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How the Soviet Union was in front of the US to get to the moon

On September 15, 1959, the then secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, arrived in Washington on a historic visit to the United States.

During a visit to the White House, Khrushchev gave his colleague Dwight Eisenhower a round object with a Soviet emblem engraved on it.

It is an iconic object but also funny: the ball is a copy of the one traveling on the probe Luna 2 which, just the day before, had become The first ship to reach the surface of the Moon.

The Soviets will take advantage of the US on the Moon twice more, before the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) managed to achieve its objectives with the Apollo 11 mission in 1969 and put the first humans on the Moon.

Newborn space races

After reaching the first month, the Soviets took an important step in the space race they had begun 1957 with the launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik.

Then, Moscow reached first controlled landing with "Luna 9" in February 1966 and also took first photo in the surface history of the moon.

Two months later, Luna 10 became the first ship to orbit the Moon. This allows studying satellite topography.

Very early in the space race, scientists from both sides concluded that "indirect flights" including moon modules would be much easier than landing directly on the Moon.

In 1961, a NASA engineer, John Houbolt, proposed an approach called lunar orbital lift (LOR), in which an aircraft carrier would orbit around the moon while smaller vessels would escape from it. to get to the satellite.

Houboult said that in this way time and fuel could be saved, and many mission steps (development, testing, manufacturing, construction and flight operations) would be simplified.

This is how Americans come to the Moon. But in 1966 they The Soviets seemed to be getting closer and closer to conquering satellites nature of the Earth.

"Before placing a man on the Moon, you must put down the robot probe, and we tend to forget all success on the Soviet side," said Doug Millard, space curator at the Science Museum in London.

Luna 2

The spacecraft was launched on September 12, 1959.

The Soviet authorities took an unusual step in the midst of the secrecy that characterized their space program: the famous British astronomer Bernard Lovell was given important information about aviation, including its trajectory.

It was Lovell who confirmed the success of the mission for outside observers among those who were American, who initially denied this achievement.

Luna 2 makes an impact on the surface of the moon with a speed of around 12,000 km / h just past midnight (Moscow time) September 14, 1959. Most likely, both the probe and what's inside survived the impact.

But the mission was more than just an exercise in Cold War pride.

Luna 2 use scientific experiment: confirm that the Moon does not have enough magnetic field and find no evidence of radiation belts.

"This gives scientists important insights into the geology of the Moon, for example," said Libby Jackson, a physicist and director of the British Space Agency's Human Exploration Program, told the BBC.

Month 9

Seven years later, Luna 9 contributed to the Apollo program.

Before landing on the Moon, Soviet and American scientists thought that the surface might be too soft for a ship.

They fear that it will be covered by a kind of "swamp" of deep dust, and that this will cause the probe to sink.

The Soviet investigation showed that the land was dense, and this is a very important fact.

"This is a real scientific milestone and in fact contributes to the future mission," Jackson said.

Luna 10

It was also a propaganda victory for the Soviets over Americans.

"We must remember that it is the geopolitics that drive the space race," added physics.

As for Luna 10, he made important discoveries about the composition of satellite soils and even about micrometersoid, small particles of rock that move at high speed through space and that they are a danger to space exploration and for astronauts on the surface of the Moon, where the lack of atmosphere makes these particles fall to the ground without anyone preventing it.

"The Soviets thought they would win the space race thanks to a series of milestones including this the first humans were sent to space in 1961 and the first spacecraft in 1965", said space historian Asif Siddiqui, during an interview with the American NGO Planetary Society, which conducted research and dissemination on the problem of space exploration.

"They never really thought that Americans can reach landfall on the Moon."

However, in 1968, Americans struck a heavy blow: with the Apollo 8 mission they managed to send the first manned ship to the Moon orbiting it, and returned without problems.

Less than a year later, Apollo 11 landed on the surface of the moon.

The Soviets never had an answer to Apollo 8 even though America had overtaken in several "first steps" related to manned flights. Why

"Where to start? inadequate scientific and technological base and poor organizational structure", former NASA historian Roger Launius told the BBC.

In short, the Soviet program stood out in sending probes to the Moon, but It never developed enough to do the same thing with humans.

But most importantly, Moscow does not have a strong enough rocket to send manned ships to the moon.

The USA has a strong Saturn V, which was used successfully on all of its manned flights to the Moon. The Soviet equivalent is N1: failed in all four flight tests.

What's more, the Soviet space program was damaged by what experts called chaotic management system. The bureaucratic struggle and internal power contrast with the centralized top-down structure adopted by America.

Competition for resources

Both the Americans and the Soviets had realized very early in the space race, to successfully complete the moon's orbit promise (The procedure for sending manned ships on flights to the Moon that have a meeting in the moon's orbit before making a moon landing), must do complicated docking maneuvers in space.

While America succeeded in completing these maneuvers in 1966, Russia did not succeed before January 1969.

In addition, the Soviet space program was in constant conflict with communist leaders and compete with the military for resources, which prioritizes the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles as part of the national nuclear prevention program.


In his book "The challenge to Apollo: Soviet Union and Space Race, 1945-1974 ", Siddiqui explained that the Soviets only began to seriously plan to send humans to the Moon in 1964, several years after America.

"There are many confidentiality around the Soviet program and that's why things like the first spacecraft were seen as something extraordinary. "

"In fact, what we are seeing is ad-hoc programs that are experiencing difficulties one by one."

This vision is owned by people who have been in the old Soviet ranks.

"When you talk about the Soviet space program, the West has the wrong idea that it is centralized. It is far more decentralized than the US., which has a focus on the Apollo program, "he explained to the magazine Scientific American Sergei Khrushchev, son of a Soviet nuclear expert and space engineer during the space race.

"In the Soviet Union there are different designers competing with each other."

To complicate matters further, the main force behind Moscow's space program, engineer Sergei Korolev, died suddenly in January 1966.

Last effort

However, when they realized that the race to place someone on the Moon had disappeared, the Soviets made a final effort to take some benefits: They launched an investigation to collect lunar soil samples and returned before the Apollo 11 mission departed.

On July 13, 1969, three days before Apollo 11 left, Luna 15 was sent into space.

He entered Moon orbit four days later, 72 hours before Apollo 11, but finally hit the surfacea few hundred kilometers from where Armstrong and Aldrin prepared to return to Earth.

"We thought we overtook the entire planet and that we would defeat the US in sending humans to the Moon too, but desire is one thing, and another opportunity," he said philosophically in 1999. American television program Vassily Mishin, the person who replaced Sergei Korolev in the Soviet space program.

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