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Soviet probe reaches the moon

Soviet probe reaches the moon

A Soviet rocket crashes into the moon’s surface, becoming the first man-made object sent from earth to reach the lunar surface. The event gave the Soviets a short-lived advantage in the “space race” and prompted even greater effort by the United States to develop its own space program.

In 1957, the Soviets shocked the United States by becoming the first nation to launch a satellite into orbit around the earth. Sputnik, as it was called, frightened many Americans, who believed that the Soviets would soon develop an entire new class of weapons that could be fired from space. U.S. officials were especially concerned, for the success of Sputnik was a direct rebuke to American claims of technological and scientific superiority over the communist regime in Russia. It was a tremendous propaganda victory for the Soviets, and gave them an edge in attracting less-developed nations into the Soviet orbit with promises of technological aid and assistance.

The United States responded by accelerating its own space program, and just months after Sputnik, an American satellite went into orbit. In September 1959, the Soviets upped the ante considerably with the announcement that a rocket carrying the flag of the Soviet Union had crashed onto the moon’s surface. In Washington, a muted congratulation was sent to the Soviet scientists who managed the feat. At the same time, however, the United States warned the Soviet Union that sending the Russian flag to the moon gave the Soviets no territorial rights over the celestial body. Vice President Richard Nixon expressed some sour grapes by noting that it took the Soviet four tries to hit the moon and reassured Americans that “We are way ahead” in the space race.

Nixon’s reassurances aside, the Soviet success in sending a rocket to the moon provoked even greater effort by the United States to gain an advantage in the space race. In 1960, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy made it one of his campaign themes. After winning the election, President Kennedy increased spending for the space program and vowed that America would send a man to the moon by the end of the decade. In 1969, American astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon.

READ MORE: The Space Race: Timeline & Facts

The Soviet Union is first to the Moon

Richard Cavendish explains how, on September 12th, 1959, the Soviet Union launched Luna 2, the first spacecraft to successfully reach the Moon.

The space race between the United States and the Soviet Union brought an engaging touch of science fiction to the Cold War. To American astonishment and dismay, the Russians at first took a commanding lead. Their programme was directed by Sergei Korolev, a brilliant aeronautical engineer and expert on rockets, who had displeased Stalin and spent time in the Gulag in the 1930s. He was a commanding figure who did not suffer fools gladly and his staff treated him almost as a god. In the 1950s he developed a massive and at the time almost unthinkably powerful rocket, the R-7, which would propel Soviet spacecraft to the Moon.

Sputnik 1, the first satellite ever launched, created a sensation in 1957 when it hurtled out into space and orbited the Earth every 96 minutes before falling back into the Earth’s atmosphere. Sputnik 2 took the first living creature out into space, a sweet-tempered dog called Laika, though she did not last as long as the Russians pretended. More Sputnik missions tested life-support systems and re-entry procedures. In January 1959 the spacecraft Luna 1 (which Korolev called Mechta, ‘the Dream’) was launched at the Moon, but missed by around 3,700 miles and went into orbit between the Sun and Mars.

Then, on September 12th, 1959 Luna 2 was launched. At just past midnight Moscow time on September 14th it crashed some 240,000 miles away on the Moon not far from the Sea of Tranquillity (perhaps a not entirely appropriate location). Korolev and his people were listening as the signals coming back from the spacecraft suddenly stopped. The total silence meant that Luna had hit its target and there was great jubilation in the control room.

Luna 2 (Luna is Russian for Moon) weighed 390 kilograms. It was spherical in shape with antennae sticking out of it and carried instruments for measuring radiation, magnetic fields and meteorites. It also carried metal pendants which it scattered on the surface on impact, with the hammer and sickle of the USSR on one side and the launch date on the other. It confirmed that the moon had only a tiny radiation field and, so far as could be observed, no radiation belts. The spacecraft had no propulsion system of its own and the third and final stage of its propelling rocket crashed on the moon about half an hour after Luna 2 itself.

The scientific results of Luna 2 were similar to those of Luna 1, but the psychological impact of Luna 2 was profound. The closest any American probe had come to the Moon at that point was 37,000 miles. It seemed clear in the United States that the timing had been heavily influenced by the fact that the Soviet premier, Nikita Khruschev, was due to arrive in the US immediately afterwards, to be welcomed by President Eisenhower. Luna 2’s success enabled him to appear beaming with rumbustious pride. He lectured Americans on the virtues of communism and the immorality of scantily clothed chorus girls. The only way of annoying him seemed to be by refusing to let him into Disneyland.

Korolev had a clincher to come. Only three weeks later, Luna 3 was launched on October 4th, the second anniversary of Sputnik 1, to swing round the far side of the Moon and send back the first fuzzy pictures of its dark side, which no one had seen before. It was an astonishing feat of navigation and it was now possible to draw a tentative map of the Moon’s hidden side.

While the Americans were in disarray, with their space efforts publicly failing (Russian setbacks were kept strictly secret), Korolev went on to put the first man into space, Yuri Gagarin, in 1961. In 1963, on Khruschev’s orders, he propelled the first woman into space, Valentina Tereshkova, which enabled the Soviet Union to make propaganda mileage by claiming that under communism women were treated equally to men.

After 1961, under President Kennedy, American efforts intensified while the Soviet programme suffered from infighting after Korolev’s death at 59 in 1966, following an operation that went wrong. The Luna programme continued and in 1966, the year of Korolev’s death, Luna 9 made the first soft landing on the Moon.

In the end it was of course the Americans who won the race, in 1969, when their astronauts first walked on the Moon. For all the years of rivalry, the viewing room in Russia burst into huge applause as Neil Armstrong took the first steps. The Soviet astronaut Alexei Leonov wrote: ‘Everyone forgot that we were all citizens of different countries on Earth. That moment really united the human race.’


Luna 1 was the fourth and final spacecraft of the Ye-1 spacecraft series. The previous three iterations did not achieve orbit due to issues with each rocket launch. [2] [ self-published source ]

The satellite and rocket carrying Luna 1 was originally referred to as the Soviet Space Rocket by the Soviet Press. [1] Pravda writer Alexander Kazantsev called it Mechta (Russian: Мечта , meaning 'dream'). [8] [9] Citizens of Moscow unofficially deemed it Lunik, a combination of Luna (Moon) and Sputnik. [8] It was renamed to Luna 1 in 1963. [2] [ self-published source ] [1]

The spherical satellite was powered by mercury-oxide batteries and silver-zinc accumulators. [3] There were five antenna on one hemisphere, four whip-style and one rigid, for communication purposes. The spacecraft also contained radio equipment including a tracking transmitter and telemetry system. [2] [ self-published source ] There was no propulsion system. [3]

Luna 1 was designed to impact the Moon, delivering two metallic pennants with the Soviet coat of arms that were included into its payload package. [2] [ self-published source ] It also had six instruments to study the Moon upon its suicidal approach. The flux-gate magnetometer was triaxial and could measure ± 3000 gammas. It was designed to detect lunar magnetic fields. [10] Two micrometeorite detectors, developed by Tatiana Nazarova of the Vernadsky Institute, were installed on the spacecraft. They each consisted of a metal plate with springs and could detect small impacts. [10] Four ion traps, used to measure solar wind and plasma, were included. They were developed by Konstantin Gringauz. [10] The scientific payload also included two gas-discharge Geiger counters, a sodium-iodide scintillation counter, and a Cherenkov detector. The upper stage of the rocket contained a scintillation counter and 1 kilogram (2.2 lb) of sodium for a gas-dispersion experiment. [3] [1]

The spacecraft weighed 361.3 kilograms (797 lb) at launch. [1]

Luna 1 was launched at 16:41 GMT (22:41 local time) on 2 January 1959 from Site 1/5 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome by a Luna 8K72 rocket. [1] The first three stages operated nominally. The Soviet engineers did not trust automated systems for controlling the engine burns, so they communicated to the rocket via radio. The signal to stop firing the engine Block E stage was sent too late, [11] and it imparted an extra 175 m/s to Luna 1. [1] Consequently Luna 1 missed its target by 5,995 kilometers (3,725 mi). [2] [ self-published source ] The spacecraft passed within 5,995–6,400 kilometers (3,725–3,977 mi) of the Moon's surface on 4 January after 34 hours of flight, and became the first man made object to leave earth's orbit on January 6th. [3] [1] Luna 1 ran out of battery power on 5 January 1959 when it was 597,000 kilometers (371,000 mi) from Earth, making it impossible to track further. [1] [12] The batteries were designed for a minimum of 40 hours but lasted for 62. [12]

Luna 1 became the first artificial object to reach the escape velocity of the Earth, [13] along with its carrier rocket's 1,472-kilogram (3,245 lb) [3] upper stage, which it separated from after being the first spacecraft to reach heliocentric orbit. [1] It remains in orbit around the Sun, between the orbits of Earth and Mars. [3]

At 00:57 GMT on 3 January 1959, at a distance of 113,000 kilometres (70,000 mi) from Earth, [1] 1 kilogram (2.2 lb) of sodium gas was released by the spacecraft, forming a cloud behind it to serve as an artificial comet. The cloud was released for two purposes: to allow visual tracking of the spacecraft's trajectory [14] and to observe the behavior of gas in space. [3] This glowing orange trail of gas, visible over the Indian Ocean with the brightness of a sixth-magnitude star for a few minutes, was photographed by Mstislav Gnevyshev at the Mountain Station of the Main Astronomical Observatory of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR near Kislovodsk. [15]

While traveling through the outer Van Allen radiation belt, the spacecraft's scintillator made observations indicating that a small number of high-energy particles exist in the outer belt. The measurements obtained during this mission provided new data on the Earth's radiation belt and outer space. The craft was unable to detect a lunar magnetic field which placed an upper limit on its strength of 1/10,000th of Earth's. [3] [16] The first-ever direct observations and measurements of solar wind, [5] [3] a strong flow of ionized plasma emanating from the Sun and streaming through interplanetary space, were performed. [3] That ionized plasma concentration was measured to be some 700 particles per cm 3 at altitudes of 20,000–25,000 km and 300 to 400 particles per cm 3 at altitudes of 100,000–150,000 km. [15] The spacecraft also marked the first instance of radio communication at the half-million-kilometer distance.

Some doubted the veracity of the Soviets' claim of mission success. Lloyd Malan wrote about it in a book called The Big Red Lie. Many in the West did not receive transmissions from the spacecraft even though the Soviets publicized them before the flight. By the time the Earth rotated so that scientists in America could pick up signals from the spacecraft, it was already 171,000 kilometers (106,000 mi) away. [17]


Luna 1 and the three spacecraft of Luna programme before it were part of the Ye-1 series of spacecraft with a mass of 156 kilograms (344 lb). [8] Luna missions that failed to successfully launch or achieve good results remained unnamed and were not publicly acknowledged. [9] [10] The first unnamed probe exploded on launch on 23 September 1958. Two more launches were unsuccessfully attempted on 12 October 1958 and 4 December 1958. [11] Luna 1 was the fourth launch attempt and the first partial success of the program. [12] It launched on 2 January 1959 and missed the Moon by 5,965 kilometres (3,706 mi). [13]

One mission separated Luna 1 and Luna 2, a launch failure that occurred with an unnamed probe on 18 June 1959. [14] Luna 2 would be the Soviet Union's sixth attempt to impact the Moon. [15] It was the second of the Ye-1a series, modified to carry a heavier payload of 156 kilograms (344 lb) [16] and had a combined mass of 390.2 kilograms (860 lb). [17] Luna 2 was similar in design to Luna 1, [18] a spherical space probe with protruding antennas and instrumentation. [19] The instrumentation was also similar to Luna 1, [18] which included a triaxial fluxgate magnetometer, [20] a piezoelectric detector, a scintillation counter, ion traps and two gas-discharge counters, while the Luna 2 included six gas-discharge counters. [21] There were no propulsion systems on Luna 2 itself. [22]

Luna 2 carried five different types of instruments to conduct various tests while it was on its way to the Moon. [23] The scintillation counters were used to measure any ionizing radiation and the Cherenkov radiation detectors to measure electromagnetic radiation caused by charged particles. [24] The primary scientific purpose of the Geiger Counter carried on Luna 2 was to determine the electron spectrum of the Van Allen radiation belt. It consisted of three STS-5 gas-discharge counters mounted on the outside of an airtight container. [25] The last instrument on Luna 2 was a three component fluxgate magnetometer. It was similar to that used on Luna 1 but its dynamic range was reduced by a factor of 4 to ±750 gammas so that the quantisation uncertainty was ±12 gammas. [26] The probe's instrumentation was powered by silver-zinc and mercury-oxide batteries. [24] [27]

The spacecraft also carried Soviet pennants which were located on the probe and on the Luna 2 rocket. [28] The two sphere-shaped pennants in the probe had surfaces covered by 72 pentagonal elements in a pattern similar to that later used by association footballs. [29] [30] In the centre was an explosive charge designed to shatter the sphere, sending the pentagonal shields in all directions. [30] Each pentagonal element was made of titanium alloy the centre regular pentagon had the State Emblem of the Soviet Union with the Cyrillic letters СССР ("USSR") engraved below and was surrounded by five non-regular pentagons which were each engraved with СССР СЕНТЯБРЬ 1959 ("USSR SEPTEMBER 1959"). [29] [31] The third pennant was similar engravings on aluminium strips which were embossed on the last stage of the Luna 2 rocket. [28]

The scientists took extra, unspecified precautions in preventing biological contamination of the Moon. [32]

Launch and trajectory Edit

A launch was first attempted on 9 September 1959, but the first stage engines failed to reach full thrust, and the launch was aborted while the rocket was on the launch pad. [33] The second attempt occurred on 12 September 1959, and Luna 2 lifted off at 06:39:42 GMT. [7] [a]

Once the vehicle reached Earth's escape velocity, the upper stage was detached, allowing the probe to travel on its path to the Moon. Luna 2 pirouetted slowly, making a full rotation every 14 minutes, while sending radio signals at 183.6, 19.993 and 39.986 MHz. [33] The probe started transmitting information back to Earth using three different transmitters. These transmitters provided precise information on its course, allowing scientists to calculate that Luna 2 would hit its mark on the Moon around 00:05 on 14 September (Moscow Time), which was announced on Radio Moscow. [33]

Because of claims that information received from Luna 1 was fake, the Russian scientists sent a telex to astronomer Bernard Lovell at Jodrell Bank Observatory at the University of Manchester. Having received the intended time of impact, and the transmission and trajectory details, it was Bernard Lovell who confirmed the mission's success to outside observers. However, the American media were still skeptical of the data until Lovell was able to prove that the radio signal was coming from Luna 2 by showing the Doppler shift from its transmissions. [34] [35]

Lunar impact Edit

Luna 2 took a direct path to the Moon, [36] starting with an initial velocity from Earth of 11.2 kilometres per second (25,000 mph) [33] and impacting on the Moon at about 3.3 kilometres per second (7,400 mph). [37] It hit the Moon about 0° West and 29.1° North of the centre of the visible disk at 00:02:24 (Moscow Time) on 14 September 1959. [17] [38] [a] The probe became the first human-made object to hit another celestial body. [39] To be able to provide a visual from Earth on 13 September, the Luna 2 released a vapour cloud that expanded to a 650 kilometres (400 mi) diameter and was seen by observatories in Alma Ata, Byurakan, Abastumani, Tbilisi, and Stalinabad. [33] This vapour cloud also acted as an experiment to see how the sodium gas would act in a vacuum and zero gravity. [22] The last stage of the rocket that carried Luna 2 also hit the Moon surface about 30 minutes after Luna 2, but there was uncertainty as to where it landed. [22]

Bernard Lovell began tracking the probe about five hours before it impacted the Moon and also recorded the transmission from the probe, which ends abruptly. He played the recording during a phone call to reporters in New York to finally convince most media observers of the mission's authenticity. [38]

The radiation detectors and magnetometer were searching for lunar magnetic and radiation fields similar to the Van Allen radiation belt around Earth, sending information about once every minute [26] until its last transmission which came about 55 km away from the lunar surface. [40] Although it did prove previous measurements of the Van Allen radiation belts that were taken from Luna 1 around the Earth, [40] it was not able to detect any type of radiation belts around the Moon [41] at or beyond the limits of its magnetometer's sensitivity (2–3x10 −4 G). [42]

Luna 2 showed time variations in the electron flux and energy spectrum in the Van Allen radiation belt. [43] Using ion traps on board, the satellite made the first direct measurement of solar wind flux from outside the Earth's magnetosphere. [44] On its approach to the lunar surface, the probe did not detect any notable magnetic field to within 55 kilometres (34 mi) from the Moon. [23] [40] It also did not detect a radiation belt around the Moon, but the four ion traps measured an increase in the ion particle flux at an altitude of 8,000 kilometres (5,000 mi), which suggested the presence of an ionosphere. The probe generated scientific data that was printed on 14 kilometres (8.7 mi) of teletype, which were analysed and published in spring 1960. [41]

According to Donald William Cox, Americans were starting to believe that they were making progress in the Space Race and that although the Soviet Union might have had larger rockets, the United States had better guidance systems, but these beliefs were questioned when the Soviets were able to impact Luna 2 on the Moon. [45] [46] At that time the closest Americans had come to the Moon was about 37,000 kilometres (23,000 mi) with Pioneer 4. [46] Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, on his only visit to the United States, gave President Dwight D. Eisenhower a replica of the Soviet pennants that Luna 2 had just placed onto the lunar surface. [46] [47] Luna 2 and its predecessors all came to be used throughout the USSR and around the world as pro-communist propaganda. Donald W. Cox wrote in his 1962 book The Space Race:

Although the Sputniks and Luniks did not themselves provide better cars, refrigerators, color TV sets, and homes for the peasants and laborers of the Soviet Union and her satellite states, they did evoke added inspiration for the earthbound followers of the communist way of life helping to take their minds off shortages of consumer goods. The people were spurred on to work just a little harder for the glorious motherland and to outstrip the west in the less dramatic and more basic things of life, like coal and steel production. [45]

Luna 2 was a success for the Soviets, and was the first in a series of missions (lunar impactors) that were intentionally crashed on the Moon. The later U.S.-made Ranger missions ended in similar impacts. Such controlled crashes have remained useful even after the technique of soft landing was mastered. [48] NASA used hard spacecraft impacts to test whether shadowed Moon craters contain ice by analyzing the debris that got thrown out. [49]

The pennant presented to Eisenhower is kept at the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene, Kansas, U.S. [50] A copy of the spherical pennant is located at the Kansas Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, Kansas. [51]

On 1 November 1959, the Soviet Union released two stamps commemorating the spacecraft. They depict the trajectory of the mission. [52]

50 Years Later: Soviet probe raced Apollo 11 to the moon

When Apollo 11 arrived in lunar orbit, the Soviet's probe was already there.

Man on the moon 50 years later: Luna 15

The space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union continued even as Apollo 11 astronauts were already walking on the moon.

Before the U.S. successfully reached the lunar surface, Americans watched the Soviet Union accomplish a few space exploration firsts. The Soviets put the first satellite, Sputnik I, and humans into orbit.

"Sputnik shocked the American public," Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong recalled in 2009 during the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's annual John Glenn Lecture Series. "We believed we were the most technologically advanced community in the world and how could this have happened."

When President John F. Kennedy challenged the U.S. to put a man on the moon in less than a decade, the Soviets made it their mission to beat them.

Their secret plan was to send an unmanned probe, Luna 15, and bring back soil from the moon. It was the second Soviet attempt to obtain and bring lunar soil back to Earth.

The Soviets launched Luna 15 three days before the liftoff of Apollo 11. Armstrong and his crew were still in the final stages of preparation, unaware that the Soviets were already on their way.

"The crew did not know about Luna 15 or its goal," Armstrong said. "Mission control informed the crew of the existence of the Soviet craft while they were en route to the moon."

The Soviets thought Luna 15 would land on the moon less than 2 hours after Apollo 11, but their landing was delayed 18 hours due to unknown terrain.

The delay allowed Armstrong and fellow Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin to walk on the moon and start collecting samples before Luna 15 made contact.

When the Soviets finally tried to land Luna 15, just two hours before the Apollo 11 crew would lift off the lunar surface, the probe stopped communicating.

According to NASA, engineers believe Luna 15 "crashed into the side of a mountain due to a slight error in its descent angle."

"It was the ultimate, peaceful, competition: U.S.A vs. U.S.S.R.," Armstrong believed. "I'll not assert that it was a diversion which prevented a war, nonetheless, it wasn't diversion. It was intense and it did allow both sides to take the high road with the objectives of science and learning and exploration."

ABC News' Pat O' Gara, Nate Luna, and Christine Theodorou contributed to this report.


The ancient Greek philosopher Anaxagoras (d. 428 BC) reasoned that the Sun and Moon were both giant spherical rocks, and that the latter reflected the light of the former. His non-religious view of the heavens was one cause for his imprisonment and eventual exile. [1] In his book On the Face in the Moon's Orb, Plutarch suggested that the Moon had deep recesses in which the light of the Sun did not reach and that the spots are nothing but the shadows of rivers or deep chasms. He also entertained the possibility that the Moon was inhabited. Aristarchus went a step further and computed the distance from Earth, together with its size, obtaining a value of 20 times the Earth radius for the distance (the real value is 60 the Earth radius was roughly known since Eratosthenes).

Although the Chinese of the Han Dynasty (202 BC–202 AD) believed the Moon to be energy equated to qi, their 'radiating influence' theory recognized that the light of the Moon was merely a reflection of the Sun (mentioned by Anaxagoras above). [2] This was supported by mainstream thinkers such as Jing Fang, [2] who noted the sphericity of the Moon. [2] Shen Kuo (1031–1095) of the Song Dynasty (960–1279) created an allegory equating the waxing and waning of the Moon to a round ball of reflective silver that, when doused with white powder and viewed from the side, would appear to be a crescent. [2]

By 499 AD, the Indian astronomer Aryabhata mentioned in his Aryabhatiya that reflected sunlight is what causes the Moon to shine. [3]

Habash al-Hasib al-Marwazi, a Persian astronomer, conducted various observations at the Al-Shammisiyyah observatory in Baghdad between 825 and 835 AD. [4] Using these observations, he estimated the Moon's diameter as 3,037 km (equivalent to 1,519 km radius) and its distance from the Earth as 346,345 km (215,209 mi). [4] In the 11th century, the Islamic physicist Alhazen investigated moonlight through a number of experiments and observations, concluding it was a combination of the moon's own light and the moon's ability to absorb and emit sunlight. [5] [6]

By the Middle Ages, before the invention of the telescope, an increasing number of people began to recognise the Moon as a sphere, though many believed that it was "perfectly smooth". [7] In 1609, Galileo Galilei drew one of the first telescopic drawings of the Moon in his book Sidereus Nuncius and noted that it was not smooth but had mountains and craters. Later in the 17th century, Giovanni Battista Riccioli and Francesco Maria Grimaldi drew a map of the Moon and gave many craters the names they still have today. On maps, the dark parts of the Moon's surface were called maria (singular mare) or seas, and the light parts were called terrae or continents.

Thomas Harriot, as well as Galilei, drew the first telescopic representation of the Moon and observed it for several years. His drawings, however, remained unpublished. [8] The first map of the Moon was made by the Belgian cosmographer and astronomer Michael Florent van Langren in 1645. [8] Two years later a much more influential effort was published by Johannes Hevelius. In 1647 Hevelius published Selenographia, the first treatise entirely devoted to the Moon. Hevelius's nomenclature, although used in Protestant countries until the eighteenth century, was replaced by the system published in 1651 by the Jesuit astronomer Giovanni Battista Riccioli, who gave the large naked-eye spots the names of seas and the telescopic spots (now called craters) the name of philosophers and astronomers. [8] In 1753 the Croatian Jesuit and astronomer Roger Joseph Boscovich discovered the absence of atmosphere on the Moon. In 1824 Franz von Gruithuisen explained the formation of craters as a result of meteorite strikes. [9]

The possibility that the Moon contains vegetation and is inhabited by selenites was seriously considered by major astronomers even into the first decades of the 19th century. In 1834–1836, Wilhelm Beer and Johann Heinrich Mädler published their four-volume Mappa Selenographica and the book Der Mond in 1837, which firmly established the conclusion that the Moon has no bodies of water nor any appreciable atmosphere. [ citation needed ]

The Cold War-inspired "space race" and "Moon race" between the Soviet Union and the United States of America accelerated with a focus on the Moon. This included many scientifically important firsts, such as the first photographs of the then-unseen far side of the Moon in 1959 by the Soviet Union, and culminated with the landing of the first humans on the Moon in 1969, widely seen around the world as one of the pivotal events of the 20th century, and indeed of human history in general.

That Time the Soviets Crashed Into the Moon With U.S. Astronauts On It

The whole world knew about Apollo 11, but Luna 15 was still shrouded in secrecy as it made its way to the moon.

Everyone knows the story of Apollo 11 landing on the moon, but fewer know about Luna 15: The Soviet lunar lander that was busy crashing into the moon’s surface as America’s astronauts toured the Sea of Tranquility.

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made history as they climbed out of the lunar module and onto the powdery soil of Earth’s moon. It was the crowning achievement for thousands of Americans who poured their blood, sweat, and tears into the Apollo program, and it was a massive PR victory for the United States after coming in second place time and time again to the Soviets.

After the United States developed the atomic bomb and used it to bring the Pacific theater of World War II to a close, the nation emerged as a global superpower without equal… but in 1949, the Soviets proved they had the atom bomb too. In 1958, they had also matched America’s more powerful hydrogen bomb. In 1957, with the Soviet launch of Sputnik 1, the USSR was no longer chasing America’s tail… it was in the lead.

When the Soviets were winning the Space Race

In 1959, the Soviets managed to reach the moon with a probe. In 1960, the Soviets put the first animals in orbit. In 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to orbit the earth. The technological tide had turned in the Soviet’s favor, and in the United States, it was nothing short of an existential crisis.

The competition between the space-dominating Soviet Union and the perpetually second-place United States at the time was about far more than international prestige. In a very real way, the space race was about proving the efficacy of the American and Soviet governmental systems. Every Soviet success was a notch in the belt for the Soviet brand of communism, and America’s inability to compete in those early years was more than embarrassing… It was eroding the very fabric of America’s capitalist ideals. The United States was on its heels, but found renewed purpose on September 12 of 1962, when John F. Kennedy said America would make it to the moon by the end of the decade.

For NASA’s engineers who had been struggling to put Gemini capsules into orbit 350 miles above the Earth, Kennedy’s claims seemed nearly impossible. In order to travel to the moon, NASA had to cover 240,000 miles, land, and make it all the way back. This pressing need for innovation led to the development of the most powerful rocket mankind has ever seen: the mighty Saturn V.

Apollo 11 vs. Luna 15

The Soviet Union was well aware of NASA’s Apollo program and their incredible effort to meet Kennedy’s deadline. The Saturn V was the most powerful rocket ever built with a massive 7.5 million pounds of thrust, the rocket’s five F-1 engines would burn through 203,400 gallons of kerosene and 318,000 gallons of liquid oxygen in just under two and a half minutes. All of that firepower would carry the massive rocket through just its first 38 miles of the 240,000 it would need to cover in order to reach the moon’s surface. For many of the Saturn V’s components, Apollo 4’s launch was the first time they were even tested, in order to make the 1969 deadline.

But despite having the odds stacked against them, NASA would persevere–and as the Soviets struggled to field their own moon-capable rocket in the N1, it was becoming clear that Uncle Sam might beat them to it. It was with that in mind that Luna 15 was planned to land on the moon on the very same day as Apollo 11, or even sooner if possible. If for some reason the American effort failed, the Soviets would once again grab the headlines as the more successful space program.

Luna 15 had actually beaten Armstrong and Aldrin to the moon by a few days, where it orbited quietly, waiting for the command to land. NASA’s astronauts were going to be gathering moon rocks and soil samples to bring back with them, and Luna 15 was given the same mission.

Today, we tend to think of the moment Apollo 11 radioed back to earth to say “the Eagle has landed” as the end of the Space Race. It wasn’t. If the lander failed its launch back into orbit or failed to rendezvous with the command module, NASA’s astronauts would almost certainly die before ever making it back. And to be clear, success was far from certain. President Nixon even had a speech prepared that he would deliver to the American people in the event of a disaster.

“Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice,” read the speech prepared for the president.

Stealing Apollo’s thunder

If Nixon had needed to read his tragic speech, Luna 15 could become a rousing success story for the Soviet Union–succeeding in reaching the moon and returning with soil samples at the very same time America’s effort had failed.

By 1969, the Soviet space program was lagging behind NASA despite its early successes. Just as America once feared failure would be seen as indicative of capitalism’s flaws, the Soviet communist model was beginning to seem like it wasn’t up for such a daunting technological task. While America was rushing to meet Kennedy’s deadline, the Soviets were rushing to keep pace. In 1967, that rush spelled disaster for Cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, as his Soyuz 1 capsule came apart during re-entry.

Even worse for the Soviets, Komarov was heard cursing out his Soviet leadership over the radio as the capsule burned around him. Days prior, Soviet hero and backup for the mission Yuri Gagarin had demanded to fly in Komarov’s place, knowing the mission was destined for failure and hoping to give his life in order to save Komarov’s. The Soyuz 1 disaster was a national embarrassment, and as Apollo 11 lifted off, the Soviets were hoping a similar fate would befall the crew onboard, giving Luna 15 the chance it needed to steal Apollo’s thunder.

The whole world knew about Apollo 11, but Luna 15 was still shrouded in secrecy as it made its way to the moon. The Soviet Union often only announced launches after the fact and only if they were successful, so while NASA knew there had been a launch and that there was a Soviet probe in orbit around the moon, they weren’t sure what that could mean for Apollo 11. Armstrong would go on to say that he “did not know about Luna 15 or its goal,” in an interview he gave in 2009.

Surprisingly, however, amid the Cold War and with the Space Race reaching a zenith, Apollo 8 astronaut Frank Borman called Soviet space official Academician Mstislav V. Keldysh, whom he’d met a few years prior. Despite the secrecy and competition, Keldysh sent NASA a telegraph with Luna 15’s orbital details, assuring him it would not interfere with Apollo 11.

A Soviet failure, a cover up, and a couple of Americans on the moon

As Armstrong and Aldrin toured the moon’s surface, Luna 15 received the command to descend. The order, which British astronomers heard while listening to Soviet transmissions, came as a shock to just about everyone outside of the Soviet Union and NASA’s Mission Control. No one knew the probe had been designed to actually land on the Moon’s surface… but the surprise was short-lived.

As Luna 15 descended toward the moon’s surface, its retro rockets fired to guide it’s path, but its trajectory was off. Still moving at 298 miles per hour, the Soviet lander careened into a lunar mountain just 350 miles away from Aldrin and Armstrong.

“I say, this has really been drama of the highest order,” a British astronomer said afterward.

Despite the high drama, there was little in the way of press coverage at the time. Of course, Apollo 11’s success was the big story, but Luna 15’s failure was a closely guarded secret. Some scientists speculated that it may have been crashed on purpose to remove it from orbit. Little did most people realize, Luna 15’s failure really marked the end of the Space Race.

“The race to the moon ends when Luna 15 crashes,” said William P. Barry, NASA’s chief historian.

The failure would remain a secret for decades, but details finally emerged in the early ’90s, after the Soviet Union collapsed.

Several Monoliths across our Solar System?

While some of these structures can be rationally explained as natural geological formations on the surface of the moon, there are some that simply defy every explanation. Is it possible that the tower on the far side of the moon really has an ‘Alien’ origin? And is it possible that there are similar structures across the moon?

Looking at the image from the far side of the moon and the mysterious structure, we cannot help and compare it to the mysterious monolith on Mars’ moon Phobos.

When the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) spacecraft was mapping the small moon of Mars, Phobos, and sent its incredible images from the small, potato-shaped moon back to Earth satellite Ufologists had a field day speaking about the mysterious structure that was clearly visible on the surface of Phobos. There in plain view, a large rectangular object undoubtedly resembling an artificial monolith stands alone. Nothing in the vicinity has a similar shape or size, so the question is, what is it? What is its purpose? And who placed it there?

Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the surface of the moon, surprised many by saying, “We should visit the moon of Mars, there’s a monolith there, a very unusual structure on this little potato shaped object that revolves around Mars once every seven hours. When people find out about that they are going to say, “Who put that there? Who put that there?” Well, the universe put it there, or if you choose God put it there.’

Astronomers didn’t hesitate to quickly offer and explanation about the mysterious structure that had Ufologists scratching their heads. According to astronomers and specialists in images, it’s just another “Extraterrestrial rock”.
A specialist in images from NASA Lan Fleming, who studied Mars and other solar system anomalies examined the picture of Phobos and stated that the so-called monolith is just a physical anomaly and that there are many others found in different part of our solar system.

Soviet Lunar Missions

The Soviet Lunar program had 20 successful missions to the Moon and achieved a number of notable lunar "firsts": first probe to impact the Moon, first flyby and image of the lunar farside, first soft landing, first lunar orbiter, and the first circumlunar probe to return to Earth. The two successful series of Soviet probes were the Luna (24 lunar missions) and the Zond (5 lunar missions).

NSSDCA currently holds data from the Luna 3, 9, 13, 21, and 22 and the Zond 3, 6, 7, and 8 missions. All this data is photographic in nature, except for the lunar libration data from the Luna 21 Orbiter. Lunar flyby missions (Luna 3, Zond 3, 6, 7, 8) obtained photographs of the lunar surface, particularly the limb and farside regions. The Zond 6, 7, and 8 missions circled the Moon and returned to Earth where they were recovered, Zond 6 and 7 in Siberia and Zond 8 in the Indian Ocean. The purpose of the photography experiments on the lunar landers (Luna 9, 13, 22) was to obtain closeup images of the surface of the Moon for use in lunar studies and determination of the feasibility of manned lunar landings.

Lunar surface close-up image from the Luna 9 lander in February, 1966 in the Oceanus Procellarum.

How Soviets photographed the ‘dark side of the Moon’ and won 1,000 bottles of champagne

Before Neil Armstrong stepped on the Moon in 1969, the Earth&rsquos satellite remained a mystery to humankind. Even more so, its &ldquodark side&rdquo. dubbed &ldquodark&rdquo because it is permanently hidden from view from Earth, the far side of the Moon was yet another object of desire to pioneers of space programs in the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

Back in 1957, when the Soviets launched the first artificial Earth satellite &mdash Sputnik 1 &mdash into space, this event marked a very important milestone for space exploration. Nonetheless, people around the world found it hard to believe that humankind could advance even further and observe the far side of the Moon any time soon.

The prospect appeared so distant, yet so captivating, that one French winemaker, Henri Maire, publicly announced he would grant 1,000 bottles of champagne from his own reserves to anyone who would be able to see the far side of the Moon.

Ironically, Soviet scientists were already working on this.

The plan

The mission to photograph the far side of the Moon was led by Sergei Korolev, the father of Soviet cosmonautics and the mastermind of most of the groundbreaking Soviet achievements in space exploration.

Sergei Korolev, the father of Soviet cosmonautics and the mastermind of most of the groundbreaking Soviet achievements in space exploration.

The plan was relatively easy: to launch a cylindrical canister &mdash a space probe &mdash into space towards the Moon and let the gravity do the rest. The space probe was equipped with cameras, a photographic film processing system, batteries, a radio transmitter, a gyroscope to maintain orientation and angular velocity and a few fans for temperature control.

The device had no rocket motors to use for course corrections, as scientists relied on Moon&rsquos gravity instead to help them conduct the so-called &lsquogravity assist maneuver&rsquo: according to the plan, the space probe was supposed to travel to the Moon and once caught by the Moon&rsquos gravity, pass behind the Earth&rsquos satellite from south to north and sling back to Earth.

The space probe going to the far side of the Moon was dubbed &lsquoLuna-3&rsquo. Surprisingly, the most challenging part was not calculating the orbit of the Moon or the satellite, but to manage equipment and staff on the ground.


The signal from Luna-3 was received by a radio antenna mounted on top of a mountain peak in Crimea. To Korolev&rsquos despair, local staff reported communication problems: Luna-3 did not receive some of the commands from Earth. The chief ordered his team to follow him to Crimea to urgently mitigate the situation.

Once the all-powerful Korolev arrived in Crimea he took matters into his own hands and implemented unprecedented measures: At his orders, the ships of the Black Sea fleet were to cease all communications, while a dedicated boat was set to cruise the Black Sea looking for and suppressing possible sources of radio interference and the traffic police were to block the roads near the observatory.

These measures helped improve the signal, but a new problem arose. To his surprise, Korolev learned that the observatory might not have enough magnetic film to record images of the lunar landscape.

A cinematic recreation of the moment when the Soviet scientists photographed the dark side of the Moon.

&ldquoSergei Pavlovich [Korolev] was furious. I understood him. After all, if we had been warned, we could have brought this scarce film with us from Moscow,&rdquo wrote academician Boris Chertok who assisted Korolev during the launch.

Ironically, the film was so scarce, because it was extracted from downed American reconnaissance balloons that had spied over the USSR. This film was of unprecedented quality unmatched by the Soviet industry.

Infuriated, Korolev ordered the additional films to be delivered to the observatory from Moscow by plane and then by helicopter.

Early morning on October 7, 1959, the team of Soviet scientists waited with bated breath as Luna 3 approached the Moon. Suddenly, the first image began appearing on paper.

A mockup of the Soviet automatic interplanetary station Luna-3.

The designer responsible for receiving the data looked at the paper and, to the shock of others, tore the first-ever made photo of the far side of the Moon to pieces. The image quality was not good and he was ready to gamble the next photos would be better.

One of the first photographs of the far side of the Moon the Luna-3 took.

To everyone&rsquos relief, the following photos were indeed of much better quality. Korolev took the first photograph of the far side of the Moon of decent quality and inscribed a line: &ldquoThe first photo of the reverse side of the moon that shouldn&rsquot have turned out.&rdquo He signed it and dedicated the photo to the director of the Crimean Astrophysical Observatory Andrei B. Severny.

Soviet postal stamp dedicated to photographing the dark side of the moon.

Yet again, the Soviet science triumphed. The Soviets proceeded to name newly discovered geographical objects on the Moon while the photographs of the dark side of the Moon were published on the front page of the Soviet newspaper Pravda and the news resonated around the world.

Champagne party

In another part of the world, French winemaker Henri Maire read about the Soviet achievement and admitted he had lost his own bet. Mere sent 1,000 bottles of champagne by post to the Academy of Sciences of the USSR.

The Academy&rsquos president ordered the bottles to be delivered to the team who worked on the Luna 3 project. &ldquoWe had the honor of receiving several dozen bottles of champagne from the warehouse of the Academy of Sciences. You will get a couple of bottles, the rest will be distributed among the apparatus and other non-participants,&rdquo Korolev told his staff.

Years later, when Korolev&rsquos daughter Natalia Koroleva, caught wind of this anecdote, she made it her mission to locate at least one bottle of the champagne. It turned out, Korolev&rsquos former secretary had one bottle preserved though emptied.

Today, a miniature replica of Luna 3 and the bottle can be observed at the Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow.

The Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow

Click here to see the list of 5 incredible Russian achievements in space you probably didn&rsquot know about.

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Sept. 14, 1959 | Soviet Space Probe Is First Human-Made Object to Reach Moon

Historic Headlines

Learn about key events in history and their connections to today.

On Sept. 14, 1959, the Luna 2 space probe crashed onto the surface of the moon. Though Luna 2 was shattered on impact, the mission was a major success, as it represented an important first in the history of space exploration.

An article in the Sept. 14 New York Times reported that the Soviet announcement of the event “said the container had made history’s first flight from the earth to another cosmic body. The moon strike was an outstanding achievement of Soviet science and engineering and had opened a new page in space research.”

The Soviets were also quick to note that they — not the Americans — were the first to reach the moon. As The New York Times reported, “The Soviet press and proclamations issued both at home and for abroad were quick to restate the claim of superiority for Soviet science and by extension the superiority of the Communist system that has supported it.”

The Soviets continued to enjoy an advantage in the Space Race for the next few years. In 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to enter orbit. The United States space program, NASA, eventually surpassed its Soviet counterpart when it put the first man on the moon in 1969.

Connect to Today:

In July 2011, NASA ended its 30-year Space Shuttle program and with it, terminated any plans for space travel in the near future. NASA has hopes of launching missions toward Mars in the distant future, but it does not currently have the financing to undertake this project.

Readers of The New York Times debated the future of NASA in a Sunday Dialogue feature published shortly after the final Space Shuttle mission. Some, including an aerospace engineer, favored ambitious plans to reach Mars. Others stated that space exploration was too costly and instead called for Congress to spend money on domestic programs.

How do you think the United States should approach space exploration in the 21st century? Do you think it should continue to try to be a global leader in deep space travel, or should it focus on smaller, more cost-efficient missions? Why?

Watch the video: Ταξίδι στο φεγγάρι (December 2021).