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The Apollo programme was the US human space project founded by NASA to fulfil US President John F. Kennedy’s goal of landing man on the Moon. Neil Armstrong and fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin did just that when they touched the lunar lander Eagle down on the dusty surface on July 20, 1969. But unbeknown to the public at the time, both sides had embarked on what would become one of the most dangerous and difficult ventures mankind has ever undertaken.

It all started with the launch of Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, and the USSR sent the first human to space with the orbital flight of Yuri Gagarin four years later.

But Spark’s ‘What Was The Human Cost Of Going To The Moon?’ revealed how secret files showed it may not have been their first attempt.

The narrator said: “Documents only recently uncovered just how much the Kremlin interfered with the Soviet space agency.

“Setting space records took priority over men’s lives – much to the disdain of the head of the Soviet Space agency, Sergei Korolev.

“In October 1960, a huge new booster rocket appeared to malfunction and just sat on the launch pad after it was supposed to take off.

“Instead of taking safety precautions, the Kremlin ordered the launch director and engineers to fix the problem immediately and get the rocket launched that day.”

And things went horribly wrong.

The series explained: “With over 165 men inspecting the rocket, including the launch director, it suddenly blew up in a huge ball of fire and instantly killed everyone near the rocket.

“Rumours persisted that this was an early manned launched attempt and that a cosmonaut was on board.”

Known as the Nedelin disaster, the launch pad accident happened during the development of the Soviet R-16 ICBM.

As a prototype of the missile was being prepared for a test flight, an explosion occurred when the second stage engine ignited accidentally.

Despite the magnitude of the disaster, news of it was suppressed for many years and the Soviet government did not acknowledge the event until 1989.

But the space agency was triumphant just months later.

The narrator explained: “On April 12, 1961, the Soviets were once again successful in creating a storm of excitement all over the world when they announced the successful launch and orbit of the first man into space, Yuri Gagarin.

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“He made a single orbit around the Earth during his flight that lasted about 108 minutes – his spacecraft was automatically manoeuvred by control engineers on the ground.

“Another cosmonaut, Vladimir Ilyushin, the son of a famous Soviet aircraft designer had previously been rumoured to have returned from space alive, but was in very bad shape.

“Apparently the Soviet authorities felt they could not possibly present him to the public as a returning hero in such poor condition.”

Two days before Mr Gagarin’s launch on April 12, 1961, it was claimed that the Soviet Union’s announcement that Mr Ilyushin had been involved in a serious car crash was really a cover story for an orbital spaceflight gone wrong.

North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) tracking stations, however, had no record of any such launch and there is no evidence to support the theory.

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