Declassified: the incredible story of how the USSR faked a moon landing

soviet landing

In the 1960s, a race was taking place to determine which nation would be the first to master the Moon. While the United States made great efforts to allow the world to follow in great detail every step, whether successes or failures, the Soviet Union was kept in an airtight bubble of secrecy. In one of the CIA's intercepts of the signals emitted by a lunar probe they heard something incredible.

Harrison flag
Astronaut Harrison Schmitt poses on the Moon next to the U.S. flag and the Earth raised in the sky.

Red moon

Everyone knows how the space race was the product of a competition between the two great nations of the world. However, many ignore the efforts of the Soviets to reach our satellite, as well as the failures that led them to never take a crew beyond low orbit.

n1 on launch pad september 1968
Declassified orbital photograph taken by a spy reconnaissance satellite. This shows a prototype of the N1 rocket on the launch pad for integration testing with ground systems in 1968. Credits: National Reconnaissance Office

The N1 rocket was the counterpart of the famous Saturn V. It would be in charge of carrying two cosmonauts to lunar orbit, after which only one of them would descend to the surface. Before it could fly with a crew it had to complete at least thirteen successful tests to be able to perform a complete mission. Given the catastrophic results, the existence of such a program was kept secret until the fall of the Soviet Union.

The farce

Prior to the testing of the N1 rocket and spacecraft, a series of round-trip lunar tests were carried out to test the reaction of inorganic and biological materials to lunar space.. Using the predecessor of today's Soyuz spacecraft, turtles, fruit fly eggs and plants were launched aboard the Zond 5 probe on a flyby mission to our natural satellite. By observing the changes that the organisms may exhibit, the would have a better idea of a possible response of the human body to space travel beyond low orbit.

On September 19, 1968, the voices of cosmonauts Valery Bykovsky, Vitaly Sevastyanov and Pavel Popovich were transmitted to Zond 5.. It would bounce the signal back to Earth to be intercepted by the CIA. In the audio the crew was apparently reading telemetry data and discussing a lunar landing attempt.. Some time after the event, Popovich was reported to have said in front of the microphone "The flight is proceeding according to plan, we are approaching the surface...".

Zond 5
1969 stamp commemorating the successful Zond 5 mission. This was the first time living beings visited our natural satellite and the first time the probe returned to Earth.

At that time, U.S. space advisor Frank Borman received a phone call from the president. He asked him to explain the intercepted Popovich audio. Other astronauts report several hours of great stress at NASA centers due to the information gathered.

At that time, the Apollo 8 mission had not yet taken off and no human being had managed to reach the Moon. And in the context of the Cold War and the space race, there was a real terror in the United States about losing the race for the Moon against the Soviets. However, this was done only as a joke when they were aware that they had lost and would never take a man to walk on the lunar surface.

Reference: Colin Burgess, Rex Hall, The First Soviet Cosmonaut Team: Their Lives and Legacies.

Francisco Andrés Forero Daza