Luna 9, Feb. 3, 1966
The moon has always had a special place in human imagination. We first imagined it a god. When we finally started seeing it as a place, we have dreamed of going there.
Kids of my generation looked up at the sky with wonder. We dreamed of traveling into space and perhaps being the first human to tread upon the moon.
Such memories come back in odd and unexpected ways. On Feb. 3, we celebrated the 47th anniversary of that greatest of all technological achievements.
These days, most people think that an American craft first landed on the moon. Not so. The first spacecraft to have that honor was Russian. Its name was Luna 9, not Apollo 11.
I have always admired that technological achievement — even when the Russians were the Soviet Union and we loathed them as “commies.” The Russians had nothing close to the financial support or complex technology that led to America’s manned lunar landing three years later. Instead, they had to rely on a far more powerful gift — their ingenuity.
During the previous few years, both the Americans and Russians had solved the daunting navigational problems necessary to get their rockets to the moon. They had flown by and, in the case of America’s Ranger spacecraft, even landed on the moon.
But the Rangers were designed to crash land. The control necessary for a soft landing on legs, which had to be developed for a manned mission, was as yet undeveloped.
The technology of Luna 9 was crude, but it worked. The spacecraft was put in a parking orbit around the moon. It cast off the navigational equipment it had needed to get to lunar orbit, and then began a powered decent toward the surface.
A long, hinged arm sticking out from the bottom of the spacecraft detected when it was a few feet from the lunar surface. At that moment, Luna 9 ejected a 220-pound ball of scientific instruments, which bounced and rolled to a stop. The decent craft crashed into the moon, but the ball was built ruggedly enough to survive the impact.
The ball was bottom heavy, so it easily righted itself. Petal-like panels blossomed from its sides, anchoring the spacecraft, exposing a television camera, and deploying antennas.
Over the next four days, Luna 9 transmitted the first television images from Luna’s surface. The first of them showed a landscape filled with lonely desolation as the setting sun cast long, dark shadows on the rocky chaos.
Humans had their first glimpse from the moon. From the moon!
As you might imagine, the “drop, bounce, and roll” technique was unreliable. Lunas 1–8 “failed to achieve their mission objective,” as the crashed fragments of mangled lunar spacecraft stand in mute testimony. The Russians made up for a lack of advanced technological expertise with sheer, galling persistence.
Some will argue, I suppose, that the Russian achievement doesn’t count. They will say that Americans deserve the credit for the first HUMAN landing, not some robot without a soul.
If any machine every had a soul, Luna 9 was it. It was inhabited by the dreams of the hundreds of Russian scientists who toiled to put it there. More importantly, it carried the spirits of the countless humans who in the ages before it had looked up at the moon with awe-struck silence and wondered what it would be like to look back. Tonight, if the sky is clear, I will do the same.
In ages hence, Luna 9 will be remembered, or historical justice does not exist on Earth. As it spread its petals to drink in the harsh lunar sunlight, the human spirit opened up as well.
So check out the moon the next chance you get. Binoculars show its craters as tiny dark spots. A small telescope reveals exquisite details in its craters, mountain ranges, and enormous lava plains.
Invisible to your sight is a small metallic flower, its petals unfurled, waiting for us to come again.
Tom Burns is the director of Perkins Observatory. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.