NASA’s Overestimates of Soviet Lunar Capabilities During the Moon Race


NASA Administrator James E. Webb, who served between 1968 and 1968.

NASA Administrator James E. Webb, who served between 1961 and 1968.

Many times NASA officials used the national security intelligence on the Soviet Union to sustain their case for an aggressive effort to complete Apollo by the end of the 1960s. In a few instances these public statements aroused within the administration charges of NASA complicity in overestimating Soviet capabilities as a means of ensuring the agency’s budget.

The most serious incident took place in the fall of 1968 when NASA Administrator James E. Webb was battling within the Executive Branch over budgetary issues and losing. The NASA budget had started a downward trend from a peak in 1965 of $5.2 billion and would not bottom out until 1974. The NASA budget for fiscal year (FY) 1968 had been $4.6 billion, but was reduced to $3.99 billion in FY 1969. Out-year projections looked even more bleak and the NASA administrator went on the offensive.

Although previously cooperative with the White House in these matters, Webb had been more or less ramrodded by the president on September 16th into announcing his retirement from NASA effective October 7, 1968. Threafter he had nothing to lose in publicly complaining about the lack of American resolve to continue aggressive space flight funding.

Webb complained about the reductions in NASA’s funding, and argued that it may have already allowed the Soviet Union to retake the lead in the space race. He tagged his concern to the circumlunar flight of Zond 5, which began on September 15, 1968, and emphasized a downward trend for the American effort in space while the Soviets were pressing forward with major initiatives. He envisioned serious consequences for NASA’s efforts arising from the Johnson administration’s decision to cut the space agency’s budget. As Webb wrote to the President:

  1. After deducting the 40,000 construction workers who were released as our facilities were completed, the work force now engaged in our program is about two-thirds the level reached in the peak year 1966. This means that a number of key design and engineering teams have already been broken up.
  2. Our rate of successful space launchings has fallen off sharply since the peak year 1966: we launched a total of 30 in 1966; 26 in 1967; and 11 to date in 1968. For 1969 the projection is higher because of a concentration of launches in support of the Apollo program.
  3. As things now stand we are terminating production of both the Saturn IB and Saturn V boosters as soon as the Apollo requirements are clearly met.
  4. Similarly, we are marking time in the development of a nuclear rocket engine pending your 1970 budget decisions.
  5. We have had to limit our planetary programs. We will fly two probes to Mars in 1969, are beginning work on two Mars orbiters for 1971, and will urge that the 1970 budget permit us to develop two Mars landers for 1973.

Webb contrasted these reductions, and in general limping along to the finish line in the Moon race, to what he thought of as a vigorous Soviet program. He noted:

  1. The Soviets show every indication of continuing to build upon their capabilities to demonstrate their power in astronautics and to master space. In the process, they are propelling the total base of their technological competence forward.
  2. The Soviet space program continued to expand in size and scope as indicated by the steady increase in successful space launches.
  3. We have the best of reasons to believe that the Soviets are nearing the end of a long developmental period in aerospace technology which will give them the ability to advance significantly ahead of us in space and challenge us in important areas of aeronautics.

Webb punctuated his attack by concluding that the Soviet’s seem bent on demonstrating a “capability that could change the basic structure and balance of power in the world.” Zond 5 demonstrated that the U.S. was behind the Soviets again and that they might possibly beat the U.S. to a lunar landing.

Donald Hornig, the President’s Science Advisor, became so upset with Webb’s public statements that he fired off an angry letter to LBJ about the “NASA Distortion of Where the U.S. Stands in Space.” He claimed that Webb exaggerated the importance of Zond 5 and the overall state of the Soviet space effort while minimizing the accomplishments and capabilities of the U.S. program. He claimed that these “unconscionable statements” were “undoubtedly motivated by their [NASA’s] budgetary programs.” Hornig countered Webb’s “doomsday” pronouncements with his own more rosy analysis:

In the manned lunar landing program, for example, we have successfully flown the Saturn V launch vehicle twice, the first flight in November 1967, while the equivalent Soviet vehicle has yet to fly. We expect the first Soviet launch in the next few months. Out best estimate of their capability indicates that before a manned lunar landing can be attempted it will be necessary to rendezvous and dock the payloads from two vehicles of the type they have not yet launched.

I conclude from this and other supporting evidence that we are at least one year ahead of the Soviets in this area—and not behind.

Hornig told the President that he would discuss this difference of opinion with Webb and try to get him to retract his statements. He closed the matter by informing LBJ that he would have the National Aeronautics and Space Council, a coordination organization assigned to the White House, investigate the matter and prepare an analysis.

Donald Hornig

Donald Hornig

Hornig also asked if the president would like to release that analysis as an official statement. In the lower left corner of the memo is a set of decision options and by the option, “Drop the matter,” Johnson placed a check. Hornig didn’t, and the Space Council sent to the President a report on the relative position of the Soviet and American space programs on September 30.

Immediately thereafter, LBJ dictated a note back to Hornig that took him to task for the attack on Webb. The president said, “It is hard for me to believe that Jim Webb would make ‘unconscionable statements’ or be ‘motivated’ entirely by budgetary problems.” He commented that Webb had reason to be concerned about the NASA budget, but that he fully understood the national commitment to completing Apollo on schedule. “I wanted him to succeed,” LBJ wrote, “and it was only with great reluctance that for the past two years I have taken action to meet the overall fiscal requirements laid down by a determined group in the Congress by accepting cuts made in the House Appropriations Committee.”

Then Johnson offered one of the most damning comments I have seen in writing among Washington politicos. He told Hornig that if he persisted in attacking Webb and NASA that his function could be open to criticism from other quarters, especially if there was some great Soviet triumph as Webb predicted might take place. “This would inevitably bring into question the judgment of your group in a way that might impair its usefulness.”

At the same time that LBJ was piqued at Hornig for attacking Webb, Webb’s statements clearly irritated the President as well. He went back to Webb and asked him about his public disagreement over the administration’s budget. He asked him for the basis of his charges and clearly challenged his loyalty to the Johnson administration.

James Webb and President Lyndon B. Johnson.

James Webb and President Lyndon B. Johnson.

On October 1st, only a week before his scheduled departure from NASA, and again on October 5, Webb responded to Johnson with detailed memoranda outlining his position on NASA, budgets, and the Soviet space effort. He again expressed concern about the downward trend in spending for space exploration in the U.S. and the perceived upward trend in the Soviet Union.

Webb closed by quoting his comments to the American Astronautical Society in July 1968, indicating that these trends “will have many serious effects on the U.S. position in aeronautics and space.” Webb did not budge from that belief to the end of his federal career, but ultimately he was proven wrong about the Soviets’ capability in space.

Of course, and hindsight it 20/20 here, the Soviet Union was nowhere near achieving a lunar landing in 1968. The Americans won that race to the Moon easily. Webb did not know that in the latter 1960s, however.

This entry was posted in Apollo, Cold War Competition, History, Politics, Space and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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