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Apollo’s shadow: the CIA and the Soviet space program during the Moon race

By the late 1960s, American reconnaissance satellites were so powerful that they enabled highly-detailed photographs of Soviet rockets to be taken from over 150 kilometers away. These images of Soviet rockets are degraded due to classification requirements, but offer a hint of just how good American intelligence collection about the Soviet space program became by the latter 1960s. (credit: NRO)

Apollo Revisited

Sputnik was not a strategic surprise for the CIA. Unlike Pearl Harbor, the intelligence community had plenty of data about what was happening inside the Soviet Union in the months before October 1957 and, in fact, had warned the White House that the Soviet Union was planning on launching a satellite into Earth orbit very soon. The CIA had also warned that a successful satellite could become a propaganda victory for the Soviet Union. It was not the intelligence community that failed the American government with Sputnik; the failure was the inability of senior American political leadership, notably President Dwight D. Eisenhower, to understand how the American public—and the rest of the world—would respond.

In retrospect, looking back over half a century later, for the duration of the Space Race with the Soviet Union, the United States intelligence community did a remarkably good job at assessing Soviet capabilities in space. Over time they acquired greater capabilities, such as ground-based tracking and communications interception antennas, photo-reconnaissance satellites, and eventually satellites able to collect the faint whispers of telemetry signals from Soviet rockets and ICBMs. But the CIA and other agencies also developed good analytical tools, refining them by talking to American spacecraft and rocket experts, and learning how and why certain technological paths are taken and others avoided. Understanding how rocket programs worked enabled the CIA’s space and missile analysts to better interpret Soviet actions, and anticipate future ones.

This is not to say that during the race to the Moon the US intelligence community was perfect. They made a number of missteps, although no major ones, and their predictive capability was quite limited at times. Many of these missteps were due to imperfect or incomplete information. For instance, they made early predictions about the pace of development of the Soviet manned lunar program that proved overly optimistic and had to be revised. By the mid-1960s, internal dissent within the Soviet military and civilian leadership led to the Soviet Moon program moving significantly slower than required to beat Apollo’s schedule. The CIA saw this and noted it, but had no good explanation for the cause. Intelligence collection is never perfect, if only because it is impossible to know what is going on within the head of an adversary even if you can monitor his actions.

Ten years after Sputnik’s launch, in late 1967, the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence produced an anniversary overview of the Soviet civilian space program. This was a special edition of a regular series of small internal CIA reports known as the Weekly Summary. The Weekly Summary normally covered a wide range of political and strategic developments and was aimed at a more general audience within the CIA rather than a specific community, such as those CIA leaders and analysts concerned with Soviet space and weapons developments. The special report, titled “The Soviet Space Program Ten Years After Sputnick [sic] I,” was not very long, and it is far more general and less detailed than higher-level reports produced for decision makers at that same time. However, 50 years later it provides a succinct overview of CIA thinking on the first decade of the space race, before Apollo took flight.

The report’s introduction noted that there were essentially three conceptual models that people used to try and explain the Soviet space program. Some saw the Soviet space program as only a scheme to capture spectacular headlines, some considered it an exclusively military effort, and still others viewed the period from 1957 to 1967 as an orderly unfolding of a long-range master plan with neither false steps nor blind alleys. The Soviets themselves frequently had characterized their program as purely scientific and not competitive with the United States.

Although the CIA analysts conceded that each of those interpretations had some validity, none were completely right or wrong. By October 1967, the Soviet Union had launched over 250 satellites into orbit, and the CIA acknowledged that although Soviet technology was more limited than American technology and some of their space efforts had been pure stunts, they had nevertheless pursued substantive scientific research goals as well.

The CIA report noted that the Soviet Union had launched more robotic missions to the Moon and the planets than the United States, and had taken advantage of eight of the nine Mars or Venus launch windows since 1960, when they had made their first attempt to launch an interplanetary spacecraft. In fact, a Soviet spacecraft was at the time of the report’s publication on its way to Venus. Most of these planetary flights had ended in failure and all of them, according to the report, had suffered a communications failure before reaching their objectives.

Whereas Soviet planetary missions had all met with failure, their lunar exploration program had some successes. Luna 1, launched toward the Moon in January 1959, had been a success even though it missed its target by a wide margin. Luna 2 hit the Moon, and Luna 3 photographed its hidden side, which the CIA called “a brilliant achievement.” The lunar program resumed in 1963 with the goal of soft-landing a payload on the lunar surface, but Lunas 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 all failed, sometimes never leaving Earth orbit. Luna 9 finally achieved the soft-landing goal in January 1966, and was followed by three successful orbital missions and a second landing with Luna 13.

The report’s authors observed that the Soviets “were surprisingly slow in correcting the deficiencies plaguing this program, a failing that has been noted in other parts of the space effort, too.” In addition, American Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter spacecraft had produced more and higher quality photographs of the Moon than their Soviet counterparts.

On the subject of human spaceflight, the CIA observed that the Soviet manned space program had followed a different path than the American one. The American program was more incremental, with a progression of increasingly complex missions leading up to the goal of manned flight. For example, after unmanned launches and primate flights, the United States made two suborbital flights before attempting an orbital mission. The Soviet Union, in contrast, used an “all-up” approach, launching essentially a nearly complete vehicle to test all of the components and systems before proceeding relatively quickly to the launch of Yuri Gagarin in April 1961. Within this short report the CIA made no effort to discuss the potential merits and weaknesses of either approach, although the American space program had adopted the “all-up” approach for the Apollo program to reduce the number of required test flights, one of the management decisions that many space historians believe was instrumental to Apollo’s success.

The Soviets followed Gagarin’s launch with increasingly ambitious missions and an upgraded two-man spacecraft known as Voskhod. But between 1965 and 1967 there were no Soviet manned spacecraft launches. The CIA report noted that there had been a similar two-year hiatus between the end of the American Mercury program and the start of Gemini launches, but the CIA stated that there was no clear explanation for the long hiatus in Soviet manned launches. The report’s authors speculated that the Vostok capsule simply had no more growth margin, requiring the Soviets to develop a newer and more capable spacecraft. However, the CIA’s analysts expressed puzzlement that the Soviets had not attempted a long-duration flight even though, in their estimation, the Voskhod could have flown a longer mission than the record 14-day Gemini mission.

The next Soviet cosmonaut launch, following this two-year hiatus, involved a new spacecraft known as Soyuz, and ended in failure with the unfortunate death of Vladimir Komarov. But substantial portions of the report remain classified, including its brief discussion of Komarov’s ill-fated flight.

The CIA also assessed the Soviet scientific satellite program, stating that on average the Soviets launched about seven non-recoverable, small (225-kilogram) spacecraft per year, performing “a variety of interesting experiments and significant contributions to science.” In addition to scientific satellites, the Soviets also launched communications and meteorological satellites that were less capable than their American counterparts. The biggest problem, according to the CIA, was that Soviet spacecraft had relatively short lifetimes.

The CIA report stated that one of the more interesting and confusing Soviet developments in recent years had been the introduction of the Proton rocket, which was capable of placing a 12,700-kilogram satellite into Earth orbit, twice as heavy as any previous Soviet payload. But the CIA declared that the Proton was inefficient because it lacked a third stage. Such an upper stage could double the payload placed in orbit. CIA analysts had expected the Soviets to add a third stage relatively quickly, but this had not happened and they speculated that the Soviets were not satisfied with the rocket’s early performance and found it necessary to modify the rocket and its launch facilities before upgrading it to include such a stage.

Despite these early problems, the CIA had little doubt that the Proton would eventually be perfected and made reliable. If its payload capability was doubled with the addition of an upper stage it would be more than enough to place a space station in Earth orbit—which of course eventually happened with the Almaz and Salyut series of space stations starting in the early 1970s. The CIA noted that this greater capability would also provide the Soviet Union with options beyond low Earth orbit, including sending very large payloads to either the Moon or the planets. The report declared that “this weight is insufficient to allow a manned circumlunar trip,” but it would be enough to permit a lunar sample return mission. The CIA was wrong in its assessment: the Proton would soon be pressed into service for the Zond manned circumlunar program, something that the CIA became aware of within months of this October 1967 report.

The report concluded with a brief discussion of the Soviet Union’s new large launch vehicle, which today we know as the N-1, but which the CIA initially labeled the “J vehicle,” after its convention of designating each new launch facility at the Tyura-Tam (i.e. Baikonur) test range with a letter: A, B, C, and so on. The CIA report correctly noted that there was little apparent Soviet interest in “high-energy propellants”—meaning liquid hydrogen—and this restricted them to using conventional propellants in their rocket, therefore requiring truly massive first-stage thrust “in excess of 10 million pounds [44 million newtons].” By comparison, the Saturn V had five F-1 engines each producing 6.7 million newtons of thrust. “It seems clear that the Soviets will use this vehicle for manned flights, because no unmanned missions to the nearby planets require so large a booster,” the analysts wrote. “It is unlikely that manned flights to Mars or Venus will be tried in the next several years, however, because the round-trip times are too long.” The rocket could be used to launch a very large space station into Earth orbit, but “a manned lunar landing is, nevertheless, the most likely focus of Soviet attention in the next five-year period.”

Given the format and style of the CIA’s Weekly Summary, the authors of the special report were limited in their ability to speculate. But what they could not have realized was that the Soviet space effort was about to get much more interesting and challenging for the intelligence community with the appearance and eventual failed launches of the Soviet N-1 rocket, and the efforts to develop the Zond circumlunar spacecraft. The race to the Moon was about to get much more intense in the coming year.

The CIA document can be downloaded here.

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