Around the moon

The moon race between the Soviet Union and the United States climaxed in summer 1969 when the first men landed on the moon – but there was an earlier, dramatic climax six months earlier at Christmas 1968. That time the battle was to see which country would be the first to send people around the moon and return. Although, in retrospect, there was less and less chance that the Russians would beat the Americans to a moon landing, the chances of the Russians sending cosmonauts around the moon first were very real.

By late August 1968, the Russians were still trying to achieve a successful mission of the L-1 Zond around the moon. The continued troubles with the Proton rocket must have been deeply disappointing. It was then going through its most difficult phase of development and none could have imagined that it would become, much later on, one of the world’s most reliable rockets. Although L-1 Zond missions had started as far back as March 1967 with Cosmos 146, none since then had been entirely successful. In August 1968, the Russians began to realize that time was no longer on their side. The first manned Apollo, redesigned after the Apollo fire, was due to make its first flight in October. Word came out of Washington that NASA was considering sending the second Apollo around the moon before the end of the year. It would be only the second Apollo flight and the first crew on the huge Saturn V rocket. The Russians had considered four unmanned lunar flights as essential before a manned flight: now the Americans were planning a manned flight on only the second Apollo mission, without any unmanned flights around the moon first.

As luck would have it, the same launch window that might take Apollo 8 to the moon opened for America on 21st December but much earlier in the USSR – from 7th to 9th December. This was entirely due to the celestial mechanics of the optimum launching and landing opportunities.