SERGEI KHRUSHCHEV: "It was very similar to feeling among Americans when [Yuri] Gagarin went into orbit. Some of them tried to ignore it, some of them were insulted." Image: © SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN/SASWATO R. DAS
The Cold War between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. formed the backdrop of the Apollo program, as the two superpowers jockeyed for preeminence in space. Under premier Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Union had succeeded in launching Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, and sending the first man into orbit.
Reeling from a succession of Soviet space firsts, President John F. Kennedy promised that the U.S. would be first to send humans to the moon and return them to Earth before the end of the 1960s. On July 20, 1969, that promise came true as Americans claimed victory when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, witnessed by some 500 million television viewers on Earth.
Sergei Khrushchev, Nikita's son, recently looked back and remembered what it felt like to be on the Soviet side. (These days, Khrushchev, 74, is a fellow at Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies in Providence, R.I., where he spoke in his office, surrounded by Soviet memorabilia.)
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
Where were you when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon?
I remember the moon landing very well. I was 34. I was on vacation with my friends, most of whom worked at the Chelomei design bureau. There was also an officer from the KGB. We were in Ukraine, in Chernobyl. It was exactly the place where they later built the [infamous] nuclear power station. The KGB officer had just returned from Africa, and he had brought a small telescope. So we looked through the telescope, but we didn’t see any moon landing! So it was still questionable to us! [laughs]
How widely was the news of the moon landing disseminated in the Soviet Union in advance of the event?
Of course, you cannot have people land on the moon and just say nothing. It was published in all the newspapers. But if you remember [back then] when Americans spoke of the first man in space, they were always talking of "the first American in space" [not Yuri Gagarin]. The same feeling was prevalent in Russia. There were small articles when Apollo 11 was launched. Actually, there was a small article on the first page of Pravda and then three columns on page five. I looked it up again.