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When Vladimir Putin was a young man he was witness to his country’s space program being eclipsed by the United States. There are many reasons that the United States won the space race with the USSR, but Rocketdyne’s Saturn V F-1 engine was the element that the Soviet space program couldn’t replicate. It was a rocket engine that has no practical use for piddling around in Earth orbit. The F-1 is the top shelf engine of space exploration.

Apollo Saturn V

The massive F-1 engines of the Apollo Saturn V first stage booster.

Who Are Those Guys?

If there was a moment when the Soviet engineers said in wonder, “Who are those guys?,” it was when they saw the first massive Saturn V blast off using only five engines. They were working on a heavy-lift rocket that used 30 rocket engines in the booster phase. The idea that a Moon rocket could be designed using only five engines was laughable.

The USSR attempted four launches with their version of the Saturn V rocket called the N1 rocket. All four attempts failed. The Saturn V rocket had 13 successful launches in 13 attempts. One rocket (unmanned Apollo 6) had vibration issues and failed to make the desired orbit, but the launch was successful. NASA and its contractors crushed the Soviet Moon rocket in performance and reliability.

Comparing Watermelons To Sour Grapes

The Soviet N1 Moon rocket used the NK-15 engines on the first, or booster stage. Compared to the Apollo Saturn V F-1 engines, the USSR effort was similar to strapping a bunch of bottle rockets together to lift a person off the ground.

Each of the 30 NK-15 engines could lift about 1,500 kilonewtons or kN (1 kilonewton equals 224.81 pounds of force) compared to a single F-1 engine thrust of 7,000 kN. The total thrust of the first stage of the Soviet N1 Moon rocket was 45,400 kN, which was significantly greater than the Saturn V’s booster thrust of 35,100 kN and the N1 Moon rocket was 215,000 kg (480,000 lbs.) lighter.

USSR N1 Moon Rocket

The USSR 30 NK-15 engine design

However, the N1 required four stages compared to the Saturn V’s three-stage rocket, and the N1 booster stage could only burn for 125 seconds, while’s United States booster stage burned for 168 seconds. The big difference was the size of payload that the Saturn V could deliver to the Moon. USSR’s N1 could only put a 23,500 kg payload (51,800 lbs.) out of Earth orbit to the Moon, while the Saturn V could send a 48,600 kg (107,100 lbs.) payload.

The Rocketdyne F-1 engine was responsible for powering everything needed for a Moon landing and safe return off the surface of the Earth and it did it better than any other rocket engine in the history of space exploration.