The early Moon missions

The exploits of the US Apollo programme generally dominate our collective memories of the Moon. Who can forget those iconic words that Neil Armstrong said when he stepped off the ladder and on to the surface of the Moon, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” There was a lot more to the Moon than the Apollo missions though, because 10 years before that the Soviet Union launched the first probe intended for the Moon with Luna 1. It wasn’t successful but it started the long history we have had as a species for sending stuff to either lunar orbit or to the surface. In this article we have a look at these early Soviet and American Moon missions to see what they were for and what they taught us about our big neighbour. The period had many failures and both superpowers learned a lot that helped with subsequent missions.

Luna 1 was the first attempt as a species to send anything to the Moon, though it was ultimately unsuccessful and missed the Moon by around 5995 km it still did some fairly amazing things. The probe was launched on 2 January 1959 from Baikonur in the Soviet Union (at the time). It was the first object launched to reach escape velocity and was sent on a fairly direct path to the Moon getting there (almost there) after 34 hours. Due to the missed timing of the firing of the upper stage the probe didn’t hit it’s objective – it was supposed to crash into the lunar surface. It ended up being in a heliocentric orbit and still trundles along whizzing around the Sun somewhere between the Earth and Mars. At the time it was the closest we had been to the Moon and though it didn’t achieve its objective, the probe did collect some valuable information o the Earth’s radiation belts and determined the Moon did not have a magnetic field.

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A replica of Luna 1 (Credit: Wikipedia)

Luna 2 was a lot more successful and achieved its main aim of hitting the lunar surface. It was launched on 13 September 1959 and was very similar to Luna 1 in both design and its intended mission. It struck the Moon about 36 hours after launch, hitting a spot not far from the Apollo 15 landing site. The probe also carried 5 instruments to measure various attributes on its way to the Moon including stuff about the Van Allen Belts around the Earth.

The US took a bit longer to get something to the Moon, but ultimately did quite a bit more with the manned missions obviously. Pioneer 4 was the first successful attempt by the United States to get a probe anywhere near the Moon by getting within 60,000 km of the lunar surface. Pioneer 4 was launched on 3 March 1959 and unlike the Luna probes it took a slightly different route to the Moon, taking a couple of days. The launch went well and the probe also collected valuable information about the Earth’s atmosphere and radiation belts and like Luna 1 it ended up in a heliocentric orbit. Ranger 4 was the first US spacecraft to make it to the Moon. It was launched 23 April 1962 with the intention of taking pictures of the lunar surface up to ten minutes before crashing. Unfortunately it had trouble deploying its solar panels and wasn’t able to take any pictures crashing onto the far side of the Moon after about 64 hours from launch. The early lunar mission had a huge amount of technical difficulty and often resulted in either partial failure, or frequently total failure.

On 28 July 1964 the Ranger 7 spacecraft was launched which returned the first close up images of the Moon. What was quite interesting from observations of the Moon at this time was that astronomers weren’t really sure what the surface was made of so couldn’t be sure if the surface could actually be landed on or be safe for humans to wander around on. The Ranger 7 spacecraft was designed to take a load of pictures on its way to crashing into the surface of the Moon. In the end it took about 4300 images including this final one which it took just prior to impact. Scientists figured out from the pictures that the Moon had enough smooth landing spots and was probably solid enough to land on.

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The final image from Ranger 7 (Credit: NASA)

The first successful landing of anything that survived on the lunar surface was the Luna 9 probe by the Soviet Union which launched it on 31 January 1966 from Baikonur. This spacecraft was designed to land on the lunar surface after being slowed by retro rockets and using an airbag to soften the impact with the surface. The mission was a success and the probe returned pictures of the lunar surface in far greater detail than had ever be seen before. The Soviets didn’t release the images immediately but fortunately the UK was able to also receive and decode the images and published them the following day giving the world it’s first view of another celestial body’s surface.

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The view from the surface of the Moon – Luna 9 (Credit: NSSDC)