SpaceX Starship and Soviet N1 Moon Rocket—Similarities and Differences

It is difficult not to be struck by the similarities between the SpaceX Super Heavy/Starship and the Soviet N1 Moon rocket of the 1960s. Both were, when built, the largest rockets ever constructed. Both used a large number of relatively small engines (Starship, 33; N1, 30) in their first stages, and these engines were of an advanced design which had never flown into space. The scale of the first stage required it to be manufactured in a facility adjacent to the launch site, and made it impractical to perform full-duration static fire tests, meaning the first test would commit the rocket to flight. Both rockets were tested in an “all-up configuration”, where the complete rocket, including upper stage(s) would be flown from the very first test, and both were designed to accomplish missions never before attempted (N1, manned lunar landing; Starship, human missions to Mars and beyond, full and rapid reusability). Even Elon Musk has remarked on the similarities between the two giant rockets and expressed his admiration for the ambition and achievements of the N1 designers.

These similarities are cause for concern among those hoping Starship will ring in a new era of affordable access to space. The Soviet N1 was launched only four times between February 1969 and November 1972 and never once made it to completion of the first stage burn and separation of the second stage before destruction of the rocket and loss of the upper stages without ever being fired. On the second test launch on 1969-07-03, just 13 days before the launch of Apollo 11 to the Moon, the N1 failed seconds after liftoff and fell back onto the launch pad, resulting in one of the largest accidental non-nuclear explosions in history, with a yield estimated at 650 tonnes of TNT that completely destroyed the launch complex. All of the N1 launch failures were attributed to problems with the first stage propulsion system and engines.

At this writing, the full Starship has flown only once, and failed before the completion of its first stage burn and stage separation, destroying the upper stage before it was fired, with the failure attributed to the first stage propulsion and guidance system and multiple engine failures.

Is Starship destined to recapitulate the sad history of the N1? Much has changed in the half-century since N1’s failure. How do these changes in technology, management, funding, market demand for heavy lift, and the economics of space flight affect the prospects for Starship achieving its ambitious goals?


It still seems strange to see a 2-stage rocket like SH/Starship.

If given a quick look SH/Starship from several miles away, what would 1945 von Braun have thought? What would 1965 von Braun have thought?


Here is von Braun’s orbital ferry rocket from 1952, as featured in the Collier’s series “Man Will Conquer Space Soon!” which ran from March 1952 through April 1954 and was later adapted to the Disney space films.


Here is stage separation from Collier’s. Count those engines!


I’m inclined to think the 1945 von Braun would think, “They finally built it!”

In 1952, von Braun assumed the rockets would use storable hypergolic propellants because hypergolic engines are not as prone to combustion instability when scaled up and avoid the difficulty of dealing with cryogenic propellants in huge quantities. Use of hypergolic propellants with 1950s rocket engine design resulted in specific impulse much lower than an engine such as Raptor, which made a three stage design necessary. I think that if you handed von Braun the specs for the Raptor 2 he’d at first not believe it, but once convinced, move toward a two stage to orbit design.

The 1965 von Braun probably would have wondered why the heck, half a century later, they weren’t using a nuclear thermal rocket upper stage.