Chapter 1. Race for the Moon

The time is the 1950s. The United States and the Soviet Union are intently playing history’s most dangerous game of chicken, aiming thousands of nuclear bombs at each other’s cities, according to a doctrine aptly named MAD. As in Mutual Assured Destruction. They both know that if one of them decides to attack, the other’s nuclear retaliation will lead to utter annihilation.

This fragile balance of terror will last forty-five years and will end with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. But at the time of the Moon race, the Soviet Union is a powerful, secretive superstate that includes the countries now known as Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.

The United States and the Soviet Union. Image source: Wikipedia (1; 2).

These two military superpowers are vying for control of the ultimate high ground: space. They both view spaceflight as an opportunity to spy on each other and deliver atomic bombs more efficiently and to prove to the world their technological prowess and the superiority of their social system. Space is propaganda.

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union stuns the world by launching the very first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1. Western public opinion is all to aware of the fact that Sputnik overflies the US and the rest of the world with absolute impunity and has been hurled into the sky on one of the intercontinental missiles that the Soviets (like the Americans) are building to drop nuclear warheads in mere minutes onto enemy targets.

The United States launches a crash federal program to recover from the political humiliation of being beaten by what was considered by many a backward country. It belatedly accelerates its fledgling space program, which had already achieved remarkable results, such as the first photographs taken from space: towards the end of the 1940s, US researchers had modified German V-2 rockets to perform brief vertical flights to altitudes up to 160 kilometers (100 miles), carrying scientific instruments and cameras. This crash program also seeks to close the academic, military and technological gap that Sputnik has so eloquently exposed. But at first the only result of this effort is further embarrassment.

One month after Sputnik 1, on November 3, 1957, the Soviets set another record with Sputnik 2, taking the first living being into orbit around the Earth, the dog Laika, before the United States has placed anything at all in orbit. Laika dies a few hours later from overheating and stress, but this is kept secret. The flight has been planned as a one-way mission anyway, because the technology for returning living creatures safely from orbit is not yet available.

Finally, on December 6, the US makes its first orbital launch attempt. The Navy’s Vanguard TV3 rocket rises a few feet and then explodes dishearteningly on the pad.

The Vanguard TV3 attempt.

The United States manages to place a satellite in orbit on January 31, 1958: Explorer 1 is launched on a Jupiter-C/Juno-I, a US Army Redstone rocket designed and modified by Wernher Von Braun, creator of the infamous V-2 rockets that had been used to bomb London and other cities during the Second World War. Von Braun had defected from Germany in 1945 and is now working for the US military.

America is in space at last. Nevertheless, the measly 14 kilograms (31 pounds) of Explorer 1 are nothing compared to the over 500 kilos (1,100 pounds) of Sputnik 2 and the over 1,300 kilos (2,900 pounds) carried into space by Sputnik 3 on May 15.

Ironically, part of the Soviets’ lead in space is due to their inferior military technology: in the early 1950s both the US and the Soviet Union had developed intercontinental missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, but Soviet nukes were heavier than American ones. The Soviets solved the problem simply by building bigger rockets, which happened to be easily adaptable for spaceflight.

1.1 The Soviets lead

In August 1958, the United States tries to get ahead of the Russians with an attempt to be the first to reach the Moon with an automatic probe, Able 1, but the launch fails 77 seconds after liftoff. The next three attempts (Pioneer 1, 2 and 3) suffer a similar fate.

On January 2, 1959, the Soviets launch the Luna 1 probe, which two days later achieves the first lunar flyby, getting as close as 6,000 kilometers (3,700 miles) to the Moon, and becomes the first vehicle to go into orbit around the Sun.

America’s fifth lunar attempt, Pioneer 4, achieves solar orbit but fails to get any closer than 60,000 kilometers (37,000 miles) to the Moon on March 4.

The Soviets achieve another first on September 13, 1959: their Luna 2 probe crash-lands on the Moon. Less than a month later, Luna 3 reveals to the world the very first pictures of the far side of the Moon.

The far side of the Moon, imaged by the Soviet probe Luna 3 in 1959.

It will take the US five more years, and nine more attempts, to reach the Moon with a space probe. For the time being, America has to make do with science missions in Earth orbit, such as Explorer 6, which provides an almost complete map of the Van Allen radiation belts that encircle our planet and returns the first television pictures of Earth from space. Two monkeys, Able and Baker, are recovered successfully after suborbital flights into space. But the headline-grabbing space launches are all Soviet.

1.2 The US catches up

In 1960 the United States achieves several records: first imaging weather satellite (TIROS-1, April 1), first electronic intelligence satellite (GRAB-1, July 5), first recovery of a satellite after reentry from Earth orbit (Discoverer 13, August 11) and first imaging spy satellite (Discoverer 14, August 18).

These are mostly military achievements, prompted by the need to replace urgently with satellites the top-secret U-2 spy planes that had been conducting covert reconnaissance flights over Soviet territory, taking detailed pictures of the country’s most secret facilities. On May 1, 1960, one of these planes had been shot down and the pilot captured, causing huge diplomatic embarrassment to the United States.

Once again the Soviet Union grabs the space headlines: in August, Sputnik 5 carries plants and animals (two dogs, Belka and Strelka, forty mice and two rats) into space and for the first time returns them safely from orbit.

1.3 The first human being in space

1961 sees a new Soviet shocker: on April 12, Yuri Gagarin becomes the first human being to fly in space. Not as a brief up-and-down hop beyond the atmosphere, but as an orbital flight aboard Vostok 1.

Americans are stunned and beaten to the draw once again. The best response they can muster is a fifteen-minute suborbital flight with Alan Shepard in a Mercury spacecraft on May 5, because US rockets powerful enough to carry an astronaut into Earth orbit have the unpleasant tendency to explode during test launches. Russian rockets, instead, appear to be outstandingly reliable, also thanks to the fact that their failures are not disclosed.

Gagarin’s space flight in the Huntsville Times.

So with a grand total of fifteen minutes of suborbital human spaceflight on its track record and an unruly assortment of exploding rockets as its current assets, the United States throws down a daring gauntlet: on May 25, 1961, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy challenges the Soviet Union to a race to the Moon.

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.

The President’s strategy is as simple as it is ambitious: set a grandiose goal that will impress the world, boost America’s morale and is far enough in the future to give the US aerospace industry the time to get its act together, close the rocket reliability gap and do better than the Russians. Kennedy, however, will not live to see the outcome of his challenge. He will be assassinated in Dallas, Texas, two years later, on November 22, 1963.

Meanwhile the Russians march on relentlessly. Before America manages to achieve a single human orbital flight, Gherman Titov repeats and extends Gagarin’s mission, performing seventeen Earth orbits in early August 1961 aboard Vostok 2.

Gus Grissom performs another suborbital flight on July 21, 1961, and finally, on February 20, 1962, nearly one year after the Russians, John Glenn becomes the first American to orbit the Earth aboard the Friendship 7 spacecraft.

But the Soviet Union ups the ante: in August, two spacecraft (Vostoks 3 and 4) fly simultaneously and cosmonauts Nikolayev and Popovich are briefly less than 5 km (3 miles) apart. The double flight is not a rendezvous, but that’s how Soviet propaganda presents it. Nikolayev also sets a new endurance record: four days in space. His picture is broadcast by onboard television cameras to Russian viewers.

In June 1963, Valentina Tereshkova becomes the first woman in space, aboard Vostok 6. She is also the first civilian spacefarer, since all previous astronauts and cosmonauts have been members of the US or Soviet military.

On its own, her 48-orbit flight lasts longer than the combined times of all the American astronauts that have flown until then. No other woman will fly in space for the next 19 years: the second woman to do so will be Russian cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982, aboard Soyuz T-7, and the first American woman in space will be Sally Ride in 1983, aboard Space Shuttle Challenger (STS-7).

On October 12, 1964, the Soviet Union accomplishes the first multicrewed spaceflight: Voskhod 1 carries into orbit three men before the US is able to fly even two. The flight is essentially a propaganda stunt: in order to cram three astronauts into a vehicle designed for two, they are recklessly required to fly without spacesuits.

The first spacewalk is also a Russian record, set on March 18, 1965 by Alexei Leonov aboard Voskhod 2. All the US can do is send the first successful probe to Mars (Mariner 4).

The first soft landing of a space probe and the first pictures from the surface of the Moon are also a Soviet achievement, with Luna 9 in February 1966.

In the meantime, however, the US space program has been acquiring experience with human spaceflight and with the techniques required for a crewed Moon landing. Between 1965 and 1966, the spacecraft of the Gemini program carry two-man crews that achieve orbit changes, long-duration flights (up to 14 days), spacewalks and rendezvous with dockings and set a new altitude record for human spaceflight: during the Gemini 11 mission (September 12-15, 1966), Charles "Pete" Conrad and Richard F. Gordon fly to a distance of 1374 kilometers (854 miles) from the Earth’s surface and become the first human beings to see their home planet as a sphere.

The Gemini 7 spacecraft, photographed from its sister ship.

Meanwhile, the Lunar Orbiter robot probes take detailed photographic surveys of the Moon’s surface and the Surveyor spacecraft land on it, testing its nature and consistency. By and large, the US has caught up with the Russians.

But the Apollo program, meant to put an American on the Moon, is in deep trouble. On January 27, 1967, Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee die in the fire of their Apollo 1 command module during a routine test on the launch pad. A substantial redesign was already in progress, but the nationwide shock prompts a drastic rethinking of the ill-conceived spacecraft.

The charred Apollo 1 crew module.

1967 is a tragic year also for Russian space endeavors. On April 24, Vladimir Komarov becomes the first person to die during spaceflight: his Soyuz 1, prepared hastily to appease the Soviet government’s craving for propaganda coups, crashes fatally upon return from space.

Some researchers (such as the Italian Judica Cordiglia brothers) claim that they intercepted radio signals from other Soviet crewed flights that ended tragically and were kept secret. However, so far the cross-checks of spaceflight historians such as James Oberg and others have found no evidence to support these claims and have instead pointed out their inconsistencies.

1.4 Apollo gets up to speed

The massive US investments in space begin to bear fruit. The huge Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral has risen from the Floridian swamps in record time. Several uncrewed flights test the Apollo spacecraft, the giant Saturn V Moon rocket designed by Wernher Von Braun, and the ground support hardware and staff.

Meanwhile the Soviet space program nets another first: on September 18, 1968, the Zond 5 automatic probe takes the first living beings around the Moon. Turtles, wine flies, meal worms, plants, seeds and bacteria are returned safely to Earth, apparently none the worse for the trip. What’s more, the spacecraft is clearly big enough to carry a man.

On October 11, Walter Schirra, Donn Eisele and Walter Cunningham perform the first crewed flight of the redesigned Apollo spacecraft, testing Apollo 7 in Earth orbit for eleven days.

Their flight is also the first American mission with a crew of three and the first crewed test of the Saturn IB rocket, Saturn V’s smaller brother. There’s no time to waste: the US government knows that the Soviets are secretly getting ready to beat America to the Moon.

The cover of Time, December 6, 1968.

So two months later, Apollo 8 is the first crewed flight of a Saturn V, and although the giant booster has only flown twice previously the goal is already tremendously bold: to travel three hundred times farther than anyone has ever done and take three American astronauts around the Moon.

On December 24, 1968, for the first time in history, human beings see the Moon with their own eyes from as little as 110 kilometers (69 miles) and fly over its far side, which is forever hidden from view from Earth.

The worldwide emotional impact of this mission is huge, not least because it is shown live on TV. Much of mankind is able to share the view of the cratered surface of the Moon rolling past as astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders read verses from the Book of Genesis. The Christmas Eve broadcast from the Moon is the most watched TV event up to that time.

The Apollo 8 astronauts also take unforgettable photographs of their destination and of our home planet as a distant, delicate blue marble suspended in the blackness of the cosmos. The contrast with the harsh, lifeless lunar horizon could not be more eloquent and striking in its message to mankind.

The Earth seen from the Moon by the Apollo 8 astronauts. NASA photograph AS8-14-2383.

At least in the eyes of public opinion, the flight is an unmitigated American triumph that marks the defeat of the Soviet space propaganda machine. Little is said, at the time, about the disastrous conditions aboard the spacecraft: vomiting and diarrhea caused by space sickness, outgassing of sealant that fogged up the windows and hindered star sighting for navigation, water pooling dangerously in the crew cabin, and more.

But the race to the Moon isn’t over yet. The actual landing is yet to be achieved, and the Soviet Union secretly hasn’t given up on its ambitions to be the first to land a human being on the Moon.

1.5 The real conspiracy: secret Soviet moonshots

The Soviet Union has secretly been developing the N1-L3 system: a giant rocket, the N1, as big as a Saturn V and capable of sending two cosmonauts towards the Moon in a vehicle, known as L3, that includes a lunar lander designed to carry one Russian to the surface of the Moon.

Preparing the N1 rocket.

The N1, however, is underfunded and plagued by interpersonal rivalries among top Soviet rocket engineers. The thirty engines of its first stage are a nightmare to coordinate and control. The Soviet military oppose the project because they see it as an expensive propaganda gimmick with no practical military use, differently from all of Russia’s previous space rockets, which were derived from nuclear weapon-carrying missiles.

The giant booster flies for the first time in February 1969 for an uncrewed test and explodes 66 seconds after liftoff. The failure is kept secret, and in May the Soviet Union officially states that it does not intend to send cosmonauts to the Moon because it will not risk human lives in such an endeavor and will use only robot probes instead.

The second launch is an even worse disaster. On July 3, 1969, days before the American Moon landing, an uncrewed N1 falls back onto the launch pad moments after ignition.

The explosion of its 2,600 tons of fuel is the most violent in the history of rocketry. This failure, too, is silenced.

Officially, for the Soviet Union the N1-L3 project never existed. It will continue in total secrecy for a few more years, testing the lunar lander in Earth orbit, but after two more disastrous launch failures the N1 will be abandoned. No Soviet cosmonaut will ever walk on the Moon.

The Soviet lunar landing vehicle (Lunniy Korabl).

The Soviet and US lunar landing vehicles to scale. Credit: Nick Stevens,

None of this will be known to the public for more than twenty years, but the US government is well aware of the Soviet attempt thanks to spy satellite photographs of the massive rocket and of its launch facilities at the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Other pictures also reveal the devastation of the pad after the second launch failure of the N1.

An N1 rocket on its launch pad, caught by a KH-4 Corona spy satellite. Credit: C. P. Vick.

The US government, in other words, knows that Russia is out of the Moon race, but can’t tell the public, because this would reveal the capabilities of its spy satellites and the political grounds for the Moon shots would vanish. Secretly, there’s no more rush to get to the Moon, but there’s still a murdered president’s pledge to be kept, and for public opinion, unaware of the N1 disasters, the race is still on.

1.6 Dress rehearsals, then the real thing

Kennedy’s deadline is looming and the Apollo project advances at full speed. In March 1969, Apollo 9 flies in Earth orbit to test the lunar module, the navigation systems, the lunar spacesuits and the docking maneuvers.

In May, Apollo 10 soars to the Moon and rehearses every step of a Moon landing mission except for the touchdown itself. Apollo 10’s lunar module carries Thomas Stafford and Gene Cernan to within 14.45 kilometers (47,400 feet) of the lunar surface.

The next mission, Apollo 11, takes mankind to the Moon, live on worldwide TV, landing there on July 20, 1969. Commander Neil Armstrong cautiously sets his left foot on the surface of the Moon at 10:56 EDT (July 21 2:56 UTC).

Lunar Module Pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin then joins him and together they plant the flag of the United States on the surface, conduct scientific experiments, collect Moon rock samples and take historic photographs while the third crew member, Command Module Pilot Michael Collins, waits in lunar orbit to take them home and join them in the history books.

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, photographed by Neil Armstrong. Detail of NASA photo AS11-40-5946.

The Apollo 11 crew: Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin. Official NASA portrait, March 1969.

The Soviets make one last attempt to steal the show by trying to retrieve a lunar soil sample with the Luna 15 uncrewed probe just before the American astronauts return home. But Luna 15 crashes on the Moon while Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins are getting ready to return with 21.5 kilograms (47.5 pounds) of Moon rocks. The Luna 1969B and 1969C missions, in April and June 1969, may also have been failed attempts to retrieve lunar soil samples [Tentatively Identified Missions and Launch Failures,, 2005].

Between 1969 and 1972, the United States lands astronauts on the Moon six times, with increasingly advanced, extended and complex missions. Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17 carry twelve men to the surface of the Moon and return over 382 kilograms (842 pounds) of carefully selected lunar rocks and a wealth of scientific data that is still being used and analyzed today.

Aldrin, Armstrong and Collins in 2009, during a visit to the Smithsonian.

Apollo 13, too, is planned as a lunar landing mission but has to be aborted due to an oxygen tank rupture on the way to the Moon. The crewmembers (James Lovell, John “Jack” Swigert and Fred Haise) narrowly escape death, brilliantly aided by their skills and by the resourcefulness of Mission Control on Earth. Their space Odyssey captures the world’s attention, highlighting the perils of space travel that the success of previous missions had caused many to underestimate.

The Apollo project was originally scheduled to end with Apollo 20, but political issues and the Apollo 13 near-disaster led to the gradual cancellation of the last three planned missions when their vehicles had already been built.

Since December 14, 1972, when geologist Harrison Schmitt and Commander Eugene Cernan climbed back up the ladder of Apollo 17’s lunar module and closed the hatch behind them after three days of lunar surface exploration, no human being has set foot on the Moon.

1.7 Post-Apollo explorations

After the Apollo missions, the Moon has been visited by many other uncrewed spacecraft of various countries.

Between 1970 and 1976, Soviet automatic probes of the Luna series landed on the Moon, brought back small rock samples and traveled extensively over its surface, analyzing its soil and transmitting thousands of pictures.

Apart from the Soviet Union, the United States and (very recently) China, no other country so far has achieved a soft landing of a crewed or uncrewed vehicle on the Moon. However, Japan, the US, Europe, China and India have explored the Moon in detail from lunar orbit, and are still doing so, with probes such as Muses-A, Clementine, Lunar Prospector, Smart 1, Selene/Kaguya, Chang’e, Chandrayaan and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Japan, India and the US have also crashed space probes intentionally into the Moon (Selene/Kaguya, Chandrayaan, LCROSS), creating artificial craters and generating debris clouds that have allowed remote analysis of the surface of the Moon. In 2013 China achieved the first soft landing on the Moon by any spacecraft in 37 years when its Chang’e 3 lander, carrying the Yutu rover, touched down in the Moon's Bay of Rainbows.

Thanks to the vast amount of science data gathered by these probes, today we have an extremely detailed altimetric map of the entire lunar surface and know its geology in detail. For example, their ongoing work has allowed scientists to confirm the presence of water on the Moon.

The exploration of our satellite continues: several national and private missions with robotic landers are planned for the near future. However, there are no solid plans for crewed trips back to the Moon.

In the decades after Apollo, human presence in space has been frequent, with Russian, American and Chinese flights which also carried astronauts from many other countries and used advanced vehicles such as the US Space Shuttle. All these missions, however have remained very close to Earth.

Shifting from competition to cooperation, Russia, the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan have carried out joint missions and built the International Space Station, which has now been inhabited uninterruptedly since 2002 and orbits the Earth at an altitude of approximately 400 km (250 miles). Nobody, however, has ventured as far as the Apollo lunar crews.

The six Moon landings were seen at the time as a prelude to ongoing, ever-expanding crewed space exploration, but today they appear to be destined for many more years to remain unrivaled adventures, extraordinary leaps forward whose early promise was later abandoned.

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