January 2, 2013
On this day in 1959, the Soviet Union launched a 4-foot-diameter metal ball — a close copy of the Sputnik satellite that had kicked off the space age two years earlier — in the direction of the moon. On January 4 Luna 1, also known as “Mechta” or Dream, passed within 6,000 kilometers of the lunar surface. The Soviets had meant for it to hit the moon, and had loaded commemorative “pennants” on board that were supposed to scatter in every direction at the moment of impact. But a faulty rocket burn caused the probe to miss its target. Fifty-three years later, Luna 1, the first object to escape Earth’s gravity, is still in orbit around the sun.
In 1959, such a demonstration of Soviet rocket power didn’t sit well with American notions of technological superiority, and there was much fretting in the Western press. LIFE magazine editorialized about “The Warning of Mechta,” and pointed fingers at the politicians and bureaucrats. One writer named Lloyd Mallan took it a step further, claiming, in an article titled “The Big Red Lie,” published in the April 11, 1959 issue of True magazine, that the Soviets had made up the whole story about Luna 1.
After a long fact-finding trip (“14,000 miles behind the Iron Curtain”), Mallan concluded not only that “Lunik [the somewhat derisive nickname used in some American reports] does not exist and never did” but that “the Russians do not have any ICBMs,” and that the striking power of the Red Air Force had been greatly exaggerated. Mallan based his conclusions partly on the mistaken idea that no Westerners had heard signals from the Russian moon probe.
In August of that year, a Congressional fact-finding committee alarmed by Mallan’s claims heard different from people who actually knew what they were talking about. William Pickering, head of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, told the committee that the Goldstone tracking antenna had detected signals from a spacecraft moving away from the moon on January 4. According to the committee report, “Dr. Pickering said there was no doubt in his mind that the object being tracked was the Soviet Moon rocket.” None of the expert witnesses doubted it, in fact.
During the hearings Mallan’s patriotism even came into question, based on his past involvement with communist-sympathizing groups during the Spanish Civil War. Although the hearings put to rest any serious possibility of Luna 1 being a hoax, Mallan went on to a dubious career debunking (usually erroneously) other Russian space achievements.
As for the Russians, they scored again later that year with Luna 3, the first spacecraft to photograph the far side of the moon. Boris Chertok, a veteran of the cold war space race, wrote in his multi-volume memoir about those early days when his country was briefly ahead of the United States:
You can criticize the utopian plans for building communism, the trampling of human rights, and the Communist Party’s dictatorship in a totalitarian state all you want. But it is impossible to erase from the history of the Khrushchev era the favorable conditions created for developing cosmonautics and its related sciences. Cosmonautics did not arise simply from militarization, and its aims were more than purely propagandistic. During the first post-Sputnik years, the foundations were laid for truly scientific research in space, serving the interest of all humankind. All Soviet people, not just those of us who were directly involved in the missile and space programs, felt proud and were thrilled to be citizens of the country that was blazing the trail for the human race into the cosmos.
September 23, 2011
Among the things one expects to find while sifting through former President Bill Clinton’s stuff, a lost moon rock might be low on the list. The half ounce piece, one of the Goodwill Moon Rocks brought back on Apollo 17, was given to Arkansas three decades ago and reported missing sometime last year. Wednesday morning, reports the AP, an archivist who was looking through the former governor’s papers opened a box and discovered it. No one knows how it got in there, but the archivist, Bobby Roberts, who directs the Central Arkansas Library System, seems content to set ‘em up and knock ‘em down, “I guess it’s one more Arkansas mystery solved.”
This recently found moon rock is one of about 200 small fragments presented as gifts to foreign nations, U.S. states and territories. All were sliced from a single Apollo 17 sample, number 70017, and many are unaccounted for today. Various investigations have been pursued over the years to track down these and other missing moon rocks, including Operation Lunar Eclipse, the joint sting operation between NASA, the U.S. Postal Service and U.S. Customs that recovered the Goodwill Moon Rock originally given to Honduras. Another somewhat famous escapade includes the interns at Johnson Space Center who smuggled out a 600 pound safe containing samples from all the Apollo missions (the F.B.I. caught them).
NASA’s Office of the Inspector General keeps tabs on any information surfacing about moon rocks, both to collect missing pieces and to sweep counterfeit rocks off the market. Updates are published in the office’s semi-annual reports — just last year they recovered a Goodwill Moon Rock intended as a gift to Cyprus (pdf), however, “The plaque had been intended for delivery by a U.S. diplomat to the people of Cyprus as a gift when hostilities broke out in that country. The plaque had remained in the custody of the diplomat until his death and was recovered from his son.”
Wikipedia’s moon rocks page collects more stories, such as the ill-fated gift to Ireland: the Apollo 11 rock ended up in a landfill. (Their Apollo 17 rock is safe in a museum, at least.) Clearly, some of these will never be recovered. But sometimes, every once in a while, you can just open a box.
November 10, 2010
What impresses me most about the new photos of the moon taken by the Chinese Chang’e-2 orbiter is not their beauty (although they are pretty) nor their sharpness (NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter returns higher resolution images). It’s the fact that they were unveiled by Premier Wen Jiabao (left).
I can’t think of an occasion where a U.S. head of state showed that much interest in a purely scientific (unmanned) space mission. The closest thing I could find after a quick search is this 1965 shot of Lyndon Johnson being shown photos from the Mariner 4 Mars probe, two weeks after the flyby.
More Chang’e-2 photos are at this Chinese-language page at the China National Space Administration. Here’s a nice one:
September 30, 2010
China’s ambitions in space are often exaggerated and held up as a threat to U.S. preeminence in the field, mostly as a scare tactic to shake more money for NASA out of Congress. A lot of the huffing and puffing you can safely ignore. But the Chinese have made solid progress over the last decade in both human and robotic spaceflight, and tomorrow will send a second, more sophisticated Chang’e orbiter to the moon, onboard a Long March rocket fired from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center.
A few improvements over Chang’e-1, which operated from 2007 to 2009: The lunar pictures will be 10 to 20 times sharper, with resolutions down to five meters. The trip to the moon will be more direct, with no transitional parking orbit around Earth. And the data rate will be higher. Basically, it’s the same mission, only better.
Chang’e-2 will be scouting locations for China’s first lander/rover, Chang’e-3, currently scheduled to launch by 2013. After that, the nation has plans for a lunar sample return mission sometime around 2017 or 2018.
Full coverage of the Chang’e-2 launch is at China Central TV.
Update, 7: 45 EST, October 1: Chang’e 2 launched successfully and is headed for the moon.
April 15, 2010
“Well I can’t say that this thing hasn’t been filled with excitement,” said astronaut Jim Lovell as Apollo 13′s crew crowded into the Command Module Odyssey—following the explosion of an onboard tank in the Service Module—and headed back to Earth. CapCom immediately joked, “Well, James, if you can’t take any better care of a spacecraft than that, then we might not give you another one.”
Exactly 40 years after the events of Apollo 13, Bonhams held its annual space history auction. Included in the 290 items auctioned were the flight notes of Jim Lovell and Fred Haise (left), used during their nerve-wracking return to Earth. The notes, which sold for $45,750, include such reminders as “Turn LM up link squelch off” (written in red ink by Lovell), and comments about various circuit breakers (written in black ink by Haise).
The auction also included memorabilia from Apollo 11, such as this flight plan (right), which was signed by Neil Armstrong on August 9, 1969, while the crew was in quarantine after splashdown. The sheet, which sold for $152,000, includes Armstrong’s famous quote: “One small step for a man—one giant leap for mankind.”
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