On the eve of the 40th anniversary of the world's first space satellite, the Soviet Sputnik 1, Sergei Khrushchev, eldest son of the former Premiere and Soviet Union Communist Party General Secretary said that his father made the decision in November 1963 following a renewed Kennedy initiative to sell the Soviets on a joint manned lunar program.
"My father decided that maybe he should accept (Kennedy's) offer, given the state of the space programs of the two countries (in 1963)", Khrushchev told SpaceCast following a talk before a NASA conference in Washington on the effects of the historic Sputnik launch on Oct. 4, 1957. Sputnik was the world's first artificial satellite of the Earth, and its autumn 1957 launch into orbit is widely credited with starting the superpower space race that lasted until the end of the Cold War in 1991.
Kennedy had made the offer of a joint manned lunar program to the Russians on several occasions, but his most aggressive effort was made in a speech before the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 20, 1963 in New York.
At the end of that address, Kennedy said: "In a field where the United States and the Soviet Union have a special capacity - space - there is room for new cooperation, for further joint efforts."
"I include among these possibilities," he added, "a joint expedition to the Moon." Why, the President asked, should the United States and the Soviet Union conduct parallel efforts that would include "duplication, of research, construction, and expenditure?"
He laid out a proposal for a joint series of space missions, which if enacted, he said "will require a new approach to the Cold War." But like his earlier proposals to the Russians on joint manned spaceflight, this one also was rejected by the Khrushchev government.
But Sergei Khrushchev told SpaceCast, that in the weeks after the rejection, his father had second thoughts. While the Premiere had agreed with Russian military leaders that said any joint Moon flight would provide an opportunity for the U.S. military to learn more about Russian rocket and missile programs, he now thought that it might be possible to learn more from the technology of the Americans.
"He thought that if the Americans wanted to get our technology and create defenses against it, they would do that anyway. Maybe we could get (technology) in the bargain that would be better for us, my father thought."
In late 1963, the Russian government was still designing their lunar launch vehicle, the N-1, and their manned spacecraft system, the Soyuz. Ultimately, the N-1 was abandoned following repeated launch failures. The Soviet manned lunar program would also be abandoned in the early 1970's following the U.S. landings in the Apollo program. The Soyuz was developed, however and became the spacecraft used in Russian space station programs, from the early 1970's right on through to today's MIR station.
Sergei Khrushchev also said his father viewed the prospects of new western cooperation linked with plans to cut back on the Russian Army size from its level of 2.5 million men in 1963 to possibly as low as 500,000 conscripts. And Khrushchev was also planning to begin diverting weapons complex design bureaus into more consumer and commercial, non-military production, a process started by the Yeltsin government that is still evolving in today's Russia.
If these newest revelations are correct, the prospects of a visit to the Soviet Union by President Kennedy during the 1964 Presidential campaign, suggested by several former Kennedy administration staffers or a visit to Russia early in a Kennedy second term might well have cemented the joint lunar plan. And such a Kennedy/Khrushchev initiative might have staved off the planning of a coup that eventually removed Khrushchev from office in October, 1964.
"I think," Sergei Khrushchev said, "if Kennedy had lived, we would be living in a completely different world." But a week after the reversal decision was allegedly made, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas and the decision was dropped.
Although the Johnson administration made a similar offer for joint manned spaceflights early in 1964, the Russians were too suspicious of the new administration, some analysts have suggested. And, Khrushchev said, much of the rationale for the acceptance of the joint mission plan was the "chemistry" built up between his father and John F. Kennedy, who had clashed repeatedly with the Soviet leader during the previous two years but seemed to be moving towards a new relationship and foreign policy following the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and Kennedy's speech before American University in the summer of 1963, proposing new U.S.-Soviet cooperation and a joint Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
The Soviet government viewed the Kennedy initiative started at American University as a major turning point in U.S.-Soviet relations during the Kennedy Presidency.
Analysts, however, must be cautious about Khrushchev's new information. Both the Soviet Politburo and the U.S. Congress would have had to approve the bold plan, which would have abruptly ended the space competition started in 1957, and opened the U.S. space industry to direct Russian involvement, a radical idea in the 1960's Cold War environment.
Some have also suggested that, given the political atmosphere of the time, the U.S. Congress of 1963/64 would not have looked too favorably on dropping a space program sold primarily as "beating the Russians to the Moon" for one that would, in essence, bring them along on a spacecraft and booster paid for by the U.S. taxpayer.
But Kennedy fretted over the cost of the Apollo program almost literally until the day he died. A joint plan would have preserved the project while reducing the cost, further shifting its rationale onto foreign relations and superpower stability - goals now identified with the current US-Russian space partnership and a reason often given today for continuing the program. And had the President lived to conduct a 1964 campaign, U.S.-Soviet cooperation following years of tension may well have been a central element to the foreign policy espoused during that election effort. The available documentary evidence suggests that Kennedy was moving towards a new cooperative relationship with the Soviet government that he hoped to expand following a reelection in 1964.
But history will never know what possibilities existed in the space program that was not to be, in what Sergei Khrushchev called "those wonderful golden years" now long passed into the mists of history.