The Secret Side of Space


Fog and mist.

They are living elements of the craggy mountainous cliffs where a Thor/Agena rocket appeared to rise silently, climbing from its launch pad at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base.

At first, no one except those launching the rocket knew it was there. It was ghostlike rising through the mist, its growing roar awakening all living creatures within its voice.

Off shore, a spy ship disguised as a Russian trawler had locked its tracking equipment onto the climbing rocket.

Martin Caidin and I were working on a secret space book as the Thor/Agena raced away, burning a fiery path across the brilliantly lit sky. Two minutes and forty-five seconds later, the big rocket loaded with its spy cameras was high over the Pacific, heading toward the South Pole as the Thor stage burned out and dropped away.

Agena would fire twice to boost its photo-reconnaissance satellite into orbit—an all-seeing two-camera system arranged so that it produced stereo pictures of Russian and Chinese secrets. The 3-D prints could tell CIA analysts what they were looking at, its height and depth, as well as many other details.

The spy’s name was Discoverer, and it settled into a one-hundred-mile-high orbit above Earth’s north and south poles where our planet below would, every twenty-four hours, rotate its entire surface beneath the seeing lenses of Discoverer’s cameras.

America’s adversary’s borders were closed, but its sky was open and Discoverer was there to steal the secrets it labored to protect. Film-drive motors switched on, and the American spy opened its eyes. Below was Russia’s Baikonur rocket base with its launch pads and supporting structures. Discoverer blinked and blinked, and twenty-one minutes later the spy satellite had completed its first trip across the Soviet Union.

Next time around, the spy’s stereo cameras gathered shots of airfields. Missile installations. Military facilities. Soviet harbors. It was a solid sweep, and ground controllers started the procedures needed to bring Discoverer’s secrets back to Earth.

They monitored a countdown display as it fell toward zero.

“Ten seconds,” reported the recovery director of the classified flight. “I’ll call it out,” he told the technician to his right. “I want manual safety override for the retros.” Nothing really new. The flight controllers had done this hundreds of times before. The retro-rockets would ripple-fire and slow down the assembly by six hundred feet per second. Soon after, Discoverer’s film capsule would begin atmospheric penetration. Descending into thicker air, it would slow to a crawl beneath a ribbon parachute. Then, a C–130 retrieval plane would bore in, snatch the chute with the valued film, and winch it inside its cargo bay.

The recovery was a piece of cake. The fruit of the spy’s labor was on its way to the eyes of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Look at this sonofabitch,” the CIA analyst shouted. “It’s bigger than a Saturn V, and the damned thing’s gotta have more punch.” He turned to a colleague. “You have those data reports on the N–1 ready?”

“Right here.”

The CIA analyst quickly scanned the first two pages before slapping the papers against the table. The pictures showed a monster of a rocket, standing almost as tall as the Washington Monument.

The Russians simply called it N–1, and it had one assignment: get cosmonauts to the moon’s surface, but more important, get them there and back before American astronauts. It was February 1969. The Russian space program was unraveling. Rockets rushed to their launch pads had proven unreliable. They exploded on their launch stands or, if not there, shortly after liftoff. The Zond project had been dropped after Apollo 8. No need for a circumlunar flight now. Landing on the moon was the only prize left.

“You know what this means?” the CIA analyst asked his colleague, then quickly answered his own question. “If this monster works, cosmonauts could still beat us to the lunar surface.”

Another countdown came to life at Baikonur. It was the first launch of N–1, and years later, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we would learn missing details.

It was eighteen minutes past midnight Moscow time on February 21, 1969. Russia’s cosmonauts watched in awe and hope as thirty rocket engines lit as one. The monster blasted from its launch pad with a roiling sea of flame larger than Times Square. It sent fire whipping across land and steel and concrete as it rose on ten million pounds of thrust, nearly twice the power of Saturn V, but as it cleared its huge support tower, engines number 12 and 14 “went dark.”

Still the monster kept climbing, right on course with twenty-eight remaining engines, and when the largest rocket ever reached Max Q, the maximum external forces on N–1’s structure, all engines throttled back to take it easy through the “shock barrier.”

That worked. And now, sixty-six second into the flight, it was time to throttle back up to full power. But instead of an expected smooth throttle back up to maximum thrust, the increased power began tearing things apart. N–1 shuddered and rattled so violently it ripped open its fuel tanks. Instantly, fire began eating the giant. Computers began shutting everything down as fire spread faster and faster, and then, the mother of all rockets tore itself into millions of burning pieces in the most gigantic explosion of any vehicle ever built.

The sky above Kazakhstan burned. The night gave way to a shimmering orange daylight over the steppes before it began raining fiery debris with blazing chunks of burning rocket tumbling earthward.

The Russian managers watching felt no need to speak of the obvious. It would now take a miracle to keep Russia in the race.

NASA’s senior managers were made aware of the N–1’s demise, and time was now surely on their side. Deke Slayton got on with the job of picking the astronauts for the first landing attempt. The normal rotation of crews was playing right in his hands. The way it was working out, Neil Armstrong would command Apollo 11 and Pete Conrad would be at the helm of Apollo 12. Deke had long ago made the decision to have either Neil or Pete land the first lunar module on the moon.

Neil was learned, experienced, and had the moxie to get out of a harrowing situation. As NASA’s own test pilot, he had survived potential tragedies time and again. Apollo 11 would get the first shot, but the odds were very high something would go wrong and 11would have to abort. Deke realized there was no other feasible plan, and he called Neil Armstrong and crew into a private room.

“I’ll get right to the point,” he said. “Because of Apollo 8’s success, we’re now on an ambitious schedule. There will be two more test flights, and then a landing will be attempted with you guys—with Apollo 11.”

Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins grinned like Tennessee mules eating briars. The stoic Armstrong, a devotee of Zeno who was unmoved by joy or grief, stood without expression. Armstrong’s lack of reaction to the news was what Deke expected, but he also knew Neil was pleased.

“You’re it, guys,” Deke told them again. “That is, of course, if we pull off successful missions with nine and ten.”

If was the operative word.

The first if on the runway was to fly that buglike creature called the lunar module, or LM. Its job was to take two members of the three-astronaut crew down to the lunar surface, serve as the moonwalkers’ home base, and then bring them back to the command ship in lunar orbit. It would be Apollo 9’s job to take the LM into Earth orbit and see if it could fly.

And if Apollo 9 did its job, there was Apollo 10. It had to pull off a full dress rehearsal. It had to fly the Apollo command ship, the service module, and the LM linked together into moon orbit, then undock the LM from the command ship and fly it to within nine miles of the lunar landscape. From there they would return to dock again with the Apollo 10 command module for their flight home.

Deke really didn’t see any way of avoiding all the potential pitfalls. But, if the job were to get done, it would be like eating an elephant, one bite at a time.

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