Sixty Years Ago: First to the Moon

Luna 2, Soviet lunar impact spacecraftLast July, we celebrated Apollo 11, which performed the first manned landing on the Moon on July 20th, 1969.  This month marks the sixtieth anniversary of the first landing on the Moon, and the first spacecraft from Earth to touch another body in the solar system.

On September 12th, 1959, the Soviet Union launched Luna 2 toward the Moon.  This was the fifth Soviet attempt to launch a spacecraft to impact the Moon.  The first three failed during launch.  The fourth, Luna 1, missed the Moon by 5965 km and went into orbit around the Sun.  Luna 2, an identical spacecraft, was launched on a direct trajectory to the Moon by a booster designated 8K72, which used the R-7 ballistic missile (the same type which launched Sputnik) to launch an upper stage called Block E, which boosted the spacecraft toward the Moon.  The launch used a direct trajectory, Jules Verne-style, which did not enter either Earth or Moon orbit, but instead travelled directly from launch to impact on the lunar surface.

The Luna 2 spacecraft carried five scientific instruments to measure radiation and magnetic fields en route and in the vicinity of the Moon.  It measured the radiation of Earth’s Van Allen belts, but detected no radiation belts or magnetic field around the Moon.  Data were relayed to Earth using three separate radio transmitters operating on different frequencies.  The frequencies were disclosed to Bernard Lovell of the Jodrell Bank Observatory in Manchester, England to permit independent verification of the spacecraft’s trajectory and arrival at the Moon to dispel claims the mission was faked, as happened with Luna 1.

On September 13th, 1959 at 21:02:24 UTC, Luna 2 impacted the Moon at 29.1° north latitude near the lunar meridian, not far from where Apollo 15 would land almost twelve years later.  There was no braking before impact (the spacecraft had no propulsion of any kind) and occurred at 3.3 kilometres per second.  Although the craters produced by many lunar impactors have been located, to my knowledge Luna 2 remains elusive to this day (the location is uncertain by tens of kilometres).

Luna 2 <"pennant”Shortly before impact, the probe released sodium vapour which expanded into a cloud 650 km in diameter and was detected by five observatories in the Soviet Union.  The spacecraft carried a spherical “pennant” made of titanium composed of 72 pentagonal pieces inscribed with legends identifying the country of origin and year of landing.  Before impact, an explosive charge in the centre of the sphere would shatter it into individual pieces which, it was hoped, due to their low mass and strength, would survive the impact.  Nobody knows if they did—we’ll have to go and see some day.

Around half an hour after Luna 2 hit the Moon, the rocket stage which boosted it on its trajectory became the second object to impact the Moon, carrying an identical pennant.  The location of its impact is uncertain.

Jodrell Bank Observatory monitored transmissions from Luna 2 and confirmed that they ceased at the predicted moment of impact.

The U.S. would not achieve a planned impact on the Moon until February 1964, when Ranger 6 hit the Moon, unfortunately returning no images due to a power failure.  Full success would come with Ranger 7 on July 31st, 1964.  (The first U.S. spacecraft to hit the Moon was actually Ranger 4, which failed en route to the Moon and accidentally impacted the far side of the Moon on 1962-04-26, providing no scientific data.)

Here is a contemporary U.S. newsreel about Luna 2, complete with tacky V-2 footage standing in for the launch.

This is a re-creation of the Luna 2 mission made with the Orbiter space flight simulator.


Author: John Walker

Founder of, Autodesk, Inc., and Marinchip Systems. Author of The Hacker's Diet. Creator of

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