The Moon Race Cover-Up

Ten years ago Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Did the US really beat the Soviets, or was the moon race just a NASA hype?


It is almost a truism that the world's winners write the history books and the surviving losers if any, write querulous letters to the editor. In wars, political campaigns, missionary crusades, purges, races, and all sorts of other competition, the story has been the same.

But for one of the biggest races on earth or off it, the loser's version of history seems to have prevailed this time. Only 10 years after one side's triumph, the other side has scored a major ex post facto neutralization of that victory.

The race was to the moon. The racers were America and the Soviet Union. The losers were many: only one contender made it to the moon; many citizens would rather not have seen their hard-earned dollars and rubles spent on the moon venture; and some people—the biggest losers?—prefer accurate history.

On Christmas Eve 1968, three American astronauts circled the moon in the Apollo-8 spaceship. After another lunar scouting mission the following May, the Apollo-11 flight then carried out the first actual manned landing on another world. Five more landings (and one cliff-hanging near-disaster) were made in the next three years.

The Apollo-8 astronauts had celebrated their achievement with a poem modeled on "The Night before Christmas." An astronaut on earth read the parody to the men a quarter of a million miles away: "'Twas the night before Christmas, and way out in space, The Apollo Eight crew had just won the moon race.…"

But had there ever been a race?

The USSR, which had opened the frantic "space race" with a rapid-fire series of surprise "space spectaculars" a dozen years earlier, never seemed unequivocally committed to the "man-to-the-moon" race against Apollo, despite repeated strident cries from NASA during budget hearings that "the Russians will beat us to the moon." Many Western observers were motivated to believe that Moscow had decided to drop out of this phase of the space sweepstakes: liberal observers opposed Apollo as a wasteful use of resources, which without the whipped-up "moon race" hysteria could never have been diverted from social programs; conservatives were convinced that Soviet engineers are congenitally incapable of creating sophisticated moon ships but were pouring rubles into near-earth space weapons that Apollo did nothing to counteract; most leading space scientists were opposed to the tremendous extra costs of manned versus automated space missions, especially those that promised unique contributions to their own specialties.

After the initial Apollo successes in 1969, Moscow spokesmen were quick to aver that "the Soviet Union has never intended to send men to the moon" (else surely it would have beaten Apollo). The true Soviet lunar program, these sources claimed, was based on the exclusive use of automatic robot probes that were cheaper, more flexible, and could be launched "without risk to human life." Less-polite remarks were made in native-language broadcasts from Radio Moscow to Latin America, Africa, and Asia; this line stressed the excessive costs of Apollo, resulting in "the fanatical squandering of wealth looted from the oppressed peoples of the developing world."

Some skeptics dismissed this as a "sour grapes" rationalization of Russia's defeat or as a face-saving excuse for losing a race Moscow had promised to win. But most observers accepted these Soviet declarations at face value.

Five years after the first Apollo moon landing, CBS ran a special TV report in which news correspondent Walter Cronkite intoned, "It turned out that the Russians were never in the race at all." A few weeks later, Parade magazine was asked about the "wasted money" of Apollo, since "we've learned that the Russians never even came close technologically to putting a man on the moon." Replied editor Walter Scott, "Whether putting Americans on the Moon was a waste of money is of course arguable. That our intelligence of the Soviet space technology was faulty is not."

Books on Apollo generally praised the program while echoing the theme advanced by the science editor of the Saturday Review as early as 1963, that "there never was a race to the moon, because the Russians wouldn't race." The authors of Journey to Tranquility (Doubleday, 1969) claimed to reveal the "startling fact" that "by 1963 it had become clear that the Russians had little immediate interest in the Moon and that the race for space did not, in fact, exist."

Later revelations by a defecting Russian science writer fueled these claims. The London Sunday Times wrote in 1971: "It became obvious long before the Americans landed on the moon that they were winning the space race hands down.…There was never the remotest chance that the Russians would get to the moon first." A headline in the Daily Mail crowed, "BIG MOON RACE WAS ALL BLUFF," and correspondent Angus MacPherson reported, "There never was a race to the moon, a Russian scientist claims today." London's Guardian quoted the Russian as saying that "Russia knew a long time ago that she cannot build a moon rocket" but downplayed the significance of that assertion: "This is an argument which tilts at a shadow for, five years ago, some Western observers were arguing that the 'moon race' was a myth.…This has turned out to be the case."

This opinion seems to be unanimous across political and ideological spectrums, at least in print. Even the Soviets endorsed it.

For a handful of serious Western students of the secretive Soviet space program, there remained enigmatic loose ends. Besides the earlier public and private statements of Soviet space officials up to 1968, there were various bits and pieces of evidence: a test-flown Soviet moonship that was capable of carrying a pilot but never did; an ocean-going radio tracking fleet capable of communicating with cosmonauts in moonships; persistent and coherent rumors of a large Soviet space booster that failed at least three times in test flights; unexplained space tests of Soviet craft, whose purpose could not be fathomed but which were very similar to US unmanned tests that preceded the Apollo moon flights. These loose ends seemed to fit one pattern, although observers were still in the difficult position of having to assemble a jigsaw puzzle—with some pieces missing and pieces from different puzzles thrown in too.

The bottom line, in hindsight, is that Moscow did make determined efforts to develop the capability to send a Russian cosmonaut around the moon, before Apollo's expected flight date of mid-1969. Precious resources in manpower, money, and material were poured into this effort, which could have been a coup de grace to the American space program, bedeviled as it was by technical problems, haunted by the memory of three dead astronauts, and confused by the uncertain direction of the incoming Nixon administration.

And beyond the relatively simple manned flight "around the moon," there is highly suggestive but somewhat less certain evidence that a Soviet man-on-the-moon program was more than just an idle pipe dream. Many of the same elements that characterized preparations for the Apollo moon landings also showed up in the Soviet program; they seemed (and still seem) useless for any other purpose but for a manned lunar landing.

The promises and boasts made by Soviet spokesman at the height of the moon race, when Moscow still expected to win, are strongly supported not only by the hardware evidence but by cosmonauts' statements. Pavel Belyayev commented on the moon race in 1965: "We are not idle. We shall see who will be first." Vladimir Komarov was quoted in 1966 as saying, "I can positively state that the Soviet Union will not be beaten by the United States in the race for a human being to go to the moon.…The US has a timetable of 1969 + X, but our timetable is 1969 + X—1!" Aleksey Leonov wrote in 1965: "Man will visit [the moon] in the nearest future. I dream of this being accomplished by men of our detachment. If I am very lucky, I will get the assignment." Gherman Titov write: "As for myself, I dream of flying around the moon.…Cosmonauts have a good chance of getting a close view of the moon." Yuri Gagarin and other cosmonauts repeated these vows; there was no ambiguity.

Nikita Khrushchev referred to his man-to-the-moon project in his memoirs when he paid homage to Sergey Korolev, head of the Soviet space program, whose unexpected death in 1966 at age 59 crippled their program for five crucial years. "I'm only sorry," Khrushchev recalled, "that we didn't manage to send a man to the moon during Korolev's lifetime."

Had Korolev, whose health had been ruined in Stalin's slave labor camps in the 1930s and '40s, lived another two years, he might have been able to see the moon project through to a successful conclusion. But his own drive and judgment had not been passed on to his subordinates, who were unequal to the technological problems they were to face alone. The very first manned space flight after his death ended in disaster, with an ambitious two-ship link-up and double spacewalk aborted and one cosmonaut crew dead.

Korolev's man-to-the-moon plans evidently hinged on two versions of a manned spaceship called the Soyuz (modernized versions are still the mainstay of the Soviet manned space program). The three-man version called for an Apollo-like "command module" for the crew, with a rocket-equipped "service module" behind it and a unique spherical "orbital module" in front. A stripped-down one-man version with a thicker heat shield but without the forward orbital module was designed for the first moon flights.

This six-ton moonship was in the final stages of preparation for flight testing when Korolev suddenly died. He had evidently hoped to make unmanned test flights late in 1966, leading to unmanned circumlunar shake-down cruises in the first half of 1967, followed by a series of manned round-the-moon expeditions in time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in November of that year.

The actual schedule reflected the absence of Korolev's genius. Initial flight tests in 1967 were plagued by serious spacecraft and booster problems, and it was not until September 1968 that a successful unmanned round-the-moon sortie was carried out. The robot-controlled command module splashed down in the Indian Ocean near a waiting recovery ship. Two months later, a second robot flight made a much gentler and more sophisticated "double dip" reentry followed by a soft landing inside Russia.

The belief was widespread that this spaceship, which made its flights under the cover name "Zond," was designed for manned moon shots. Soviet spokesmen, including a writer in the Soviet Encyclopedia of Space Flight (Moscow, 1969), explicitly asserted that the Zond spacecraft actually was designed to carry a pilot.

Drawings of the vehicle, released years later, showed it to be practically identical in shape to the manned Soyuz (whose operations are restricted to low orbits within 200 miles of the earth). Analysis of photos of the Zond transport canisters on board Soviet recovery ships shows that they are the same size as the Soyuz's. A strange photo released from Moscow press archives evidently shows a Zond command module being ground-tested with a launch escape tower, a safety measure traditionally reserved exclusively for manned spacecraft. The Soyuz-Zond command module is specifically designed to carry life-support supplies for a one-man six-day flight, the exact duration of a lunar circumnavigation (additional supplies for near-earth Soyuz flights with larger crews are stashed in the orbital module).


This Zond spaceship, then, provided the capability to send Russians to the moon and back with reasonable safety. Public statements, and Khrushchev's memoirs, have already shown such a desire on the part of some officials. Actual intentions, of course, can never be independently documented, but there is one piece of data that may provide the capstone of proof: the private, not-for-publication, man-to-man discussions between Soviet and American space personnel, particularly cosmonauts and astronauts.

Most provocative is the report from Michael Collins and David Scott, two American space pilots who met Russian cosmonaut Pavel Belyayev at the Paris Air Show in 1968. While touring a Soviet aircraft, with only the three spacemen and an interpreter present, the conversation turned to each man's future space plans. "We found that Belyayev himself expected to make a circumlunar flight in the not-too-distant future," Collins later wrote in his own memoirs. Scott independently confirmed Belyayev's claim.

Before the end of that year, Collins was removed from the Apollo-8 crew for medical reasons and was rotated onto the Apollo-11 crew. Scott made two Apollo flights, including a moon landing.

Nobody knows why the Soviets did not follow up their November 10 launch of "Zond-6" with a manned shot on "Zond-7" during their next "lunar launch window" on December 9, 1968. Perhaps unspecified minor technical problems had cropped up. Perhaps Soviet space officials believed that the December 21, 1968, launch date for Apollo-8 was unrealistic, that they had several more months of opportunities because of anticipated American launch delays. Reports reaching the West years later claimed that a Zond and its pilot (presumably Belyayev) had been readied for the pre-Apollo moonshot but that the launch had been "scrubbed" at the last moment.

So it never happened. Apollo-8 did succeed, along with Apollo-9 (lunar module test in earth orbit, February) and Apollo-10 (lunar module test in moon orbit, May) and ultimately Apollo-11 (the first manned moon landing, July 20, 1969). Two more unmanned Zond moon sorties were made, but they carried only instruments and cameras.

Belyayev himself died within a year at the age of 44, reportedly the victim of peritonitis induced by a severe bleeding ulcer. The other cosmonauts stopped talking about going to the moon. Nobody has recorded what they were dreaming about.

The history of that period could be quite different. The risks of the Apollo-8 flight were the greatest of any American manned space flight before or since. Sixteen months later, a totally unexpected explosion in the Apollo-13 spaceship crippled the command module and would have led to tragedy but for the supplies installed in the attached lunar module. There had been no such backup for Apollo-8; a similar failure could well have killed the three spacemen. With them might have died the Apollo program, especially if the Soviet man-to-the-moon shot had taken place contemporaneously and successfully. In the real history of 1969, the Nixon administration endorsed NASA's Apollo effort (co-opting Kennedy's dream) and canceled the Air Force "Manned Orbiting Laboratory" space station; slightly different circumstances might instead have seen the Air Force space program expanded while the manned lunar shots were eliminated, leaving the moon to the Soviets.


And the Soviets might have made the most of it, had Korolev lived or had his successors proved worthy of him. There is substantial evidence that cosmonauts were also preparing to land on the moon, with every intention of being there ahead of the Americans. The man-on-the-moon evidence is not so overwhelmingly clear-cut as is the man-to-the-moon evidence, but it is impressive. This evidence comes from several areas: particular cosmonaut training programs useful for (and only for) a moon landing; an attempt to develop a large booster far bigger than any needed (even today) for low earth orbit or lunar orbit flight; unique space orbital rendezvous procedures that are useless except in connection with a moon flight of a large rocket assembled in near-earth orbit; secret space tests of man-related hardware having the capacity to support man-on-the-moon expeditions.

Astronaut Michael Collins correctly perceived the significance of cosmonaut training activity in progress during 1967 and 1968, in which the Soviets practiced helicopter landings. In the American program, such activities were devoted solely to preparing for lunar module touchdowns. Neither program had training time to waste, so the cosmonauts would not have been flying helicopters for recreation. Noted Collins, "If the Russians weren't interested in a manned lunar landing, if—as they subsequently said—they were not racing us to the moon, then why were they training cosmonauts to fly helicopters?" That is still, 10 years later, an excellent question.

The Soviet super booster, equal in lifting power to the American Saturn-V moon rocket, also seems to have been more than a NASA public-relations ploy at budget hearings. In 1976 a CIA briefing official for the first time publicly confirmed the persistent rumors that several such boosters had been destroyed during test flights between 1969 and 1972, after which the program was canceled and the giant launch facilities mothballed.

The key point to be considered is that such a rocket booster would have been far too large for any other space mission: it was needed neither for Skylab-like space stations nor for man-around-the-moon fly-by flights, both of which employed the medium-sized "Proton" vehicle. The existence of the giant Soviet rocket is testimony to the existence of Soviet ambitions beyond those two lesser goals—and a man-on-the-moon capability is the only rational possibility.


American astronauts used the lunar-orbit-rendezvous strategy for landing on the moon; this called for the "mother ship" to remain in orbit above the moon while a special lunar module made the landing and subsequent ascent back into space where it would have to chase after and link up with the mother ship. This saved weight while introducing some technical complexities.

Soviet moon-bound cosmonauts would probably have used a combination of this technique and earth-orbit-rendezvous, in which sections of the lunar spaceship are assembled in space near the earth prior to launch toward the moon. This scenario is based on Soviet statements (pre-Apollo!), engineering extrapolations, and the actual flight plans of some Soviet spaceships during the years 1967-69.

These tests involved the critical functions of rendezvous and docking, maneuvers crucial to advanced space operations. In departures from the lunar surface or in visits to near-earth space stations, an actively guided chase vehicle is launched in pursuit of an already-orbiting target. But the Russians did it backwards: on four occasions they launched the "active" chase spacecraft first and the passive target vehicle a day later; link-ups were made within one hour of target launch. This technique makes no sense in the light of later Soviet announcements and achievements (it was abandoned forever in 1969); but it does make good sense from the perspective of earth-orbit-rendezvous for the assembly of a man-on-the-moon spaceship. There is no other known explanation.

Explanations are also absent for four or five other mystery satellites, launched unmanned between 1967 and 1971, which went through automatic orbital maneuvers very similar to those used to check out the American lunar module in 1968 and 1969. The Soviet flights fit into a scheme involving a Soviet man-on-the-moon spaceship; they do not fit any other theory, which is why they have been generally ignored.

This postulated Soviet man-on-the-moon project seems to have been going full steam into mid-1969, with the earliest possible cosmonaut moon walk projected for 1971-72. Evidently the Soviets expected major delays in the Apollo program from some combination of technological, economic, and political problems. These delays, anticipated as well by many Western observers, did not materialize.

The June 1969 loss of their first super booster, contrasted with the July landing of Apollo-11, spelled defeat for this project. Hardware "in the pipeline" was allowed to continue. Indeed, some observers suggest that the man-on-the-moon project was revitalized early in 1970 following the Apollo-13 near-disaster and the expectation of an indefinite suspension of follow-on moon flights.


The most curious aspect of this Soviet "moon cover-up" is the unusual unanimity of Western commentators of the left and the right. Moscow's desire to rewrite old space history—once it lost the ability to write new space history—is understandable. Knowledge of the existence of their man-to-the-moon and man-on-the-moon programs would have been a glaring advertisement of inferiority in an arena in which they had long boasted of their inevitable preeminence. Rather than face propaganda bankruptcy, the Soviets tried to lie their way out of this impasse.

But the eagerness with which this no-moon-race claim was accepted in the West is still remarkable, since most observers generally regard Soviet official assertions with deservedly measured skepticism. Whether by accident or crafty design, this particular Soviet claim reinforced prevailing prejudices all across the ideological spectrum. The left gained support for oft-expressed complaints about the uselessness of the Apollo expenditures, and the right found confirmation of beliefs that the Soviets are too backwards to compete with American know-how. The result was the political neutralization of the Apollo program—a disservice to history—and the opportunity for disarmingly comfortable criticism of the moon program: for both left and right, it was simply a matter of government spending on the wrong thing.

In the end, the Soviet determination to send men to the moon in competition with Apollo seems established: they tried to develop the capability, and they nearly succeeded. They failed because their technological and management skills were not adequate to the task. If the reach for the moon exceeded their grasp in 1969, they at least learned the correct lessons and applied themselves to their space homework, leading to their successes today. The West, meanwhile, has been left with the wrong lessons—and we helped write them ourselves.

James Oberg is a space specialist in Houston working on the space shuttle program. He is widely published on space astronomy and in 1975 received the National Space Club's Robert Goddard History Essay Award for his work on the history of the moon race.