Vick and Pesavento take on a huge task in this article: to try to rewrite part of space history. They try to question conventional wisdom as to events in the Nov. 1968 – July 1969 period. Their idea is that the Soviet Union really tried to upstage Apollo-8 and –11 by switching to an alternate method of launch the L-1 and L-3 payloads to the Moon by launching the crew separately in a Soyuz – the "podsadka" approach. A good summary of the articles can be found at Mark Wade's site.
While this hypothesis takes up a relatively small part of their articles, they describe a lot of other interesting material related to the L-1 and N-1/L-3 projects. That material is only tangentially related to the "podsadka" hypothesis. The "podsadka" hypothesis is interesting, but the evidence for it is quite circumstantial, as the authors themselves admit. They have written the articles, it seems, to report on their extensive research on Soviet space history and to provoke debate. I will not here state specific opinions about their conclusions, but just relate some thoughts and point out some remarkable facts that have occurred to me while reading the text.
Robert Seamans said that the U.S. monitored Korolev’s
radiotelephone conversations from his car. I wonder where and how? In Moscow,
one would guess.
The authors describe James Burke as a CIA author,
because of his article "Seven Years to Luna 9" in the CIA publication
"Studies in Intelligence". This is not entirely accurate. Jim is a
friend of mine whom I got to know at the International Space University. He was
the project manager at JPL for Ranger, but had to leave that post after
repeated failures. He stayed with JPL but spent his time trying to figure out
by ELINT what the Soviets were up to in the field of lunar and planetary
exploration. (p. 14, Quest 11:1, 2004).
C.P Vick relates interviews with retired NSA staff and
Russian guidance system designer Benjamin Charny to described telemetry systems
of the N-1. He reports the existence of 14 radio links from the N-1, nine of
which the U.S. intercepted. Three carrier frequencies are give: 143 MHz, 148
MHz and 156 MHz. Vick says that the system was capable of transmitting 9.6
Gbyte/second, an astoundingly high number. It is hard to see how so much data could
be transmitted on such low carrier frequencies. Normally, one tries to have a
small relative bandwidth (absolute bandwidth divided by carrier frequency) to
avoid problems with phase shift in antennas and amplifiers if very high
relative bandwidths are used. Vick also says that 320,000 data channels were
transmitted by this telemetry system. I very much doubt that number as
representing separate data sources. Just imagine the amount of cabling and
signal conditioning equipment needed. I think that there may have been 320,000
channels transmitted per second (as in the Sirius-4 system on the FGB), but
these are not separate channels, just the overall transmission rate.
· Vick also mentions uplinks to the N-1 in three frequency bands. 2.2 GHz, 5.3 GHz and 9.8 GHz. These numbers are quite surprising, because normally a launch vehicle that is inertially guided (isn't that the conventional wisdom about the N-1) only needs a command destruct system – often on VHF. If the uplinks given to Vick by his sources are correct one comes to think of a radio guidance system as used for early Atlas- and R-7 missiles.
The text is somewhat confusing as to what the NSA detected from the four N-1 launches. No direct telemetry received from the February and July 1969 launches, but Zond data seen in playback. This seems to relate to the article's description how telemetry was sent to Moscow (by satellite?) where it was processed and then replayed to Yevpatoria (mission control?) and to a station in the Kamchatka (why?), presumably via satellite. The replay was made "backwards" according to Vick’s sources. It is unclear what this means. No payload data was picked up from the June 1971 launch.
Unfortunately, the references given for these extraordinary parts of the articles are unpublished manuscripts. This may be an acceptable practice if the manuscript is in the process of being published, but in this case this seems not to be the case. The editors of Quest should have helped the authors to sort out this issue.
The article mentions that there was a Soviet spy
inside the US SIGINT effort in Turkey. I
have never heard of that before.
The article dwells extensively on the reliability of
General Kamanin’s diaries. The authors conclude that the diaries are unreliable
and possibly politically edited, or even worse, politically manipulated by the
author himself. Yes, these diaries are problematic, but so are all diaries. The
fact that entries for various days seem to contradict each other is not a sign
of unreliability as such. Real manipulation would have shown the opposite a
perfectly coordinated story, I think. The fact that entries are erratic tends
to give the diaries and air of authenticity, I think. Also, the decision making
process following the flight of Zond-6 must have been complex. Perhaps
Kamanin’s flip-flopping diaries reflect the confused and fluid state of the
internal Soviet discussion in November-December 1968. Vick and Pesavento also
mention a concrete example of Kamanin’s unreliability: Kamanin wrote that
Kosmos-146 entered a highly elliptical orbit. Vick and Pesavento say that this
is incorrect. Is it really? (See the article about Kosmos-146 and
-154 at my web site).
There is a graph on p.46 (Quest 11:2, 2004) which
intends to show the energy needed to reach the Moon for various launch dates in
December 1968. The text compares this graph to the minimum energy curves for
planetary flights shown in Jim Burke’s article "Seven Years to Luna 9"
in Studies in Intelligence. The "hanging icicle" curves of energy
required to reach a certain planet are based on the fact that the Hohmann
transfer ellipse represents the lowest energy required to transfer between two
co-planar circular orbits. To send a probe to the Moon may also require varying
energy (i.a. due to variations in the distance to the Moon), but the minimum is
not nearly as distinct as that for a planetary flight. Indeed, Moon probes have
been launched at many different positions of the Moon relative to the Sun-Earth
line. The authors give no qualitative description as to the source of the
energy minimum for lunar flights. I think other factors than minimum energy
dictated the launch window for L-1 and L-3 launches. Navigation geometry
constraints could be one set of factors. See my article about Zond flights and Mark Wade's analysis.
· The reconnaissance satellite pictures are intriguing. It gives an interesting perspective on the difficulties facing intelligence analysts at the time. The reproduction of the pictures in Quest is probably not perfect. Otherwise it is hard to understand the authors’ very definite statements as to what can be seen in the pictures. I have a hard time making out drag brakes on a Soyuz in the launch tower, let alone seeing the Soyuz rocket itself.