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Apollo 8 launch
Did intelligence from the CIA really convince NASA to send Apollo 8 to the Moon? (credit: NASA)

Chasing shadows: Apollo 8 and the CIA

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It was early August 1968 and astronaut Frank Borman got orders to go to Houston immediately. “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,” Borman wrote in his 1988 autobiography.

“We just got word from the CIA that the Russians are planning a lunar fly-by before the end of the year,” Deke Slayton told him. “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, Borman replied.

“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.”

It’s a great story. But is it true?

But now, a declassified CIA document has emerged that lends some weight to Borman’s account.

Up to now, the only evidence that intelligence information about the Soviets sending astronauts around the Moon prompted NASA to take the risky move and send Apollo 8 there first were claims made by the Apollo 8 crew. Extensive reviews of NASA records did not support this claim. In fact, there is considerable evidence that NASA officials made the decision primarily because the Lunar Module for the flight would not be ready and there was little point to flying Apollo 8 on any other mission—sending it around the Moon was bold, but it was also logical.

But now, a declassified CIA document has emerged that lends some weight to Borman’s account. It is a memo from October 1968 reporting on the activities of the CIA’s Foreign Missile and Space Analysis Center, FMSAC, pronounced “foomsac” in the intelligence community at the time. FMSAC was established in late 1963 to give the CIA the ability to perform technical analyses of foreign—primarily Soviet—missiles and spacecraft. FMSAC in particular became very good at trajectory analysis, taking radar and other data on the flights of foreign missiles and rockets and determining their capabilities based upon their flight paths.

The memo is a general account of FMSAC’s activities over the previous year. It states:

“In the space area, FMSAC has the exclusive lead over all elements of the intelligence community and on an almost daily basis provides direct intelligence support, including many personal briefings, to the senior officials of NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Council and the Presidential Science Advisory Council.”

Among the Center’s accomplishments in 1968, Carl Duckett, the CIA’s Deputy Director for Science and Technology stated:

“The likelihood that the U.S. will conduct a manned circumlunar flight with the Apollo-8 vehicle in December is a result of the direct intelligence support that FMSAC has provided to NASA on present and future Soviet plans in space.”

The memo was declassified in 2002 but not released until 2003. It had gone overlooked by researchers (including this one) until now.

The most comprehensive 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 stated that the decision to send Apollo 8 on a circumlunar mission was overwhelmingly determined by schedule and not competition. In those ten pages they did not mention the Soviet activities.

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.

Apollo officials started initial discussion of a circumlunar mission in spring 1968, primarily as a theoretical option. The proposed mission was seriously evaluated by NASA officials in early August when it became clear that the Lunar Module originally scheduled for the upcoming mission was delayed. 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 after Apollo 7 flew in October. It was a bold decision for NASA officials to make.

None of the official NASA records on this subject, or George Low’s diary, mention Soviet plans 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.

The CIA had been monitoring Soviet space developments throughout the year. In April 1968 the CIA produced a “Memorandum to Holders” supplement to an earlier 1967 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the Soviet space program. Although the CIA was producing NIE’s on the Soviet space program every two years, enough had happened that they wanted to update recipients of the earlier document. The Memorandum to Holders 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.

But the April 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.”

The October 1968 FMSAC memo tied the CIA’s information on Soviet circumlunar plans to NASA’s August Apollo 8 decision. Because there are no details, it is difficult to interpret this alongside the April memo, which stated that “a manned [circumlunar] attempt is unlikely before the last half of 1968, with 1969 being more likely.”

One possibility is that the CIA obtained new information after April that led them to believe that a Soviet manned circumlunar flight was more likely in early 1969 or even late 1968 than they had assumed only a few months earlier, increasing the pressure on NASA. Perhaps they somehow learned about the upcoming Zond 5 flight, which took place in September—after the Apollo 8 decision was essentially made—and that prompted the CIA to reassess their predicted timeline. Another possible interpretation is that FMSAC was exaggerating its role in NASA’s circumlunar decision, or at least assuming that the Center had played a greater role than it had in convincing NASA’s leadership. Without more details, it is still not possible to know.

And an intriguing question still remains unanswered: just what did the CIA tell NASA and when?
Even if the CIA did provide extensive information to NASA about Soviet circumlunar plans, that does not necessarily mean that, as the memo indicates, the NASA decision was a “result” of CIA information. Only the NASA officials who made the Apollo 8 decision knew what factors influenced them most. That was primarily George Low, whose records point to the Apollo schedule being the primary influence.

Certainly the race to the Moon with the Soviets established the larger context in which all decisions were made. The preponderance of evidence still supports the conclusion that it was the Apollo schedule that drove the decision, not specific Soviet actions. But the FMSAC document now gives historians another line of investigation, and it proves something that historians forget at their peril: that new information may be awaiting discovery, sometimes filed away in an archives for decades awaiting discovery. And an intriguing question still remains unanswered: just what did the CIA tell NASA and when?