How Russia Beat the U.S. to the Moon

The space race began long before man walked on the moon, and for a while, the Soviets had the U.S. beat.

01.30.16 5:00 AM ET

Typical space race narratives focus on the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union to land a man on the Moon in the 1960s. But this is only part of the story. Behind this race to put boot prints in the lunar regolith was a race between nations to be the first to reach, understand, and explore the moon with robotic probes, all done at a time when spaceflight was firmly in its infancy. In this race, the Soviet Union won when Luna 9 became the first spacecraft to successfully soft land on the Moon on January 31, 1966. But the path was anything but straightforward.

The idea of a lunar mission wasn’t born with President Kennedy’s 1961 commitment to the United States to land a man on the Moon by the end of the decade. At least as early as the mid 19th century the idea started to move from the realm of science fiction to science fact. Jules Verne’s “From the Earth to the Moon” gave readers a lunar mission steeped in research. The book inspired a generation of scientists to turn dreams of spaceflight into reality, most notably Austrian Hermann Oberth whose pioneering work on liquid fueled rockets inspired Wernher von Braun, who developed the Saturn V rocket that took astronauts to the Moon in the 1960s.

Not until 1958 did the prospect of going to the Moon become a reality. Months before creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, President Eisenhower gave both the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Army permission to launch two lunar probes each. These probes were eventually christened Pioneer and were designed with the intention of taking pictures and collecting data throughout their flights to the Moon. The Air Force chose the TRW company to build its probes, Pioneers 1 and 2, while the Army chose JPL to build its Pioneers 3 and 4.

But the United States wasn't alone in embarking on this lunar challenge. Around the same time in the spring of 1958, the Soviet government approved a program for lunar exploration called Luna for the Russian word for “Moon” (though known sometimes as either Lunik or Lunnik in the western media). Like its American counterpart, Luna focussed on exploring the Moon and its environment with a series of robotic probes.

Where the American program sourced its probes from different contractors, the Soviet program developed different initial probes, each of which had a unique goal. Going by their internal designations, Ye-1 was designed for lunar impact, Ye-2 and Ye-3 were intended to image the Moon’s farside, and Ye-4 was a spacecraft to impact the Moon with a nuclear explosion.

The United States was the first nation to launch a mission to the Moon. Able 1, later renamed Pioneer 0, launched on August 17, 1958. The mission ended when the Thor launch vehicle exploded just 77 seconds after launch, destroying the spacecraft at the same time. A little over a month later, the Soviet Union launched history’s second lunar mission. A first generation Ye-1 Luna spacecraft, it also failed to reach orbit. Longitudinal vibrations, also known as pogo, shook the rocket hard enough to break it apart in flight.

The final months of 1958 saw alternating launches between the two countries, all of which experienced catastrophic launch failures. For the Americans, these were Pioneers 1, 2, and 3. For the Soviets, the losses were Luna 1958A, B, and C; missions were only given sequential numerical designations if they were successful.

Success finally came right at the start of 1959 with Luna 1. Another Ye-1 design, the spherical spacecraft reached the Moon 34 hours after launch. Its onboard instruments gathered data revealing for the first time that the Moon had no magnetic field and that a strong flow of ionized plasma from the Sun, the so-called Solar wind, flows through space. After flying past the Moon, Luna 4 settled into a heliocentric orbit somewhere between Earth and Mars. Two months later the United States followed suit with a flyby mission of its own, the JPL-built Pioneer 4 probe, which passed by the Moon too far away to take good images.

With one success under its belt, both nations pressed on with lunar mission and racked up a fair number of additional failures. But they also began to take slightly different directions. As later Pioneer flights went towards our neighboring planets of Mars and Venus, NASA initiated a new lunar impact program called Ranger. Science goals were removed with every subsequent failure and the program goal became returning a picture of the Moon, which Ranger 7 managed on July 31, 1964. But sadly, this was hardly an exciting first. On October 4, 1959, the Soviets launched a Ye-2 spacecraft on the Luna 3 mission, and three days later it returned the first ever images of the Moon’s unseen farside.

The early and mid-1960s saw the Soviet Union and United States focus more energy on planetary missions than continued lunar flights, though neither completely abandoned missions to the Moon. On the heels of the Ranger program, NASA incepted another program called Surveyor. Directly related to the Apollo program, the goal for Surveyor was to soft land probes on the Moon’s surface to better understand the environment. This was crucial. If astronauts were going to land in the coming years, NASA and specifically its contractor Grumman Aerospace needed to know everything it could to build a lunar module able to land safely on the lunar surface.

The Soviets, meanwhile, carried on with the Luna program, though it wasn’t without its own changes. Beginning with Luna 4, which attempted a lunar landing in April of 1963, Luna’s used a Ye-6 architecture. The Ye-6 spacecraft measured nearly nine feet in height and about five feet across at its base. The core was a cylindrical section containing maneuvering and landing rockets as well as the fuel to fire them, orientation systems, and radio transmitters to talk to the Earth. A spherical section on top contained a landing hemisphere. The idea was to have the lander eject from the main body once it was on the Moon, at which point it would be able to use its onboard camera and instruments to measure the radiation environment on the Moon.

Like so many missions of the nascent space age, the first Ye-6 missions didn’t fare too well. Lunas 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 were Ye-6 missions and they all failed to make a soft landing on the Moon. But with Luna 9, the Soviet Union broke its losing streak.

The mission launched on January 31, 1966, on a SS-6 rocket, the fourth stage of which sent the payload careening towards the Moon. Three days later on February 3, 46.5 miles above the Moon’s surface, the spacecraft’s retrorockets fired to slow Luna 9’s descent towards the surface. A little more than sixteen feet above the surface, a contact sensor touched the ground, signaling to the landing capsule to eject from the main spacecraft. It landed traveling at 13.6 miles per hour, bounced a few times, then finally came to rest in the Ocean of Storms.

After a little more than four minutes, four petals on the landed pod opened outward to stabilize the spacecraft. Spring-loaded antennas locked into transmission position, and a television camera system sprung to life, surveying the surrounding environment. Over the course of 8 hours and 5 minutes, images were sent back and assembled on Earth to show a panoramic image from the surface of the Moon. The mission ended three days later on February 6 when the landed spacecraft’s batteries ran out of power.

Luna 9’s success was an historic first with never-before-seen images to prove its validity, and it was another in a stunning string of firsts for the Soviets in space. The stunning list of lunar firsts—first probe that impacted the Moon, the first mission flyby and photograph the farside, the first soft landing, the first orbital mission, and the first mission to circle the Moon and return to Earth—parallels the Soviets’ success in other areas of spaceflight including launching the first satellite and first human into orbit. From the start, the Soviet Union devoted resources into its space program to stay ahead of the United States. But this Soviet leadership couldn’t commit to a firm goal the way the United States Congress did with the lunar landing goal. With waning firm leadership and resources increasingly divided between agencies, the Soviet Union fell behind the United States, making Luna 9 one of the last Soviet firsts in space.