“Mister President, their rocket blew up.”
by Dwayne Day
|The Soviet space program shows up in a number of the Nixon PDBs. Notable events during Nixon’s presidency included the explosions of three of the large N-1 rockets.|
The PDB presented to Nixon that day provided some of the first information on the dramatic launch pad explosion of a large Soviet rocket vehicle. Eventually, American satellites would return photographs of the devastated facility, but the first indications of a dramatic rocket explosion may have come from acoustic or seismic sensors that registered the event in the location of the Soviet Baikonur launch facility, which the CIA referred to as Tyuratam. What the PDB got wrong, however, was tying this failure to a predicted Soviet robotic mission to return samples from the Moon. That mission, Luna 15, eventually launched on July 13, but the spacecraft crashed on the Moon.
This President’s Daily Brief and other documents were publicly released last week as part of the second major batch of declassified PDBs. The first batch, released in 2015, covered the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. This new batch covers the Nixon and Ford administrations.
The previous collection of PDBs included a number of documents concerning briefings to Lyndon Johnson on the status of the Soviet lunar program. (See: “Under a Red Moon: LBJ, the President’s Daily Brief, and the Soviet super rocket,” The Space Review, October 12, 2015) The PDBs were intended to be, as their name indicated, brief, so they rarely spent more than a few paragraphs on any subject, although the LBJ ones occasionally had more detailed annexes. Of course, the President could always request a dedicated briefing on any subject that he was interested in.
The Soviet space program shows up in a number of the Nixon PDBs. Notable events during Nixon’s presidency included the explosions of three of the large N-1 rockets. This and other information made it clear to Nixon that the Soviets were no longer competitive with the United States in human spaceflight. When Nixon greeted the Apollo 11 astronauts on the aircraft carrier USS Hornet later that month, he knew that the United States was no longer going to be outdone in space.
Even though the Moon race was won, the US intelligence community continued collecting data that demonstrated that the Soviet lunar program was ongoing. On May 7, 1970, another PDB was presented to Nixon that reported on Soviet progress:
“The latest photography from a satellite over Tyuratam shows that the Soviets are still working on their largest space booster—assembled on one of the pads at Complex J and therefore dubbed ‘the J-Bird’ by U.S. observers of Soviet rocketry. The first booster of this type to be tested blew up on the other pad at Complex J last July during an attempt to launch a payload to the Moon. The extensive damage to that pad is still being repaired.”
|The reference to the cosmonauts on the Salyut space station indicates that the United States was monitoring their voice communications, although it does not reveal how.|
What the US intelligence community did not realize was that the large rocket that blew up in July 1969 was actually the second failure in the program. The first rocket failure, in February 1969, was not detected by American intelligence assets and was not known by intelligence analysts until many years later.
The May 1970 PDB stated that the J-Bird could not deliver as large a payload to the Moon as the Saturn V because the American rocket used high-energy propellants that the Soviets had not yet mastered:
“The Soviets would have to use two J-Birds to put a man on the Moon—a rendezvous would be necessary. Thus, both launch pads at Complex J would be needed. Interplanetary probes and circumlunar missions can be handled by one J-Bird, which could also be used to orbit a permanent space station weighing 100 to 150 tons. An unmanned lunar landing and return mission could also be launched.”
What the American intelligence community did not yet know was that the Soviets had chosen a highly risky method of landing a lone cosmonaut on the Moon using a single “J-Bird,” a rocket that the Soviets had designated N-1.
“Because of the problems the Soviets have been having with their large space boosters, the intelligence community has estimated that they probably will not be able to make a lunar landing before 1973.”
Over a year later, on June 21, 1971, Nixon was presented with another PDB that mentioned yet another Soviet rocket failure: “The Soviets’ space program suffered a major setback Saturday when their largest space booster, the J-vehicle, failed shortly after lift-off from the Tyuratam space center.” The document stated that the four-stage rocket “is capable of placing 275,000 pounds in low earth orbit or 75,000 pounds on a trajectory to the Moon. The booster is estimated to have a thrust of 13 to 14 million pounds at lift-off compared with the 7.5 million pounds developed by the Saturn V, the largest U.S. booster.”
A chart comparing the N-1 with the Saturn V included in one briefing to President Nixon. (credit: CIA)
The PDB continued: “There is no known connection between the J-vehicle launch attempt and the current Soyuz 11-Salyut mission, although the cosmonauts were instructed to observe the failure. Soviet ground control told the cosmonauts to look out the window for a fire like a high magnitude star.” The reference to the cosmonauts on the Salyut space station indicates that the United States was monitoring their voice communications, although it does not reveal how.
|The race was over, and soon any White House interest in the Moon would be over as well. The top secret PDBs would have nothing more to report about the Moon.|
On November 23, 1972, Nixon was presented with another PDB that stated: “The Soviets launched their largest space booster—the ‘J-vehicle’—this morning, but it failed early in flight.” According to the report, it “was expected to send an unmanned spacecraft toward the Moon with recovery either in the Indian Ocean or in the Soviet Union.” The PDB declared that “because of continuing problems with the booster, the Soviets’ first attempt at a manned lunar landing is not expected until the late 1970s.”
By this time the subject was undoubtedly low on Nixon’s priority list. Apollo 17, the last mission to the Moon, was scheduled for December. Nixon had canceled any further Apollo missions. The race was over, and soon any White House interest in the Moon would be over as well. The top secret PDBs would have nothing more to report about the Moon.