On July 20, 1969, NASA made history by landing the first human explorers on the surface of the Moon. This incredible voyage, undertaken by the Apollo 11 crew, is widely regarded as the climactic moment of the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union.
But a decade earlier, in 1959, it was the Soviet space program that held the definitive edge over NASA in lunar exploration. On September 14 of that year—57 years ago this Wednesday—the USSR claimed one of the most pivotal milestones in interplanetary travel by impacting the Moon’s surface with its spacecraft Luna 2 (or, in some translations, Lunik 2).
News reports on the Soviet side linked the probe’s success with the ascendence of communism
Like Sputnik, Luna 2 was spherical in shape and outfitted with protruding antennae. The main bus contained geiger counters, radiation and micrometeorite detectors, and a magnetometer. These instruments were used to map out the Van Allen radiation belt surrounding Earth, and to test out if the Moon was encircled with a similar ring of magnetically charged particles (it isn’t, the mission found).
Luna 2 also showed off its flair for the dramatic by releasing an orange cloud of sodium gas in orbit on September 13. This puff of smoke helped observatories get a visual of the spacecraft’s trajectory, while providing an opportunity to study the dissipation of gas in the vacuum of space.
But the probe’s crowning scientific achievement was its collision with the Moon. Soft landings on other celestial bodies would not be mastered until 1966, by yet another Luna spacecraft that went to the Moon, so snagging this historic first contact, even in a crash landing, was a critical win for the Soviet space program.
The timing of the mission could not have been more perfect for Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who was on track to arrive in Washington DC on September 15, the day after the impact, for a high-profile tour of the United States.
The trip hit some rough patches—Khrushchev was royally pissed off to find he was banned from Disneyland, for instance—but one of the redeeming highlights for him was presenting President Dwight Eisenhower with honorary replicas of the sphere-shaped commemorative pennants Luna 2 had ejected onto the lunar surface before it wiped out.