Chernobyl was an awfully nice place to be half a century or so ago. Named after the wormwood herb that grew wild there, the town had a modest population, a river that ran clear, and open land for camping and star-gazing. So that was where Sergei Khrushchev, a 34-year-old engineer, stopped with a small group of other people led by his father Nikita, 75, the former leader of the Soviet Union, in the predawn hours of July 21, 1969.
The day before had been a glorious one for humanity—and particularly for the portion of humanity that was American. Just hours before, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had landed on the moon, stepped outside, set up a suite of instruments and planted a flag. That—the flag part—made it a less glorious day for the Soviets.
Since 1957, when the USSR put Sputnik, the first satellite, into orbit, the two nations had been in a race to land American astronauts or Soviet cosmonauts on the lunar surface. By 1969, the Soviets had been having a terrible run; just three weeks before the Apollo 11 landing, their giant, experimental N1 moon rocket had blown up at the launch pad, causing one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history. The dream of beating the Americans was finished and the Soviet engineers knew it. Now, the former premier, who had led the early years of the race to space, was reduced to following the news of the Americans’ success like any other Soviet citizen.
As the half-century anniversary of the landing approaches, the Soviet Union is a thing of the past and Chernobyl is a radioactive ghost town, ever since the 1986 explosion at its nuclear power plant, but the footprints Armstrong and Aldrin left on the moon are unchanged. Sergei, who makes an appearance in the new documentary film Chasing the Moon, which debuts over three nights on PBS starting Monday, talked to TIME about that extraordinary night in 1969 and the space race that preceded it.
“We were traveling by car and we stopped at Chernobyl,” he said in a recent phone conversation, speaking from Newport, R.I., where he has a professorship at the Naval War College. “It was just a nice small river there. One of our friends had a small telescope. We talked about how we had bragged that we would be first on the moon. But like all other people in the world, now we were proud of humanity. We looked up at the moon through the telescope and saw nothing.”
Sergei had seen other many other things though, most memorably during the decade from 1958 to 1968, when he was deputy section head of the government’s Control Computer Institute in Moscow, developing guidance systems for missiles, submarines, spacecraft and moon vehicles. He began his work just after the great Sputnik triumph, and it was easy then to imagine a future of Soviet dominance in orbit and beyond.
“I was with my father at the time of Sputnik, in Kiev,” Khrushchev recalls. “He had attended some military exercises and was working with local officials. It was a routine visit, but of course he knew there would be a launch and I knew too.”
The word of that launch did not come until the evening, when father and son were having dinner with the officials at the Mariyinsky Palace, the residence of the leader of the Ukrainian Republic. An aide left the room and came back smiling, then delivered the news to Nikita, who announced it to the dinner guests.
“He said, ‘I will tell you it is a big achievement, but it is a secret: We launched a Sputnik,'” says the younger Khrushchev. “He moved from talking about local affairs to how important Sputnik was. The officials were disappointed. They thought their affairs were much more important.”
The Soviet leader was right about the importance of Sputnik, technologically as well as militarily: the R-7 rocket that put the payload in orbit was principally used as an intercontinental ballistic missile, and it had much more propulsive muscle than anything in the American space arsenal. (Sputnik would also earn Nikita Khrushchev the title of TIME’s Man of the Year for 1957.) Just as important was the global prestige the launch provided the Soviets—a vital commodity in a bipolar world, riven by the capitalist-communist, West-East divide. The Soviets built on their early lead, putting bigger and heavier Sputniks in orbit and trumping all of those successes in 1961, when they launched Yuri Gagarin on a one-orbit, 88-minute flight, making him the first human being in space.
“Nikita was on the Black Sea resort working on one of his reports,” his son says. “[Sergei] Koralev [the Soviets’ chief spacecraft designer], called and told him ‘man is in space and we have to wait 90 minutes now [to learn if he comes home safely].'” Nikita spent that hour and a half nervously, distractedly. “Koralev called the second time and said, ‘He’s back.’ And Nikita said, ‘Tell me, tell me. Is he alive? Is he alive?'”
Koralev assured him that Gagarin was very much alive. The celebration that followed, two days later in Red Square in Moscow, was massive. Indeed, Sergei recalls, “It was close to Victory Day after the Second World War.”
It all nearly came to ruin for the USSR, the U.S. and the world at large in October of the next year, when the same Soviet missile technology that had allowed Moscow to put people and machines in space, was deployed in Cuba, targeting the American mainland with nuclear warheads. The 13-day stare-down that followed was the closest humanity has ever come to a nuclear shooting war, and while Americans like to recall President John Kennedy as coolly, masterfully averting disaster while Khrushchev recklessly played with matches near the nuclear fuse, Sergei saw a different side of his father.
“I spoke with Nikita every day,” he says. “We lived together. When he came back we would walk around and I would ask him questions. I think he was a responsible politician the same as Kennedy and he didn’t want to start any war because he knew it would be a disaster for humanity.” That, however, did not mean that the Soviet leader wasn’t capable of using the missiles he had deployed. “We knew that if you push your competitor into the corner, he will pull the button. And he [Khrushchev] was a person who could pull the button too, but all the time we tried to keep the door open.”
Sergei also disputes the American view that when U.S. intelligence revealed the existence of the secret deployment in Cuba, it was an embarrassment for Moscow and for Nikita Khrushchev personally. In fact, the Soviet leader effectively shrugged. “He was surprised that the Americans saw the missiles so late,” he says. “It showed the weakness of American intelligence.”
American strength, though, was demonstrated in space over the next ten years—first with the flights of the one-man Mercury spacecraft, then the two-man Geminis, then the three-man Apollos that led the step-wise progression to the first moon landing, to five more that followed, and to nine crewed lunar missions overall. Khrushchev blames the Russians’ defeat in the Space Race as much on the long-rang planning and smart engineering of the American program as on the infighting and competition within the Soviet space sector, in which different factions fought for different spacecraft designs and the recognition that would come from building the ones that were used.
The younger Khrushchev himself grew so far beyond the old feuds of the Cold War that in 1991 he and his wife emigrated to the U.S. and in 1999 they became American citizens. He still teaches part-time at the War College, where he brings an engineer’s mind to his lessons—and a historian’s eye too.
Those historical instincts are brought to bear in his take on the Apollo 11 landing, too: 50 years later, he reminds us, that achievement was far, far bigger than a victory by one nation in a ginned-up competition. It was a triumph for the entire species.
Correction, July 3: The original version of this story misstated the surname of the Soviet Union’s chief rocket designer. It was Korolev, not Koralev.
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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at firstname.lastname@example.org