A British Intervention

An unsolicited suggestion that the Soviet Union did not in fact have a lunar landing program came from a somewhat questionable source, but was widely reported. On July 17, 1963, there were press accounts that British scientist Sir Bernard Lovell, director of the Jodrell Bank Radio Observatory, who had just returned from a visit to the Soviet Union, was saying, “a month ago I believed, like everyone else in the West, that the US-Soviet Moon race was a real struggle. Now I seriously doubt it.” One NASA official deeply involved in international affairs characterized Lovell’s attempt to influence the course of affairs in 1963 “by all odds the strangest chapter in US/USSR space relationships.”17

Asked at a press conference on July 17 about whether, in light of Lovell’s statement, the United States intended to continue its lunar landing pro­gram, President Kennedy replied “in the first place, we don’t know what the Russians are—what their plans may be.” But “there is every evidence that they are carrying on a major campaign and diverting greatly needed resources to their space effort. . . I think we ought to go right ahead with our own program and go to the moon before the end of the decade.” Pressed on the issue, Kennedy continued, in apparent agreement with the position taken by James Webb in November 1962: “The point of the matter always has been not only of our excitement or interest in being on the moon, but the capacity to dominate space, which would be developed by a moon flight. . . I think we should continue and I would not be diverted by a newspaper story.” Asked about the possibility of the United States cooperating with the Soviet Union in a lunar mission, Kennedy said for the first time publicly “we have said before to the Soviet Union that we would be very interested in coop­eration.” However, he added, “ the kind of cooperative effort which would be required for the Soviet Union and the United States to go to the moon would require a breaking down of a good many barriers of suspicion and distrust and hostility which exist between the Communist world and our­selves.” Kennedy concluded that he would “welcome” such cooperation, but that he “did not see it yet, unfortunately.”18

In a July 23 letter to NASA deputy administrator Dryden, Lovell provided more details on his conversations with M. V. Keldysh, president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. He reported that Keldysh had informed him of “the rejection (at least for the time being) of the plans for the manned lunar land­ing” because of several uncertainties regarding the feasibility of such a mis­sion. Keldysh also said that “the manned project might be revived if progress in the next few years gave hope” that such an undertaking would indeed be feasible. Keldysh was reported as saying that “he believed the appropriate procedure would be to formulate the task on an international basis.” More specifically, Keldysh suggested “that the time was now appropriate for sci­entists to formulate on an international basis (a) the reasons why it is desir­able to engage in the manned lunar enterprise and (b) to draw up a list of scientific tasks which a man on the moon could deal with that which could not be solved by instruments alone.”19 As noted earlier, the Soviet Academy of Sciences had limited involvement in, and knowledge of, the Soviet space program, and particularly its human spaceflight aspects, yet Keldysh’s state­ments were seen by the media and some politicians as authoritative.

President Kennedy was kept aware of the issues raised by Lovell’s letter. The CIA told the White House that the letter was “another step in a Soviet move to internationalize manned lunar exploration.” Wiesner forwarded to Kennedy a July 25 article in the New Scientist magazine written by Lovell about his views on the Soviet program; Wiesner highlighted the sections of the article dealing with human space flight.20

During August, “speculation mounted. . . with more and more of a ten­dency to move to an assumption that the USSR has in fact indicated that it wanted to cooperate rather than compete in a moon landing. . . There was a feeling in NASA that the state of Soviet thinking should be fully checked out,” on the outside chance that “the USSR may indeed wish to inspire a slowdown or mutual accommodation in this space race.” Thus, in an August 21 letter to Soviet Academy President Keldysh, Dryden offered to meet with Blagonravov “to discuss further proposals for cooperation.”21

The two met over lunch at the United Nations in New York on September 11. Dryden reported that “Blagonravov stated that ‘Lovell’s statement (i. e., that there was a temporary hold in the lunar program) might be true as of today.’ ” Dryden told his counterpart that “it was not necessary to use Lovell as a channel to convey Soviet desires to the U. S.” Blagonravov also raised “the possibility of cooperation in manned lunar exploration after instrumented landings on the moon had been made.” According to Dryden, “this is a real change from previous discussions in which he had taken the point of view that there was no use in discussing cooperation in this area because of the political situation.” Dryden judged “that the Russians as well as us are having discussions on the value of manned lunar landing,” but that it was “dangerous” to rely only on statements coming from the Soviet Academy for an understanding of Soviet plans, since he was convinced that the Soviet lunar landing program “is a program originated and operated by the military.”22

The reality was that neither President Kennedy, nor NASA, nor anyone else in the U. S. government knew the true state of Soviet space efforts and internal debates as of September 1963. Each participant in the decision pro­cess brought his own values and objectives to the deliberations. Thus it is somewhat ingenuous to have observed, as did one senior NASA official, that the Lovell letter and the Dryden-Blagonravov conversation “contributed to an apparently coherent and progressive picture of Soviet readiness either to abandon their own lunar program or join in a cooperative effort,” and that this was “a dangerously misleading view for the credulous, the uninformed, and the wishful thinkers in official and unofficial places.”23