Recently released documents from that era show that the CIA was briefing NASA administrator James Webb regularly about Soviet plans for a lunar orbit mission by the end of 1968. According to space historian Dwayne Day, Sherman Kent, who headed the Office of National Estimates, had been providing intelligence on the Soviet space program from as early as 1965. In the mid-1960s the Soviet program had lagged behind NASA’s, but, wrote Kent, the Russians “could achieve a manned lunar landing about mid-1969 at the earliest.” And then came the setbacks for Apollo, particularly the fire.
The pace of Russian lunar missions had U.S. space planners genuinely worried. In the month prior to the April 1968 meeting between Borman and Low, the Soviets had launched the unmanned Zond 4, which had a similar configuration to the Soyuz modules designed to carry cosmonauts. Zond 4 flew out to about 200,000 miles from Earth, then turned around and executed a high-speed reentry. It came in too steeply, however, and had to be blown up over west Africa to avoid the risk of its falling into western hands. Zond 4 was followed quickly by Luna 14, an unmanned flight that entered lunar orbit on April 10—leading to speculation that a manned version would soon follow. Then, just a week later, the Soviets launched Cosmos 213 and 214, unmanned Soyuz test vehicles that succeeded in docking automatically in Earth orbit.
Amid these Soviet triumphs, the second Saturn V flight, the unmanned Apollo 6, was launched on April 4, 1968. During the first stage burn, it suffered violent “pogo” oscillations that would have injured a crew. Then two of the five second-stage engines shut down prematurely. Finally, the third-stage engine failed to relight when commanded to, rendering the mission a failure.
Low was watching the calendar. President Kennedy’s deadline for a lunar landing—“before this decade is out”—was hardly more than a year and a half away. Fortunately, the team led by rocket scientist Wernher von Braun at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, quickly addressed the pogo problem and engine failures, solving them in a matter of weeks. But the lunar module’s progress continued to slide.
That’s when Low—as detailed in his personal notes, now kept at Rensselaer—unveiled his plan.
On August 7, having learned that the lunar module test in Earth orbit might have to slip until March 1969, Low wrote, “I asked Chris Kraft [director of flight operations] to look into the feasibility of a lunar orbit mission on AS 503 [the next available Saturn V booster].”
Two days later, Low met with Bob Gilruth, the director of the Manned Spacecraft Center (now the Johnson Space Center) in Houston. At 8:45 a.m., according to his notes, Low told Gilruth he’d been considering the possibility of a lunar orbit mission with Saturn number AS 503, and got a very enthusiastic response. Fifteen minutes later, Kraft indicated that his preliminary studies showed a lunar orbit mission was feasible. With that, Low called a meeting of Gilruth, Kraft, and, representing the astronaut office, Deke Slayton. “After considerable discussion, we agreed that this mission should certainly be given serious consideration,” he wrote, “and that we saw no reason at the present time why it should not be done. We immediately decided that it was important to get both von Braun and [Sam] Phillips [the Apollo program director at NASA headquarters in Washington] on board in order to obtain their endorsement and enthusiastic support.” The men made a flurry of calls, and an in-person meeting was arranged.
By that afternoon, Friday, August 9, a dozen of the top decision makers in the Apollo program had flown from Florida, Texas, and Washington to Huntsville. They convened in von Braun’s office at 2:30. Low ran the meeting, selling the group immediately on his idea to send astronauts to orbit the moon within four months. The meeting ended with high morale, and with an agreement to get together in Washington on August 14.
In the days that followed, Kraft worked out the best available window for a daylight launch, which fell between December 20 and 26. Slayton visited Borman on Saturday, August 10, and asked if he’d like to take the mission. He got an enthusiastic yes. Other technical issues, such as how to make up for the weight of the missing lunar lander on the Saturn rocket (it wouldn’t be needed for an orbital mission), were raised and solved.
At the August 14 meeting in Washington, NASA Deputy Administrator Tom Paine pressed the Apollo managers as to whether they’d really considered all the risks of a lunar orbital mission. In his notes, Low recorded the comments around the table. Speaking for the rocket team, Von Braun said, “Once a decision has been made to fly a man on [Saturn number] 503, it doesn’t matter to the launch vehicle how far we go.” Slayton said, “This is the only chance to get to the moon before the end of 1969. It is a natural thing to do.” Kraft thought: “Probably the flight operations people have the most difficult job in this…. But I have every confidence in our doing it.” Low himself concluded with “The question is not whether we can afford to do it; it should be can we afford not to do it.”