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Foreshadowing: What Did Alexei Leonov Say (and Mean) in early June, 1969

When Charles Sheldon mentioned (see the side-bar article "The Russians Still Have an Outside Chance" What US Intelligence Expected of the USSR Before Apollo 11) that cosmonaut Alexei Leonov had provided some commentary of significance in June 1969, this small observation by the American analyst provided an impetus to find out exactly what did Leonov say, and what may have been the full import of what the Russian space personality meant. Apparently the cosmonaut's comments were given enough weight that US intelligence included them in its data matrix on Soviet space activities that we can infer that Sheldon had read shortly before his interview for the newspaper Stars & Stripes.[87]

There did appear two mentions of Leonov's comments in Sheldon's Congressional report Soviet Space Programs 1966-1970 volume--one from June 2, 1969 on Kyodo radio in Tokyo (at 0313 GMT), and the other from June 14, 1969 in the newspaper Yomiuri, also sourced from the Japanese capital.[88] The reports had similar themes in that the USSR had a manned program very similar to the Apollo project of the Americans, and that there was confidence that rocks retrieved by Soviet means would be put on public display in 1970. Below is the Kyodo radio report.

"Cosmonaut Leonov said that the Soviet Union was planning a manned flight to the Moon similar to the Apollo landing. If all went well, it would be possible for the Russians to send a man or men to the Moon before the end of 1969 or early in 1970. He was confident that pieces of rock picked up on the surface of the Moon by Soviet cosmonauts would be put on display in the Soviet pavilion during the Japan World Exposition in Osaka (Expo 1970). Unlike the direct flight of the Apollo vehicle, the Soviet approach would involve assembling a space station in Earth orbit, and launch the lunar probe from there. He said the Russians would get pieces of rock either by manned or unmanned vehicles in time for the Expo 1970."[88]

Interestingly, Kyodo radio emphasized that Leonov made clear reference to a two-pronged effort by both manned and unmanned Russian spacecraft to retrieve lunar soil samples. It also appears to say that there was going to be some form of Earth-orbital rendezvous for the manned-related lunar components to be docked together. However, the two sources do not provide context for the cosmonaut's remarks, nor do they indicate if the story contained more material of interest. Was there more? It was time to find out.

The Henry Shapiro papers archive at the US Library of Congress contributes the key amplifying information. The re-discovered wire story not only provides more information from Leonov, but the article also supplies the context in which Leonov had been imparting the comments that were reported around the world. The wire piece (date-lined Moscow) was from June 2. It appears that the cosmonaut was hosting a group of Japanese science journalists in Moscow, and that the meeting was an informal get-together.

"A Soviet cosmonaut was quoted by Japanese science reporters today as saying the Soviet Union may send a man to the Moon at the end of this year 'if all goes well.'

Alexei Leonov, who was the first man ever to walk in space, had an informal discussion Sunday with a group of traveling Japanese scientific correspondents. He was quoted as saying: 'If everything goes well it will be possible for the Soviet Union to send a man to the Moon before the end of this year or next year.'

He spoke to the Japanese through an interpreter at an informal gathering, and there was no way tonight of checking with Leonov or obtaining any official information [to confirm the comments].

Nor was there a confirmation of a report in Paris that the Soviets were planning a manned space shot within the next few days.

According to some of the Japanese correspondents, Leonov said he was confident that Soviet space men would pick up rocks from the surface of the Moon, which they would display at the Japanese international exposition in Osaka in 1970.

The Soviet Union is working on two possible ways of landing on the Moon, Leonov told the journalists.. One is a straight shot by a very powerful rocket, and the other is to establish a space station [in Earth orbit] and carry on [a lunar mission] from there.

He was quoted as saying that the Soyuz space ship can be linked into a space station comprising as many as four different ships.."[89]

There is some question if Leonov knew that his comments would be reported by the Japanese media. There is additional uncertainty as to whether the "two possible ways" as reported by UPI were actually only one scenario being described, and that Leonov may have been actually communicating that the USSR's manned lunar landing plans involved a super rocket, and an Earth-orbit rendezvous together. If this suspection is correct, then US intelligence's guess that the July 1969 lunar mission involved two rockets might be near the mark.

An additional curio is the mention of the manned space launch rumors in Paris. If any of our French colleagues know more about this story, they are encouraged to hold forth. It seems that it might have originated from statements told at the Paris Air Show by an American official. (Please see the side bar, "The Russians Have an Outside Chance.")

As Charles Vick comments, "In light of the now-known hardware development, as well as the initial N-1 rocket failure experience under the Russian engineers' belts, the only way Soviet cosmonauts could have retrieved lunar samples themselves in July 1969 was to fly the LK lander unmanned to the lunar surface with a form of soil-sample return equipment incorporated onto it. In this speculative scenario, the LK would then have to

return the drilling samples back to lunar orbit by automatic means, where then the Soviet crew would have to retrieve these samples via EVA to the LK and subsequently back to their crewed space ship. Thus, the cosmonauts would have simulated the entire lunar landing mission scenario except the manned landing itself."[90]

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