japan scored big due to their almost religious reverence for quality, time will tell if China does the same. A “low cost” model only works for so long…

          1. ” I can recall his name but it was an American started Japan on the path of emphasizing quality No doubt china could build quality if those those using China manufacturing demanded quality. Quality is expensive and cuts into profit. I don’t expect hina to become known for quality in my life time.

    1. OTOH, it could be argued that the American landing on the Moon was also a propaganda stunt (flag planting) that did little for science. As we know, Surveyors, Rangers, Zonds and Lunas were already there before the human landings. And Lunokhods were there after, to drive around.

      1. While there is little question that prestige was a part of it, to assert there was no science done is categorically wrong. Could unmanned probe have done the same thing? Perhaps, but at the time given the state of the technology, having a pair of human eyes, and human hands on site was the better option.

        1. I once had a long chat with one of the Apollo-era astronauts who was in charge of the Early Apollo Scientific Experiments Package on Apollo 11. Nobody knew at that point whether a person could walk on the moon, let alone for how long. So the payload was developed to be able to self-deploy, making it possible for Buzz Aldrin to quickly set it on the ground and let it go. There was a lot of discussion with the engineers, who got frustrated because of the requirements. Finally, one of the engineers stopped the discussion and asked, “What is it exactly you have in mind?” The astronaut (Don Lind) sat back and said, “I envision a big red button that says ‘push’.” The engineers went back to work, and called him a day later to ask, “Would you settle for a big red handle that says ‘pull’?” When Buzz came back, he excitedly told Don about how amazing the set-up was, that he simply squeezed a handle and away the whole thing went. (Apparently there hadn’t been time for Buzz to test the deployment before going to the moon, so the real thing was his first exposure to it.)

        1. It is. The sole purpose of sports these days is advertisement, either for the sponsors or for the host country/state/club etc. Nobody really remembers who won what medals in what events.

        2. Well, thank-you Captain Obvious! While an Olympic™ Medal (or insert other gladiatorial competitive title here) takes a great deal of money and effort, I’m not sure it does much in the way of furthering society beyond a great flag waving moment. At least a moon-landing actually required some development of science, technology and industry.

      2. President Kennedy’s was more about cold War policy than it was bout science. All about getting American willing to use their taxes dollars to improve improve US ICBM capabilities. Cold War fear mongering wasn’t getting Congress to fund rocket research

        1. Apollo was certainly a Cold War program but it wasn’t about improving US ICBM capabilities except in the most general, indirect way. The huge liquid-fueled Saturn rocket engines (and the Saturns themselves) weren’t useful ICBMs, which were already headed toward all-solid fuel designs that could be kept launch-ready for years. The US government has always spent money more easily on direct weapons development than on large civil space initiatives.

          Apollo was, above all, a propaganda program intended to boost US world prestige at the expense of the Russians, and that’s exactly what it did. It was a classic example of a “soft power” program.

    2. The USSR *was* arguably ahead of the US in the early days of space exploration. Yes, part of this was because they emphasized propaganda value ahead of meaningful advances useful in the long term. But it was also because the US had miniaturized its nuclear weapons while the USSR emphasized ICBMs with high throw-weights.

      The USSR could also take unwise risks, not that the Americans didn’t do the same (witness Apollo 1). But only the Russians did *really* stupid stuff like cramming three cosmonauts into a capsule designed for two by getting rid of space suits and other “safety” gear (Voskhod 1) just to “beat” the first US 3-man Apollo flight.

      Kennedy went for a moon landing as something that neither the US nor the USSR could do in the short term, so with enough money and motivation the US had a good chance of overtaking and beating the USSR in the longer term. That was back when a mere 7 years was considered “long term” in the space business…

      1. James Oberg interviewed a number of Russians counterparts and wrote how they realized that the American program, though “behind” in the early days, was very methodical (especially the Gemini program) was was design to grow the body of knowledge required for a successful long-term program.

        And you are right about the ICBM advantage the Soviets had in regards to usable boosters. American weapons were smaller, and shorter-range missiles were also based in NATO countries (which was why the USSR tried the same stunt in Cuba).

        It is also interesting that the Army proposed using the Jupiter-C as early as 1956 (a dummy shot reached over 600 mile attitude and just fell short of the 17,000 mph needed for orbit). The Juno I was a derivative of that booster that launched Explorer I, and had the US focused on this as opposed to the Vanguard booster, they might of achieved first orbit. However, Vanguard I, the 4th satellite to be launched, is currently the oldest satellite in orbit. It’s orbit is expected to last 240 years, so it will be awhile before it comes back.

        1. Yes, “methodical” is a good way to describe the US program in the 1960s. I bet the Russians would have equally methodical if they weren’t always being pressured by their leaders to upstage the US in some sort of pointless “space first” that didn’t help build a long term lunar or planetary capability.

    3. I don’t think it matters whether you’re going for propaganda or science. You still have to get the thing into space, that’s just as difficult either way. And the US missions were just as much for propaganda. Sure, they did a bit of science, they might as well, since they’re up there. Russian missions did the same thing. Spending all that propaganda money, you may as well let a few scientists think up things to do once you’re actually in space.

      But all that money, just for science? No chance!

      The fact that, once the USA got to the moon, they really lost interest and budgets started plummeting, proves that. Shuttle missions faced constant cuts, the ISS is a fraction of what it was supposed to be. Still plenty of science to be done, but with no Russkies to piss off, only the eggheads care.

      1. I don’t think the scientists particularly care much for the ISS either. The only real scientific role for humans in space is surface exploration, at least until robots get a lot better. Robots already outperform humans in remote sensing, i.e., from orbit or during a flyby.

        That’s not to say there’s no other point to a human space program. My generation was profoundly inspired by Apollo; I became an electrical engineer in part because of it. Today I see the same sort of fascination among kids for the ISS, especially when they can talk to it. Too bad they’re not actually doing any exploration of an alien world.

    1. Pretty much. The ISS is just a rehash of the same old same old, and there isn’t any ambitious human space projects going on.

      The second space age will start once there’s a cheap entry to LEO. Before that, there’s nothing to do out there except the same old communications satellites and some probe every ten years.

  8. I kind of wonder where the tech would be now, had they kept funding the program in the 60’s.

    its funny to think that they just unburied one of these things and revamped so much later, and how much time was wasted due to lack of funding.

    1. I don’t know if the technology would be a whole lot more advanced than it is now, but we’d certainly could have accomplished a lot more in human space flight simply because it takes a lot of money.

      But the money we have spent on space has arguably been much more efficiently spent on robotic space exploration. Spacecraft have now visited every planet in the solar system, many of them several times; we’ve orbited six of them (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn) and soft-landed (or “landed”) on three (Venus, Mars and Jupiter) plus one non-Earth moon (Saturn’s Titan), one comet (67P) and one asteroid (Eros). We’ve flown past many more moons, comets and asteroids (even impacting one of them, Tempel 1). We’ve visited two dwarf planets (Ceres and Pluto/Charon) and one large asteroid (Vesta), orbiting Vesta and Ceres with the same spacecraft. And we’ve flown astronomical observatories to cover the entire electromagnetic spectrum from radio to gamma-rays. I’d say those are all pretty good post-Apollo space accomplishments.

      Technologies have a way of advancing furiously and then hitting physical barriers and staying fairly unchanged for a long time. Communications and computing technologies are the classic examples of technologies that advanced furiously once the basic enabling capabilities were in place, and the space programs of the 1950s and 1960s arguably gave that whole industry a real boost. But that’s the exception, not the rule.

      After an amazing run, only now are we seeing signs that Moore’s Law is reaching its limits: CPU clock speeds have not increased much in recent years due mainly to difficult thermal problems, and even hard drive capacities aren’t increasing like they used to. Hardware development has hardly stagnated (e.g,, displays, solid state mass memory, parallel processors and low power mobile computing) but most of the action seems to have shifted to finding and developing applications for all the neat hardware that’s already been developed.

      But you can’t assume that free-flowing money would advance every technology in the same way. Rocket propulsion, *the* essential enabling space flight technology, advanced rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s but only incrementally since the Apollo days despite a fair amount of additional R&D. We don’t even have an economically viable reusable launch vehicle yet, though SpaceX may finally achieve that in the near future.

  9. The NK-33 and the RD-170 (the basis of the RD-18x, 19x, etc) are not substantially related. They were designed and built by two different groups: Kuznetsov Design Bureau and NPO Energomash respectively. The RD-170/171 already had an extensive test history in the Zenit rockets, including as boosters for the Energia, by the time the US adopted the RD-180 variant for the Atlas rockets. Where the NK-33s were just gathering dust since their use in the N-1.

    There was a time that there was talk of restarting NK-33 production, but interest waned, particularly after the Antares failure. They will be replaced by RD-181s in the next version of the Antares.

    The renaming NK-33s, as interesting as they are, will get used up in Soyuz 2-1v rockets, and then be delegated to history. They will be replaced by RD-190s in those rockets eventually as well it seems.

  10. To summaries most comments here: “USSR tech sucked and USA is #1. Who cares if its actually true.” “USSR is only “USSR’s only achievement…. blah blah” “USSR didn’t do this or that…” “USSR had poor quality control..” “Downfall of USSR space program..”

    To me it all looks like people are hating just because they can, exaggerating and pulling facts out of their asses. However, its not surprising to me at all since most visitors on this websites are probably people from the coldwar era. Their whole lives they were taught to hate on USSR and until this day they cannot stop, even though the USSR is long gone.

    1. USSR tech sucked in this particular N-1 example, which is a theme of this particular article. Other than that, USSR tech mostly did very well. It was in general simpler, easier to produce, and less expensive to produce. Coming from a country that was half destroyed in WW2, and competing against the best that the much richer country (USA) had to throw at it, it did well.

    2. Speaking of “pulling facts out of their asses. . . ” You said, “Their whole lives they were taught to hate on USSR and until this day they cannot stop.” I grew up during the cold war and know NOBODY that hates Russia or Russians. We weren’t actually taught to “hate” the USSR, just to oppose its goals of world domination of communism.

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