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This article is from the In-Depth Report The 40th Anniversary of Apollo 11

The Moon Landing through Soviet Eyes: A Q&A with Sergei Khrushchev, son of former premier Nikita Khrushchev

A son of the Cold War tells what it was like from the losing side of the Space Race--and how the U.S.S.R.'s space program fizzled after Sputnik and Gagarin
Khrushschev, moon, Apollo, Soviet



© 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.

What was the mood in the Soviet space program when astronauts from Apollo 11 landed on the moon?
It was very similar to feeling among Americans when Gagarin went into orbit. Some of them tried to ignore it, some of them were insulted. But I don't think it had a strong popular effect. First of all, the Soviet propaganda did not play it up or give too much information. I remember I watched a documentary on this. It was not secret, but it was not shown to the public. The Russian people had many problems in day-to-day life, they were not too concerned about the first man on the moon.

Was Russia pretty close?
The Russians were not pretty close. I think Russia had no chance to be ahead of the Americans under Sergei Korolev and his successor, Vasili Mishin. [Sergei Korolev was the leader of the Russian space program who, with Mishin overseeing the development of the rocket, succeeded in launching Sputnik 1. He died in January 1966.—Editor's Note]

Korolev was not a scientist, not a designer: he was a brilliant manager. Korolev's problem was his mentality. His intent was to somehow use the launcher he had. [The launcher was called N1]. It was designed in 1958 for a different purpose and with a limited payload of about 70 tons.] His philosophy was, let's not work by stages [as is usual in spacecraft design], but let's assemble everything and then try it. And at last it will work. There were several attempts and failures with Lunnik [a series of unmanned Soviet moon probes]. Sending man to the moon is too complicated, too complex for such an approach. I think it was doomed from the very beginning.

Of course, you must understand that I am speaking from the point of a competitor. We worked with our own project, [at] the Chelomei design bureau. Maybe we were more realistic. But I don't think we would have been able to beat the Americans.

When talking about the Russian space program, there is a misconception in the West that it was centralized. In reality, it was more decentralized than in the United States, which had one focused Apollo program. In the Soviet Union, there were different designers who competed with one another.

What was your father's perspective on Apollo 11? Did you discuss with him the American moon landing over the years?
My father's reaction was he couldn't understand why Korolev failed in this race. And of course I gave him my opinion why. My father did not discuss [the moon landing] too much. He listened to me. He was very proud of Sputnik; he wrote about it in his memoirs.

What are your thoughts about renewed efforts to go to the moon?
The Apollo project was a political project. Now we are under very different circumstances. Also, a big difference is technological achievement. At that time, we were at the beginning of the age of [space] automation, discovery and research. Now we have all this, starting from the spectacular achievements of the Hubble Space Telescope and the Mars rovers, etc. I would give priority to automated vehicles, not manned spaceflight.

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