27. Research Memorandum From the Director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (Hughes) to Secretary of State Rusk 1



  • Soviet Outer Space Policy

This Memorandum, prepared as a contribution to a forthcoming National Intelligence Estimate, is being circulated more widely because of current interest in possible Soviet shifts in space policy.


In general Soviet policy toward outer space is likely to remain conservative. The Soviets seem likely to move slowly in a field whose potentialities remain to be explored, being careful not to freeze themselves out of potential technical or military advantages. They will probably wish to keep their agreements for cooperation with the US and other foreign countries carefully limited, lest they undertake obligations which may later prove onerous. They have privately come to accept spaceborne reconnaissance as a fact of life, but have not yet publicly acknowledged its legality. They may in the future decide to do so, and thereby attempt to turn the legitimacy of satellite reconnaissance to their own advantage.

The Soviet Union tends to look upon outer space as the preserve of the great powers, and upon its successes there as an important hallmark of national greatness. The Soviets probably believe that spectacular achievements in space exploration are destined to be the distinguishing marks of the great powers to an even greater extent than possession of nuclear weapons. They probably see in their space program not only opportunities for enhancing their prestige (using both scientific achievement and military power as the criteria) but also may see some room for cooperation with the US in a field which emphasizes the unique role of the world’s two super powers.

The Moon Race

Obviously, Soviet space activities have been expensive. And at the same time allocation of economic resources to new investment has been a major problem in Soviet internal affairs. However, it does not necessarily follow that the Soviet space program will be cut back for lack [Page 58] of funds. Though resource allocation decisions have involved difficult choices, Moscow is not so strapped that it is deprived of choices. Later on in the decade Soviet economic strains may decrease, and in the interim the Soviets apparently wish to do at least enough to keep their options open.

The Soviet attitude toward a manned lunar landing appears to be much along these lines. Some of Khrushchev’s remarks have raised the question of whether Moscow might be bowing out of the space race because of the expense involved. Read carefully, Khrushchev’s statements on the subject reveal an artful vagueness. He has rejected competition in suicidal efforts, but has not ruled out the possibility that it might be a Soviet astronaut who makes the first successful trip to the moon and back again. Even while making this qualified rejection of competition Khrushchev did state that Soviet programs in preparation for a moon flight were continuing. We believe that until such time as they may be assured of success, the Soviets will probably refrain from stating an open challenge to be the first to the moon. But the absence of an explicit Soviet challenge does not necessarily mean that they have given up hope of being the first to make the trip.

Prospects for Space Cooperation

Past practice suggests that the Soviets will be more interested in ad hoc, bilateral ventures than in multilateral arrangements in space cooperation. The few cooperative space projects which the Soviets have thus far agreed to undertake with the US have several features in common. Key elements in the acceptability of the proposals were that (1) they involve no infringement of Soviet security, (2) they are demonstrably “peaceful,” i.e., non-military in character, (3) they are non-competitive in the sense that they involve no revelation of fundamental technological weakness or strength by either side, and (4) they are not very important, at least from the point of view of contributing much to the space capabilities of either side. To the extent that the information to be exchanged is useful, both sides would gain equally. The fact that neither would be dependent on the other, however, for data essential for progress in its own national space program, clearly simplified the matter of agreement.

Cooperation in any major venture—certainly any as major as manned space flight—goes well beyond the above considerations, however. For even such a relatively simple proposal as the exchange of astronauts, for example, the Soviets would have to reveal rather full details of flight techniques, life support systems, and space capsule characteristics, as well as characteristics of their launch vehicles themselves. Similarly, any consideration of use of shared tracking facilities would require some infringement of Soviet security.

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Furthermore, any full exchange of data would inevitably require an admission of Soviet shortcomings and space failures—which they have not yet even tacitly admitted. The Soviets have been extremely sensitive on this subject thus far, and are not likely in the future to wish to lead from a position of weakness.

In light of the foregoing considerations, certain specific fields for future cooperation are likely to appear more attractive to the Soviets than others. Meteorology, for example, is likely to continue to be a field where further cooperation will be possible. Communications satellites, on the other hand, will probably not appear worthwhile to the Soviets from an economic standpoint, although a cooperative arrangement could probably be developed which would not infringe on Soviet security considerations.

Other space projects where cooperation with the US might be economically advantageous to the USSR include such fields as mapping, geodesy, and navigation. The obvious military applications of each of these fields, however, would tend to make the Soviets shy away from much, if any, joint activity with the US. We therefore think it unlikely that they will decide to undertake any of them with us in the near term.

Thus as they consider each potential step to be taken in the future, the Soviets will probably weigh strategic implications, whether they can expect a net gain—or at least no net loss—in technology, and the financial costs. Given their concerns, the Soviets are more likely to continue to be responsive to specific limited propositions (which give them a built in assurance of the limits of their commitment and obligations before they make a decision), rather than cooperative programs for larger-scale space endeavors.

In sum, the Soviets may see political advantages in future space cooperation with the US, but we think it unlikely that they will wish to cooperate in projects which they consider prejudicial to their security or which involve major investments.

Space Law and Arms Control

The Soviet Union will probably continue to value consultations with the US on space law which also stress the unique roles of the US and USSR in this field. The Soviets will almost certainly revert from time to time to attempts to exploit discussions of space law in order to score propaganda points. However, the secular trend is probably in the direction of a series of small agreements covering such matters as assistance and return of distressed astronauts and spacecraft. Moscow will nevertheless continue to be conservative in space law questions, and will probably move slowly in freezing legal definitions in a new field in which the totality of Soviet interests may not yet be clear. For [Page 60] example, the Soviets may remain reluctant to agree to a legal definition of outer space for some time.

Moscow has already concluded one arms control agreement affecting outer space—viz. the UN General Assembly resolution on not orbiting nuclear weapons.2 To the extent they have no pressing military requirements, they may seek other declaratory agreements barring further military uses of space. The Soviet preference for declaratory agreements appears likely to rest both upon the desire to establish precedents applicable to terrestrial disarmament, and upon a reluctance to reveal military technology. The Soviet preference is not, however, absolute. Moscow has agreed in principle to the use of satellites as part of control systems to monitor nuclear tests in space, and might return again to the idea of space-borne control systems.

Satellite Reconnaissance

Moscow’s public position is that reconnaissance satellites are illegal. Heretofore, the Soviets have argued that espionage was a violation of international law and could not be legitimized by a new choice of locale. There are, however, signs that this position may be changing. The Soviet Union is developing a satellite reconnaissance program of its own which it presumably must protect. Moreover, recently Khrushchev and lesser Soviet officials have indicated that the existence of reconnaissance satellites obviates the need for other disarmament controls and make unnecessary US overflights of Cuba.

So far all of the Soviet statements indicating Soviet possession of a satellite reconnaissance capability or a degree of willingness to recognize satellite reconnaissance as legitimate have been made in private conversations and have not been published in Soviet media. As a tactical matter, if they found themselves pressed publicly on the issue in the near future, the Soviets might return to restating their standing public position that satellite reconnaissance is illegal. Given the general unresponsiveness of UN members to this issue, we doubt that such an approach would be fruitful for Moscow. At any rate, we believe that sooner or later—in part depending upon the degree to which they may have restated their old charges of illegality—they will find it more productive to turn the international acceptance of satellite reconnaissance to their own advantage. They may then generate proposals advocating the use of observation satellites—to the exclusion of all other means of inspection—to monitor disarmament agreements.

Whether, in an even longer term, Moscow may conclude that the existence of satellite reconnaissance has so degraded key forms of [Page 61] military secrecy that it would be in the Soviet interest to accept a controlled general disarmament arrangement remains highly problematical. It would still involve revelation of a substantial amount of military technology, it would still require a politically intrusive inspection system, and the terms of the agreement would still be the subject of long and difficult negotiations.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Charles E. Johnson Files, Cooperation in Space, US–USSR #2. Secret; No Foreign Dissem.
  2. Reference is to General Assembly Resolution 1884 (XVIII) adopted on October 17, 1963; see American Foreign Policy: Current Documents, 1963, pp. 1082–1083.