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).
The mission marked the first time any human-made object had ever touched the surface of another world, and was a crucial step towards sending human crews to the Moon. For thousands of years, people had been forced to behold our natural satellite from afar, but Luna 2 at last proved that its hitherto virgin surface was within our grasp.
The Soviet government immediately celebrated the victory with a radio announcement that interrupted the state-controlled station’s normal program of classical music.
“Attention, Moscow speaking,” said the announcer, described as “somber-voiced” by the New York Times. “Today, the 14th of September, at 00:02:24, Moscow time, the second Soviet cosmic rocket reached the surface of the moon. It is the first time in history that a cosmic flight has been made from the Earth to another celestial body.”
Initially, the American reaction to this achievement was tinged with disbelief. Luna 1, the first “cosmic rocket” the Soviets had attempted to crash into the Moon, missed bya margin of 5,995 kilometers (3,725 miles), though that probe still earned the distinction of being the first spacecraft to leave Earth’s gravity and enter orbit around the Sun.
Still, American scientists hoped that Luna 1’s failure demonstrated that the immense challenge of shooting a moving target like the Moon was beyond the capability of Soviet guidance systems.
NASA itself was going through its own growing pains at this point, having been founded the previous summer, largely in response to the Sputnik crisis. The agency was recovering from a series of public failures, including the 1957 launchpad explosion of Vanguard 1, intended to be America’s answer to Sputnik. Instead, the project was saddled with embarrassing nicknames like “Flopnik” or “Kaputnik.”
But initial doubts over whether the USSR had really achieved its Moon shot soon evaporated when British scientists at Jodrell Bank Observatory intercepted Luna 2’s final transmissions before its planned crash into the lunar surface, and confirmed that they were genuine. Though its exact resting place is unknown, the probe’s suite of instruments was able to return solid, verifiable data from its fatal descent toward the Palus Putredinus region of the Moon.
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.
The pennants were engraved with the Soviet Coat of Arms and “USSR” in Cyrillic letters, along with the date of Luna 2’s launch. Like many of the exchanges between American and Soviet leaders during the Cold War, the gesture seems to have been partly an authentic display of friendship and partly a coded power play. It was as if Khrushchev was hinting: “It’s so cute that your scientists are trying to land on the Moon; perhaps you’ll like these knick knacks our program just put up there.”
This underlying tension is evident in many of the American newsreels and articles that reported on Luna 2’s success. “Soviet Russia scores a dramatic victory in the exploration of space with the launching of the first rocket to impact the Moon,” said narrator Ed Herlihy in a featurette called “Red’s ‘Lunik’ Hits the Moon.”
“Western observers monitored Lunik’s two radios until the very moment of impact, which occurred almost dead on target, the geographical center of the face of the Moon—impressive marksmanship at a quarter of a million miles’ range,” Herlihy continued. “In one spectacular well-timed move, Russia scores a major scientific advance, dramatically demonstrates the accuracy and reliability of its missiles, and gives Khrushchev a propaganda bonus on the eve of his visit to America.”
“Moscow shot for the Moon and scored a bullseye.”
In this way, American news reports about the achievement were cautiously congratulatory, but also betrayed hints of unease about Soviet missile capabilities, along with subtle digs about Moscow’s state-controlled media.
The nod at Russian propaganda was somewhat validated by news reports on the Soviet side that linked the probe’s success with the ascendence of communism.
“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,” wrote reporter Max Frankel in a front page story of The New York Times, dated September 14, 1959.
However, Frankel’s article also included a prescient little nugget of speculation that is fascinating to revisit in retrospect: “A number of writers in the Soviet press this morning said that it was now clear that the day was not far off when man could be flying toward the Moon.”
No doubt those Soviet writers hoped that their own nation would be the first to take that “giant leap.” Instead, just under ten years after Luna 2’s inaugural landing, the vision shared by so many moon-eyed dreamers on Earth was at last realized by the footprints left by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface.
It was undeniably the most pyrotechnic decade in spaceflight history. But though the Apollo program is remembered as the headliner, Luna 2 was the intrepid little traveler that kicked off our very first human adventures on the Moon. Rest in pieces, little buddy.
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