Timing of the Apollo Landing in Relation to the Soviet Lunar Program


Patrick Vantuyne "Impossible Picture" of Neil and Buzz at Tranquility Base.

Patrick Vantuyne “Impossible Picture” of Neil and Buzz at Tranquility Base.

Americans have long known that the American effort to land on the Moon served as an enormously effective response to a Cold War crisis with the Soviet Union. When Apollo 11 landed on the Moon in July 1969 few recalled at the time that it had been successful in accomplishing the political goals for which it had been created.

President John F. Kennedy had been dealing with a Cold War crisis in 1961 brought on by several separate factors—the Soviet orbiting of Yuri Gagarin and the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion only two of them—that Apollo was designed to combat. At its core, therefore, Apollo very directly responded to a perceived challenge from the Soviet Union.

While the United States engaged in a very public race to the Moon in the 1960s, the Soviet Union’s leadership claimed it was not trying to get their at all. Indeed, they castigated American officials for heightening Cold War tensions with Apollo while they claimed peaceful intentions in a measured space exploration effort. The American public largely accepted these arguments and public opinion polls at the time showed hesitancy to “race” the Soviets to the Moon. At no time did even 50 percent of the public support the program, and opposition was always greater than support except for brief periods.

But the intelligence data NASA and other governmental leaders possessed suggested that the Soviet Union had every intention of engaging in a “race” to the Moon. In 1960 the CIA concluded that the Soviet Union fully understood the prestige associated with space accomplishments.

Just a month before President John F. Kennedy’s announcement of his commitment to land an American on the Moon by the end of the decade, a CIA intelligence estimate concluded: “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 reasons chance of success in 1966; of recoverable manned lunar satellites in 1967; and of lunar landings and return to earth by about 1970.”

Later reports from the CIA were even more dramatic in their conclusions. In a comprehensive review of the Soviet space program published in 1962, analysts concluded:

Some Soviet statements indicate that a program for a manned lunar landing is under way in the USSR,…The top Soviet leaders have not committed themselves publicly to a lunar race with the US, and it is highly unlikely that they will do so. However, the prestige attached to the first manned lunar landing, its probable political impact, and its importance for future advances in space, would probably lead the Soviet leadership to compete unless the cost were considered prohibitive or the US seemed to have an insurmountable lead….we cannot say definitely at this time that the Soviets aim to achieve a manned lunar landing ahead of or in close competition with the US, but we believe the chances are better than even that this is a Soviet objective. Given their ability to concentrate human and material resources on priority objectives, we estimate that with a strong national effort the Soviets could accomplish a manned lunar landing in the period 1967-1969.

One specific instance concerning the Soviet program tangentially affected early planning for the timing of the first Apollo landing. Many people in NASA, and in other government organizations, speculated that the Soviet Union would attempt a major space spectacular during the fiftieth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in the fall of 1967. It was a realistic scenario for policymakers in the spring of 1961. Soviet leaders had taken the opportunity of the revolution’s fortieth anniversary to launch Sputnik 1, and had engaged in a series of space stunts thereafter, sprung upon the West at opportune times. Why not undertake a Moon mission and scoop the Americans again in 1967? The question arose in both congressional hearings and in formal reviews of what NASA could do with the lunar landing schedule.

Because of this concern the reviews on the feasibility of Apollo, conducted in April and early May 1961, considered the option of landing by 1967. Clearly the president wanted to beat the Soviets. He confided in a press conference on April 21 that he was leaning toward committing the nation to a large-scale project to land Americans on the Moon. “If we can get to the moon before the Russians, then we should,” he said.

Wernher von Braun led the developemnt of the Saturn V. Here he stands in front of Apollo 11 on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

Wernher von Braun led the development of the Saturn V. Here he stands in front of Apollo 11 on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

Wernher von Braun, director of NASA’s George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and head of the big booster program needed for the lunar effort, addressed this concern. He told the vice president that “we have a sporting chance of sending a 3-man crew around the moon ahead of the Soviets” and “an excellent chance of beating the Soviets to the first landing of a crew on the moon (including return capability, of course.)” He added that “with an all-out crash program” the U.S. could achieve a landing by 1967 or 1968.

Notwithstanding these NASA analyses for a target landing date of 1967, as the project became more crystallized in May 1961 agency leaders recommended not committing to such an early deadline. NASA Administrator James E. Webb, realizing the problems associated with meeting target dates based on NASA’s experience in space flight, suggested that the president commit to a landing by the end of the decade, giving the agency additional time to solve any problems that might arise.

The White House accepted this proposal and the ringing announcement, “I believe this Nation should commitment itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth,” entered the American lexicon on April 25, 1961. Sustained by this commitment, the nation’s leaders assigned Apollo to the “highest national priority category for research and development and for achieving operational capability” in  National Security Action Memorandum 144, dated April 11, 1962.

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2 Responses to Timing of the Apollo Landing in Relation to the Soviet Lunar Program

  1. I believe the record shows the Soviets were trying to beat the Americans to at least circumnavigate the moon if not to actually land men. The loss of Khrushchev in 1964 and the untimely death Chief Designer Sergei Korolev were major blows to the Soviet manned lunar mission effort. The Soviets tried to get the massive N-1 launched before the Americans could get to the Moon with Apollo but it malfunctioned and exploded seconds after liftoff. Publicly, the Soviets said they were not interested in the moon and were focusing on putting a manned space station in orbit. The reality is they could not overcome the impressive effort we put into our space program that culminated with the successful Apollo missions. Unfortunately, Apollo was a product of the Cold War and without that catalyst we have been stuck in LEO ever since the return of Apollo 17 in 1972.

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  2. teb1013 says:

    Correct, the Soviets came very close to launching a circumlunar mission commanded by Alexi Leonov in Dec 1968 two weeks before Apollo 8 but reentry issues with the otherwise successful Zonds 5 and 6 unmanned missions resulted in a cancellation and Zond 7, although successful (these missions carried animals) was flown unmanned. The failure of the N1 began the Soviets pulling back from their moon program (something that would finally be admitted in the late 80s).

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