It seems an age ago now but, in the 1960s, the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a “space race” that ultimately saw the Americans land the first humans on the moon in 1969.
The Soviet Union’s earlier robotic missions had attracted a lot of international attention with a number of ‘first past the winning post’ successes. It was in 1957 that they had sent their first satellite into space and in 1959 their Luna 3 rocket had flown past the moon – and even took pictures of the moon’s far side, which had never been glimpsed by humans before.
Flying by was difficult enough, but landing was another thing entirely. There were, in fact, a small number of experts who wondered if the lunar surface could even support a landing – suggesting that any spacecraft that landed on the moon would sink down into a pile of dust, and have difficulty emerging again. Both countries had certainly crash-landed probes on to the surface before, in some cases deliberately, but landing successfully required precision with something to cushion the spacecraft from a hard fall. That probe also had to have a way of transmitting the information reliably back to Earth!
They kept trying and, on Monday 31st January 1966, their Luna 9 spacecraft was successfully launched by a Molniya-M rocket from Site 31/6 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakh SSR.
As had been planned before – its destination was the surface of the moon!
Will it succeed? We’ll have to wait a few days to find out that answer!