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N-1 launch
Liftoff of a Soviet N-1 rocket. The explosion of an N-1 immediately after launch in July 1969 captured the attention of American photo-interpreters a month later. (credit: RSC Energia)

The Moon in the crosshairs (part 4)

CIA monitoring of the Soviet manned lunar program: endgame

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The US intelligence community produced a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the Soviet space program in June 1969, only a month before Apollo 11 was scheduled to land on the Moon. The NIE discussed the Soviet lunar effort in more definitive terms than before, abandoning earlier ambiguity about the existence of a manned lunar landing program. It also stated “there is no evidence that the program is experiencing major technical difficulties.”

What American intelligence officials were unaware of was the fact that the Soviet lunar rocket, which the CIA had officially designated the “J vehicle” and which the Soviets had designated the N-1, had already exploded in flight in February 1969. Although American spy satellites had detected evidence of construction explosions at the Baikonur launch range—which the CIA referred to as Tyura-Tam—and the powerful FPS-17 radar and the signals intercept station in Turkey regularly tracked launches from the range, the first J vehicle launch was not detected by American intelligence assets. It had exploded downrange from the launch site. The photo-interpreters had no reason to look far downrange from the launch pads for signs of debris, and the rocket had never gotten high enough to be detected from distant Turkey.

What American intelligence officials were unaware of was the fact that the Soviet lunar rocket had already exploded in flight in February 1969.

Sayre Stevens was no longer in the CIA’s Space Division by this time, but he still followed the Soviet space effort by reading the reports of his old division. “I do remember that,” Stevens said in 2003 when asked about the February N-1 launch explosion. “But I don’t recall anybody asserting that that was the first [explosion] rather than the second.” They saw evidence of a big explosion in July 1969. “And then they started looking downrange and they found the second one. I think that’s what.” The problem, as Stevens remembered it, was nobody at the CIA knew exactly when the explosion that produced the downrange wreckage they found had occurred, so they could not tie it to the February 1969 explosion.

There have been rumors that Britain’s MI6 was aware of the February explosion. When asked about this, Stevens dismissed the idea that the British had information about the launch that they had not shared with the US. “Believe me, the British would have told us. They would have told… particularly if they felt that we didn’t know about it, they’d have told us!” he said. The British would have enjoyed showing up the Americans. They certainly did not have the intelligence assets focused upon the launch ranges that the United States did. “But the British may have gotten some other indication that we missed,” Stevens conceded.

Although the US intelligence community was apparently unaware of the February failure, the June 1969 National Intelligence Estimate included other information. It confidently stated that overhead photography had supported the CIA’s earlier judgments about the J vehicle. “We continue to believe that conventional propellants will be used in all stages in early launches of the system. We believe that its first stage thrust is about 12-14 million pounds which gives it a capability to place about 300,000 pounds in earth orbit and to eject about 90,000 pounds into a lunar trajectory.”

The NIE continued:

“We do not know if static testing has yet been accomplished. All facilities at area ‘J’ that are needed to support flight tests of the new launch vehicle and payload appear to be complete. The first flight test of the launch vehicle could take place at any time unless pre-launch testing reveals the need for significant design changes or other unforeseen difficulties develop.”

In a section devoted to “Future Prospects,” the report stated:

“We had assumed that flight tests of the area ‘J’ space booster would begin immediately after completion of the launch facilities in mid-1968, but the first flight has not yet taken place. Furthermore, setbacks in the SL-12 flight program have delayed the development of return capabilities. For these reasons, we believe that even a high risk manned lunar landing attempt in 1970 can be ruled out.”

The SL-12 was the CIA designation for the Proton rocket, and this indicated that the CIA incorrectly believed that the unmanned Zond circumlunar missions were tests of lunar landing mission hardware. In reality, the Soviet Union had not yet attempted to test fly lunar landing hardware.

By June 1969, with Apollo 11 about to lift off for the Moon, the CIA believed that the Soviet Union was over two years behind the United States.

The report stated that CIA analysts believed that “the Soviet manned lunar landing mission would require two launches from area ‘J’ followed by rendezvous in earth or lunar orbit. We believe that the most likely mode of Soviet manned lunar landing will involve the rendezvous and docking of two ‘J’ launched payloads in earth orbit followed by ejection of the lunar package toward the Moon.” This was not the method the Soviets had chosen.

The report continued: “The pace of activities at area ‘J’ does not suggest any degree of urgency. Considering all these factors, we estimate that a manned lunar landing is not likely to occur before 1972 although late 1971 cannot be ruled out.”

Thus, by June 1969, with Apollo 11 about to lift off for the Moon, the CIA believed that the Soviet Union was over two years behind the United States.

The report also indicated that the intelligence community expected that after the Soviet Union had achieved a manned lunar landing, it would use the J vehicle to launch a very large space station by the mid-1970s, by which time the vehicle could place a 136,000-kilogram (300,000-pound) station in earth orbit. The report also stated: “There is the possibility that in one of the early tests of the J-vehicle the Soviets will place a large vehicle in orbit and claim that it is a space station. Considering the state of the art, however, such a station would lack the sophistication and the life support system required to maintain a large crew in orbit for long periods of time. It is conceivable, but we think it highly unlikely that they would launch such a station as a spectacular.”

A scar upon the Earth

Although the CIA had missed the first launch and failure of the J vehicle in February 1969, it did not miss the second launch and its spectacular failure. The first American to see signs of the damage it caused was a former Navy Chief Petty Officer named Jack Rooney.

Rooney was at work one day in mid-August 1969 in the massive windowless building known as the National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC, pronounced “enpik”). The seven-story building, which was demolished in 2015, was originally used for manufacturing battleship guns during World War I. It was located in the Washington Navy Yard, near the Potomac River, in a run-down area of Washington, DC that in recent years has been revived around Washington’s baseball stadium. But at the time, it was not the kind of place that one wanted to walk the streets at night.

Rooney had left the Navy after a long career and was now working as a photo-interpreter, or PI, in NPIC’s Missiles and Space Division. NPIC was administered by the Central Intelligence Agency, but included photo-interpreters from the military services as well. There were all kinds of different analysts at the CIA, and a lot of them tended to look down their noses at the photo-interpreters at NPIC, who they thought were largely intelligence grunts: mere bean-counters and not true “analysts.” But often the photo-interpreters produced the first definitive reports of major events behind the iron curtain.

Rooney had just been given a roll of duplicate positive film from the latest CORONA reconnaissance mission to fly over the Soviet Union, Mission 1107, a KH-4B version of the venerable spy satellite. Unlike a negative, a positive looks like the object that is photographed, and when light is shown through it the film reveals a high-quality image, much better than a paper print.

Rooney probably then slid his microscope only a few centimeters over to the northwest, an amount of film equivalent to several kilometers on the ground, and looked at the massive Launch Complex J. He adjusted the focus. “Jesus Christ!” Rooney shouted.

CORONA Mission 1107 had overflown the vast Soviet rocket test facility at Tyura-Tam located in Kazakhstan on August 3. It had taken some time for the satellite to return its film back to Earth, and more time for Eastman Kodak in Rochester, New York, to process the film and make duplicate negatives and positives. Now Rooney’s job was to conduct the “first phase” review of the Tyura-Tam facility, looking for any changes at the launch complex since the last mission had flown over it more than a month earlier at over two hundred kilometers altitude. Other members of the branch also received their film and were looking at other facilities, like the Plesetsk and Kapustin Yar launch ranges. The highest priority images, however, were not the launch ranges, but the operational ICBM sites, and several of Rooney’s co-workers were also looking at those. They looked at the film as soon as it came in, no matter what time of the day it came in. Often they worked through the night, writing up quick summaries of what they saw which they cabled to the White House and the Pentagon.

Rooney took the film roll back to his light table and removed it from its small film can, which was roughly the diameter of a compact disc and about eight centimeters tall. The film was on a spool, and he clamped the spool on one side of his light table, ran the 70 millimeter film over the frosted glass surface of the table, and then taped the end to the take-up reel on the other side of his table. He turned on the lights underneath the table glass and then began winding the take-up reel, pulling the long, thin black-and-white film strip across the lighted table. Each frame was only 70 millimeters wide, and about a meter long, and depicted a huge amount of Soviet territory covering hundreds of square kilometers on the ground. Printed on one side of the film were the words “TOP SECRET RUFF” and the mission number, the date, the orbit (divided into ascending and descending passes), and the frame number.

Rooney reached the by now very familiar image of the Tyura-Tam launch range, which he had seen hundreds of times before. Thin roadways spread out from larger roadways to reach to the various buildings and apartment complexes and missile silos and large launch pads of Tyura-Tam in the Kazakh desert. From high above, the complex roughly had the shape of a letter “Y”, with the base of the Y connecting to a dock facility on the Syr Darya River.

His dual-eyepiece microscope was mounted on runners above the light table so that he could slide it over the film and look down at the images at very high magnification. He slid it into place.

Rooney probably looked at Launch Complex A first. That was the first launch pad built at Tyura-Tam and the most heavily used. It was where Sputnik first shot into space in 1957, and where Yuri Gagarin followed in 1961. It was essentially the center of the complex that American PI’s called “TT”. It was near the juncture of the Y-shaped road complex, with other launch complexes stretching out to the northwest and the northeast and the base of the Y running almost due south. Launch Complex A was very distinct, with a massive pear-shaped flame trench for venting the exhaust from the rocket that the CIA had designated the SS-6, and the Russians called the R-7.

Rooney probably then slid his microscope only a few centimeters over to the northwest, an amount of film equivalent to several kilometers on the ground, and looked at the massive Launch Complex J, the site of the Soviet equivalent to the Saturn V Launch Complex 39 at Cape Canaveral. It was surrounded by several perimeter fences, what the PI’s somewhat comically called “horizontal security,” intended to keep intruders out on the ground, but which stood out like a sore thumb from above, providing no security from that direction. He adjusted the focus.

“Jesus Christ!” Rooney shouted.

His exclamation caused heads to jerk up throughout the room. Other photo-interpreters left their light tables to come see what had provoked Rooney’s outburst. He let them look through his microscope. His light table also had a Polaroid attachment that allowed him to take instant photos of the image. He pressed the button and made Polaroid shots, which the men passed around the room. His division head, David Doyle, came by and also took a look through the microscope. “I was always a manager who was wandering around looking through the scope anyway,” Doyle said, three and a half decades later, telling the story of what Rooney—now deceased—had seen.

In the reconnaissance photographs the extensive damage to the facility was shockingly apparent. One of the pad’s two large lightning towers had been knocked down.

What had startled Jack Rooney, and attracted the interest of his fellow photo-interpreters, was a vast smudge at one of the two Complex J launch pads. It was clear that something—something big—a rocket the size of a Saturn V, which the CIA called the “J vehicle”, had exploded there, very near the ground. The grillwork covering the trifoil flame trenches was blown away. One of the two adjacent lightning towers was also knocked down. The scorch marks spread all around the hole in the center of the launch pad. Clearly the Soviet Union had suffered a major disaster at Launch Complex J sometime in July—the same month that the United States had sent Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to walk on the Moon.

Dino Brugioni was at this time a senior official in NPIC. He remembered that there was an “acoustic event” that had been detected by seismic sensors ringing the Soviet Union that indicated some kind of large explosion had taken place at Tyura-Tam on July 3. “So when the film came in Rooney really went right to TT,” he said.

“It was my job to approve all cables that we sent out and also to approve all notes and briefing boards so that there was no confusion in the reporting in the intelligence community,” Brugioni explained. If there was a hot intelligence item, Brugioni would immediately brief his superiors at NPIC. He would then call the CIA’s Deputy Director for Intelligence (DD/I) and ask him if the item should be put on “hold”—in other words, not distributed—until after the President had been briefed about it. “I called the DD/I on J and the call I got back was to rush the two copies of the briefing boards that we made, one to the DD/I who briefed the President, and the other to the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who briefed the Secretary of Defense.”

In medium-resolution CORONA photography the damage caused by the explosion was clearly visible. Based upon this intelligence analysts realized that the explosion must have occurred before or shortly after lift-off.

In the reconnaissance photographs the extensive damage to the facility was shockingly apparent. One of the pad’s two large lightning towers had been knocked down. The grillwork covering the three flame trenches was also collapsed. There was considerable scorching around the pad. Later, the PI’s would note the construction of a rail line to the pad to enable removal of the debris.

According to Brugioni, whenever the American ambassador to the Soviet Union was in the United States on business, the CIA would brief him on things to listen for in his meetings with Soviet officials in Moscow. The explosion at Tyura-Tam was the kind of thing the ambassador was supposed to listen for. But at an Independence Day party at the American embassy less than 24 hours after the N-1 explosion, which was attended by a number of cosmonauts who had witnessed the event, no Russian said a word about their recent catastrophe.

In 2010, longtime N-1 rocket researcher Charles Vick obtained a declassified top-secret CIA report from mid-August 1969 on the explosion and subsequent damage to the pad. The report indicated that intercepted communications may have tipped off the US intelligence community that something had happened at the facility on July 3. In a subsequent article, Vick states that Dino Brugioni told him in an interview that the explosion had also shown up in a US military weather satellite image, although that information is not mentioned in declassified documents.

The August 1969 report stated that there was substantial blast and fire damage to the launch pad, but that a second pad was apparently still intact, meaning that the Soviet Union could still launch more rockets in the near-term.

Sayre Stevens was now running the Office of Scientific Intelligence’s Defensive Systems Division, where he was fighting battles over intelligence about Soviet anti-ballistic missile systems. But he still followed what was going on with the Soviet space program when he could. “I remember that occurring very well, because these goddamn guys can’t get anything off!” he said, laughing.

Sixteen days after the giant Soviet rocket had blown itself to smithereens on its launch pad, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon.

The Moon race in retrospect

There is no evidence from NASA files that the Apollo lunar landing program was sped up because of intelligence data on the Soviet effort. Based upon the available evidence from declassified intelligence reports, which is extensive, but still far from complete, there is in fact no reason to expect that Apollo would have been affected by intelligence information once the program was running at full speed. In 1965 and again in 1967, the intelligence community had stated that the Soviets could not land on the Moon before the United States. Apollo would have had to fail badly and miss its own self-imposed goal of the end of the decade in order for the Soviets to have even the slightest chance of gaining the lead in the Moon race.

There is no evidence from NASA files that the Apollo lunar landing program was sped up because of intelligence data on the Soviet effort.

The intelligence community’s contribution to Apollo should not be understated, however. Intelligence information provided reassurance to NASA and White House officials that Apollo not only could win, but would win. Its role in this respect is similar to that played during more visible intelligence disputes. For instance, CORONA satellite reconnaissance had demonstrated that CIA assessments of the “missile gap” were indeed correct (and US Air Force assessments were not), and this prevented the United States from undertaking a massive ICBM construction program, as endorsed by many Air Force leaders. As several former intelligence officials stated after numerous major declassifications of intelligence data since 1995, intelligence information provided stability by enabling decisions to be made based upon information, not fear. The lack of intelligence indicating a highly competitive Soviet lunar landing program allowed NASA leaders to not cut corners they might otherwise have cut: Apollo required numerous calculated risks, but not reckless risks.

As a corollary, the existence of this intelligence information also dissuaded American Presidents and members of Congress from abandoning Apollo when the costs became high. By the late 1960s, the Vietnam War and Great Society social programs cost increasing amounts of money, and NASA’s budget suffered. But neither Lyndon Johnson nor Congress ever considered killing the Apollo program. Satellite photos of the Soviet effort provided evidence of the consequences of ending Apollo short of its goal—the Soviets might take a few more years, but they were certainly trying to reach the Moon. It is probably no coincidence that in late 1963, lacking evidence that the Soviets had a manned lunar program, John F. Kennedy began to lose interest in Apollo. Had clear evidence of a Soviet program existed, it is doubtful that he would have wavered.

Furthermore, during congressional budget hearings in 1966, 1967, and 1968, James Webb made numerous references to the Soviet large rocket effort (see “Webb’s Giant,” The Space Review, July 19, 2004). We now know where he got his information. Indeed, there is a close correlation between the production of intelligence reports on the Soviet effort and both press leaks and Webb’s statements on this subject. Clearly intelligence information played a direct role in NASA decision-making, although it was primarily on the budgeting side and not in scheduling.

Despite the wealth of newly available documentation on this subject, much work remains to be done, but it is already clear that newly available resources can change our perception and understanding of this subject matter.


The author wishes to acknowledge the assistance and comments of the following people: Asif Siddiqi, David Doyle, Sayre Stevens, Albert Wheelon, Thomas Frieling, Allen Thomson, Robert Kennedy, Glen Swanson, John Hargenreder, Charles Vick, and Nicholas Watkins.