CIA surveillance of the Soviet inhabited lunar program


Complex J model

A CIA model from the Soviet N-1 launch complex, which the CIA has called "J. Complex". There are two N-1 rockets, as well as a Saturn V and the Washington Monument on the scale. (credit: CIA)

Apollo revisited

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At the height of the Moon race in the 1960s, the Central Intelligence Agency and the rest of the American intelligence community sought to keep an eye on the progress made by the Soviets to reach the moon. This story has already been discussed here (see "The Webb Giant", The Space Review, July 19, 2004, "A Taste of Armageddon (Part One)", "The Space Review, January 3, 2017, and Part Two" And the Dague of the mind, The Space Review, December 19, 2016.) But the question remains: to what extent has the CIA's surveillance of the Soviet inhabited lunar program played a role in the Apollo program? , especially in its calendar? Dozens of documents, including the "living lunar file" in the CIA reading room, shed some light on this.

The documents provide many additional details and context for the first decade of the space race. Going back to old Soviet space program assessments, it quickly became clear that, while the CIA was sometimes wrong to err Soviet intentions and capabilities, it was surprisingly clever at evaluating the information it was able to provide. disposal. However, they could always miss the boat when the Soviets launched a cascade of intelligent propaganda.

Although the CIA sometimes erred in the intentions and capabilities of the Soviet Union, it was surprisingly clever to evaluate the information at its disposal. However, they could always miss the boat when the Soviets launched a cascade of intelligent propaganda.

For example, in November 1962, the Office of National Estimates (or ONE) wrote a memorandum titled "Possible Soviet Military Reactions to the Cuban Outcome: Gadgets and Programs." The premise was that the Soviet Union had been humiliated by being forced to back down from their plan to introduce medium-range missiles into Cuba and could seek to respond in various ways. ONE analysts suggested that one of the possibilities could include planned space missions for maximum propaganda impact. Analysts have suggested that "in 1962-1963, the following individual space missions are likely to be part of the capabilities of the USSR, although it is unlikely that they can all be accomplished at this time. during this period: multi-crew satellite; rendezvous and possible docking of two satellites; an inhabited satellite of ten days; circumlunar flight without pilot; unmanned satellite placed in lunar orbit; soft lunar landings of instrumented parcels; planetary probes. "

What the CIA did not foresee is a simpler stunt: the launch of the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, in June 1963.

Although short-term stunts can politically embarrass the United States, the CIA has paid more attention to a bigger problem: the race to the moon, motivated in part by NASA's own interests. In September 1965, while the Apollo program was reaching its maximum funding, James Webb, NASA Administrator, wrote to the CIA asking him to evaluate "the likelihood and consequences of a Soviet program". to land a man on the moon in competition with Apollo. Each year, the Office of National Estimates has produced a National Intelligence Estimate, or NIE – the highest intelligence assessment produced by the intelligence community – on the Soviet space program. This document indicated that nothing indicated that the Soviet Union was competitive with the United States in the race for the moon, but Webb wanted an update.

In response, the head of the National Estimates Bureau, Sherman Kent, wrote a memo to the Director of Vice Admiral Central Intelligence (retired), William Raborn. This note, which was apparently intended to form the CIA's draft response to NASA, was largely based on previous estimates, including the January 1965 NIE. Kent said the evidence gathered over the last eight months was consistent. with the earlier conclusion that the Soviets were not competitive with the United States in the race for the moon.

In his memo, Kent stated: "The obvious interest of the Soviets in the exploration of the moon was a factor that allowed us to think that the Soviets intended to undertake an inhabited lunar landing in the future. The pace of this Soviet program, however, has been uneven, and it has generally been unsuccessful. Kent added that from 1958 to date, the Soviets had launched about 18 robotic probes on the moon, with only three successes.

In addition, the political situation in the Soviet Union had changed. The Cuban missile crisis resulted in Khrushchev being forced out of power and replaced by Leonid Brezhnev. Although the Soviet economic situation did not change, civilian and military space programs still competed for the scarce high-quality resources of the Soviet economy. However, since Leonid Brezhnev came to power, military forces have been increasingly present, which could affect the funding of the Soviet civilian space program.

Kent added that "if the Soviets had not chosen to run on the moon, we expected them to strive to mitigate the impact of a successful Apollo mission by achieving other goals of their own. choice. They have openly questioned the scientific significance and need for an inhabited lunar landing, and will probably substitute for objectives to which they can attribute greater significance. This could include extensive ground orbital operations and space stations, as well as a vigorous robotic lunar exploration. Another possibility was an early attempt at an inhabited circumlunar mission "to offset the effects of a successful Apollo mission and to strengthen the association of the Soviet Union with the early exploration of the moon. ".

"In summary," Kent concluded, "we expect the Soviets to pursue a vigorous and expanding space program, the scope of which is generally competitive with that of the United States. they participate in a competitive inhabited lunar landing program at the same Apollo Project schedule, but we can not exclude this possibility.We continue to believe that they could achieve a manned lunar landing towards the middle of 1969 at the earliest, if they detect a slippage or stretching in the US program, they may have to speed up theirs. "

Someone – maybe the director of intelligence central services, William Raborn himself? – added a handwritten note next to this line: They could slow down further.

"If they detect a slippage or an extension of the US program, they might have to speed up theirs," wrote Kent. "They might not too. They could slow down further, "added one.

Although Kent speculates, we now know that the change of political regime in Moscow actually affected the Soviet civilian space program and that the moon project needed funds. But civil program leaders have continued to believe, with self-delusion being a common feature of authoritarian societies, that they could always defeat the Americans on the moon. They continued to believe that even after the Americans had passed their manned space flight program in the next few years.

Several other declassified documents provided supporting data to answer Webb's question. For example, a summary of Soviet commentaries prepared in October 1965 quoted cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov in an interview with a Czech journalist. Komarov, who will die two years later after the failure of the parachute opening of his Soyuz vehicle, said that if the US formula for an inhabited lunar landing was "1969 + X", the Soviet formula would be "1969 + (X – 1)". An unidentified CIA official said that "it is probably what comes closest to a date we will openly receive from the Soviets. "Another CIA document, entitled" Chronology of a Selection of Soviet Lunar Landing Statements Animated since January 1965, "indicates that various Soviet cosmonauts and scientists, as well as Leonid Brezhnev himself, had spoke about their lunar aspirations, if not their specific projects, over the past eight months, it is clear that the Soviets did not completely ignore the subject, but they did not leave it to the US intelligence analysts either. understand what they were doing.

Despite all these efforts, no variant of Kent's memo has been sent to NASA. At the time, Raborn wanted to set up a space intelligence panel to deal specifically with space-related topics. CIA Deputy Director of Science and Technology Albert D. Wheelon spoke to Raborn about the postponement of NASA's request and the panel's invitation to address the issue. Raborn agreed that this would be the best way to proceed and obtained NASA's assurance that the agency did not require an immediate response to his question.

The Space Intelligence Panel met for the first time in late October. Rather than the long answer prepared by Sherman Kent, the panel came to a conclusion in two paragraphs. "It is clear that the Soviet space program is bulky, generally competitive and versatile," the panel wrote. "Its main objective is to improve the technological and military image of the USSR compared to that of the United States through major achievements in space. It is not possible at this time to determine with certainty the direction that the Soviets will take in attempting to achieve this major goal. Much depends on the developments of Soviet rocket propulsion. But the evidence available at the end of 1965 did not indicate whether the Soviet Union was pursuing an inhabited lunar landing program or a vast inhabited space station program. If the Soviets were actually pursuing a lunar program, the panel concluded: "We are quite certain that they are not ahead of the US in this program, but rather have a delay of 0 to 18 months ".

The Space Intelligence Committee's assessment was remarkably accurate, and over the next few years the US intelligence community continued to monitor developments in the Soviet space. The absence of Soviet space launchers from the spring of 1965 to the spring of 1967 reinforced the impression that the United States maintained a substantial lead in the race for the moon, even after the tragic fire of January 1967 which hurt the American program.

If the Soviets were actually pursuing a lunar program, the panel concluded: "We are quite certain that they are not ahead of the US in this program, but rather have a delay of 0 to 18 months ".

In October 1967, the CIA Intelligence Directorate issued a report titled "The Soviet Space Program Ten Years After Sputnik I" (see "In the shadow of Apollo: the CIA and the Soviet Space Program during the The Space Review, May 13, 2019.) He stated that "some consider the Soviet space program as a mere project to make the spectacular headline, some consider it an exclusively military effort others, over the past ten years, such as the orderly deployment of a long-range master. plan with neither false steps nor dead ends. The Soviets themselves have often described their program as purely scientific and not competitive with that of the United States. But the CIA document stated that "none of these diagnoses is completely false or wrong". Although they have achieved spectacular titles with some of their achievements "an honorable number of Soviet flights, on the other hand, have quietly made a solid contribution to the understanding of the cosmos by man." He added that "some segments of the program have indeed demonstrated a high degree of intelligent planning and execution; but there were dead ends, gaffes and even disasters. "

The comparison of this ten-year overview with the agency's specific response to James Webb's request for information on the lunar progress of the Soviet Union at the end of 1965 highlights the fact that fortunes could be quickly reverse in the race to space. While Sherman Kent's note of September 1965 noted the large number of failures of Soviet lunar probes, the CIA could not predict that the Soviets would soon achieve a series of successes. Just a few months after Kent's note in January 1966, the Soviet Union softened Luna 9 on the moon. "The Soviets have been surprisingly slow in correcting the weaknesses of this program, a failure that has also been noted in other parts of the space effort," said the 1967 survey. Soviets soon followed Luna 9 with three powerful orbiter (Lunas 10-12) and another soft landing with Luna 13.

The retrospective ended with a discussion of the then large Soviet rocket developing at the Tyura-Tam launch complex (now known as Baikonur). CIA analysts still thought the rocket could be used to launch a space station of up to 113,000 kilograms in a low Earth orbit, "a manned lunar landing is nevertheless the most likely attention of the USSR's attention to over the next five years, "concludes the document.

Over the next few months, US intelligence satellites have discovered significant developments in this large rocket complex (see "Real and Model-Size Rockets" in The Space Review, July 3, 2006). In March 1968 the Intelligence Committee on Guided Missiles and Astronautics published a report on the deployment of Soviet ground-to-ground missiles which also dealt with the Soviet facility, designated by Complex J of the CIA. Two large launching ramps were under construction and the service tower of the first platform had reached a height of about 135 meters, and was apparently complete because the construction crane that built it was in train to be dismantled. Two 180-meter-high lighting towers had also been built near the platform. The second platform, called J2, was still under construction and the base of the service tower was nearing completion. All buildings located between the two skids had been covered with soil and protective material.

Complex J model

The two N-1 launch pads photographed by an American reconnaissance satellite KH-8 GAMBIT-3 in June 1969. At the time, the US intelligence services described Baikonur as "Tyuratam" and N-1 "the vehicle J. This image does not show the damage to one of the pads that occurred on July 3 during the explosion of an N-1 rocket, but was used in an intelligence report to illustrate the Installation after the event.

But the real jackpot had arrived when an American reconnaissance satellite had photographed a nearly 100-meter high launcher erected on the completed platform. CIA analysts have assumed that it was a mock-up used to check the launcher and its equipment, as had NASA done with the Saturn V. "We think that several months of additional installation and control of the equipment are necessary and that the site J1 be ready to support the layoffs by the middle of 1968 ".

The American reconnaissance satellites were so powerful that they had detected a set of telemetry antennas on the roof of the giant building of the complex. "Outside this building, a missile transporter has probably been observed. About 200 feet [60 meters] long by 85 feet [25 meters] wide, the transporter appeared to be constructed of heavy steel with an elevated end. Nearby, another carrier was being assembled. The construction of the J-spacecraft was continuing. The exterior of the building was finished and construction was probably continuing inside.


Despite all the recent progress on the launch site, nothing indicated that the Soviet Union was winning against the United States. The United States had already perfected their rendezvous techniques with the Gemini program and made significant progress in solving the problems associated with the Apollo space mission. Komarov's death on April 24, 1967 was a bigger blow to the Soviets than to Apollo 1 for NASA. As a result, in the summer of 1968, NASA and CIA officials turned to the Soviet circumlunary program, which aimed to send a man around the moon. If successful, the Soviet Union could overshadow the landing of Apollo, planned the following year. In the summer of 1968, NASA officials made the bold decision to send the Apollo 8 mission around the moon.

The main unanswered question regarding the influence of intelligence gathering on the Moon's race concerns the influence of intelligence on Soviet circumlunnel missions Zond prompted NASA officials to make the Apollo 8 decision. the evidence corroborates the conclusion that although the Zond program was a factor in the Apollo decision, it was a justificatory factor, not the only one or decisive. Apollo was already on the ground, pedaling to the ground, within the limits of safety. NASA officials were less concerned with looking over their shoulder than keeping control of a bureaucratic machine, management and massive development that they were pushing to the extreme. The Apollo 8 lunar module was not ready for its test flight and NASA officials were unwilling to delay the mission in order to wait for the landing gear. They decided to send the astronauts around the moon rather than just on the Earth's orbit.

The declassified documents provide some evidence on this issue. In late October 1968, Deputy Director of Science and Technology Carl Duckett (who had replaced Albert Wheelon several years ago), said: "It's obvious that NASA's plan to a circumlunar launch inhabited in December a direct product of a previous intelligence briefing on the intentions of the Soviet space. "

Even if NASA officials saw the raw information that the CIA, the NSA and even the US Navy were gathering about Soviet space efforts as soon as they had been, they certainly could not move faster that they were not doing it already.

It was perhaps a little presumptuous: Duckett had no way of knowing all the factors that NASA officials had taken into account in making their decision, or what had been most important to them . Existing evidence suggests that lunar module delay is what triggered the decision process and apparently led to it. Other evidence indicates that an Apollo circumlunar mission had been considered for the first time within NASA as a possible option as early as the spring of 1968, before it was Is actually worried about a circumlunar flight inhabited by the Soviet Union. NASA certainly did not need special intelligence briefings from the CIA in the summer of 1968 to know that Zond missions were taking place, as information about them was reported in the press.

Even if NASA officials saw the raw information that the CIA, the NSA and even the US Navy were gathering about Soviet space efforts as soon as they had been, they certainly could not move faster that they were not doing it already. As a runner on a straight track, the direction of NASA was more focused on what was ahead than on the one that could be right behind. The landing on the Moon was the finish line, and everyone at Apollo was determined to reach it.


A recent article in a new Russian space magazine, Russkiy Kosmos, was based on earlier Space Review articles on US intelligence and the Soviet N-1 program.

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