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Kennedy and Webb
President John F. Kennedy viewing the Saturn I launch pad in 1963. NASA Administrator James Webb is at center. (credit: Cecil Stoughton, White House photographer)

Rolling the dice on Apollo: Prospects for US-Soviet cooperation in the Moon program

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On September 20, 1963, President John F. Kennedy gave a speech in front of the United Nations in New York City where he proposed a joint mission to the Moon with the Soviet Union. One year after the two countries had been to the brink of nuclear war, Kennedy wanted to cooperate with the Soviet Union on a major space project. The proposal was a surprise to many, seeming to come out of nowhere, and prompted backlash among Kennedy’s supporters in Congress, who worried that Apollo’s goals were being undermined.

The proposal was a surprise to many, seeming to come out of nowhere, and prompted backlash among Kennedy’s supporters in Congress, who worried that Apollo’s goals were being undermined.

Two months later, Alton Frye of the RAND Corporation delivered a talk at the University of Southern California where he discussed Kennedy’s proposal. Frye was a 27-year-old analyst at RAND with a Ph.D. from Yale, had also worked in Congress, and would go on to a distinguished career in government, eventually heading the prestigious Atlantic Council. In early 1964, Frye turned his talk into a paper published by RAND and now available as a historical document. Nearly six decades later, Frye’s analysis still stands out as remarkably solid. He integrated a large number of public sources and drew reasonable, insightful conclusions from them. In his paper, Frye asked, “How was it that the Kennedy Administration, which had committed its own prestige and that of the United States to a massive national effort to land a man on the Moon in this decade, could offer to abandon a major commitment by presenting such a startling proposal?” What Frye’s paper highlights—what it has to teach us—is the limits of analysis given the limits of data, and it illuminates what we still do not understand about this unusual time period in the history of the Apollo program.

Kennedy’s flirtations with cooperation

As Frye noted in his paper, in his inaugural address Kennedy had “vaguely alluded to the idea of joint exploration of the stars.” Kennedy later twice made a general suggestion to Premier Khrushchev in a meeting in Vienna in June 1961—although this was not publicly revealed until the day after Kennedy’s 1963 UN address. And in March 1962, Kennedy raised the possibility of “unmanned exploration of the lunar surface” in a letter to Khrushchev. So, Kennedy’s September 1963 proposal was not unprecedented, but part of a larger concept of engagement that Kennedy had long considered.

Many of those earlier overtures were not public, however, and Kennedy’s UN proposal was therefore shocking to many. What was also not known until much later was that from February to April 1961, Kennedy’s President’s Science Advisory Committee had examined cooperative possibilities. Without much of this information, Frye speculated about why Kennedy may have believed space cooperation was in his best interest in the fall of 1963. First, the lunar program had come under increasing congressional and public pressure since early 1962. He noted that the President’s 1964 NASA budget request was for $5.7 billion, but there were strong indications that the administration would not get that amount—and ultimately it got $5.2 billion.

Frye also noted that the Gemini program schedule had slipped by more than a year. That and other considerations may have forced a revision of Apollo’s schedule. In addition, Frye suggested that Kennedy may have sensed a rare opportunity for better relations with the Soviet Union. It was Kennedy’s “search for new departures which gave promise of ameliorating Soviet-American relations.” The nuclear test ban treaty, signed earlier in the year, was a positive indication, as were recent Soviet shifts in position in negotiations over banning weapons in space.

Frye also recounted numerous diplomatic discussions that had occurred during the previous year, including nuclear and space negotiations. They seemed to indicate a thaw between the two countries presenting an opportunity to advance in other areas. “All of these factors, then, were relevant background for the President’s speech to the United Nations. Political and technical trends which raised the possibility of a national failure to meet the President’s schedule for a manned lunar landing, new evidence of Soviet interest in more extensive cooperation in space, hints that the Soviet Union might yet be amendable to satisfactory arrangements for space arms control - - all these considerations, compounded by the basic and compelling Administration urge to broaden the incipient détente between Moscow and Washington and to explore novel avenues in the quest for a peaceful solution to the cold war, may have induced President Kennedy to call for the joint lunar expedition.”

Frye also speculated as to why the Soviet Union might be interested in cooperation. The Soviets might be interested in extending détente with the Americans. They might also have been intimidated by recent American advances in space capabilities.

Frye acknowledged that earlier in the year several NASA officials had publicly stated that the technical obstacles to a joint space program were significant. In early September, Anatoly Blagonravov wrote to NASA Deputy Administrator Hugh Dryden that “once the two nations have landed instrumented payloads on the moon, discussions of cooperation in a manned lunar landing program should begin.” Blagonravov’s statement represented a significant change in the Soviet position. However, Frye noted that “if this criterion is adhered to, the two parties will probably not begin talks for one to three more years, by which time the program of the United States and presumably that of the Soviet Union will be well advanced and collaboration will be technically even more difficult.” Frye’s assessment of the schedule was reasonable: the first successful Soviet robotic landing on the Moon occurred in January 1966, followed a few months later by the successful landing of an American Surveyor spacecraft.

Frye noted that the two sides were not exactly on equal footing when it came to assessing the other:

It is extraordinarily difficult for the United States to appraise the opportunities which may exist for cooperation with the Soviet Union because of our considerable ignorance of the Soviet space program and the contribution it might be able to make to the lunar mission. The same is not true, of course, from the Soviet side. Close reading of the advertisements and technical reports in our professional press could give the Soviet Union a good idea of what the United States has to offer in space technology. If the program is to be a joint one in any meaningful sense, as contrasted with a basically American program to which the Soviet Union makes minor inputs, it will be necessary at a very early date to discuss with the Soviets in detail precisely what technological contributions they are prepared to make.

Frye suggested that there were some potential benefits to cooperation with the Soviets in terms of technical capabilities. For starters, they could provide tracking of American lunar spacecraft while over their territory. They also had 380 hours of human spaceflight compared to slightly more than 50 hours for the United States, meaning they might be able to contribute to the life-support systems required for a lunar mission. In addition, if the Soviet Union landed instrumented payloads on the Moon first, they would gather data that could be useful to NASA.

Frye rejected the idea of putting American spacecraft on Soviet rockets, referring to it as “simplistic,” adding that any true integration of hardware would likely delay a lunar landing until way into the 1970s. Furthermore, cooperation would end up costing more money in the long run. In the end, Frye noted, cooperation had to be viewed as a political concept “and must be judged as such.”

Frye also speculated as to why the Soviet Union might be interested in cooperation. The Soviets might be interested in extending détente with the Americans. They might also have been intimidated by recent American advances in space capabilities. “There is the possibility, of course, that Soviet intentions are more malevolent,” Frye also suggested. “Counting on the rather predictable tendency of the United States to hesitate in its national program if prospects for international space exploration merge, the Soviets may hope to introduce diplomatic delays into the American schedule for a landing on the Moon. It is conceivable that the Soviets might hope to take advantage of any delays to drive forward with a unilateral Soviet program to land a man on the Moon.” Frye expressed doubt, however, because he did not think the Soviets “are mounting a substantial effort to land a man on the Moon.” He added that “the United States is well-advised to temper its optimism with liberal doses of caution.”

Frye concluded that because “the United States space program is primarily intended to serve the interests of national and international security, then this country’s efforts must not be diverted from that central goal. To the extent that negotiations with the Soviets for a combined lunar program promote the security interests of both parties, preferably by facilitating formal arms control agreements affording each side high confidence that the other will not deploy offensive weapons in space, then the United States should gladly enter them.”

He ended with: “there is no reason why the United States should hesitate to explore the possibilities for trading prestige and other political values expected from the lunar mission for an enhancement of international peace and national security.”

The origins of the overture, and the fallout

Frye was largely speculating about the origins of Kennedy’s proposal. It was not until years later that a clearer picture of those origins became available. Kennedy speechwriter Arthur Schlesinger wrote in his 1965 memoir A Thousand Days that he was preparing an early draft of the UN speech and was looking for a dramatic cooperative proposal to Moscow to include in the speech. He did not like any of the early proposals until coming upon the idea of a joint lunar effort, which he included in the speech without a lot of forethought:

The proposal of a joint moonshot would be a tangible and impressive offer of cooperation; it would mean a substantial budgetary saving for both countries; it would be an effective political gesture at home and abroad… One thought, what the hell; and on speculation, I wrote the idea into an early draft of the President’s UN address. I had forgotten that the President had himself suggested this to Khrushchev in Vienna in 1961, or I would have been better prepared for his quick approval.

John Logsdon, in his 2010 book John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon, explained that Kennedy’s cooperation offer was connected to his broader "Strategy for Peace" of June 1963. That strategy had resulted from the scare of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The limited test ban treaty in August 1963 was the first step, and cooperation in going to the Moon was going to be the next, according to Logsdon.

Teague did not like that White House response and informed his staff “I'd just as soon attempt to cooperate with any rattlesnake in Texas.”

When NASA Administrator James Webb was briefed about the plan to propose cooperation with the Soviets, he was not opposed. He was concerned, however, with the lack of notification of Congress. Webb’s concern proved justified, as the response throughout Washington was, according to a contemporary news account, “bewilderment” over what was widely perceived as a sudden change in direction. This also prompted critical letters from key members of Congress.

As historian Giles Alston noted in a 1989 Ph.D. thesis, Kennedy had long thought that the most useful aspect of the space program was as an instrument of foreign policy. Thus, Kennedy was willing to trade his lunar goal for political benefits in the Cold War. Alston also made another point: the administration’s lack of consideration of Congress before making the proposal indicated that concerns about congressional support for Apollo had played little role in the decision. Kennedy saw an opportunity to use Apollo for his own purposes; he was not concerned that it was under threat. However, his proposal then introduced that threat.

Congressman Olin Teague, chairman of the House space committee's Subcommittee on Manned Space Flight, wrote directly to the President on September 23 asking if the national goal of landing on the Moon before the decade was out was being abandoned or changed. The White House replied by sending a copy of Kennedy’s letter to Albert Thomas, chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee responsible for NASA:

This great national effort and this steadily stated readiness to cooperate with others are not in conflict. They are mutually supporting elements of a single policy. We do not make our space effort with the narrow purpose of national aggrandizement. We make it so that the United States may have a leading and honorable role in mankind’s peaceful conquest of space. It is this great effort which permits us now to offer increased cooperation with no suspicion anywhere that we speak from weakness.

Teague did not like that response and informed his staff “I'd just as soon attempt to cooperate with any rattlesnake in Texas.” He wrote back to the White House expressing his concerns.

More ominously, Albert Thomas’ appropriations subcommittee in the House at this time came within one vote of approving a drastic reduction of the NASA budget to $4.2 billion, an indication that the White House had risked losing its supporters on Apollo. In his early 1964 paper, Alton Frye noted that, somewhat paradoxically, Kennedy’s talk about cooperation with the Soviet Union may have undercut his budget arguments for Apollo.

As it happened, Kennedy’s death only two months after his UN talk turned Apollo into a monument to the murdered president. It was no longer threatened with cutbacks until the Nixon administration entered office five years later.

The Soviet side

Publicly, the Soviet response to Kennedy’s UN offer was relative indifference. According to Soviet space historian Asif Siddiqi, most of what we know from the Soviet response to Kennedy’s proposal comes from the late Sergei Khrushchev. Sergei wrote in his memoirs that his father, Nikita Khrushchev, was generally receptive. But after Kennedy’s death, the Soviets no longer seriously considered the issue, partly because Khrushchev had no personal relationship with Lyndon Johnson, and partly because the Strategic Rocket Forces was dead set against such cooperation.

The good news, according to Siddiqi, is that more information on Soviet space policy discussions probably exists within recently declassified Soviet archives, awaiting some industrious researcher to find it. The material is in the Russian State Archive of Contemporary History (RGANI). “There is a collection at RGANI for the ‘Department of Defense Industries,’ which supervised policy-making in the space program,” Siddiqi recently explained in an email. “The collection has been partially declassified to 1966 which would cover the early 1960s. Apparently later papers (into the mid-1970s) have also been declassified on the space program but I’m not sure where in what archive they are.”

Siddiqi also added “it’s now clear that Blagonrarov knew a lot of what was going on and had a direct link to people like [Soviet Chief Designer Sergei] Korolev. Whatever he was hearing from the U.S. was undoubtedly going back to key players on the Soviet side.” So Blagonrarov’s conversation with Dryden in early September about possible cooperation would have been known to the Soviet space leadership.

Did the Soviets perceive a wobbling support for Apollo during those preceding years, either because of congressional funding, public criticism, or Kennedy’s apparent interest in cooperation? That remains one of the open questions about this turbulent period in the Apollo program.

Whereas Kennedy made the lunar landing commitment in early 1961 and mostly stuck by it for the next two and a half years, the Soviets were much slower out of the gate, in part because for the next several years they did not think the Americans were serious about landing on the Moon. In spring 1963 they began construction of a massive new facility for a big new rocket eventually designated the N-1, but they did so without a clear plan for what to use it for. In summer 1963, as construction troops began excavating the sites in Kazakhstan where the rocket would be assembled and launched, Siddiqi explained, Korolev had his engineers begin studying long-range lunar exploration. One of the studies, known as L3, was for a crewed lunar landing, and it was refined through the fall of 1963, around the time that Kennedy made his proposal. But for six months after Kennedy’s death, the Soviets did not approve a crewed lunar program of their own.

In January 1964, NASA launched the Saturn I SA-5 mission, which for the first time gave the United States greater lift capability to space than the Soviet Union. In late May, NASA launched SA-6, which included the first Apollo boilerplate capsule. Siddiqi explained what happened next: “Then in May/June 1964, for reasons that are unclear, Korolev makes lunar landing a top priority. Why then? One of Korolev’s engineers who I interviewed told me it might have been the launch of SA-6. At that point, Korolev decides to take this plan to the top to get this (L3) approved at the highest level. He basically builds a coalition to sign on—this takes a month. Then he meets Khrushchev on July 17, 1964, in the Kremlin and makes his big pitch.” According to Siddiqi, Korolev said it would cost about $4 billion and Khruschchev agreed. On August 3 there was a major government decision to make this a national priority.

Thus, more than three years after Kennedy fired the starting gun on the race to the Moon, the Soviets finally decided to start moving. Did the Soviets perceive a wobbling support for Apollo during those preceding years, either because of congressional funding, public criticism, or Kennedy’s apparent interest in cooperation? That remains one of the open questions about this turbulent period in the Apollo program. Hopefully, there is an enterprising researcher with the analytical skills of Alton Frye to find out.

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