A full four years before an American flag was planted on the moon, Soviet cosmonaut Aleksei Leonov made headlines around the world when he became the first human to float in the vacuum of space.
"I feel great," he said from outside his Voskhod 2 spacecraft. "I see clouds. I see the sea. I see the Caucasus."
His 10-minute spacewalk on March 18, 1965, was a crowning moment in the Soviet space program, which was pitting the best of its scientific and technological talent against those of the United States in the race to conquer space.
But it wasn't long before the U.S.S.R. had lost its advantage in the space race, with the July 20, 1969, lunar landing by the United States dealing a decisive blow to Soviet efforts to reach the moon.
But according to Leonov, it didn't have to be that way.
The Soviets had launched their own lunar program in the early 1960s and were well on their way, he says, to their own moon landing.
By 1967, Leonov says, Moscow had set its sights on multiple missions to orbit and land on the moon by 1970, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Lenin.
"Depending on the results of these three moon-orbiting missions, it had to be decided who was going to do the landing," Leonov, 75, said in a recent telephone interview from Moscow. "Both programs -- the orbiting and the landing -- were being developed simultaneously. We had the orbiting Proton rocket and the moon-lander N1 rocket. Without waiting for it to be fully developed, we decided to proceed with the moon-orbiting missions. Oleg Makarov and I were chosen for the first crew."
First Cosmonaut On The Moon
Historians say Leonov was officially selected to be the first cosmonaut to land on the moon. Leonov himself says he received personal approval from Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and became the only cosmonaut to actually begin training with simulated lunar landings.
But the project's momentum was interrupted by the unexpected death of Sergei Korolyov, the head of the Soviet space program.
Korolyov was the mastermind behind the Soyuz carrier rocket, a powerful successor to the first-generation Vostok rockets that had carried the likes of Yury Gagarin and German Titov into space.
Aleksei Yeliseyev, a Soviet cosmonaut and flight engineer who flew on three Soyuz missions, said the Soyuz rockets were at the heart of the U.S.S.R.'s early lunar-landing program.
At the time, Korolyov's hope was that several Soyuz carriers could act as a kind of "space train," delivering individual spacecraft elements into the moon's orbit that could eventually be assembled into a single unit that could carry cosmonauts to the lunar surface.
"The Soyuz carrier was designed as a component of the lunar program, an element of the space train," says Yeliseyev, 75, who also lives in Moscow. "Later, it became clear that this was a dead end -- there were too many liftoffs, too many steps. We needed to build a large rocket carrier and develop spacecraft which would either orbit the moon or land there."
Korolyov was grappling with those issues at the time of his death in January 1966. Leonov says if Korolyov had lived, the Soviets would have beaten the United States by six months in launching the first manned orbital flight around the moon.
Instead, that distinction went to the Apollo 8 mission led by Frank Borman in December 1968.
The vacuum left by Korolyov revealed what was to prove a signature weakness of the Soviet space program -- funding. While Korolyov, a well-connected member of the communist elite, had been able to easily secure state backing for his projects, his successor, Vasily Mishin, had far less clout.
By contrast, the U.S. space agency NASA had seen its funding skyrocket from $500 million in 1960 to $5.2 billion just five years later. For the Soviet space program, it was hard to compete -- particularly under Brezhnev, who was notably less interested in committing funds to space exploration than his predecessor, Nikita Krushchev.
Veteran cosmonaut Georgy Grechko -- now 78 and living in Moscow -- said the only thing preventing the Soviets from achieving a lunar-orbit mission months before the United States was a green light from the Kremlin.
"The only thing was to get final 'go-ahead,' and we would have been around the moon in an instant," Grechko says.
In January 1969, Moscow decided to proceed with a plan to launch a lunar-orbiting spacecraft that would serve as a kind of mother ship in an effort to land on the moon.
While one cosmonaut would stay behind to operate the orbiting craft, another would transfer to a smaller landing module and descend to the surface of the moon.
Afterward, the cosmonaut would use the same module to bring him back to the mother ship. In case of a malfunction, the Soviets had planned to land an identical spare module nearby for emergency use. Such decisions sparked doubts among some participants about the plan's technical merits. Leonov, for his part, described the idea of a standby module as a "fantasy."
"The problem was that it was not a rocket carrier, but a lunar-landing cabin. It was hard to imagine how it would be possible to remotely land a separate lunar cabin safely," Leonov says. "Also, where exactly was it going to land? How would the cosmonaut reach it? By walking across the moon's surface? How far? It was dangerous. It was just one of the options discussed."
On July 20, 1969, the world was glued to television screens as first Neil Armstrong and then Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon. The Soviets broadcast patriotic war movies. But Leonov, Grechko, and Yeliseyev gathered with other cosmonauts in a Moscow space institute where they could get the TV signal.
We were aware that a moon landing was the greatest human accomplishment...It was more of a spiritual achievement -- not material, not about money.
It was a bittersweet moment for the cosmonauts, but one they celebrated with joy and vodka, saluting the historic achievement of their American colleagues. That day, Yeliseyev says, it became clear that the United States had achieved superiority in space.
"We were aware that a moon landing was the greatest human accomplishment -- a triumph of intellect, willpower, and aspirations," he remembers. "It was more of a spiritual achievement -- not material, not about money. It was a measurement of these people's lives, a goal worth devoting their lives to."
After the Apollo 11 triumph, Moscow scrapped its plans for manned missions to the moon. By the mid-1970s, the Soviet leadership went one step further and canceled their robotic lunar missions as well.
The move came as a blow to cosmonauts like Grechko, who says it was difficult for the Kremlin to accept that the United States had beaten the U.S.S.R. to the moon.
"Our politicians were used to us being first in the space race," Grechko says, "and they didn't want to come in second. So the lunar orbiting program was canceled. We really regretted that decision. We protested, wrote letters -- but the politicians didn't listen to us."