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20 Jul, 2009 15:30

Soviet top secret space project gets second life

When Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the Moon forty years ago, the US took a decisive lead in the space race against the USSR. But decades after, Soviet space engines are selling in the US.

Once the USSR had launched the first satellite and sent the first person into space, Soviet space ambitions rocketed and it turned its attention to the Moon.

Encouraged by previous triumphs, few in the Soviet Union doubted that this round of the space race between the two superpowers would also be won by the USSR. Many believed that a Soviet cosmonaut would be the first man on the Moon.

The best engineers from all over the Union worked day and night to make this dream come true.

With the N-1 Lunar rocket, the USSR’s plans became more realistic.

The spacecraft was one of the most top secret projects, and was designed to carry cosmonauts to the Moon.

The rocket’s heart – its engines – rolled off the construction line at a plant in Samara, in Russia’s Volga region, years before America’s Apollo 11 blasted off.

But the Apollo 11 mission won the race, landing on the Moon in July, 1969.

With America's success and the death of Sergey Korolev, “the father of the Soviet space program”, the Soviet’s lunar dream was literally buried.

Over the years there have been many conspiracy theories surrounding the moon U.S. landing. But they shouldn't be taken seriously, according to cosmonaut Aleksey Leonov, the first man ever to perform a space walk.

“Our team was watching closely how Americans were landing on the moon. So I swear, it's not fake. And we all were keeping our fingers crossed watching American astronauts because we wanted them to succeed,” Aleksey Leonov told RT.

In the mid 1970s, the Soviet Moon program was cancelled and several specially-designed engines were supposed to be destroyed. But the head of Samara’s construction bureau, Nikolay Kuznetsov, didn’t obey the order and decided to save them. He risked his career and could even have been arrested for his actions.

NK-33 engines have been kept in an underground storage for more than 20 years.

“There was a suggestion to display these engines at an exhibition, and one of them was shown. Everyone was surprised at how advanced they were, even 20 years later,” says museum director Natalya Aladieva.

Seventeen years ago, an American company purchased the first lot of Russia’s Soviet space engines.

“This engine is one of the best ever made in Russia. There are also price and production period benefits to consider. There are already a hundred of these engines in the world, and they need to be used. And the price benefit is in that they only require to be revived and adjusted to the spacecraft they are made for,” explains Valery Danilchenko, Motorostroitel plant chief constructor.

Today, the plant’s chief constructor says, full-scale negotiations are underway between Russia and the US to strengthen space co-operation.

“As the United States needs dozens of engines, and we don't have that many ready-made engines, we offered to start a joint venture in Russia. In the next few days we are going to hand over their part of the business plan and consider it at the top level of our companies, and maybe even at governmental level,” Valery Danilchenko adds.

Read also Russia to build nuclear power installations for interplanetary travel