On 13 September 1959, Luna 2 designed by Russian physicist Konstantin Gringauz, touched down on the moon, and became the first manmade, albeit unmanned, object to reach the surface of earth’s major satellite.
It all started two years earlier when on 4 October 1957 the USSR became the first to put a rocket into space with the successful launch of Sputnik 1, an event that marked the start of what would soon become known as the Space Race (or, as we refer to it here, ‘Who’s Got the Bigger Balls Competition’). One month later, the USSR made another first with the successful orbit of Sputnik 2 that carried the first living animal into space, the dog Laika, who died up there.
Now looking like the underdog, and fearing it might look less powerful to the world, a couple of months later the US made their first attempt to conquer the final frontier when they tried to put the Vanguard TV3 into orbit around the earth. But the rocket never left the launch pad, the fuel tanks ruptured and the whole thing exploded in a huge ball of flame, leaving the Americans with more than a little egg on their faces. The exact cause of the accident was never established, but what was clear from the off was that the USSR was streaks ahead, and the US had a lot of catching up to do.
The failure of the Vanguard project combined with the success of Sputnik caused such a furore in the States that the latter months of 1957 became known as the Sputnik crisis, and the Eisenhower administration was forced to take drastic steps.
Within the year, the US, feeling itself inferior, passed a bill through Congress that allowed for the formation of NASA, and within ten years of its creation it would make a giant leap for mankind. Meanwhile, however, back in the east, the USSR was the one making all the giant leaps, leaving the competition way behind.
While the US managed to successfully launch the Explorer 1 satellite on 31 January 1958, and quickly followed this with the launch of Vanguard 1, the USSR already had its sights on the moon. Almost one year after the Americans put their first satellite in space, the Russians launched Luna 1, and its destination was the moon. The first object to fire a rocket in orbit, it also made another major first reaching Earth escape velocity on 2 January 1959. It was on its way to the Moon, and came within 6,000km of Earth’s satellite.
The Americans continued to launch satellites into space, but the USSR was always a couple of steps ahead, and on 13 September 1959 they made it to the Moon with the probe Luna 2. Much to the embarrassment of the US, the Russians went very public with their success, and on 15 September Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev presented Eisenhower with a copy of the pennant attached to the probe.
Further humiliated, the US kept launching, but the major first kept coming for the USSR. Luna 3 produced the first images of the dark side of the Moon, in August 1960 the dog Belka became the first space traveller to return alive, carried by the Soviet Sputnik 5, and in April 1961 Russian Yuri Gargarin became the first man in space.
The race continued with the USSR making all the major firsts. John F. Kennedy reportedly suggested various joint programmes but Krushchev declined probably based on the old Ukrainian proverb, “If I won’t eat it, you won’t eat it” (or, if you can’t eat it, bite it), and for fear the Americans would get access to Soviet technology through such joint ventures.
It was at this point the US set their sights on putting a man on the moon, and the reasons for this are clearly presented to us through a conversation held between James E Webb and the then president. “Everything we do ought to really be tied in to getting on to the Moon ahead of the Russians, otherwise we shouldn’t be spending that kind of money, because I’m not interested in space…The only justification for the cost is because we hope to beat the USSR to demonstrate that instead of being behind by a couple of years, by God, we passed them.”
But the yanks weren’t the only ones planning on putting a man on the moon. Within the USSR Head of the Russian Federal Space Agency, Korolyov, declared that his Soyuz craft along with the N-1 rocket would be capable of making a manned lunar expedition, but with the failure of the first Soyuz flight, successive launch failures of the N-1 booster and, more importantly, the death of Korolyov, the programme suffered delay after delay and was finally cancelled.
Now it was time for the Americans, and the firsts came thick and fast. On 21 December 1968 Apollo 8 took men around the moon for the very first time, and then, as everyone knows, Neil Armstrong took that giant leap on 21 July 1969 on the Apollo 11 mission. The Race to the Moon was over, and the Americans finished what the Russians had started.