The Soviet Lunar Program & the Space Race

The Space Race battle and the 'Race to the Moon'


"I believe that [Apollo program director George Low] certainly was concerned, and rightly so, that we could have orbited the Moon ahead of the Americans. We had everything for it. That is why he changed things around so quickly. Instead of orbiting the Earth, he decided to fly directly [to the Moon]. We could have done it six months earlier. He had very good information. He did not think that [Soyuz design bureau chief Vasily] Mishin would be so cautious and indecisive." — Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov.

The Space Race was a battle in the Cold War, a technological battle fought by Soviet and American scientists and engineers, and by Soviet cosmonauts and American astronauts. Though it was intellectual in nature, it was a battle in which every loss of life on either side was mourned by all participants.

A Real Enemy
On October 4, 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik. Americans feared the implications of the first man-made satellite orbiting above the Earth. Astronaut Frank Borman recalled, "I was teaching at West Point when Sputnik was announced. ... The Cold War was a very real thing and there was a very great concern of a nuclear exchange and all of a sudden this country that was our real enemy had jumped the gun and launched a satellite, and it was an enormous impact. The [American] public began to question our educational system, they questioned the Eisenhower administration. It was a time of very, very serious self-doubt across the whole society."

Soviets Advance Undercover
The Soviets continued to advance a manned space program while the Americans struggled to catch up. In Borman's view, "they beat us to the punch first off. Yuri Gagarin, the first human to orbit ... they beat us to a space walk ... the first woman in space, the first multiple crew in space." The Soviets kept their program under wraps, announcing each success only after it happened.

coverCrash Landings and Turtles
Soon after Sputnik, the Soviets turned their attention to the moon. Unmanned probes were launched at the moon in 1958. By 1959, Luna 2 crash-landed on the moon — the first man-made object on the lunar surface — and by October of that year a third probe circled around and photographed the far side of the moon. In September 1968 the fifth mission of the Zond spacecraft carried turtles on a circumnavigation of the moon and back to Earth. The next step would be a manned mission around the moon.

A Cosmonaut's Defense
Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov was the first man to walk in space. In 1967 he was recruited to train for his nation's lunar program. He recalled the Soviet reaction to the moon race: "Our people were convinced that we would be the first to land on the moon because they were used to the fact that we were always the first, the first, the first. Only we, the cosmonauts, and especially the moon crew, understood that this was not going to happen. It was not character; it was funding that played a role here. We knew that the U.S. had invested $25 billion. We had invested 2.5 billion rubles in the entire space program, for both manned and unmanned flights. This was ten times less. The moon crew understood that we had a capability to circumnavigate the moon six months earlier than Frank Borman, but we knew that we would not be able to land on the moon ahead of the astronauts."

Although a lunar landing was far out of reach, the cosmonauts were ready to fly to the moon and back, a voyage that would be a decisive victory in the Space Race. But their administrators faltered at the challenge. Cosmonaut Leonov blames the chief designer: "Certainly, it was only the indecisiveness of our chief designer at the time, Vasily Pavlovich Mishin, that caused us to fall behind in this program. I can say with complete confidence that if [chief designer for spacecraft] Sergei Pavlovich Korolev were alive, we would have flown around the moon six months ahead of Apollo 8."

Failures Bred Caution
Soyuz design bureau chief Vasily Mishin may have been hesitant due to previous mission failures. Just as the Apollo program had, the Soviet space program experienced a major setback due to a fatality. Soyuz One had taken off on April 23, 1967, with Vladimir Komarov aboard. Upon reentry, Komarov was killed when the parachutes on his spaceship did not deploy properly.

Taking on a Challenge
While the Soviets dithered, reports of their technology spurred NASA administrators to change Appollo 8's mission plan to a lunar orbit. The decision gave the engineers, flight controllers, and astronauts only four months to prepare for the new mission. By the end of 1968, Apollo 8 had accomplished the task set by the agency.

Lost Opportunity
Leonov recalled the reaction in the Soviet Union: "There were lots of letters addressed to the government, all of which asked how it could have happened, how come Americans were ahead of us. There were lots of letters that condemned the government's inaction and accused our chief designers of losing such a great opportunity and giving it away to the Americans. This was open dissatisfaction."

Leadership Failure
Astronaut Jim Lovell has since discussed the race to the moon with his former competitors. "We talk to our Russian friends now and the cosmonauts. They admit now that Apollo 8 was really a blow to their psyche, I guess, a blow to their prestige that we were able to go around the moon when we did, because they were so close. Their Lunar Module vehicle, the N1, obviously was a failure. They knew they couldn't land on the moon first, but they thought they had a very good chance of at least circumnavigating the moon before Apollo 8. And I think one of the failures, the leadership failures, at that time especially in the Soviet space activity was the vacillation back and forth of 'Should we do it now, or should we wait and do another unmanned and to make sure that we can accomplish this mission?' Then they were very cautious people.

Cold War Battlefronts
Frank Borman shared his view of Apollo's impact: "In my estimation there were three [Cold War] battles. One was Korea. We tied it. One was Vietnam. We lost it. And one was the space program and we won it! And I think that the demonstration of the American technology, American management capability -- people overlook the fact that the management techniques that were developed in Apollo are extremely important to this country. So, I think that the Apollo was probably worth it for that reason alone."



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