5 Secrets About the Soviet Space Program

Was Russia Going to the Moon?
It wasn't until 1989 that the world discovered the Soviets had an in fact been trying to go to the moon. The only thing they lacked? Rockets. Found Image Holdings/Corbis via Getty Images

"We choose to go to the moon this decade," said President John F. Kennedy to a crowd assembled at the sweltering Rice University football stadium on Sept. 12, 1962, "and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard...." With those words, there was no doubt about the United States' intention to land a man on the moon. But as the Americans ramped up their lunar program, the Soviets seemed unimpressed, calling the lunar missions risky and worthless while insisting they were focusing on the development of space stations. It left some wondering: Was the Space Race even a race at all?

As it turns out, it was a race — but the world didn't know for sure until 1989. That's when the Soviets let a group of U.S. scientists tour relics of the communist country's manned lunar program dating from the 1960s and 1970s. Among the equipment was an advanced lunar-landing craft and Earth-return module, indicating not only that the communist nation had a lunar program, but that they were actually quite serious about it [source: Wilford]. The Soviets might have even beaten the U.S. to the moon except for one problem: the rockets. They just didn't have the power to launch equipment with the complexity needed for a moon landing. Tests flights produced mixed results, and in the face of several American successes, the Soviets scrapped the program in the 1970s [source: Hardigree].