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The Things We Forgot To Remember - The Space Race

Updated Friday, 13th May 2005

We ask whether Apollo 8 was more significant than Apollo 11 in establishing American dominance in space, as part of the BBC/OU series 'The Things We Forgot to Remember'

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Nearly the winner of the Space Race? Brezhnev So you think that Apollo 11 won the space race for the Americans...?

Actually, it’s not as simple as that…the Soviets were on the verge of launching a man into space; the CIA found out and pushed for Apollo 8 to break from earth orbit and go for moon orbit.  That ended the Soviet manned lunar programme, not Armstrong’s footsteps.

When we see stock footage of 'Man on the Moon', we see footage of Aldrin bouncing on the surface. The defining sound-bite is Armstrong's 'one great leap'. In July 1969 Apollo 11 carried out JFK's promise of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to earth. But the real crisis point of the space race had come the previous autumn, when the Soviet Union was on the verge of sending the first man round the Moon. In July 1968, the CIA told NASA how close the Russians were to sending a spaceship – a cut-down Soyuz – round the Moon and back to earth.

Meanwhile, in central Asia, the Soviet moonship had yet to achieve reliability: three out of four tests were explosive failures. But the cosmonauts who had trained for the journey were convinced that the ground crews would get it right if the flight was manned. They wrote directly to Brezhnev asking for the mission to go ahead. But their superiors vetoed this: they were too worried that the mission would fail, and they had heard that NASA was accelerating its effort.

On learning that the Russians had a good chance of being able to get to the Moon by February 1969, NASA's managers decided to advance their own timetable in order to beat them to it. They decided that the Apollo 8 flight, scheduled to stay in low earth orbit like its predecessors, would go instead to the Moon. This would be the first manned flight on the three thousand tonne Saturn V rocket, only the third time one had been launched. Not only would Apollo loop round the Moon like the Russian probes, it would go into orbit round it. But this meant that if their rocket motor failed in lunar orbit, then the three astronauts would suffer a death at once horribly public and achingly lonely.

NASA's risky flight paid off. In December 1968, the three men in Apollo 8 were the first to set eyes on the far side of the Moon. On Christmas Day they broadcast passages of the book of Genesis to an audience of over a billion people, and returned safely on December 29th with the famous picture of the Earth rising over the barren Moon. They had raised the altitude record from 800 miles to 240,000. The Americans were still six months from keeping to Kennedy's plan, but those few who had access to the CIA briefings knew that this was the mission which won the Space Race.

First broadcast: Monday 16 May 2005 on BBC Radio 4

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