So, what happened to the Space Race? Specifically, what happened to the Soviet Union? There are many theories.
First, this article is reprinted from Pravda (one of the Russian News Agencies). It was first printed in 2002:
"THE SOVIET UNION WAS COMPLETELY UNPREPARED TO BEAT THE US IN THE SPACE RACE.
Americans landed on the Moon in 1969. The success of the Apollo program was not only a remarkable technical achievement. This achievement proved the political predominance of the United States of America. The Soviet leadership realized that fact perfectly. The USSR was the only country that did not air the live broadcast of the first ever moonwalk.
The Moon was a lot more relevant than just a space body. The USSR came to that realization in the beginning of the 1960s. The Moon was a political arena. This was the reason why the USSR approved of the program to conquer the Moon. The funding of the program was a lot larger than the development of the virgin lands. It goes without saying that the program was totally secret. It has never been mentioned in any special literature. The newspaper Izvestia told the dramatic story of the Soviet Moon program only in August of 1989, when censorship slackened in the Soviet Union.
The Moon program was the last “love affair” for Russian aviation designer Sergey Korolev, who dreamed of interplanetary expeditipons. A group of soviet cosmonauts with Aleksey Leonov (the first spacewalker in history) at the head was set up especially for flying to the Moon. The most difficult part of the program was the construction of a rocket that could land cosmonauts on the Moon. The rocket was called the N1.
The rocket tried to take off four times during period 1969 to 1972. It blew up all four times. The last launch of the rocket was the longest. It exploded in the air 112 seconds after its launch. It should be said here that breakdowns during space technology tests are usual things to happen.
Those failures were the reason to fire Vasily Mishin, the chief designer of the country. The new chief, Valentin Glushko, was an ardent adversary of the Moon program. Glushko was determined to work with the development of non-expendable space shuttles. The Communist Party had the same opinion as well, since the Moon race was lost. Furthermore, the Americans did not yet have shuttles. They have shuttles now, while Russia doesn’t.
It is ironic, but the N1 rocket, which failed to fly into space from the territory of the Soviet Union, now serves the United States. Academician Nikolay Kuznetsov designed very powerful engines for the N1. When the Moon program was shut down, Soviet officials repeatedly tried to destroy them. Nikolay Kuznetsov had to hide his creations in hangars. Nowadays, the company Energomash sells modernized RD-170 engines to the USA. America uses the best engines for its new rockets. This is the largest contract of the Russian defense industry with the West.
The Russian Buran space shuttle repeated the tragic fate of the Moon program. There is reason to look into the reasons of its failure. Space exploration failures were indications of the economic weakness of the country. The USSR lost the technical race with the USA, despite the technical genius of Soviet designers. America spent $25 billion on the Apollo project, whereas the USSR spent only four and a half billion rubles, according to unofficial information.
The debacle can be explained by the weakness of the state management as well. There was nothing in the USSR like NASA in the United States. Too many political issues in science, imaginary values instead of real ones, and too many personal views played roles as well. Every Soviet chief designer had to stand for his ideas, looking for the patronage of a communist official. There should have been completely different political and economic mechanisms in the country in order to elaborate new approachs to science and industry."
There are several other factors:
1. German Scientists. After the end of the Second World War, both Russian and American spy networks went full steam to extricate the German Space Scientists who had successfully bombed London with their V1 and V2 rockets. The most prominent of these was Werner Von Braun. In truth, the Americans captured and co-opted the most eminent of the Germans.
2. Money. The Race to the Moon was like a high stakes poker game. As stated above in the Pravda article, the US spent $25b on the programs (in 1969 dollars). The Soviet Union spent significantly less -- I'm sorry but I don't trust the numbers quoted above.
3. Calamities. The US lost about 12 people in the Lunar Program. In the USSR, the russians lost their most prominent cosmonauts, the head of their program, Sergei Korolev, and two major explosions at the Baikonur Cosmodrome killed hundreds of people, including of course, key engineers and scientists.
BAIKONUR COSMODROME - KAZAKHSTAN
The Russians however, enjoyed some amazing successes that were unfortunately eclipsed by the US program.
They launched the first human into Earth Orbit
They launched the first woman into space. (Valentina Tereshkova)
Valentina Tereshkova visiting Finland in 2002
They landed the first spacecraft on another world (The Moon), and then repeated this success with Venus (Venera 7).
They landed the first robotic rovers on the Moon (Lunokhod 1). (1968)
Lunokhod 1 - Look familiar? See Spirit and Opportunity.
They launched the first sustained Space Station program.