The VICE Channels

    A Brief History of Kamikaze Lunar Missions

    Written by

    Becky Ferreira


    Luna-2: Weird even for a Soviet probe.

    On Friday evening, the LADEE (Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer) was blasted into space atop a Minotaur V rocket, from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The spacecraft will circle the Earth a few times before heading off to study moon dust and atmospheric conditions sometime in early October. It will be hard at work for about six months, and like so many spacecraft, it will not be welcomed home after its work is finished. Once the LADEE has clocked out, it will honorably crash land on the moon. May it rest in pieces.

    The idea of deliberately crashing unmanned ships on the moon goes back almost a century, to Robert Goddard's 1919 monograph A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes. The bulk of Goddard's treatise covered his experimentation with proto-rockets, but he concluded with an astonishingly vivid description of the possibilities unleashed by his research. He wanted to launch a ship engineered to release a large quantity of flash powder on the lunar surface, which would be ignited after impact.

    The result would be a blast of fiery sparkles, easily observable from Earth. At the time, he was accused of being a mad scientist by multiple newspapers, which factored in to his notorious paranoia later in life. But the idea metastasized in the scientific community and came to fruition during the Space Race. Goddard's redemption was posthumous, but it was glorious nonetheless.

    The Soviets were the first to capitalize on the idea, which is not surprising since they had an embarrassingly huge lead in the early years of the Space Race. On September 4th 1959, they launched Luna-2, which would become the first spacecraft ever to reach the lunar surface. It gloriously crashed near the Mare Imbrium, the same region that was bombed by an errant meteorite in March of this year. It was also one of the weirdest-looking spacecraft ever to grace the skies, and that's a seriously competitive category.

    The LADEE

    NASA was only a year old when Luna-2 face-planted on the moon, and they rushed to catch up by initiating the Ranger program. The aim was to take close-up photographs of the lunar surface, and then get up close with the surface themselves. But the missions were initially a disaster—a crash program in more than one meaning of the phrase. The program was so disorganized that it earned the humiliating nickname “shoot and hope.”

    Rangers 1 through 6 failed, though Ranger 4 did end up colliding with the dark side of the moon, accidently becoming the first American spacecraft to reach another celestial body (yay?). Ranger 6 also ended up on the moon, but it didn't return any photos. Finally, in 1964, NASA had worked out the kinks enough to launch Ranger 7, which successfully took photos and crashed exactly where it was supposed to. The next two missions in the program also succeeded, so having saved some face, NASA capped the Rangers off at 9.

    It would be two decades before purposely bashing the moon in the face with spaceships became fashionable again. Japan, of all nations, kick-started the revival. The Hiten spacecraft, known as the “Celestial Maiden” in English, was launched in 1993 to study Lagrange points and lunar dust. Befitting of its English moniker, it was sacrificed to the moon gods, becoming the first spacecraft launched by a country other than the USA or Russia to reach the lunar surface.

    NASA got back in the moon-crash game big time with the Lunar Prospector, which was launched in 1998 as part of the Discovery Program. It was a complex mission that included analysis of the moon's gravitational and magnetic properties, as well as confirmation of the existence of ice at the poles. The Prospector completely aced its exams, and peaced out on the moon's south pole in early 1999. Since then, practically every nation with any space-faring ambition has pulled off a deliberate crash landing. SMART-1, the European Space Agency's baby, bit the moon dust in 2006; India's appropriately named Moon Impact Probe (alternately: Chandrayaan-1) crashed in 2008; China's Chang'e 1 went kaput in 2009.

    Still, in the 21st Century, the most dramatic lunar impact missions definitely belong to the USA, which makes sense given how culturally inherent blowing stuff up is to the nation. Preceding LADEE was the epic LCROSS mission of 2009, which was not unlike Goddard's original vision of lunar firebomb.

    The spacecraft's main directive was to tear a chunk of the moon out so that scientists could study the plume, and oh, how it delivered—250 metric tons of material were ejected from the surface after the explosion. You might also remember last year's Grail mission, sent to study the moon's gravitational field and internal structure with twin probes. After a successful nine months of orbiting their subject, Grail A and Grail B pulled a “Thelma and Louise” on December 17, 2012.

    So while the LADEE's ultimate fate may seen harsh, especially if you can't help but anthropomorphize satellites, it is far from unprecedented. The moon is already a gigantic graveyard for kamikaze spaceship missions. At least the LADEE, the latest addition to the junk heap, will have plenty of company up there.

    Inline image: Hiten via Wikimedia