I look at the Soviet plans to go to the moon and I wonder if they secretly contracted the Marx Brothers to design it. I guess it's easy to say that on hindsight - looking at the Apollo program - but couldn't they really see that this was not a very smart option?
This Soviet plan to go to the moon was bound to fail since its inception. First, the design of the N-1 rocket was way too complicated and it was underfunded from the beginning. Envisioned by legendary rocket scientist Sergei Korolyov, it also arrived too late, years after the Saturn V.
It had too many engines, which introduced too many failure points. The same was true about the number of stages. While the Saturn V only had three stages, plus the engine in the Apollo spacecraft and the Lunar Lander, the N1 had five stages - all kerosene and oxygen-based - plus the LK Lander engine and the LOK engine - the equivalent to the Apollo ship but with room for only two astronauts.
But perhaps the most surreal aspect of the program - which is described in this article about new research made by Charles Vick - was their idea for the landing. First, after reaching lunar orbit, the single astronaut that was going to land on the moon had to go out of the LOK lunar orbiter through a door, fly to the LK lander, open two hatches, undock the lander, land on the moon, get back up to moon orbit, dock with the orbiter, get out again of the lander carrying a suitcase full of moon samples and whatever else, and fly back to the spacecraft that was going to take him home.
Looks stupid? That's because it is. It boggles the mind that they actually thought this was even a decent idea, let alone a good one.
Fortunately, this wacky procedure was never tested. After Korolyov died in 1966 and the Americans reached the Moon, the N1 project went down in flames. Literally: Four launch attempts resulted in total catastrophe, the first one completely destroying the launch complex from where it was fired. The cosmonauts - Leonov was going to be the chosen one - probably felt relieved when Armstrong and Aldrin set foot on the moon. That ship looked like a trap. The secret N1 program was suspended in 1974, but the world only first learned about it in 1990.
Image by Space.com