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Corona image of Baikonur
A CORONA reconnaissance photo taken in September 1963 over the sprawling Baikonur launch site that the CIA designated Tyura-Tam revealed barracks for construction troops. This indicated that a large construction project was beginning at this location. The Sputnik/Gagarin space launch site was located only a short distance off to the right of this photo, which implied that this new construction activity was related to manned spaceflight. (credit: National Photographic Interpretation Center via National Archives)

The Moon in the crosshairs: CIA monitoring of the Soviet manned lunar program (part 1)

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C.S. Lewis once wrote that the devil’s greatest trick was convincing the world that he did not exist. Soviet officials and propagandists pulled off a similar feat in the 1970s when they convinced many in the Western press and public that the country had never intended to land a man on the Moon or to beat the Americans there. That myth lasted nearly 20 years, repeated countless times in the popular press, even by such luminaries as anchorman Walter Cronkite.

Now that large amounts of intelligence documentation have been declassified, it is possible for historians to reexamine their long-standing interpretations of the race to the Moon.

Active Soviet disinformation, coupled with a lack of direct information on the existence of the Soviet lunar program, has distorted our understanding of the Moon race. Many histories of this period have barely acknowledged the existence of a vigorous Soviet lunar program. Even those that have acknowledged it have been unable to compare it to Apollo except in a superficial sense. Until recently, nobody has been able to compare the overall timelines of both superpower projects.

The Central Intelligence Agency’s analysts were not fooled by the Soviet disinformation campaign. They tracked the development of the Soviet lunar program virtually from its start. And although they occasionally made inaccurate estimates as to the technical details of the Soviet manned lunar program, they were surprisingly accurate about its schedule and whether it could beat the Americans to the Moon. They provided this information to American decision makers, both in the White House and NASA.

Now that large amounts of intelligence documentation have been declassified, it is possible for historians to reexamine their long-standing interpretations of the race to the Moon. For decades, historians have been telling the story of Apollo in only a limited context. They knew what decisions the White House and NASA leadership had made, but they did not have a detailed record of why they made them when they made them. To what effect did knowledge of Soviet activities—accurate or otherwise—affect the Apollo program? Were schedules or budgets altered because of Soviet actions? Was safety ever compromised because of concern that the Soviet Union might achieve a propaganda victory? The subject of intelligence on the Soviet space program itself has never been studied in detail. Now we can begin to shed new light on the space race.

Decisions in a vacuum

President John F. Kennedy established the Apollo lunar landing goal in May 1961. Kennedy’s National Space Council, chaired by Vice President Lyndon Johnson, was given intelligence briefings about the nature of the Soviet space program. What Kennedy, Johnson and their advisors were told was that the CIA did not then know if the Soviet Union was heading to the Moon.

Apollo was a response not to a Soviet lunar program, but to a perception—in Kennedy’s mind, as well as the press—of American weakness. Kennedy picked a goal that was big enough to destroy this perception, yet far enough away that the United States could overtake the Soviet Union’s lead in large booster rockets. Intelligence information on the Soviet space program had played little role in Kennedy’s lunar decision: the most important piece of intelligence was that the Soviet Union had launched Yuri Gagarin into orbit, and there was nothing secret about that fact.

Although Apollo needed no further justification at its initiation, over the next several years NASA and several American intelligence agencies attempted to determine if the Soviet Union had its own manned lunar program. This task was not easy, even though the United States had the most sophisticated intelligence collection systems ever developed—technological achievements like the CORONA and GAMBIT satellites, and listening stations in Turkey and Iran, capable of intercepting the faint electronic whispers of telemetry signals broadcast by Soviet rockets back to the ground.

The authors of the NIE assumed that the Soviets were already planning a lunar program because it was an obvious goal in the space race, not because they had evidence supporting this assumption.

The CIA was but one organization among many within the United States government collectively referred to as the intelligence community. The intelligence community includes the intelligence branches of the military services as well as specialized organizations such as the National Security Agency, which collects electronic signals and communications; and the FBI, which catches spies within the United States. The intelligence community is supposed to work as a team, focusing its resources on similar targets. However, the primary task of conducting the overall assessments of Soviet space and missile programs fell to the CIA. It used its own sources and information from other agencies to produce intelligence assessments and reports, in addition to daily products, like cables and memoranda.

The intelligence community produced different levels of reports, written by different types of analysts. Down near the bottom were the basic intelligence reports, consisting of reports produced by the National Photographic Interpretation Center (or NPIC) of what its photo-interpreters were seeing in reconnaissance photographs, and reports by the National Security Agency about intercepted communications. Many “current intelligence” reports consisted of memos and cables transmitted within the community and occasionally to decision-makers. There were various mid-level reports as well. Usually these combined two or more different kinds of intelligence. They were written by “all-source” intelligence analysts, who were trained to combine information from different types of intelligence sources into a coherent narrative.

The highest-level intelligence reports produced by the intelligence community were (and still are) known as National Intelligence Estimates, or NIEs. NIEs used as many sources as possible, and took a broad overall look at a subject, often sacrificing detail for perspective. NIEs were joint products produced by several members of the community, although the CIA usually took the lead in their production. The CIS started producing a joint space and missiles NIE annually after Sputnik. After the Gagarin flight these subjects were separated.

After Yuri Gagarin’s flight, Kennedy and his advisors had available to them a new NIE to make their deliberations in the spring of 1961. In April 1961, an NIE addressed the subject of a Soviet manned lunar flight and stated:

“Contingent upon successes with manned earth satellites and the development of large booster vehicles, the Soviets are believed capable of a manned circumlunar flight with reasonable chance of success in 1966; of recoverable manned lunar satellites in 1967; and of lunar landings and return to earth by about 1969. These are all estimated to be the earliest possible dates.”

These were merely guesses, for at the time there was no intelligence evidence indicating that the Soviet Union then had an active manned lunar landing program. There was no intelligence information because the Soviets had not yet started their program. The authors of the NIE assumed that the Soviets were already planning a lunar program because it was an obvious goal in the space race, not because they had evidence supporting this assumption. They clearly needed to search for this evidence.

Intelligence analysis, first phase, 1961–1964

Kennedy’s May 1961 lunar goal undoubtedly increased the intelligence community’s interest in the nature of the Soviet space program and any evidence that the Soviets might be planning a Moon shot of their own. The intelligence community did not rank Soviet space activity as threatening to the United States, and it was therefore not as high a priority as monitoring Soviet strategic weapons, particularly missiles. However, space provided the Soviets with a powerful propaganda tool and, over the next several years, they achieved numerous propaganda coups over the United States, prompting the intelligence community to closely monitor Soviet achievements and inform the civilian leadership.

Intelligence on Soviet achievements was important for NASA officials and they therefore sought regular briefings from intelligence analysts. However, the analysts lacked the detailed knowledge of large rocket systems and the requirements of manned spaceflight. They also sought information and assistance from NASA, and the two agencies forged close ties during the 1960s. This was not new, for NASA had previously had ties to the CIA, but they had been deeply strained by the embarrassment of the May 1960 U-2 incident, when NASA had initially provided a cover story for the aircraft flight that had quickly been exposed as a lie.

In November 1962, NASA Deputy Administrator Hugh Dryden, who had developed a close working relationship with the CIA years before, met with CIA officials to discuss how the CIA could help NASA determine the Soviet Union’s lunar capabilities. Dryden stressed that simply monitoring the development of large rockets in the Soviet Union was not sufficient to provide information on Soviet progress toward a lunar landing. Clear signs of an active lunar program might not appear until quite late in the development of such a program. He apparently informed them that NASA needed information on Soviet development of a list of technologies related to a lunar program, from electronics and guidance systems to reentry vehicles.

The intelligence community also began to forge close ties with industry as well. By the early 1960s, it was increasingly common for the CIA or other intelligence agencies to employ aerospace and electronics contractors to assist in the analysis of intelligence about Soviet technical developments. Some of the same contractors who helped NASA build satellites and rockets also assisted the CIA in assessing Soviet satellites and rockets.

Intelligence analysts assembled their assessments of Soviet space capabilities from a number of different sources, both direct and indirect. During the early 1960s the CIA had extremely limited direct information on the Soviet space program. Most of this information came from two primary sources: photographs taken of launch facilities from Earth orbit, and telemetry signals snatched out of the air by listening posts on the ground. The limitations of these sources were obvious: until a rocket or spacecraft was photographed on the ground—a rare occurrence—or until it actually took flight and beamed its information back to Earth, the analysts would be making very large guesses about Soviet capabilities.

The CIA had almost no information on Soviet plans, and only found out what was going on after the rockets were ready for flight. David Doyle, who was working as one of fewer than a dozen photo-interpreters focusing on Soviet missiles at this time, said that they never heard about human CIA sources actually at the launch complex. “If they had sources that’d give them information,” Doyle said, “it wasn’t getting down to us.”

Throughout 1962 and into early 1963, the intelligence community found no evidence that the Soviets were responding to Kennedy’s lunar goal with their own lunar program.

The CIA also analyzed official Soviet statements and the comments of diplomats, cosmonauts, and others at social functions such as parties in Moscow and international space conferences. They also perused scientific and technical journals. The CIA had collected significant direct information about many aspects of the Soviet space program. But most of what the agency had was information on rockets and spacecraft that had already flown. The agency had very little information about rockets that had not launched yet. Most of this was gathered by reconnaissance photographs analyzed by photo-interpreters that did not show rockets, but the facilities that would launch them.

What the photo-interpreters were looking for were what they called signatures, or indications of construction that implied a certain type of capability was being developed. One signature of a rocket launch site, for instance, would be a flame pit to direct the hot exhaust away from the vehicle and the launch pad.

Ambiguous evidence

Throughout 1962 and into early 1963, the intelligence community found no evidence that the Soviets were responding to Kennedy’s lunar goal with their own lunar program. On April 25, 1963, Sherman Kent, the Chairman of the CIA’s Board of National Estimates, which was charged with approving the highest-level CIA intelligence assessments of foreign capabilities, wrote a memorandum for the Director of Central Intelligence on the Soviet manned lunar landing program. The ten-page report conceded that the Board had no evidence of a Soviet program, but added that, “On balance, we have no basis for changing our earlier estimate that the chances are better than even that the Soviets will seek to accomplish a manned lunar landing ahead of or in close competition with the U.S. It remains possible, nevertheless, that Soviet lunar objectives are less ambitious.”

In July 1963, British astronomer Sir Bernard Lovell wrote to NASA Deputy Administrator Hugh L. Dryden about his recent trip to several important aerospace facilities within the Soviet Union. Lovell stated that Soviet Academy of Sciences president Mstislav V. Keldysh had informed him that the Soviet Union had rejected “(at least for the time being)… plans for the manned lunar landing.” Lovell’s comment was accurate and Keldysh was telling the truth, for we now know that the Soviets had debated the lunar goal at that time and ruled it out. This letter had repercussions throughout NASA and led to claims in the press that NASA was “racing itself” to the Moon and therefore wasting taxpayers’ money.

During this period a number of CORONA reconnaissance missions overflew the sprawling Soviet launch facility at Baikonur, which the CIA referred to as Tyura-Tam. By the summer they were joined by a new reconnaissance satellite known as GAMBIT, which provided higher resolution photographs of much smaller areas of territory.

In the spring and summer of 1963, the photo-interpreters at NPIC noticed new activity at Tyura-Tam. Soviet workers had started construction at two new sites served by road and rails. However, for several months in late 1963—even after the second GAMBIT mission had returned its high-resolution images in September—the nature of this construction was unknown and NPIC photo-interpreters initially designated the construction activity as a “new support area,” although they did not know what it was intended to support.

The new construction area was located 2.1 nautical miles (3.9 kilometers) northwest of the support area for what the CIA had designated Launch Complex A, the facility that had launched both Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin into space. A December 1963 CORONA mission also photographed the area, and as one would expect in the middle of winter, detected no new construction after the last mission.

According to photo-interpreter David Doyle, the new facility’s closeness to Launch Complex A implied that it was somehow connected to the Soviet manned space program. “We started thinking space to begin with,” he said. Complex A was, after all, where all their existing manned spaceflight equipment was located, so it would make sense to position other manned space facilities nearby. Other launch sites that had nothing to do with manned spaceflight, such as prototype ICBM silos, were far away from Complex A.

Stevens suspected that Wheelon suppressed the report because it undercut NASA Administrator James Webb, who had been telling people that there was evidence that the Soviet Union was now racing NASA to the Moon.

In the summer of 1963, intelligence analyst Sayre Stevens wrote a report on Soviet plans for placing a man on the Moon. Stevens worked for the Space Division of the CIA’s Office of Scientific Intelligence, or OSI. Unlike the photo-interpreters, Stevens was an “all-source” analyst, meaning that his job entailed analyzing intelligence from many sources, including satellite photos, signals intelligence, communications intercepts, journal and press articles, and comments by Soviet officials. After analyzing this information, Stevens concluded that there was no evidence of a Soviet manned lunar program. His draft was reviewed by his superiors, but was not formally published as a classified report. Stevens remembered that Albert Wheelon, who had just been promoted from OSI to run the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology, had rejected the report.

Stevens remembered that one of his problems reaching a conclusion was that the Soviets were not issuing any public statements about a lunar goal and, in fact, were discussing other space goals, such as a space station. It was clear that the Soviets had started building a major new space-related facility at the Tyura-Tam launch range, but throughout 1963 nobody was sure what this was for. According to Stevens, after his first report was rejected, he and his superiors agreed to wait until the Soviets had progressed further on this new facility and the intelligence community collected better data.

By April 1964, after more CORONA and GAMBIT missions overflew Tyura-Tam and took more photographs of the continuing construction, NPIC photo-interpreters declared that the construction was actually a launch complex which they designated “Complex J.” They also noted two massive buildings definitely under construction at the new site. It was a signature of a facility unlike any they had seen before at Tyura-Tam.

Despite the ongoing construction and the additional photographs of the facility, apparently some confusion existed for several months about the purpose of Complex J among the analysts of the Ballistic Missiles and Space Division of the Office of Scientific Intelligence at CIA. OSI requested that NPIC compare Complex J with another Tyura-Tam complex, Complex K, and with single-silo ICBM sites at Zhengiz-Tobe and Olovyanaya. NPIC reported back that the work at Complex J was unique and totally unlike ICBM silo construction.

In 1964, Sayre Stevens worked on his lunar report a second time. One of his conclusions was that although the Soviets were working on a big new launch facility, they were not doing so with any urgency, which was inconsistent with a race to the Moon. “A better explanation for what was going on was that it was preparatory to putting up a manned space station which the Soviets had spoken a lot about as being one of their goals,” Stevens explained during an interview nearly four decades later.

“And then the paper went through again and Wheelon again just wouldn’t… that’s really when I think he was worried about the effects on NASA and the Apollo program,” Stevens recalled. He suspected that Wheelon suppressed the report because it undercut NASA Administrator James Webb, who had been telling people that there was evidence that the Soviet Union was now racing NASA to the Moon. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy had been backing away from the expensive Apollo project. When he was assassinated in November, the program was in limbo for a while as the new Johnson administration debated whether or not to continue it.

The disapproval of Stevens’ 1964 report was not a clear case of suppressing intelligence for political purposes. The evidence about a Soviet lunar project was insufficient to draw firm conclusions, and the developments at Complex J had not changed that. “The second version was no more conclusive than the first,” Stevens said. “It just didn’t look like it [a manned lunar program]. I didn’t feel like it, but that’s hardly a basis on which to make a pretty important judgement,” Stevens conceded. His superiors needed hard facts and Stevens just did not have them. “So I’m sympathetic,” that his report was disapproved, he added. But he still thought that Wheelon killed his report so that the CIA did not politically undermine the Apollo program.

According to Wheelon, exactly what happened is a matter of perspective, not politics. “I do not remember getting into it,” he conceded, and noted that he took over the Directorate of Science and Technology in summer of 1963, which did not give him much time to deal with analysis issues. He was too busy trying to build reconnaissance satellites and the CIA’s Mach 3 spyplane, the OXCART. Wheelon expressed the utmost respect for Stevens, who later rose to become a senior CIA official.

Wheelon said that he did not think that, even if he did intervene, he would have been concerned about James Webb and NASA. “I wouldn’t have hesitated to undercut Webb,” Wheelon said. “I was fighting with McNamara and he was a lot more powerful,” he added, referring to the Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. But Wheelon explained that from his position in the agency, his argument about such a report would have been one of caution: “Let’s be sure, because an estimate here will affect national policy,” he said. An unsupported CIA estimate that the Soviets did not have a manned lunar program would not go unnoticed. It could reach Congress and even the press, where it would create controversy. “Let’s be damn sure, because it really matters.”

Stevens also noted that one problem with American analysis of Soviet space developments was that they assumed that the Soviets would do things like NASA did. “Now we also were probably over… I would accuse myself, of probably being over-influenced by the visibility of NASA’s stuff and all of the planning and programming and steps,” Stevens said. “You know there were a million steps that had to be taken to get from the start of that program to the point where you were going to put someone on the Moon. And there were hurdles that had to be overcome and there were capabilities that had to be not only achieved, but demonstrably achieved. You had to have spaceflights. You had to show you could do this.” The intelligence that the CIA was collecting on the Soviet space program did not show the same level of planning and effort as Apollo. “And you just didn’t see that stuff occurring, coming down that route. They would have capabilities… but you know that isn’t quite right. If you really want to do this job, that’s not enough.”

“I got more and more skeptical that they were trying to do that. I didn’t doubt for a minute that they had a very aggressive and effective space program, but I guess I didn’t think they were going to put all their money on landing a man on the Moon. Which we did. I mean, we gave up a lot of other stuff in a way to do that. I just couldn’t find it.”

Soviet developments

Although records from archives of the former Soviet Union remain less accessible than American records, they are beginning to open somewhat. In addition, former Soviet space officials have prepared numerous memoirs and released personal diaries from the early years of the Soviet space program. Although many of these sources have problems, and we cannot yet write a detailed account of Soviet space decision-making, it is possible for historians to assemble a relatively good picture of what the Soviets were doing at this time and how they were responding to American space efforts, if not why they were responding. When this picture is compared to American intelligence reports, it is possible to judge the success that the CIA and other intelligence agencies had in determining Soviet advances in the space race.

The CIA was unable to determine if the Soviets had a manned lunar program largely because the Soviets themselves had not decided whether to pursue one.

The Soviet leadership responded to Kennedy’s May 1961 lunar speech with indifference. His speech was not widely reported in the Soviet press, and apparently was not even noticed by top Soviet space officials such as Chief Designer Sergei Korolev. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev did not believe that Kennedy was serious. As historians of the Cold War have long noted, after their meeting at the Vienna summit in June 1961 Khrushchev developed an impression of Kennedy as weak and ineffectual. How much this impression affected his view of Kennedy’s lunar goal remains unknown, but Khrushchev notably did not respond to Kennedy’s announcement with a similar Soviet project, not even a secret one.

Over the next several years, Soviet space officials debated the country’s goals in space. The leading Soviet space official, Sergei Korolev, planned to develop a new large rocket to serve various space missions, but did not obtain approval for a lunar goal. Statements from Soviet officials, such as Soviet Academy of Sciences president Mstislav V. Keldysh, that they were considering a space station and had no manned lunar ambitions accurately reflected Soviet decision-making.

Only a few months before his death, Kennedy may have contributed to Khrushchev’s view that he was not serious about Apollo when the American president proposed that the Soviets join the United States in the lunar effort. Kennedy’s death in November 1963 may have perpetuated the ambiguity in Soviet minds about whether or not the Americans were preparing to abandon Apollo.

Based upon this information from the Soviet side, it is now clear that CIA assessments of the Soviet lunar program from 1961 until mid-1964 were relatively accurate. The CIA was unable to determine if the Soviets had a manned lunar program largely because the Soviets themselves had not decided whether to pursue one. Admittedly CIA sources were not as good as necessary, but they accurately reflected Soviet indecision and ambiguity about the lunar goal.

In the summer of 1964, Nikita Khrushchev agreed to pursue a manned lunar goal, but this decision was made in secret and the CIA was apparently unaware of it. Its satellites could peer hundreds of miles, but they could not see into buildings, or the minds of the Soviet leadership.

Next week: Part 2: Intelligence collection on the Soviet manned lunar program 1964–1968