Were the Soviets Actually Racing?
One issue as Kennedy considered resurrecting a cooperative proposal was whether the U. S.-USSR race to the Moon was real. The White House in 1963 in fact did not know whether there was an ongoing Soviet effort to send people to the Moon. A December 1962 National Intelligence Estimate regarding the Soviet space program had observed: “Our evidence as to the future course of the Soviet space program is very limited. Our estimates are therefore based largely on extrapolation from past Soviet space activities and on judgments as to likely advances in Soviet technology.” The estimate went on to say that “the top Soviet leaders have not committed themselves publicly to competition with the US in achieving a manned lunar landing, and it is highly unlikely that they will do so. . . On the basis of present evidence, we cannot say definitely at this time that the Soviets aim to achieve a manned lunar landing ahead of or in close competition with the US, but we believe that the chances are better than even that this is a Soviet objective.”13
It seems as if the president was not aware of this intelligence estimate. He asked CIA director John McCone on April 29, 1963, “Do we have very much information, and if so, what does it indicate, on the Soviet effort in space?” Kennedy that day had read an article in The Christian Science Monitor suggesting that there was an increased Soviet effort in space and asked McCone “What is our view on it?”14
A formal response to Kennedy’s question did not come for several months. In a CIA analysis dated October 1, 1963, and titled “A Brief Look at the Soviet Space Program,” the agency gave an even less precise estimate of Soviet capabilities and intentions than it had the prior December, saying that the Soviet space plans
unquestionably include manned lunar landings. . . but there is no evidence that the program is proceeding on a crash basis. . . It is believed that the Soviets intend to compete vigorously in the early exploration of the moon and that this effort will include manned flights, although probably not early manned landings.
It is not yet possible to settle with assurance whether the Soviets are engaged in a manned lunar landing program competitive with the United States. Definitive indications of the Soviets being in such a race have not been found, but could be submerged to such an extent that they might exist without being so identified. In December 1962, it was estimated that there was a better than even chance that the Soviets had a competitive manned lunar landing program though no firm conclusion could be reached. A later review of pertinent material produced essentially the same judgment. At present there is still no firm evidence of the existence of such a program, but because of the passage of time, it is estimated that a competitive program aimed at the 1968-1970 time period is somewhat less likely than before. Though the flight testing of a new larger booster and a new manned capsule have been predicted, no firm evidence of their early introduction has as yet been noted.15
The uncertainty in the United States at this time about the exact character of a Soviet program to send men to the moon is in retrospect understandable, since the situation in the Soviet Union was both complex and confusing. While design work on a large booster able to carry out a manned lunar mission was already underway, those developments were not yet known to U. S. intelligence services. There was a debate within the Soviet space system over both the wisdom of a lunar mission and the assignment of responsibility for such a mission, should it be initiated. Final Soviet approval of a lunar landing mission did not come until 1964.16