First to the Moon: Apollo 8 and the Soviet Union

Posted on Fri, December 21, 2018
  • Apollo 8 was the second flight in the Apollo program, and the first mission to take humans to the Moon and back.
  • In public, it appeared that the Soviet Union had a chance to beat Apollo 8 to the Moon. Failures of the Soviet Union’s Zond program were kept secret.
  • How much did the information about the Soviets influence NASA’s final decision to proceed with the risky Apollo 8 mission?

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the pioneering Apollo 8 mission, many commentators and news stories will assert that NASA sent Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders to the Moon to beat the Soviet Union. In fact, the Soviets were planning to send two cosmonauts to loop around the Moon, but that statement of the agency’s intent is, at best, half true.

First, some background is in order. Apollo 8 was the second mission in the program to carry a crew, coming just over two months after Wally Schirra, Donn Eisele, and Walter Cunningham tested the Command and Service Modules (CSM) in Earth orbit—the first astronaut flight since a January 1967 launch-pad fire killed the original prime crew. The next mission after Apollo 7 was scheduled to be a combined flight of the CSM and the Lunar Module (LM—the lunar lander) in low Earth orbit. It was also to be the first human mission on the gigantic Saturn V Moon rocket, which had had a troubled second test on Apollo 6.

The result was one of the most daring and thrilling spaceflights in history. Borman, Lovell and Anders, became the first humans to leave low-Earth-orbit and fly into deep space.

Jim McDivitt, Dave Scott, and Russell Schweickart were supposed to fly Apollo 8, but by summer 1968, troubles with the LM meant that it would slip at least a couple of months into 1969. Time was already short to fulfill President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 challenge to “land a man on the Moon” by the end of the decade, and such a delay could create a gap of months. George Low, then the head of the Apollo spacecraft development at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, proposed in August 1968 that they fly the CSM alone to lunar orbit instead—a flight profile that had been discussed in passing previously. The McDivitt crew preferred to keep their planned mission, so chief astronaut Deke Slayton asked Frank Borman if his crew was interested. They were scheduled to fly the CSM/LM combination into a high Earth orbit on Apollo 9. Borman was indeed interested, and the order of the crews was reversed.

Borman, an ardent Cold Warrior, remembers Slayton emphasizing Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) information that the Soviets would try to loop cosmonauts around the Moon as the reason for this change of plans. Indeed, CIA intelligence estimates had noted the increasing likelihood of such a circumlunar flight in late 1968, but 1969 was more probable. The unmanned Zond (Probe) 4 spacecraft in March 1968 had flown to lunar distance, but not around the Moon, and the reentry capsule had automatically self-destructed rather than land far off-course. The secret UR-500/L1 program used the booster known today as the Proton to throw a 7K-L1 capsule similar to the Soyuz spacecraft, also in use today, onto a circumlunar trip. The 7K-L1 would not have the rocket power to go into lunar orbit. The program had originally hoped to launch cosmonauts by the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in November 1967, but technical problems, including booster failures and the death of Vladimir Komarov during the unsuccessful first test flight of Soyuz in April 1967, made that impossible.

Saturn V with Tower

Saturn V with umbilical tower on its way from the VAB (Vehicle Assembly Building) to launch complex for the Apollo 8 mission. The Saturn V stack and its mobile launch tower are atop a huge crawler-transporter.

At the time Low made his proposal in early August 1968, little more was known about Soviet circumlunar plans than the likelihood that the Soviets would fly at least one more unmanned test, given the failed reentry of Zond 4. Space historian Dwayne Day, in his recent detailed review of the evidence in the online publication The Space Review, notes that it is possible that additional top-secret intelligence about a new flight reached NASA leaders in this period, but there is no declassified evidence for that. All the paperwork that Low and NASA leadership generated about their decision in August focuses on the scheduling problem and the value to Apollo of conducting a lunar orbit mission to gain operational experience for a Moon landing in 1969. The Soviet factor is only mentioned obliquely, and while top secret intelligence could not be referenced in documents at a low classification level, Day notes that Low and others do not even mention the press reports about Zond 4 that were in the public domain. The decision to send Apollo 8 to the Moon went all the way to the NASA Administrator, James Webb, but in late August he withheld final permission until after Apollo 7 made a successful flight. If it failed, Apollo 8 would repeat the low Earth orbit mission.

A month before the Schirra crew began their 11-day flight on October 11, the Soviet Union launched Zond 5 on September 14. It carried two tortoises, mealworms, and other small life forms in the first successful circumnavigation of the Moon. Zond 5, however, failed to carry out the planned reentry trajectory and landed in the Indian Ocean, where a US Navy intelligence aircraft was able to take pictures of the capsule before Soviet ships recovered it. Zond 6, which took off on November 10, did carry out the planned reentry profile and landed in Soviet territory, but the cabin pressurization failed, killing the animal test subjects, and the parachute opened too soon, resulting in a crash landing. Those failures were kept secret. In public, it appeared that the Soviet Union had a chance to beat Apollo 8 to the Moon, and indeed Time magazine ran a cover in early December showing a cosmonaut and an astronaut in a foot race to our nearest celestial neighbor. But the Soviet space leadership had already postponed any human flight in view of the sobering results of Zond 6. After the American success with Apollo 8 and further lunar flights in 1969, all such missions were cancelled.

Apollo 8 astronauts and commanding officer of the recovery ship U.S.S. Yorktown walk the red carpet of the flight deck after splashdown recovery in the Pacific Ocean

Apollo 8 astronauts and commanding officer of the recovery ship U.S.S. Yorktown walk the red carpet of the flight deck after splashdown recovery in the Pacific Ocean. Credit: NASA 

How much did the information about the Soviets influence NASA’s early November final decision to do the risky Apollo 8 mission? Zond 6 came after the final decision and, while the Soviet competition added extra motivation to the thinking of Jim Webb, George Low, and others, all indications are that scheduling problems, and the operational advantages of carrying out a flight around the Moon as soon as possible, were primary. The result was one of the most daring and thrilling spaceflights in history. Borman, Lovell, and Anders became the first humans to leave low Earth orbit and fly into deep space when they were launched on December 21, 1968. On Christmas Eve, they became the first to reach the vicinity of the Moon and orbit it, which led to the historic Earthrise picture and the famous broadcast reading of Genesis. Most would rank it the second most important Apollo flight, after the first landing in July 1969 by the crew of Apollo 11. But in view of the Apollo 8 astronauts being the first into deep space and to the Moon, one could even argue that it should be first.

Michael J. Neufeld is a senior curator in the Museum’s Space History Department and lead curator for Destination Moon, a new exhibition that opens in the National Mall Building in 2022, and for Destination Moon: The Apollo 11 Mission, a travelling exhibit featuring the command module Columbia. He remembers Apollo 8 vividly, having grown up in western Canada as an incorrigible space buff.

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