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A Soviet Last Gasp-Stopping Apollo 8 Via Sabotage Threat [Sub-header]

The Soviet Union's top KGB rezident illegal in the late 1960s and 1970s for the North American theater of espionage operations was a Czech national named Dalibar Valoushek, who was better known-at the time--by his cover name of "Rudolf Herrmann."[74] What can now be revealed is that one of his very first assignments (after taking up the chief illegal residency in New York state in late 1968) was a task directly related to the Moon race. 

In early March 1980, the FBI and US State Department held a joint press conference in Washington, DC.  They introduced Valoushek (under his "Herrmann" rubric) to reporters behind a frosted glass screen to talk about his experiences, following his capture by US counterintelligence agents.  One of his "surprise" stories was that, on direct orders from Moscow, he typed up a dictated letter to NASA security that hinted that Apollo 8 was sabotaged. 

The original contents of the proposed letter were sent via a coded radio broadcast to a clandestine receiver that Valoushek owned. (The gravity and significance of this is that the letter was "dictated from Moscow"-probably meaning either Andropov directly had a hand in its composition, or the letter was the product of Directorate workers of Andropov's office after perhaps consulting with Andropov and other Politburo members.)  Valoushek flew to Atlanta and mailed the letter--which had no return address, and was signed "M. Miller."[75-78]

The letter was sent to the security officials at NASA's Kennedy Space Center.  The letter was received on December 16, 1968 in Florida.  The contents told of a story only KGB apparatchiks could have concocted:

 "I had just left Miami and while waiting for my plane I overheard a conversation that seems to be a very important one. Two men were talking near me and one of them, a tall husky fellow, told the other, a Texan from his accent, that something had been done to the [Apollo 8] vehicle.  The talk was technical and not loud so I only caught snatches but I heard them mention [launch complex] '39,' [liquid] 'hydrogen,' 'feedlines,' 'lea-koke,' and 'explosion.'. When I thought it over, I got the idea that something had been done.  This would put '39' out of action during the flight. I clearly heard the man say, 'This will be a lovely Christmas [fire]cracker when it takes off.'  I don't want to make a false alarm.  I only feel there was something sinister about the talk, especially when I saw the Texan was on the same plane.  He scared me.  So I am taking no chances."[77]

It may seem comical to readers that a "Texan" is mentioned, but I suspect that the close proximity in time to November 22, 1963 might have had a hand in casting aspersions on an imaginary denizen of that state.

According to at-the-time Kennedy Space Center security chief Charles Buckley, "I can't honestly remember whether the astronauts were informed, but they may have known about it [the letter] because so many of the supervisors knew about it."[77] According to the NASA officials that commented in 1980, the letter--although discussed at large--did not affect the timetable for Apollo 8, and the lift-off proceeded on schedule.[78]  

Although Apollo 8 did not have its schedule slip from December 1968 due to the Soviets' attempted ruse, I wondered if there might have been anything in the actions leading up to the mission's launch that may have indicated whether there could have been activities (or slices of time) that would have allowed NASA technicians to re-check the rocket and spacecraft.  As we now know, the sabotage letter arrived on the very day that the official countdown began, December 16. 

I looked through a number of publications from that time frame in an attempt to get more details.  I found some additional information relating to the number of holds and time swaths in the Encyclopedia of Space (the UK version of the US-issued McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Space) issued by Paul Hamlyn in 1969.  In a special section dealing with the events of 1968, the following was written:

".On 16 December at 1.0 PM [GMT] the countdown began for Apollo 8.  This stretched over a period of 103 hours. Eight interruptions allowed certain necessary adjustments to be carried out and gave the launch team an occasional rest.  Nevertheless these were very few and minor hitches.  About one day before take-off defects in the fuel cells providing energy for the Apollo capsule were detected.  In spite of the repairs necessary to correct these, there was still a sufficient reserve of time in hand to make it possible to break the countdown again for six hours on 20 December at 9.51 hours [GMT].  On the actual day of take-off [December 21] a further break of one hour took place between 10.0 AM and 11.0 AM [GMT].. At 1.51 PM [GMT] came the moment of drama: The motors of the bottom stage of the Saturn rocket (S 1C) were fired and the great body of the rocket.lifted itself in a sea of flames."[79]

It appears from the above data that there would have been sufficiently substantive swaths of time during the countdown holds and interruptions to do further inspections, but presently such information is not in hand.  However, it is also possible that during the countdown holds that all component and action check-lists were re-examined.  This is an unexplored area where more can be found out via US researchers' anticipated efforts. 

But there were further unusual actions on the part of the Russians in the letter's aftermath. Of these I have managed to uncover, one of the most notable was the manner in which the Kremlin first congratulated the Johnson administration on the Apollo 8 achievement.  Rather than an official communiqué delivered to either the US embassy in Moscow, or via Soviet ambassador Anatoliy Dobrynin in Washington, DC to the White House, the Russians sent their first congratulations via the "Hot Line" between Moscow and the Pentagon (at the National Military Command Center) on December 25.  It was so unusual, that it was recognized by the attending US military personnel to be so. A memorandum resulted.

As described by Naval Ensign Peter F. Hanratty of "MOLINK Team II,"

".The Soviets' interest in the Apollo program was first indicated when, during a routine exchange of operator chatter on the line last month [November 1968], they sent an unsolicited congratulatory message on the successful completion of Apollo 7.Apollo 8 was to take off on Saturday morning, December 21.  Due to their interest in Apollo 7 and the spectacular nature of Apollo 8, a couple of hours before launch we informed our counterparts, via the 'Hot Line,' of the scheduled launch time.They responded enthusiastically and asked us to keep them posted.we informally relayed information in regard to the most important aspects of the flight.  The Soviets were very solicitous about the welfare of the astronauts and the success of the flight."[80]

Furthermore, an additional comment by Hanratty emphasized the "high strangeness" of the communications:  "Another 'first' was achieved on the morning of December 25, when the Soviets sent a Christmas greeting-'Happy Merry Christmas.'  Although New Year's greetings are customarily exchanged, this was the first time we have received a Christmas greeting."[80]

The unusual Soviet messaging was also brought to the attention of National Security Advisor Walt W. Rostow.  He hand-wrote on the memo copy "Sent to the President."  On its face, this memorandum may appear to a disinterested by-stander to be quite innocuous. But due to the presentation of the messaging content (which was also noted by the US military personnel who were the receivers that it was more than a standardresponse-"The Soviets were very solicitous."), the Soviet transmissions on Apollo 8 may provide a link (perhaps a "lifting of the veil") to something more. 

Coupled with the new additional information (about the sabotage letter) now in hand, this action by the Kremlin--to send their congratulations via this specific teletype connection (whose ostensible purpose is for solely crisis situations, and its testing to make sure the "Line" is functional)-can now be perhaps viewed as another piece of the after-effect. 

This specific piece may point to turmoil within the Politburo following the clashing of the KGB's "special action" with the high-profile, marquee (and ultimately successfully enacted) Apollo 8 event.  This "Hot Line" message could additionally be interpreted as an admittal that there was a need to use the crisis communications avenue because of the publicly unspoken political environment and the non-public actions of the Russians.  And it was effective:  President Johnson was informed. 

But an unanswered question looms large:  Did the US government in December 1968 suspect the USSR was behind the sabotage letter?  It seems that the Russians believed so.

It appears that on the US side, the KGB threat letter percolated into the consciousness of US agencies and NASA contractors.  An anecdote was told in the volume Chariots for Apollo about the threat of sabotage from the Russians, during the construction of the Grumman lunar module.

" 'Doc' Tripp, who was then working on America's first space telescope, recalls, 'Those batteries were shepherded around, I swear, just as though it was a Brink's truck full of gold.  I was aware that we were competing very strongly with the Russians, and one way to beat us, of course, was to sabotage our effort here.  I don't know how many saboteurs there were on the program.  I never met one, as far as I know, but apparently there were.  And one of the places I remember where we got really involved with protection and security was with the batteries.'"[81]

Some questions for our Russia-based colleagues:  Did Andropov keep a diary?  If so, where is it presently located?  Are there any retired KGB employees who might be willing to discuss the events (including the sabotage letter) of December 1968 in further detail?  And in regards to the ship flotillas, are there any organizations in Russia for those who worked on these space-tracking ships?  If so, efforts should be made to contact sailors who were in these flotillas, to see if more can be learned.

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