24 May 2018

Revisiting the U.S.-Soviet Space Race: Comparing Two Systems in Their Competition to Land a Man on the Moon

Andrew S. Erickson, “Revisiting the U.S.-Soviet Space Race: Comparing Two Systems in Their Competition to Land a Man on the Moon,” Acta Astronautica 148 (July 2018): 376-84.

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U.S. Naval War College, United States

John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, Harvard University, United States

Received 31 March 2018, Accepted 29 April 2018, Available online 2 May 2018.


The Cold War space competition between the U.S. and the USSR, centered on their race to the moon, offers both an important historical case and larger implications for space and technology development and policy. In the late 1950s, under Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s direction and Chief Designer Sergei Korolev’s determined implementation, Moscow’s capabilities appeared to eclipse Washington’s. This called the international system’s very nature into question and prompted President John F. Kennedy to declare a race to the moon. Despite impressive goals and talented engineers, in the centralized but under-institutionalized, resource-limited Soviet Union feuding chief designers playing bureaucratic politics promoted a cacophony of overambitious, overlapping, often uncompleted projects. The USSR suffered from inadequate standardization and quality control at outlying factories and failed to sustain its lead. In marked contrast, American private corporations, under NASA’s well-coordinated guidance and adjudication, helped the United States overtake from behind to meet Kennedy’s deadline in 1969. In critical respects, Washington’s lunar landing stemmed from an effective systems management program, while Moscow’s moonshot succumbed to the Soviet system, which proved unequal to the task. In less than a decade, Soviet space efforts shifted from one-upping, to keeping up, to covering up. This article reconsiders this historic competition and suggests larger conclusions.

Article outline


  1. Overall Dynamics

1.1. Political System Shapes Technology Development

1.2. Comparative Space Development: Critical Cold War Test

1.3. Contest for the Highest High Ground

  1. Explaining the Results

2.1. Khrushchev Himself Acknowledges “Organizational Defect”

2.2. Secrecy Subverted Success

2.3. Ruinous Suspicion And Rivalry

2.4. Unaffordable Program Overlaps, Cancellations, and Disorder

2.5. “One-Man NASA” Becomes Soviet Casualty

  1. Conclusion: Soviet System Could Not Defy Gravity


68th International Astronautical Congress, Adelaide, Australia. Copyright ©2018 by Andrew S. Erickson. All rights reserved. 

© 2018 Published by Elsevier Ltd on behalf of IAA.



1. Overall dynamics

1.1. Political system shapes technology development

National political systems shape technological development within them because modern organizations must develop standardized rules and procedures to create and sustain the bureaucracies that coordinate it. Central to its advantage over the USSR was the United States’ successful development and implementation of several management and organizational processes for developing technology that are used to this day. The most all-encompassing process, systems management, synthesizes best practices from systems engineering, operations research, and project management to administer complex technological and organizational relationships spanning diverse specialist cultures and bureaucratic interests. The related processes of configuration management and change control, “at the heart of aerospace and software engineering from the late 1950s to the present,” help to “coordinate engineering modifications,” forecast costs, and maximize reliability.

Effective systems management is “a set of organizational structures and processes [for coordination of large-scale technology development to] rapidly produce a novel but dependable technological [product] within a [relatively] predictable budget.” Its genesis and initial successes were intimately connected with another U.S. advantage: a sophisticated public-private partnership in which private firms competed for government contracts and winners selected and supervised their own subcontractors. Systems management was conceived in the early post-war years, pioneered at the U.S. firm Ramo-Wooldridge (later, TRW) and developed further by AT&T Corporation. It proved itself in Lockheed’s Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missile for the U.S. Navy, Convair’s Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and Martin’s Titan ICBM as well as Douglas’s Thor intermediate-range ballistic missile for the U.S. Air Force (USAF), and multiple corporations’ contributions to the Apollo moon-landing program. The culture of American aerospace innovation was highly contested, reflecting the interplay of many interest groups, but by 1960 systems management was “the standard for large-scale project development.” NASA embraced it almost immediately. In early 1961, the USAF adopted systems management recommendations championed by General Bernard Schriever. In 1965, with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s support, technology management and organization processes were embraced and being implemented throughout the defense aerospace and computing industries. By this time, most major military and civilian aerospace projects utilized aspects of systems management and related best practices. Systems management’s core elements—sound initial design, “quality assurance, configuration control, and systems integration testing [—have been] among the primary factors in the improved dependability of ballistic missiles and spacecraft.” For Apollo, NASA in September 1961 adopted the Navy-developed Program for Evaluating and Reviewing Technique. Accordingly, 90,000 key events for 800 major entities were sorted among five levels by schedule, sequence, person-hours, and duration.

Because it derives from constant, transparent “negotiations among various organizations, classes, and interest groups,” systems management is typically more difficult to achieve in a closed authoritarian system than in a capitalist democracy or even a hybrid authoritarian system like China’s today. NASA, for instance, received consultation from private corporations AT&T (Bellcom Group), Boeing—a global aircraft leader with both defense and commercial experience, TRW,11 and McKinsey. “When you put something complicated together you get into systems engineering whether you recognize it or not,” former Lunar Module (LM) program director and Grumman president Joseph Gavin Jr. emphasizes, but “the Soviets had no AT&T” to help them maximize efficiency.

… … …

3. Conclusion: Soviet system could not defy gravity

The Soviet system turned space exploration into a race that it could not afford to wage, let alone win. As Sergei Khrushchev emphasizes, however, actual costs for Moscow’s moon program were as unclear then as now. In 1975, during Apollo-Soyuz, Intercosmos Council chairman Boris Petrov “rambled on for half an hour” in response to a journalist’s asking “how much the USSR was putting into the project … In the end he gave up, saying he didn’t know. ‘What’s the use?’ he said. ‘I don’t count the money and there’s still plenty of everything we need.’” In relative terms, however—because of its weaker economy—the USSR almost certainly spent more than did the U.S. Library of Congress Soviet space analyst Charles Sheldon calculated that the Soviet lunar effort—based on the Soviet economy and GNP—cost the equivalent of $49 billion in 1960s dollars as compared to $20 billion ($120 per capita) for the U.S. Apollo landings. Siddiqi estimates that the N1-L3 lunar program alone consumed $1.5 billion at its peak for a total of ∼$12–13.5 billion, half that of Apollo. Moreover, while Apollo employed 417,000 at its peak, its less efficient Soviet counterpart employed 500,000. “Making a program that was competitive with America’s,” journalist and space historian William Burrows concludes, “would be so expensive that it would help undermine the very society that it was supposed to reinforce.” By the early 1970s, the Soviet economy was stagnating, reducing public support for space spending. Yet the Soviet system suppressed telltale warnings: “Since the party was [theoretically] infallible, there was no real independent analysis of the costs or technological consequences of whatever projects were proposed and party directives to proceed with them were almost irreversible.” Pointing at the sky, a Moscow taxi driver encapsulated Soviet failure: “There’s our meat.” Khrushchev himself had foreseen the costs of Moscow’s inefficient rocket technology development. In response to Korolev’s insistence that the USSR needed to maintain an astronomically expensive ICBM liquid refueling infrastructure, Khrushchev had “commented sadly that [his compatriots] would end up as world beggars. Then the imperialists wouldn’t have to fight us.” Yet, while paying so dearly for its moonshot, the Kremlin never gave it priority sufficient to ensure that inefficient infrastructure or desperate bureaucrats would not simply waste allocated resources. An ends-ways-means mismatch caused countless deadline slippages. Lack of leadership consensus regarding the piloted lunar landing program’s goals and schedule undermined the project from the start. Soviet politics de-linked priorities and resources. Serious work did not begin until 1965, and the timetable was compressed unrealistically. Both Eisenhower and Kennedy, by contrast, publicly made the U.S. rocket program a national priority. Kennedy championed Apollo to his final day. Under Kennedy’s leadership, former NASA Flight Director Eugene Kranz recalls, the U.S. space program enjoyed “a clear goal, a powerful mandate, and a unified team ….”

While “a span of only eight years separated the resounding victory of Gagarin and the crushing humiliation of Apollo,” Apollo’s costly challenge represented a larger pattern. Harford believes that “the U.S. shuttle and SDI in particular … escalated the USSR into competitive projects like [the] Buran [space shuttle] and [its] Energia [launcher] which were hugely expensive and are now mothballed [; ] funding them surely damaged the already weak Soviet economy.” As early as 1963, the CIA had foreseen the trend, reporting that Soviet military and space programs had monopolized “high-quality manpower and materials,” causing “improvements in living standards [to slacken] and general economic growth [to fall] off from the high rate achieved during most of the 1950s.” Burdened with a military-industrial complex that came to consume over 25% of GDP yet offered none of Apollo’s civilian spin-offs, the USSR’s command economy grew unsustainable. This was a central cause of Soviet failure and ultimate collapse, Sagdeev concludes: “Now we know that at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis the actual ratio of nuclear warheads with ICBM delivery vehicles between the U.S. and the USSR was 17:1. And the most remarkable thing was [that] that was enough to deter the war. The greatest historic irony of the Cold War was that Soviet leaders did not get this message and tried to overarm themselves.” The space race was—in many respects—a Cold War microcosm, “a technological race for military advantage.” By substituting technological shadowboxing for nuclear war, the superpowers were able to establish their relative positions without destroying all their accomplishments. Ultimately, the U.S. proved to have the advantage. “The American system worked pretty well, particularly in contrast to the Soviet system,” Gavin concludes, “While the U.S.’s winning of the space race—by achieving the first lunar landings—was an engineering triumph, I think it was an even more significant diplomatic coup. The Soviet posture of scientific and technical superiority was instantly deflated.” Revisiting the space race, with its moon-landing centerpiece, suggests larger implications. Technological development is shaped by the national system and conditions under which it occurs, because modern organizations must develop standardized rules and procedures to create and sustain the bureaucracies that coordinate it. Nations cannot simply allocate resources to produce space success, which at its highest levels of scope and sophistication offers a comprehensive test of not only specific programs, but also of the capabilities of the organizations and nation(s) that support them. As a particularly important example, systems management was developed by American private corporations, applied in U.S. military and lunar landing programs, and remains one of  the most successful mechanisms for high technology development.