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N-1 pad photo
While taken from a helicopter, this image of damage to an N-1 launch pad shows detail similar to what American reconnaissance satellites could have seen in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Big Bird and the Big Mother

US intelligence community monitoring of the Soviet lunar program after Apollo

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It’s not easy pinpointing exactly when the race to the Moon was won. Many historians claim it was when Apollo 8 circled the Moon in December 1968. Certainly it was over by July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin put their bootprints in the lunar dirt. But even after the race was over, the Soviets continued working on their plans to send men to the Moon, and the US intelligence community kept a careful watch on their activities.

The Swiss make fine watches, the Germans make fine cars, and the Americans made sophisticated spacecraft like HEXAGON.

Throughout the 1960s, American CORONA and GAMBIT reconnaissance satellites had overflown the sprawling Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, which the CIA referred to as Tyura-Tam, and photographed the development of what National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC, or “enpic”) experts had labeled “Complex J,” the massive launch pad facility where the Soviets launched their N-1 rockets. In 1969, several American intelligence systems had detected a massive explosion of the rocket that CIA analysts had initially called “the big mother” and later formally designated the “J vehicle.” The rocket had barely cleared its tower when it malfunctioned, fell back onto the pad, and blew itself to kingdom come. The explosion had been devastating, causing major damage to the pad.

Seventeen days later, Neil and Buzz landed at Tranquility.

The July explosion was, in fact, the second N-1 launch and the second failure. The first had occurred in February 1969 and been missed by US intelligence agencies when it blew up too far downrange to leave a visible debris field, but not high enough to appear on tracking radar. The July 1969 failure had dealt a more serious blow to the program, however, taking one of the two launch pads out of service for years. Over the next few years, US intelligence satellites continued to monitor that facility for signs of recovery and new activity. CORONA flew a few more missions before it was retired, and a GAMBIT spacecraft flew every few months, providing very high resolution images of the launch complex.

In 1971, the US intelligence community gained a significant new asset in the form of the bus-sized HEXAGON spacecraft built by Lockheed. The HEXAGON was the biggest reconnaissance satellite ever lofted into orbit at that time, launched atop a Titan IIIB rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California where it had earned the nickname “the big bird” from ground crews. HEXAGON represented the best of American ingenuity and engineering prowess. The Swiss make fine watches, the Germans make fine cars, and the Americans made sophisticated spacecraft like HEXAGON. The HEXAGON’s two powerful cameras, manufactured by Perkin-Elmer, could photograph vast swaths of Soviet territory at a time, imaging thousands of square kilometers of the Tyura-Tam complex in seconds.

HEXAGON was declassified in 2011 and, although officially its resolution was two to three feet (0.6 to 0.9 meters), in reality it was far better than that when looking straight down. As soon as HEXAGON entered service it began returning imagery of the Tyura-Tam missile test range, including Complex J. Photo-interpreters working in Washington, DC, produced voluminous reports about the things spotted in HEXAGON’s imagery, such as all the activities taking place at various launch pads and silos. These imagery interpretation reports were called “OAK,” from the old saying that from an acorn a mighty oak grows. Ironically, many trees gave their lives for the production of imagery reports that ran to many thousands of pages for each reconnaissance mission.

On November 21, 1972, the fourth HEXAGON mission, designated 1204, observed a launch vehicle on pad J2, but it was gone on November 30. The reason the launch vehicle was gone was because it launched on November 23.

The first HEXAGON was launched in mid-June 1971, returning its first set of film on June 20 and its second set on June 26. OAK imagery interpretation reports from this part of the HEXAGON’s mission have not been declassified yet, but if the HEXAGON flew over Tyura-Tam and if the launch range was cloud free—both of which seem likely—then the HEXAGON undoubtedly took photographs of the third N-1 “J vehicle” rocket on its launch pad. That rocket launched on June 26, but quickly experienced problems and disintegrated 48 seconds after liftoff.

According to a newly declassified NPIC report, in summer 1972, between July and September, the third HEXAGON mission imaged Complex J and spotted “little or no change” in the reconstruction effort at the damaged J1 pad. During that time a launch vehicle was moved to the undamaged pad J2 and both transporter/erectors were visible at the northern end of the vehicle assembly building. In a later image one of the transporters was gone, undoubtedly inside the building, but it appeared again during another photographic pass.

On November 21, 1972, the fourth HEXAGON mission, designated 1204, observed a launch vehicle on pad J2, but it was gone on November 30. “Little or no change was observed in the reconstruction of launch pad J1,” a mission report stated.

The reason the launch vehicle was gone was because it launched on November 23. But it too experienced problems like its three predecessors, and 103 seconds after launch it exploded downrange. This time the US intelligence community gathered intelligence on the failure through a variety of means, including interception of signals from the rocket and the launch site. According to declassified National Security Agency cables labeled “Top Secret UMBRA”—a designation indicating that they were derived from signals intelligence—the rocket was launched on November 23 at approximately 0612 GMT, and “the vehicle malfunctioned early in flight, possibly approximately 120 seconds after launch.” The NSA cables identified this as the third launching of the rocket, and estimated the rocket’s liftoff thrust between “12 and 14 million pounds” (53 to 62 million newtons), which was substantially higher than the actual thrust of the rocket: a rare example of the intelligence community’s analysis being mistaken when it came to the N-1.

Between March 10 and May 11, 1973, HEXAGON mission 1205 photographed Tyura-Tam. In March, a mission report stated that “the large excavation adjacent to pad J1 has been backfilled.” A later mission report noted, “The reconstruction of pad J1 was externally complete except for the erection of one of the two 600-foot-high lightning arrester towers.” That tower had been blown down nearly four years earlier. “The service tower was at the launch point at launch pad J2,” the report stated, and although both transporter/erectors were parked outside, no rocket was visible at the pad.

HEXAGON mission 1206, which was launched in summer 1973, also produced relevant imagery of the Zagorsk Missile and Space Development Center. Zagorsk was the site of a miniature N-1 launch pad, and in later July or early August the HEXAGON spotted activity there for the first time in apparently many months. “Darkened areas were on the apron around one of the three exhaust flues and the tripod device was positioned over the launch position,” according to a declassified mission report. “A triangular transporter was positioned on the apron.” A great deal of equipment was also present on the apron, the report stated.

Between mid-December 1973 and mid-January 1974 HEXAGON mission 1207 photographed Tyura-Tam and got lucky. According to a newly declassified mission report, “At launch pad J1, the lower three stages of a J launch vehicle were erected. This portion of the J vehicle was approximately 215 feet high.” The width of the tapered launch vehicle has been deleted from the document, but NPIC’s measurements were certainly quite accurate. The more important issue was that the presence of a vehicle at the formerly damaged J1 pad indicated that it was about to reenter service. The mission report indicates that no other activity was seen at the pad. During this time a J vehicle was removed from the J2 launch pad and returned to the vehicle assembly building, although it is unclear if there were two vehicles on the pads simultaneously, or if the vehicle was moved from one pad to another.

Despite this flurry of activity in late 1973, the Soviets never launched another N-1 rocket.

At one point the satellite photographed a launch vehicle at the pad with the transporter/erector alongside with its bed in the vertical position, implying that the rocket was being removed from the pad. A short time later (the observation dates remain classified), the rocket and one transporter were gone, indicating that they had gone into the vehicle assembly building, but the other transporter was parked outside. At other times no rocket was visible and both transporters were parked outside. These kinds of details allowed interpreters to understand how launch operations worked, leaving no doubt that a lot of activity was still going on more than four years after Americans first walked on the Moon.

The newly declassified HEXAGON mission report indicates that the launch complex was photographed eight times during the coverage period, but the specific dates that activity was observed have been deleted. What is clear from the mission reports is that the Soviet launch crews moved their rocket and the transporters around quite a bit during this time, possibly bringing the rocket to and from the pad several times in a few weeks. Clearly they were planning another N-1 rocket launch.

According to space historian Bart Hendrickx, a Russian book by a former N-1 engineer indicates that a non-flight test vehicle named 1M1B was on the J2 pad during this period. That test vehicle underwent a number of modifications over the years (1M, 1M1, 1MA, and finally 1M1B). At the present time it is unclear if US intelligence analysts, using much higher resolution GAMBIT photography, ever spotted differences between the operational N-1 rockets at the pad and the 1M1B test vehicle.

Despite this flurry of activity in late 1973, the Soviets never launched another N-1 rocket. According to Asif Siddiqi in Challenge to Apollo, the Soviets initially planned a fifth launch for August 1974 and many in the program had high confidence that the updated launch vehicle would finally be successful. The mission was more ambitious than previous launches and would have involved sending an unmanned lunar lander to perform maneuvers at the Moon before the return vehicle headed back to Earth. Had it worked, a cosmonaut team might have eventually followed, sending humans back to the Moon for the first time since Apollo 17 had been there in December 1972. Although the likelihood of mission success was slim, a success would have occurred during a lull in NASA’s human spaceflight program and could have upstaged the Americans. But the Soviet lunar program was canceled in May 1974 during a political shakeup in the space leadership.

The N-1 launch facility—still designated Complex J by American intelligence agencies—was put in mothballs. Far overhead, American spysats continued to float silently by taking their photographs. But at Complex J, there was no longer anything to see.