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Moon landing: In Moscow, 'Nothing happened'

According to 50th anniversary programmes on the BBC and elsewhere over the past few days, the whole world was watching as Apollo 11 descended to the lunar surface on 20 July 1969 and Neil Armstrong became the first man on the Moon.

But in the Soviet “socialist sixth of the world” - secretly engaged in a race to get there before the Americans while publicly denying it - the landing was a non-event. On that momentous summer night, Moscow Television and Moscow Radio went on with their usual programming and the Tass news agency focussed on domestic news.

Jamming of Western radio stations ensured that few Soviet citizens could keep up with what was happening, even if they had heard about it. However, in Reuters Moscow bureau - a two-room apartment in a drab foreigners’ ghetto on the city’s inner ring road - we were able to follow the progress of the Apollo mission on an ancient teleprinter chugging out the Baronial news service. That evening, huddled around the 50-word a minute machine in the cockroach-ridden office kitchen were my wife Doodie, Reuter colleague Alan Thomas and his wife Mary with neighbours from the New York Times and the Baltimore Sun from across the courtyard. Alan and I were minding the shop while bureau chief Adam Kellett-Long was on holiday.

As the Apollo’s landing module was nearing the lunar surface, something - what I don’t remember - called me to the main office, once the apartment’s living and dining room where the newsdesk was a shaky dinner table recycled some years previously after more than a decade serving its original purpose in the bureau chief’s flat upstairs. Suddenly there were loud groans from the kitchen and my wife called me back. The printer had stopped in mid-flow with the module no more than two or three minutes from touchdown.

At first we assumed it was a power problem, but the kitchen lights were still on and the Tass printer next to the Reuter one was still churning out a story, probably about some Soviet industrial achievement but certainly not about Apollo. Suspicious, I called colleagues at the bureaux of AP and UPI across the city while Alan went to the AFP office three floors above ours. In all three the printers had also stopped dead at the same time.

In the event, all our printers came back on line some 20 minutes later, well after the module’s touchdown and Armstrong’s radioed confirmation that “The eagle has landed.”

What lay behind the episode we could only guess. There was no repeat several hours later when Armstrong became the first man to walk on the Moon. Maybe the plugs were pulled on his own initiative by some zealous official in the Ministry of Communications which had total control of all our lines. Or maybe it was just one of the acts of petty spite engaged in by even quite high Soviet officials - or the KGB - to which we were quite accustomed. Given that all four agencies in Moscow were affected, it couldn’t have been by accident. I called the Communications Ministry the following morning but the response was a blank: “Nothing happened.” For the Soviet news media, indeed nothing had happened. The following morning there was no mention of the event in the Soviet media. Only around mid-day did Tass issue a two-paragraph report and that is all that appeared in Izvestia that evening and Pravda and the other newspapers the following day.

Back in Moscow 20 years later during the Gorbachov thaw, a senior Tass journalist who had been a correspondent abroad in 1969 favoured the spite version. “The chiefs were so furious that the Americans had got a man on the Moon first that this was someone simply their spleen,” he told me. “Even if it was totally pointless.” ■