It’s fun to ponder alternative histories. What ifs are numerous in the history of space exploration. What if the USSR had been the first to send a human being to the Moon? If you analyze the odds, by all rights, the Soviets should have landed a human on the Moon first. If so, they would have beat the USA by a few years. The trouble is, the USSR had too many failures on the way to manned flight to the Moon.
The Russians’ first attempt at lunar exploration was launched January 2, 1959. Luna I was sent on its way to the Moon. It was to crash land on the lunar surface. However, due to a minor programming glitch, it became a flyby, instead. Luna I passed less than 6,000 kilometres from the Moon. It assumed a solar orbit. It was the first manmade object to exit the domain of Earth’s gravitational pull. Presumably, Luna I remains in orbit around the Sun today.
Meantime, the Soviets were eager to make good on the failed impact mission. The same flight configuration was planned with timing more carefully figured for the future Luna II trip to the Moon. Just as Luna I had been sent on a direct path towards the Moon, Luna II would do the same. The duration of its journey had to be figured in multiples of twelve hours in order for the mission’s end to be visible in the USSR.
The original Luna II launch was to take place on September 9th, from Baikonur Space Center. However the booster engines failed to attain full thrust at start up. The rocket was shut down. The replacement rocket was moved into position and readied for flight. The launch went off as rescheduled at 06:39:42 UTC on September 12, 1959. Launch occured when the Soviet Union was positioned opposite of the Moon. Journey time was calculated at 36 hours.
To monitor the flight and trajectory of Luna II, the craft and the final stage of the rocket had transmitters. The Soviets also wished to visually track the progress of the mission. They decided to create an artificial comet. Both vehicles released clouds of sodium gas. The chemical glows under influence of the Sun’s energy just the same as a natural comet. The experiment happened at a distance of 113,000 kilometres from Earth.
Then on September 13 at 21:02:24 UTC (Sept. 14th, 00:02:24 Moscow Time), Luna II collided with the lunar surface. The vehicle hit near Mare Imbrium near the Aristides, Archimedes, and Autolycus craters. Luna II had become the very first manmade object to make physical contact with a celestial body.
At the time of collision, Luna II scattered several items of Soviet paraphernalia including emblems, ribbons, and spherical “pennants”. About half an hour later, the final stage of the launch rocket impacted the lunar surface, creating its own small crater and becoming the second manmade object to contact a celestial body.
The Soviet Space Agency was pleased with the success of the mission. A couple of days later, September 15th, Soviet Premier, Nikita Khrushchev gifted the United States with two replicas of the spherical “pennants”. One of them was presented, personally to President Dwight Eisenhower. That artifact is on display at the Eisenhower Presidential Library at Abilene, Kansas. The other gift is kept at the Kansas Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, Kansas.
The Blue Jay of Happiness thanks NASA and Roscosmos (The Russian Federal Space Agency) for information and data in this post.