It was mid-August of 1969 in Washington, D.C., and Jack Rooney was at work in the huge, windowless building that housed the National Photographic Interpretation Center. Rooney was a photo analyst. His job was to squeeze useful data from satellite images of the Soviet Union, and he was about to learn something big.
Just a few weeks earlier, on July 20, 1969, astronauts Neil A. Armstrong and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. had stepped onto the lunar surface and into history. America had won the “moon race.”
Yet the Soviet Union did not concede the point. Moscow did not claim to be the first to reach the moon; rather, it insisted that it had never even made an attempt. That being the case, sniffed the newspaper Pravda, the United States had merely won a “race” with itself. The claim was widely repeated in Western media.
However, what Rooney found suggested a very different conclusion. He not only saw evidence of a Soviet moon effort, he also found indications that Moscow’s program had recently met with disaster.
It was a big discovery at the time, 35 years ago, but it was never publicized. Doubts that the Soviet Union had a moon program would persist for another 20 years, until the Soviet press, in a startling episode of glasnost, loosed a flood of revelations about the program. (See “Yes, There Was a Moon Race,” by James E. Oberg, April 1990.)
Those revelations marked the last chapter of a long tale of intelligence operations.
The story started in May 1961, when President Kennedy challenged the nation to put an American on the moon within the decade. The US had little intelligence on the Soviet space program. After Kennedy announced his lunar goal, US intelligence agencies sought evidence that the Soviets were also racing to the moon. They did not find any, but they kept looking.
Success or Stunt
Sayre Stevens was an “all source” analyst working in the Space Division of the CIA’s Office of Scientific Intelligence (OSI). His job was to follow Soviet space systems by piecing together data provided to him from a variety of sources, such as satellite photos, communications intercepts, agent reports, scientific journals, and statements by cosmonauts.
Stevens recalls that, in the summer of 1962, the Soviet Union had launched two manned spacecraft at once, flying them past each other. This appeared to demonstrate a rendezvous capability that might be critical for any lunar effort.
At the time, Stevens did not believe the Soviet space program actually had achieved a rendezvous. Rather, Stevens recalled, it had pulled off a major publicity stunt, one that made the US “look like a fool for the 48th time in the space race.”
Within the Soviet space program, the CIA had no sources to which it could turn for interpretation. David Doyle, an NPIC photointerpreter in 1962, concluded that the United States had no human intelligence at all on Moscow’s program. If it did have secret information from human spies, he recalled, “it wasn’t getting down to us.”
US intelligence did, however, have spy satellites, which were growing more and more sophisticated.
In spring 1963, a Corona satellite photographed the Tyuratam range, a sprawling launch facility situated in the desert of the then-Soviet republic of Kazakh ASSR. Examination of the photos revealed a major new construction effort at the site. Subsequent spy satellite missions revealed that the construction was following a typical pattern. First to be built were barracks to house construction workers. Next came concrete batch plants and supply yards. Eventually, workers began a huge excavation.
At that early stage, no one could determine what the Soviet Union was planning to build at Tyuratam.
Doyle, who specialized in Soviet space and missile facilities, often was the first person to look at the satellite images of launch ranges and missile sites. From the beginning, the interpreters were “thinking space,” Doyle recalled.
The site was close to what the CIA called Complex A, the first launchpad at Tyuratam and the place from which Yuri Gagarin and the other cosmonauts were launched into orbit. When Soviet workers, a short time later, built a road from the site to Complex A, US suspicions about a moon program were strengthened.
In July 1963, however, a top Soviet scientist told British astronomer Bernard Lovell that Moscow had no moon program at all. The comment created a stir within NASA and the CIA. Was it true or merely a ruse? To try to answer this question, Stevens reviewed all available intelligence on the Soviet space program. He found no evidence of a Soviet lunar program, but the CIA deemed his report to be inconclusive.
A Clearer Picture
In July, the US also fielded a powerful new reconnaissance satellite—designated KH-7, code name Gambit—which would provide images with clarity much greater than that of Corona. Gambit soon began returning high-resolution photographs of Tyuratam.
In April 1964, the photointerpreters declared that the Soviet Union was, in fact, constructing a new launch complex at Tyuratam. They called it Complex J. They noted the Soviets had begun constructing two massive buildings, unlike anything yet seen at Tyuratam.
Stevens remarked to himself, “OK, let’s wait and see what happens with J. Let’s just give ourselves a little leeway here.”
That year, Stevens returned to work on his lunar report. This time, he said, he included a judgment that, “obviously, they were trying to build a big missile” but that the Soviet Union was not doing so with the speed required to complete the complex and have it readied to launch a manned moon mission by the end of 1969—the American target date.
Stevens recalled that his second report caused some controversy in OSI. Albert Wheelon, the CIA’s deputy director for science and technology, said later that he urged his analysts to use great caution in this area. His message was: “Let’s be sure, because an estimate here will affect national policy. Let’s be damn sure, because it really matters.”
The purpose of the rocket initially was not clear. The Soviet Union started building this large booster as a multipurpose vehicle and not specifically as a moon rocket. In late 1963, however, Moscow concluded that the US was, in fact, serious about reaching the moon, and Soviet officials in 1964 formally, though secretly, launched a manned lunar effort.
The Soviet military opposed a lunar mission because of its massive cost. Different Soviet design bureaus fought for control of the project. As a result, with limited support and resources, construction at Complex J proceeded in fits and starts.
Meanwhile, though US satellite photos showed the massive construction project was proceeding, Stevens and other analysts were waiting for a giant launch vehicle to emerge from the buildings. They had no hard data on this vehicle, only a conviction that it would be huge.
They had a name for what they were expecting. They called it “Big Mother.”
In addition, they had not yet seen a static test facility needed to carry out a test firing of the entire first stage of the rocket. They expected it to be similar to the one NASA built to test fire the Saturn V first stage at Huntsville, Ala. However, the analysts could not find a similar facility anywhere in the Soviet Union. Some speculated that Soviet space officials might try to test the rocket while it sat locked onto the launchpad, but nobody was satisfied with that theory.
Some intelligence analysts theorized that the Soviets might strap together several smaller rockets, such as the SS-8 ICBM, to make a single big booster. That would not require construction of a new static test facility. However, a NASA rocket expert at Huntsville said such an approach would not work.
The analysts were puzzled by other aspects of the Soviet effort, such as the slow progress of the construction. It did not fit the known pattern. “We’d seen them build launchers … and launchpads and all that kind of stuff,” Stevens said, “but this thing went on and on and on.”
It was apparent that the launchpad “was going to have a Big Mother,” said Stevens, but the question in everyone’s mind was, “When are they going to get it ready to go?”
What the analysts did not know, Stevens went on, was that there was “a big war going on among the chief designers in the Soviet Union, … and they couldn’t get the money. … That’s the kind of stuff you don’t see” at the time.
Probable Soviet Program
In 1965, the Intelligence Community stated in a national intelligence estimate that the Soviets probably were pursuing a manned lunar program but one that was not competitive with Apollo.
We now know that the Soviets did have a manned lunar program. It had an internal schedule for launching their rocket, testing their spacecraft, and beating the Americans to the moon. Virtually everyone in the Soviet program knew that these schedules were a fiction, but nobody wanted to state that conclusion out loud.
Over the next few years, the US Intelligence Community continued to monitor the Soviet space program. Gambit satellites produced detailed photographs of launchpad construction at Complex J, showing that the Soviets were building a large multistory structure inside a deep pit and carving out three huge flame trenches. The images showed construction of a massive rotating service tower that would support the rocket and early Soviet construction work.
A new national intelligence estimate in summer 1967 repeated the view that the Soviet Union likely had a moon program.
In December 1967, US reconnaissance satellites silently passing over Soviet territory finally hit the jackpot. They photographed a massive rocket on the launchpad at Complex J. The CIA had finally caught a glimpse of Big Mother. Dino Brugioni, a senior official at NPIC, remembered that the photo analysts started calling it the “Jay Bird.”
Recently declassified CIA reports on the booster indicated that it was to have a first stage thrust of eight million to 16 million pounds. The Saturn V booster had a launch thrust of 7.5 million pounds, but it also could use powerful upper stage rockets. Moreover, the US had developed very lightweight payload materials.
Throughout 1968, American spy satellites continued to photograph the giant Soviet rocket on the launchpad or transporter, spotting it several more times. (Some of the sightings may have been of booster mock-ups.) The Soviets seemed to be using the rocket for fit checks with the ground equipment, but there was no indication of an imminent launch.
In April 1968, NASA made its second and final Saturn V unmanned test. Agency officials were so confident about the booster that the third launch, on Dec. 21, was manned. The Apollo 8 spacecraft and its three-man crew circled the moon.
Intelligence officials concluded that, unless NASA stumbled badly, the USSR had no chance of winning the moon race.
In fact, however, the Soviets were rushing to catch up. Just two months after the Apollo 8 success, the Soviet Union in February 1969 conducted an unmanned launch of Big Mother, which had been officially designated as N-1. It flew well for 70 seconds, but then the booster’s computer detected a problem and shut down all engines. N-1 continued coasting and falling for approximately two minutes before it crashed far downrange.
The US Intelligence Community entirely missed it. Soviet space authorities had just launched their largest-ever rocket and crashed it, but America’s multibillion-dollar intelligence apparatus was completely unaware of these events.
That brings us to August 1969 and Jack Rooney standing at his light table in Washington.
Rooney moved a thin strip of positive film across the frosted glass surface until he reached the familiar Y-shaped image of the Tyuratam launch range. He had seen the sprawling Soviet facility in the desert hundreds of times in similar photos. He and his colleagues called it “TT” for short.
Rooney slid his dual eyepiece microscope into place and came to Complex J. He knew that it was the Soviet equivalent of NASA’s Saturn V Launch Complex 39 at Cape Kennedy, Fla., where the Apollo 11 mission had begun the previous month. He was familiar with its features. Like spokes of a wheel, three flame trenches radiated from each of the two huge launchpads.
When Rooney adjusted the focus, he was shocked at what he saw. A vast dark smudge enveloped one of the two pads. Familiar details, seen many times in previous examinations of satellite photos, were completely missing. The thick grates that had covered the flame trenches were no longer visible.
Rooney instantly reached his conclusion: Something very big had exploded, wiping out the entire pad area.
He involuntarily shouted an epithet.
In the room, all heads snapped around. Doyle, who by that time was the branch chief, came over and peered into the lens of the microscope. So did other photointerpreters.
What they saw was evidence of a major Soviet disaster, the outlines of which were pieced together fairly quickly. On July 3, 1969, the Soviet Union had made its second attempt to launch its Big Mother space booster. Something had gone terribly wrong. Shortly after it lifted off the ground, it fell back onto its pad and exploded in a huge fireball. The explosion knocked out windows for dozens of miles around the area. Moreover, it knocked down a lightning tower, caused the collapse of most of the flame trenches and the underground pad facility, and scorched and crumpled the launch tower.
US seismic detectors actually had picked up the explosion, but a US satellite did not overfly the facility until weeks later. Later still, the satellite disgorged its film capsule, which re-entered Earth’s atmosphere and was snatched out of the air by an Air Force JC-130, a specially modified transport rigged to retrieve a capsule as it floated back to Earth on a parachute.
Eventually the film arrived in Washington and landed on Rooney’s light table.
Rooney’s discovery of the devastated launchpad—the pad thought to be at the heart of the Soviet moon program—was a hot intelligence item. Brugioni recalls that he was told to rush information about it to the CIA’s deputy director for intelligence, who would brief President Nixon, and to the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who would brief Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird.
The message was that the Soviet manned lunar program had suffered a catastrophic setback.
Two years later, in 1971, the Soviets launched another N-1 rocket, which also was destroyed. This time, US intelligence assets detected the event. The following year, in November 1972, the Soviets tried again and again they failed.
A few years later, Moscow finally mothballed the project. In the West, the media continued to report the Soviet claim that it had never engaged in an effort to put a man on the moon.
It was not until 1989 that the Soviet government finally revealed what US intelligence officials had known for decades: Moscow had tried hard to get to the moon. Big Mother had been a big part of that effort. It was real, but it proved to be a total failure.
Dwayne A. Day is a space policy analyst and historian. He worked at the George Washington University Space Policy Institute and the Congressional Budget Office. He is the author of Lightning Rod, a book about the Office of the Air Force Chief Scientist, and edited Eye in the Sky, a book about early satellite reconnaissance. He recently served as an investigator for the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. This is his first article for Air Force Magazine.