The Year the Soviets Owned the Moon

​The USSR was killin’ it with lunar exploration in 1959.​

May 26 2015, 11:00am

Soviet stamp commemorating Luna 3. Credit: Russian Federation

On May 25, 1961, John F. Kennedy delivered a speech to Congress announcing his intention to put an American astronaut on the Moon by the end of the 1960s.

"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth," Kennedy declared in this early trial run of the famous "We choose to go to the Moon" speech he gave at Rice University in 1962.

The fact that the Apollo program actually pulled off this lofty achievement within the timeframe set by Kennedy is astonishing even by today's standards. But though his enthusiasm for exploring space was no doubt genuine, Kennedy's tight deadline was primarily motivated by geopolitical tension. Though he largely downplayed this angle in his Rice address, Kennedy tipped his hand occasionally with expertly passive aggressive digs like, "We have had our failures, but so have others, even if they do not admit them. And they may be less public."

Of course, the ominous "they" refers to the Soviet space program, which, secrecy aside, was kicking NASA's butt at that point in the race. Even Kennedy, in all his patriotic furor, admitted that the United States was lagging behind the USSR in manned spaceflight in 1961. After all, in April of that year, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had become the first human to go to space, and Star City was well on the way to sending probes to both Venus and Mars, eventually beating NASA to both planets.

But perhaps the most symbolic edge the Soviets had over NASA was their own lunar exploration efforts, which came to fruition as early as 1959. That year, the Soviets unveiled the Luna programme, which went on to secure several important milestones, including the first unmanned Moon landing and the first lunar orbiter.

Luna 1. Credit: RIA Novosti archive, image #510848 / Alexander Mokletsov

Indeed, even the Luna programme's missteps often paid off in unpredictable ways. Take Luna 1, the world's first moonshot. Launched on January 2, 1959, the spacecraft became the first manmade object to exceed the Earth's escape velocity, wading beyond the familiar bounds of geostationary orbit. It was intended to to be the first spacecraft to impact with the lunar surface as well, but it veered off course after a guidance system malfunction, and missed the Moon by a margin of about 6,000 kilometers.

Fortunately for the Soviets, this random course turned out to be just as interesting as the intended one. Instead of ending up as some lame lunar crater—of which there would be many later on—the spacecraft kept on adventuring, and became the first manmade object to enter orbit around the Sun. Along the way, it detected the presence of the solar wind, and the absence of a lunar magnetic field, before peacing out to a life of deep space exploration where it remains to this day.

Spaceflight was so novel at this point that even a "failed" mission like Luna 1 could break new ground by accident. The Soviets capitalized on this momentum by launching Luna 2, which did end up impacting with the Moon on September 14, 1959, making it the first spacecraft in history to have reached another world. The region in which Luna 2 landed is now called the Bay of Lunik in its honor, the rare feature on the Moon named after a spacecraft.

After these exciting initial successes, the Soviets kicked it up a notch with Luna 3, the first lunar orbiter, which launched on October 4, 1959. This time, the team nailed the mission on their first shot. Despite glitches early in its journey, Luna 3 successfully completed a flyby of the Moon, exposing its far side for the very first time. Speculation about the Moon's hidden side is as old as skywatching itself, and this spacecraft finally satisfied that exploratory itch, sending home 29 film photographs of its idiosyncratic terrain.

Image taken by Luna 3. Credit: Roscosmos

At that point, the Luna programme petered out for several years, while the Soviets focused on interplanetary travel and manned spaceflight. Its later successes included the first soft landing on the Moon in 1966, but by that point, the tables were already beginning to turn in NASA's favor.

Indeed, the early successes of the Luna programme seem to eerily mirror the Apollo Moon landings a decade later. In July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planted an American flag in the Sea of Tranquility, effectively dropping the mic on the Space Race.

But just as 1969 was the year America officially stepped on the Moon, so too was 1959 the year of the Soviet moonshot. The Luna programme has been understandably eclipsed by the Apollo missions in fame, but that doesn't change the fact that it was humanity's first giant leap towards the Moon—and the worlds beyond it.