More than a decade before man would set foot on the Moon, the Soviet Union fired the first manmade object bound for it into space on January 2, 1959. Though the satellite would end up off course, Luna 1 advanced knowledge of the solar system on many fronts, particularly in its proof that radio communication could be carried through space well past 300,000 miles from Earth
In the fifteen months after launching Sputnik 1 into low Earth orbit, the Space Race produced a remarkable number of events — six successful missions spread evenly between the United States and Soviet Union. The oneupmanship exhibited by the opposing Cold War powers knew no bounds, forcing each attempt to be more daring than the next on some level. Records were set for altitude achieved and observations were made of theorized phenomena, like the Van Allen radiation belt. Human knowledge of the final frontier expanded at a rapid rate.
By the end of 1958, however, none of the satellites had managed to escape the pull of Earth’s gravity. Though engineers at the US’ newly-formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) intended for Pioneer 1 to fly past the Moon in early October, a miscalculation pushed the rocket to an altitude of nearly 71,000 miles before turning the satellite back into Earth’s atmosphere.
On January 2, 1959, the Soviets would take their turn. The 800-pound Luna 1 was placed atop a three-stage rocket at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in modern Kazakhstan. Filled with a variety of instruments for measuring everything from magnetic fields to solar radiation, not to mention state-of-the-art radio equipment, the ball-shaped satellite’s smooth silver surface was interrupted by six individual probes to accommodate all the scientific requirements of the mission.
Under cover of darkness at the desert launchpad, the rocket soared through the upper atmosphere, becoming the first manmade object to achieve escape velocity — almost 7,000 miles per second — and burst through the planet’s gravitational pull. Bound for the Moon, Luna 1 broke free of Earth’s atmosphere and measured plasma from the Sun in the upper atmosphere before discovering the presence of solar wind sweeping through space. Six hours after launch, it released a burst of sodium gas, allowing Soviet scientists on the ground to observe the substance as it dissipated. (The experiment turned the satellite into the first artificial comet in history, as well.)
Just short of 9:00am on January 4th, Luna 1 zipped past the Moon at an altitude of 3,725 miles from the surface. As it shifted away from its target, engineers at the Soviet Space Program headquarters in Moscow realized it would not impact the Moon as planned. Instead, a tiny bit of programming code written incorrectly would put Luna 1 into heliocentric orbit between Earth and Mars, where it remains today.
Two months later, the US would make a second attempt at a lunar flyby, launching Pioneer 4, but it would take until September 1959 for the first manmade object to reach the Moon — Luna 2 made good where its predecessor had failed, delivering two Soviet pennants as it impacted the surface.
Also On This Day:
366 – The Alamanni, barbarians from modern Germany, cross the Rhine River on a march toward Rome
1492 – Granada, the last Moor emirate in Spain, surrenders to the armies of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella
1920 – Science fiction author and biochemistry professor Isaac Asimov is born
1935 – Bruno Hauptmann goes on trial for the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh, Jr.
1942 – The Duquesne Spy Ring, consisting of 33 German spies, is convicted of espionage by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation