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The perception that the US and USSr were racing to the Moon made headlines and magazine covers in 1968. But did it alter NASA’s plans for Apollo 8?

The Moon in the crosshairs (part 3)

CIA monitoring of the Soviet manned lunar program: going circumlunar


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In December 1968, when NASA sent Apollo 8 to orbit the Moon, some people speculated that the agency had done this directly in response to intelligence on the Soviet effort to accomplish the same feat. Time magazine even ran a cover in fall 1968 showing an astronaut and a cosmonaut racing toward the Moon. In fact, that interpretation of history has survived for several decades, although it has rarely been explicitly examined.

In none of the official NASA records on this subject is there mention of Soviet attempts to conduct a circumlunar flight. There are no official NASA records indicating that it was even considered in the decision-making.

To date, the most extensive analysis of the Apollo 8 lunar decision is contained in Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox’s 1989 book Apollo: the Race to the Moon. Murray and Cox devoted ten pages to the subject. They clearly state that the decision to send Apollo 8 on a circumlunar mission was overwhelmingly determined by schedule and not competition. In those ten pages they do not mention the Soviet activities.

Apollo officials started initial discussion of a circumlunar mission in spring 1968, primarily as a theoretical option. NASA officials seriously evaluated the proposed mission in early August when it became clear that the Lunar Module originally scheduled for the upcoming mission would not be available in time. This meant that in order to stay on schedule for testing both the Saturn V and the Command and Service Modules, NASA would have to launch a mission into high Earth orbit without the Lunar Module. George Low, the director of the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office, advocated that in place of a high orbit mission, they should fly a circumlunar mission instead. During several days in August, Low discussed this with various senior officials before taking it directly to NASA Administrator James Webb. Webb tentatively agreed to the plan, but withheld final approval until the fall, after the first manned Apollo flight. It was a bold decision for NASA officials to make.

In none of the official NASA records on this subject, or in Low’s diary, is there mention of Soviet attempts to conduct a circumlunar flight. They were certainly aware of Soviet circumlunar efforts. But there are no official NASA records indicating that it was even considered in the decision-making.

An intelligence document predating the August 1968 decision and mentioning Soviet circumlunar efforts has been declassified. This was the April 1968 “Memorandum to Holders” supplement to the 1967 National Intelligence Estimate (discussed in part 2).

The memo included a table of space launches that mentioned the March 1968 Soviet Zond 4 mission, which it designated a “Circumlunar Simulation.” According to the memo, the mission was a “partial success,” which was explained in a footnote as “all phases of this mission appeared successful except reentry/recovery.” Zond 4’s mission had also been covered in the press at the time, so it certainly would have been well-known to NASA officials without access to classified intelligence reports.

Many claims that the Soviet Zond missions directly influenced NASA decision-making are in the form of memoirs or interviews as opposed to documents.

The memo specifically addressed Soviet circumlunar plans: “The Soviets will probably attempt a manned circumlunar flight both as a preliminary to a manned lunar landing and as an attempt to lessen the psychological impact of the Apollo program. In NIE 11-1-67, we estimated that the Soviets would attempt such a mission in the first half of 1968 or the first half of 1969 (or even as early as late 1967 for an anniversary spectacular). The failure of the unmanned circumlunar test in November 1967 leads us now to estimate that a manned attempt is unlikely before the last half of 1968, with 1969 being more likely. The Soviets soon will probably attempt another unmanned circumlunar flight.” An accompanying bar chart made the same point, with the last six months of 1968 shaded as “earliest possible” for a manned circumlunar flight, and all of 1969 shaded as “more likely.”

Many claims that the Soviet Zond missions directly influenced NASA decision-making are in the form of memoirs or interviews as opposed to documents. In 1988, astronaut Frank Borman wrote a dramatic account in his autobiography about how he was informed of the decision to send Apollo 8 around the Moon. Borman wrote that in “early August 1968” he was told to quickly return to Houston from California to meet with the head of the astronaut office, Deke Slayton:

I flew a T-38 to Houston and walked into Deke’s office. I knew something was up when he asked me to close the door.

“We just got word from the CIA that the Russians are planning a lunar fly-by before the end of the year,” he said. “We want to change Apollo 8 from an earth orbital to a lunar orbital flight. I know that doesn’t give us much time, so I have to ask you: Do you want to do it or not?”

“Yes,” I said promptly.

I found out later that the Soviets were a hell of a lot closer to a manned lunar mission than we would have liked. Only about a month after I talked to Slayton, the Russians sent an unmanned spacecraft, Zond 5, into lunar orbit and returned it safely to earth.”

Borman later repeated this account in several interviews for documentaries. But the Borman claim by itself is weak evidence. Borman was not involved in the decision-making concerning the circumlunar flight, reporting only hearsay evidence. His account is not contemporaneous, occurring two decades after the actual decision, and also suffers from the inherent weaknesses of biographical accounts, which is why historians try to find contemporaneous documents or other evidence to support information contained in biographies.

More importantly, upon close examination, Borman’s account is shaky. Borman claimed that he heard this from Deke Slayton, who also was not one of the key decision-makers. There is also no evidence that Slayton was authorized to receive intelligence briefings from the CIA on Soviet space developments, although he could have had the necessary clearances.

Certainly the race with the Soviets established the larger environment that all decisions were made in. But the available evidence, which is detailed and strong, supports the conclusion that it was the Apollo schedule that drove the decision, not specific Soviet actions.

Slayton’s own account of the Apollo 8 decision in his autobiography does not support Borman’s claim. Slayton spent a page and a half discussing the circumlunar decision and never mentioned the Russians or the Zond mission. According to Slayton’s autobiography, the decision was entirely focused on the schedule. His account of how he informed Borman is much more cryptic than Borman’s account: “On Sunday the twelfth I got on the phone right away to Frank Borman, who was out in Downey at Rockwell, and told him to get back to Houston. A few hours later he walked in, and I told him the deal, that Apollo 8 was his if he wanted it. The answer was typical Frank Borman, no hesitation, one word: ‘Yes.’”

Although intelligence documentation on this subject remains scarce, the existing evidence in the form of NASA documents and oral histories is extremely strong. The most reasonable and supportable conclusion based upon all the available evidence is that the Soviet circumlunar efforts played no direct role in the Apollo 8 decision. Certainly the race with the Soviets established the larger environment that all decisions were made in. But the available evidence, which is detailed and strong, supports the conclusion that it was the Apollo schedule that drove the decision, not specific Soviet actions.

The US intelligence community continued to monitor Soviet lunar developments, and what they saw in 1969 shocked them.

Next: The Moon Race at the Finish Line.


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