The Moon Race between the USA and USSR was in high gear fifty years ago, and 1968 was a pivotal year when the Communist “Hammer and Sickle” flag was very close to being planted on that alien world in our skies.
The history of America’s two-man Gemini and three-man Apollo missions are clicking off half-century and longer milestones, which is incredible to think about for Baby Boomers who lived the excitement of the Moon Race. The Soviet Union accumulated a lot of space firsts that allowed their propaganda machine to tout the supremacy of Communism.
The USSR had the first satellite, Sputnik 1 in October 1957; the first animal in space, dog Laika in November 1957; the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, 1961; the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, 1963; the first three-person crew, Voskhod 1, 1964; the first spacewalk by Alexi Leonov, 1965; the first object to hit the Moon, Luna 2, 1959; first photos of back side of Moon, Luna 3, 1959; the first satellite to orbit the Moon, Luna 10, March 1966; the first soft landing on the Moon, Luna 9, 1966; and many more in the details of space flight.
The USSR was just as motivated to go to the Moon as the USA. The Communist not only valued the military aspect of space, but a chance to show the world their superiority. American inspiration came from President John F. Kennedy’s challenge in 1961 to put an American on the Moon before the end of the decade. President Kennedy said we would figure out how to do it along the way, creating a new energy of progress that would benefit the world.
This Christmas Eve 2018 will mark 50 years when Apollo 8 circled the Moon with three American astronauts sending live photos of the surface moving below as they read the Bible Book of Genesis. The dangerous mission took the mighty Saturn V rocket to pull it off, the 10 orbits of the Moon a statement that really won the Moon Race.
All that was left was the earth-orbit test by Apollo 9 of the Lunar Module moon ship and a full-dress rehearsal Moon voyage, except landing, by Apollo 10. Finally, the bold, successful landing of Apollo 11 in July 1969. And then in November 1969 with Apollo 12, NASA doubled the pledge of President Kennedy by landing two more men on the Moon.
The Moon Race was over for the Soviet Union. Their secret manned space program took us decades to figure out. During the training sessions for the nine Space Shuttle launches to the Russian Mir Space Station, astronauts in Houston and cosmonauts in Star City began sharing space stories, and the truth began to be told. After the Moon Race, the USSR developed a series of Salyut space stations that lead to the 15-year life of Mir. That experience was shared as the two Super Powers bonded to play large roles in the International Space Station.
The path to the Moon for both the USA and USSR was paved by unmanned spacecraft beginning with flybys and then orbiters. The reconnaissance orbiters were particularly important to pinpoint landing sites. The Soviet Union lead the way, with the first orbiter around the Moon being March 6, 1966. That year they had two more orbiters, Luna 11 and 12, and a lander, Luna 13 on Dec. 24, 1966. The orbiters surveyed landing sites for lunar map makers, and the lander tested the surface strength. Heading into the year 1967, NASA feared that the Communists were nearing a manned mission around the Moon.
Spacewalker Leonov, now age 83, has openly said he and first-man-in-space Gagarin were training for a moon landing. One would orbit and the other land. Gagarin was killed in a jet crash in 1968, and he was replaced. Privately, Leonov said he felt it was a suicide mission because of the rush in training and lack of testing the spacecrafts. Leonov was the commander of the Soviet-USA Apollo-Soyuz spacecraft docking in 1975.
Americas reconnoitering of the Moon began with a lot of failures before the success of the kamikaze video machine called Ranger 7. The first six Rangers in 1962 and ’63 failed for various reasons, but finally in July 1964 Ranger 7 streamed back images of the Moon down to the final second, showing craters and rocks down to the final inches.
NASA also sent a series of unmanned landers called Surveyor, a three-legged, tubular spacecraft of rockets, cameras, a scoop and other instruments. Seven surveyors were sent, and five were successful and important to developing the manned lander. It was the Surveyor 3 that Apollo 12 landed near in November 1969 to double-down on President Kennedy’s famous challenge.
The Soviets were to the landing on the Moon, but they failed because their giant moon rocket failed. We had the Saturn V, still the world’s largest rocket, that performed nine, flawless missions to the Moon from 1969-1972. They had the N-1 rocket, which blew up four times, once on the launch pad possibly killing dozens.
So top secret was the N-1 rocket that it took the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 for details to be revealed. Hurried and underfunded, the huge 4-stage rocket was 344 feet tall, 10 feet shorter than the Saturn V. The N-1 had a first stage of 30 engines in two rings. Launched in February 1969 with an unmanned moonship called Zond, it blew up 30-seconds into flight. Another unmanned try on July 3 blew up just yards off the launch pad, setting of seismometers around the world and ending any chances for a Russian on the Moon before the United States.
Though America won the Moon Race, the Soviets still had ambitions to land anyway. They launched and blew up another gigantic N-1 rocket in June 1971, and again in November 1972, each getting a few miles from the launch pad before engine failure. The Soviets also sent three successful sample return missions in 1970, ’72 and ’76 for a total of two ounces of Moon dirt and small rocks. And they put the first two automated rovers on the Moon, Lunokhod 1 in November 1970 and Lunokhod 2 in January 1973. Just more evidence that the Moon Race was real and won by America.
So, to those fools who say we didn’t go to the Moon…if we didn’t, then why aren’t the Russians saying so? The mountain of paperwork and testimony of the blood, sweet and tears by 500,000 American contractors of NASA from 1961-69 is plenty of evidence of one of man’s greatest achievements.