Magazine article New York Times Upfront

Men on the Moon: A View from Moscow: In July 1969, the United States Was Poised to Make History in Space. but the Soviet Union Had One Last Cold War Trick Up Its Sleeve

Magazine article New York Times Upfront

Men on the Moon: A View from Moscow: In July 1969, the United States Was Poised to Make History in Space. but the Soviet Union Had One Last Cold War Trick Up Its Sleeve

Article excerpt

I arrived in Moscow as a correspondent for The New York Times in February 1969, and was named bureau chief in July. This was Cold War Moscow, where the KGB kept tabs on all Western correspondents, and news--except for that provided by Tass, the official Soviet news agency, and the various Communist Party-controlled newspapers and journals--was hard to come by.

So, needless to say, I was curious to see how the Soviets would report what was sure to be one of humankind's greatest achievements: the landing of men on the moon planned for later that month by the United States, the Soviet Union's superpower nemesis.


The mood in the Soviet capital in 1969 was tense. Two years earlier Israel had defeated Egypt and Syria (both Soviet client states) in the Six-Day War; for much of 1969, there had been military skirmishes along the long Soviet-Chinese border; and at home the government of Premier Leonid Brezhnev had been cracking down on intellectuals protesting the invasion of Czechoslovakia. (In August 1968, Soviet forces led a Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, which had been trying to gain at least some freedom from Moscow's grip.)

Nevertheless, Americans were regarded positively by most Russians, many of whom remembered the U.S.'s role in defeating the Germans in World War II, and who generally liked the few Americans they met. It also helped that there were no crises involving Washington and Moscow at the time.

But it became clear that the planned July launch of Apollo 11 for the moon was going to be a problem for the Soviet Union. Like the U.S., it had turned the exploration of space into a kind of Cold War Olympics.

The Soviets had startled the world in October 1957 with the launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, and again in April 1961 when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. They had always assumed they were going to dominate what became known as the space race.


But Sputnik's launch shocked the United States into action. Fearing that the Soviets were well ahead in technology, including military rockets, the U.S. undertook a crash program to "catch up" to the Soviets. On May 15, 1961, Alan Shephard's 15 minute flight beyond Earth's atmosphere in tiny Freedom 7 launched America's manned space program. And 10 days later, President John F. Kennedy, in a speech to a joint session of Congress, challenged the nation to send a man to the moon by the end of the 1960s.

A decade of steady American accomplishment followed. On Feb. 20, 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth in the Mercury program's Friendship 7. The Gemini program of 1965 and 1966 sent 10 manned spacecraft into the Earth's orbit. By the time I arrived in Moscow, the Apollo program had already sent astronauts around the moon.

With the launch of Apollo 11 (and Neil Armstrong, Col. Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin Jr., and Lt. Col. Michael Collins) set for 9:32 a.m on July 16 from Cape Kennedy (now Cape Canaveral) in Florida, the Soviets faced the prospect of a tremendous loss of prestige, even though Moscow remained polite and continued to talk about cooperation in space.


American journalists in Moscow at the time, myself included, had no idea how desperate the Soviet Union was to salvage some prestige from its faltering space program. (In fact, it was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that we learned that the Soviets had tried to send a cosmonaut to the moon, but the rockets repeatedly failed in preliminary tests.)

Correspondents from European Communist Party publications based in Moscow had been telling their American colleagues for some time that the Soviets were planning a "surprise," and on July 13, out of the blue, Tass announced that an unmanned Soviet craft named Luna 15 was on its way to the moon. This prompted speculation both in Moscow and at Cape Kennedy that the Soviets were trying to steal Apollo 11's thunder by having Luna 15 land on the moon, scoop up some moon rock or soil, and return to Earth. …

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