A Loudouner’s ‘Gut Judgment’ that Contributed to America’s Moon Mission

Before Neil Armstrong declared his step for man and leap for mankind a half century ago, President John F. Kennedy, in a 1961 address to Congress, established the national goal of safely sending a man to the moon and back within that decade.

         And a few days before that speech, a young CIA operative was called to the White House to brief the president on the likelihood that the Soviets—already well ahead in the Cold War space race—would beat the U.S to that accomplishment.

         Sitting in his Bluemont farmhouse late last week, Henry Plaster, who spent 40 years on the leading edge of the CIA’s reconnaissance programs, recounted the space race in the 1950s and early 1960s and his meeting with Kennedy in a While House conference room. 

         Plaster joined the CIA in 1954 and became part of a team closely monitoring Soviet’s intercontinental ballistic missile and satellite programs. In 1957, they detected the successful launch of Laika, the first animal to orbit the Earth. Before the April 12, 1961 launch of Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin as the first human to orbit the earth, he and his team developed new intercept equipment that allowed them to tap into the Soviet’s real-time flight communications and pass that information to the White House.

         “This is a true story, unbelievable. Before he landed, the first man in space, the president knew they had had a successful launch,” Plaster recalled. “That is an amazing story and I don’t think it has ever been told because it was too classified at the time.”

         At the same time Kennedy was wrestling with whether to commit the nation to a moon mission that he said would require the commitment of “every scientist, every engineer, every serviceman, every technician, contractor, and civil servant.”

         As part of those deliberations, he had two questions: Could the Soviets complete that task first? And could America pull it off?

         Plaster, the CIA’s expert on the Soviet’s Earth-orbiting space operations, and a colleague, who was the expert on their lunar and interplanetary programs, were called in to answer the first question. 

         “He said, what is the earliest the Soviets could put a man on the moon?” Plaster recalled. “He was going to make the decision to have the U.S. spend a lot of money on the man on the moon program. So, he needed to know with high confidence from the intelligence community that within this decade—that is before Jan. 1, 1970—the Soviets could not put a man on the moon within that time frame.”

         “We told them point blank. Part of that was just gut judgment,” he recalled.

         “We could tell how sophisticated their communication links were. Did they work? Yes. Were they state-of-the-art at the time? Not really. They were not as skilled at communicating up and down.”

         And while the Soviets had “one or two really brilliant space engineers” at the highest levels of the program, they lacked depth in the support companies that would be required for such an undertaking,” Plaster said. “They had the basic gut power to do it, but the skill that went with all the stuff—the planning and the complexities—we were ahead of them.”

         Kennedy also met with another team that advised him about America’s capabilities to pull off a moon landing before 1970. Plaster said he didn’t know what that group had recommended during their classified briefing until Kennedy delivered his speech to Congress a week or so later. 

        “First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish,” the president said in his May 25, 1961, address. 

         “This decision demands a major national commitment of scientific and technical manpower, materiel and facilities, and the possibility of their diversion from other important activities where they are already thinly spread. It means a degree of dedication, organization and discipline which have not always characterized our research and development efforts. It means we cannot afford undue work stoppages, inflated costs of material or talent, wasteful interagency rivalries, or a high turnover of key personnel. New objectives and new money cannot solve these problems. They could, in fact, aggravate them further—unless every scientist, every engineer, every serviceman, every technician, contractor, and civil servant gives his personal pledge that this nation will move forward, with the full speed of freedom, in the exciting adventure of space,” Kennedy said.

         While Kennedy wasn’t alive to see it, his goal was met with just under six months to spare. 

         As for the Soviet’s lunar ambitions? “They never even tried,” Plaster said. 

         “Our question was: Can the Soviets do it, and we told them not in this decade. That’s the bottom line,” Plaster said. “And we sort of vicariously patted ourselves on the back when they didn’t try over the years.”

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