Space Race Diary
Red Air Force General Nikolai Kaminin was just one of many players in the Soviet space program. His job was to train cosmonauts. But his legacy — a candid diary describing Soviet triumphs, setbacks, and reactions to the American program — is an important relic of the Cold War.
At the time, few in the West knew details of what was going on behind the Iron Curtain, and Soviet leaders realized their space exploration feats could be used as pro-Communist propaganda. It became common practice for the Russians to announce their latest space conquests only after a mission succeeded — hiding mistakes and creating the illusion of an unstoppable juggernaut of technical prowess.
Read these diary excerpts to learn more about the Space Race, which began in 1961 with President John F. Kennedy's call to put a man on the moon within the decade, in a direct challenge to Soviet space supremacy.
April 29, 1965
In spring 1965, Soviet leaders were basking in the success of cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, who had completed the first spacewalk on March 18. But Kaminin, a space program insider, knew that much work needed to be done.
"The flights of American Rangers yielded a lot of new data about the moon, but one of the key questions that remains to be answered is the density of moon rock. Many scientists have compared the moon surface with loose snow or lichen, which spelled considerable obstacles in landing and lift-off...
"I am deeply convinced that given good organization and commitment of all our potential we can put a man on the moon within three years. We have instructions from the Central Committee of the C.P.S.U. [Communist Party of the Soviet Union] and the government to fly around the moon in 1967 and to land on the moon before the end of 1968. These were important decisions, but so little is being done to implement them that the deadlines will certainly not be met."
August 27, 1965
The day after the American Gemini 5 mission broke a Soviet space endurance record, Kaminin groused about Soviet leadership.
"During the past year, Americans have made great strides in outer space... This would seem to provide ample grounds for our leadership to show concern and ask the question, what's the matter? Why is the U.S. ahead of us? But the Defense Minister and the General Staff keep mum as if everything is going according to plan. For five years we have claimed that socialism was the best launching site for space flights. And now the U.S. has proved that this is not quite the case..."
September 8, 1965
Kaminin tallied the superpowers' space program expenses -- and found his side lacking.
"The U.S. spent 34 billion dollars on space exploration during the last 12 years (from 1956 to 1965), with 26.4 billion dollars spent in the last four years. Our outlays are much smaller and our financial difficulties are compounded by institutional difficulties. The country does not have a government agency whose sole responsibility is space exploration..."
February 4, 1966
Early 1966 brought more Soviet successes, including the first lunar telecasts.
"A TASS report: 'The Luna-9 automatic station launched on January 3 soft landed on the moon surface in the Ocean of Storms at 21:45:30 Moscow time on February 3...' rocked the world. Washington, London, Paris praised the new Soviet achievement in space research...
"...The TV camera on board the Luna-9 operates well... snapshots of the moon surface have been received and analyzed. Those snapshots will be broadcast... tonight.
"Thus the Luna-9 has brought us four major victories: 1. Soft landing. 2. Earth-moon radio communications. 3. Television transmissions from the moon to the Earth. 4. Pressurized cabin with conditions suitable for living beings in it."
July 21, 1966
In an era when such plans were top-secret, cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov's revealing comments about Soviet space exploration efforts created a political headache for Kaminin, who was in charge of training cosmonauts.
"V. M. Komarov returned from Japan yesterday. The press in Japan and in France reported that cosmonaut Komarov told an audience of Japanese students that 'the U.S.S.R. will soon send an automatic probe to the moon and return it back to Earth and then a dog will fly to the moon on board a similar probe and then a manned mission will be attempted.' I asked Komarov whether he had said anything like that. Komarov admitted that he did say something along these lines. I have already had calls from the Central Committee and the Council of Ministers regarding the incident."
August 17, 1966
After receiving a letter from chief designer Vasily Mishin listing ideas for cosmonaut training, Kaminin reflected on the problems caused by sparring government bureaucracies.
"Mishin's letter... contains a valuable admission that in designing Soyuz the people from IDB-1 were carried away by automation and that in future they will trust the crews more and will try to make the equipment of spacecraft more simple. This misguided enthusiasm lost us a whole three years and was one of the main reasons for our space lag. I have received reports that on August 20 the Americans will launch their second technological Apollo spaceship and if the launch is successful, in November the U.S. will orbit Apollo with three astronauts on board who will stay in space for 14 days. The success of that mission will throw us further back and consolidate America's lead... Instead of concentrating on the quality of preparation of technology and people for space flights, we, the supervisors... have to spend a lot of time to settle quarrels and differences between agencies."
January 4, 1967
As the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution neared, political leaders looked to the space program for triumphs. Kaminin's predictions had been on target; earlier problems were making progress difficult.
"The leaders of the Party and government are charging us with the task of achieving spectacular success in space exploration -- a flight around the moon first by an unmanned spacecraft and then with a crew. It is not an easy task considering that our cosmonauts have not been in space since March 1965 (during this period U.S. astronauts were on ten manned flights)...
"So far, planned piloted flights were disrupted through the fault of the industry, especially IDB-1. Now the cosmonaut training program may become a brake on our programs..."
February 18, 1967
Kaminin confided to the diary his frustration with dismissive remarks from acting defense minister Andrei Grechko.
"S. I. Rudenko today briefed me on his conversation with Marshal A. A. Grechko on organizing a search and rescue service for cosmonauts and spacecraft, including spacecraft returning to Earth at escape velocity... Grechko said, 'I won't give you personnel, I won't give you any money. Do what you like but I won't raise this with the government... And in general I am against moon missions.'
"...Considering such an attitude toward space exploration we have to fight every inch of the way to secure the adoption of decisions that are essential if the most exciting ideas of our time are to be realized. It probably never occurred to Grechko that conquering outer space means a rapid development of science and technology which has a progressive influence on every sphere of activities, including defense."
January 15, 1968
To Kaminin, the accomplishments of 1966 seemed like the distant past as he assessed how far the Soviet space program had yet to go.
"The 'moon council' was in session again today... The whole thing was still in embryo, with few trials made and no decisions taken, and with the trials of systems and units yet to be started... All the options bear the stamp of distrust in the cosmonauts' potential, overestimation of the part of automatic devices, and fanciful requirements made of the systems... The space suit and many spacecraft systems are bulky and too heavy, the spacesuit weighing nearly a hundred kilos..."
July 15, 1968
As the superpowers raced to the moon, technology development problems seemed to multiply.
"Space mishaps continue. Today they reported from the test ground that another breakdown occurred during the launch of the L-1 spacecraft, #8, which had been expected to orbit the moon... A ceaseless chain of catastrophes and breakdowns has been haunting us."
October 11, 1968
Kaminin noted the U.S. was sticking to its ambitious schedule.
"A report has been received about a new flight carried out by Americans -- today they put the Apollo-7 spacecraft with three astronauts on board into the orbit. The flight is expected to last for 11 days, and its main purpose is that of testing the lunar spacecraft and its ability to stay in space for as long as possible. Several months ago the Americans announced the date of the launch -- October 11 -- and they carried it out precisely on schedule."
November 9, 1968
In September 1968 the Soviets had launched Zond 5, which carried a payload of turtles, mealworms, and a life-sized mannequin around the moon. But sending humans to the moon -- and getting them back safely -- presented a daunting set of technological challenges.
"We have carried out a major series of technological launches to prepare for circling the moon. The last flight in the program was Zond-5... The UR-500K rocket and L-1 spacecraft are well tested and reliable, but we still have some problems with star navigation and manned landing. We have had two successful ballistic landings after reentry into the Earth's atmosphere at escape velocity, but we haven't accomplished a single manned landing on the territory of the U.S.S.R."
November 10, 1968
On this date, the Soviets successfully launched the unmanned Zond 6, which carried another biological payload around the moon and photographed the lunar surface.
"...the Americans are going to send Apollo-8 to circle the Moon in December. We are far better prepared for a manned flight to the Moon, but we cannot afford to leave it to chance... The Apollo-8 flight... will involve great risks, but they are prepared to face the risk because Apollos are not suited for unmanned flights."
November 12, 1968
Kaminin, who had been training cosmonauts since 1960, objected to their minimal role in Soviet space flights.
"Air Force space pilots fly spacecraft and they are more familiar with them than anyone... but it is the artillery men (rocket forces) who order the spacecraft. As a result the remarks and proposals of the cosmonauts are not always taken into account by designers, the spacecrafts are overloaded with automatic devices, the tests are delayed and launchings are frequently postponed.
"...Our designers are preoccupied with automating all their systems reducing man to the role of monitor, if not simply a passenger. ('My spacecraft can be flown by rabbits,' Korolev used to say.) ...Spacecraft that would give a more active role to cosmonauts...are more simple and cheap and, most importantly, they take less time to get built and be tried out."
November 13, 1968
Kaminin wrote a flurry of diary entries during the Zond 6 mission. All too aware of the American astronauts' central function in space flights, he bemoaned the Soviets' fully automated spacecraft, which were too complicated to build and test quickly.
"...We continue to build automated spacecraft, which is ten times more difficult than building Gemini and Apollo spacecraft in which the crew takes an active part in manning the flight... We are proceeding as if we were all thumbs: we do not have a common goal and a well-thought-out agenda, and there is a lot of discord and irresponsibility."
December 21, 1968
Kaminin pointed to the April 1967 death of a cosmonaut, Vladimir Komarov, as one event that led to Soviet hesitation. Komarov's Soyuz 1 spacecraft had crashed into the Earth on its descent.
"In the last four years the U.S. has been ahead of us in manned space flights. But few people in the Soviet Union know about it. It is only now when Americans have launched their Apollo-8 that it will be brought home to everyone that we have yielded our supremacy in outer space... It is a red-letter day for all mankind, but for us it is marred by a sense of missed opportunities and a regret that Frank Borman, James Lovell and william Anders and not Valery Bykovsky, Pavel Popovich or Alexei Leonov are flying toward the moon.
"...In 1962... the U.S.S.R.'s authority as the top space power was unassailable... we had no doubt that the U.S.S.R. will remain the front-runner in the Space Race. We had faith in our technology and our plans had the backing of our country's leadership headed by [Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev... but then we made a terrible blunder... haste brought about the death of [Soyuz 1 commander Vladimir] Komarov and that in turn created a tendency of hedging..."
December 31, 1969
After the U.S. sent two Apollo missions, 11 and 12, to land on the moon in 1969, Kaminin conceded defeat. His cosmonauts would never complete a lunar landing.
"On New Year's Eve I feel like looking back on the outgoing year... the name of Neil Armstrong, who became the first man to set foot on the moon on July 21, 1969, will by rights come second after that of Yuri Gagarin, who, as the American astronaut put it, 'beckoned us all into space.'
"Already four astronauts have been to the moon -- and all glory to them! As a Russian who has been at the head of Soviet cosmonauts, I feel sorry for our guys, although neither they nor I are to blame for the fact that they were not the first to get to the moon... I have more than once tried to explain to top officials -- [Defense Minister Rodion] Malinovsky, [Deputy Defense Minister Andrei] Grechko, [Soviet missile and space program manager Dmitri] Ustinov, [Soviet premier Nikita] Khrushchev, [Soviet premier Leonid] Brezhnev, and others -- that they had taken the wrong path, but I failed to bring about any significant change in our space policy."
January 19, 1970
After the moon race, the two superpowers continued their missions to outer space. Kaminin sadly noted diminished interest in the work to which he'd devoted so many years.
"After our debacle in the 'race to the Moon,' interest in outer space on the part of top party and government officials has diminished drastically."