Luna 9 – The First Lunar Soft-Landing

The Soviets claimed many firsts in their space race with the United States. First person in space (and orbit), first woman in space, first satellite in orbit. Most would agree, however, that the United States accomplished the biggest first by being the first (and to this day, only) to land humans on the Moon. But the Soviet space program did claim a important lunar firsts of their own: the first lunar fly-by, the first pictures of the far side of the Moon, and the first soft-landing of a probe on the Moon’s surface.

Luna 9 model

Luna 9 model – Source:

On February 3, 1966, the Soviet spacecraft, Luna 9, completed its 3-day journey to the Moon and landed safely on the lunar surface. This ‘soft-landing’ (as in: not a crash-landing) marked the first time a human-made craft survived a landing on any body other than Earth. The successful landing was accomplished by a number of systems that all had to work flawlessly: inflation of an airbag system to cushion the impact, the retrorocket burn to slow the craft, and the deployment of a contact sensor to determine the precise altitude above the Moon. At an altitude of 5 meters, the contact sensor was triggered: engines were shut off and the landing capsule was ejected. Though the craft’s speed was reduced significantly, it still impacted the Moon at a velocity of 22 km/hr (13.7 miles per hour). The airbags allowed the capsule to safely bounce several times before it came to rest.

Following landing and an approximately four-minute pause, four petals that served as the craft’s shell unfolded and stabilized the probe the ground. Antennas were deployed and the craft’s television camera began recording the lunar landscape, capturing the first views ever seen from the surface of the Moon. In addition to the images and radiation readings, the landing also disproved models that suggested that the Moon was covered in a thick layer of dust that would cause any craft (and eventually, persons) who landed there to sink.

One of the first images taken from the Moon's surface

One of the first images taken from the Moon’s surface – Source: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Luna 9’s batteries lasted for three days after landing, during which the craft was able to record a number of panoramic images and beam them back to Earth.

Joddrell Bank, the British observatory located at the University of Manchester, had been paying close attention to the race between the Soviets and the United States. Scientists there not only tracked Luna 9’s progress, but they also recognized the type of signal that the craft was beaming back. They deployed the correct receiving equipment and were able to acquire the lunar images and publish them before the Soviets even managed to see them. There’s still debate as to whether the Soviet scientists let this happen on purpose or not.

While the Soviets soft-landed their craft first, the United States wasn’t far behind. Three months after Luna 9, the US landed Surveyor 1 on the Moon’s surface. Various robots continued to explore the Moon, paving the way for the humans that followed them. After the United States stopped sending astronauts to the Moon in 1972, the next soft-landing wouldn’t occur until 2013, when the Chinese lander Chang’e-3 brought the rover Yutu to explore our celestial neighbor.

Yuri Gagarin – Hero of the Soviet Union and First Ambassador to the Cosmos

Today marks the anniversary of one of the most historic moments in human history. It was on this day in 1961, that Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to take a journey into outer space. Aboard his Vostok spacecraft, not only did Gagarin become the first person in space, he also was the first to orbit the Earth — something NASA didn’t accomplish until its third manned Mercury mission, some nine months later.

Gagarin - 1964

Yuri Gagarin - 1964

While strapped to the top of a Soviet Vostok-K rocket, Gagarin hummed and whistled “Lilies of the Valley”, cracked jokes, and found plenty of time to laugh, all the while waiting for the ignition below to send him where no man had gone before.

“Poyekhali! (Off we go!)”

Gagarin : Thank you. Goodbye. See you soon, dear friends. Goodbye, see you soon.

Gagarin spent 108 minutes from launch to landing, completing a single orbit of the Earth. It took 25 minutes for ground controllers to be sure he had successfully reached orbit. Gagarin remained calm through the whole ordeal 1 and seemed to rather enjoy himself. He described weightlessness as an unusual, yet enjoyable, experience and radioed back the things he could see out of the windows in his capsule.

Gagarin's Vostok 3KA Capsule

Gagarin's Vostok 3KA Capsule

A 42-second retrofire burn took place over Angola, approximately 5,000 miles from his landing site. When the commands were initiated to separate the service module from the reentry module, a bundle of wires unexpectedly kept them attached. The two components began reentry together, but finally separated following some extreme gyrations. The gyrations continued after separation, but Gagarin radioed that “Everything is OK”, reasoning that the gyrations could be expected from the spherical shape of the craft and didn’t want to “make noise” about it. At 7km above the ground, Gagarin was ejected — as planned 2 — from the Vostok and his parachute immediately deployed. Vostok fell until about 2.5km (8,200 feet) before its main parachute deployed. A couple of schoolgirls witnessed Vostok’s landing and described the situation: “It was a huge ball, about two or three metres high. It fell, then it bounced and then it fell again. There was a huge hole where it hit the first time.”

Gagarin landed on the ground as a world hero. The Soviets were emboldened by their great accomplishment, and you could be certain that the early American space program had to pick their collective jaws off the floor and wonder how they would catch up.

So today, we tip our hats to Yuri Gagarin and the bold first step he took to get us to where we are now — 51 years later.

Yuri Gagarin's Signature

Gagarin's signature

To learn more about Yuri Gagarin and his historic flight, check out:

*This post originally published April 12, 2011. It has been slightly modified from its original version.

  1. Just prior to launch, Gagarin’s pulse was at a mere 64 beats per minute.
  2. It wasn’t until 1971 that the Soviets acknowledged that he didn’t land with his craft. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale regulations required that a person land with their craft for it to count as a successful spaceflight. The Soviet government forced Gagarin to lie in press conferences to get the FAI to certify his flight, which they did.

Today Marks The Anniversary Of Humankind's First Spacewalk

It was on this day in 1965, that cosmonaut Alexey Leonov crawled out of his Voskhod 3KD 1 spacecraft and performed humankind’s first spacewalk.

Stills of Alexey Leonov conducting mankind's first spacewalk.

Stills of Alexey Leonov conducting mankind’s first spacewalk. / Source: NASA Great Images in NASA Collection

Alexey Leonov stepped into uncharted territory on that historic day, marking a milestone in human exploration. While it wasn’t immediately publicized 2, Leonov’s 12-minute-9-second spacewalk skirted on the edge of disaster.

Once Leonov entered the vacuum of space, his spacesuit become inflated and maneuverability suffered. The real trouble began as Leonov tried re-entering the Voskhod 2 craft, and became stuck in the the hatch due to the inflated suit. He was forced to partially depressurize his suit in order to fit through the hatch, putting himself at great risk of suffering decompression sickness, known as ‘the bends’.

While the spacewalk and a number of other elements of the mission lingered on the verge of catastrophe, this was a time when survival equated to success.

American astronauts followed suit soon after, as they crawled out of their Gemini capsules to experience the same joy and danger Leonov experienced (Gene Cernan’s Gemini spacewalk was also a close-call). We’ve come a long way since those baby-steps into space, with now over 200 humans having walked in space.

So, to General Leonov, I offer a belated congratulations and thank you for pushing against the boundaries of the final frontier.

*This post originally published on March 18, 2011.*

  1. The mission was Voskhod 2, the craft was Voskhod 3KD
  2. The Soviets originally claimed the spacewalk went off without a hitch, and that Leonov was “feeling well both during his period outside the cabin and after he re-entered the spacecraft”

Tortoises In Space: An Homage to Shelled Explorers

Tortoises In Space
Now that I have your attention…

When you think of animals that have been sent to space, what comes to mind? Humans of course, but maybe you also remember the first “higher primate” in space1, Ham the Chimpanzee (or Enos, the first primate to orbit the Earth). Or perhaps the dog Laika — the first animal to orbit the Earth2 — comes to mind. And of course, we’ve sent mice and insects and other organisms into space in the name of research as well.

What probably doesn’t immediately come to mind, however, are tortoises. But tortoises were exactly what the Soviets decided should be among the first animals to circle the Moon.

The Soviet’s Zond (translated: probe) program consisted of two distinct objectives. The first missions, Zond 1, 2, and 3, utilized the 3MV3 planetary probe and were designed to explore Mars and Venus. Zond 1 and 2 failed en route to their respective objective targets, while Zond 3 captured photos from the far side of the Moon on its way out on a Mars trajectory, though the timing wasn’t such that it would encounter the red planet.

Zond 5 Tortoises

Zond 5 Tortoises. Credit: RKK Energia.

Fueled by the “Moon race” between the United States and the Soviets, the following Zond missions employed the Soyuz 7K-L1 spacecraft and were all focused on the Moon. Zond 4 reached a distance of approximately 300,000km (186,411 miles) from the Earth before returning. Its trajectory took it on a course 180-degrees away from the Moon, and there are conflicting stories as to whether or not the Soviets intentionally sent the spacecraft on that course, or if there was a malfunction. It re-entered Earth’s atmosphere out of the Soviet’s control and was remotely detonated at an altitude of 10-15km (6-9 miles), and a couple of hundred kilometers off of the coast of Africa.

Finally, Zond 5 launched on September 14, 1968. Aimed for the Moon, it contained a biological payload including wine flies, meal worms, plants, bacteria, and… two Russian tortoises. Zond 5 took a circumlunar trajectory, which means it looped around the Moon, but didn’t go into multiple orbits around it. Think of a big, lop-sided, figure-eight, with the Earth within a large loop and the Moon within a smaller one. This is very similar to the emergency trajectory that Apollo 13 took, following the disastrous malfunctions that plagued that craft on its way to the Moon.

Circumlunar trajectory of Apollo 13

The circumlunar trajectory of Apollo 13 - Credit: AndrewBuck

The tortoises spent a week in space before splashing down in the Indian Ocean. The tortoises reportedly lost 10% of their body weight during their trip, but remained active and showed no loss of appetite. These tortoises became among the first Earthly lifeforms to complete a lunar flyby and return safely to Earth, proving it possible, and paving the way for future vertebrates such as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

Scientists examining the Zond 5 tortoises.

Scientists examining the Zond 5 tortoises. - Credit:

Zond 5 wasn’t the end of the line for our half-shelled cosmonaut friends; Zond 7 and Zond 8 each carried multiple tortoises. Tortoises then came out of a 5-year retirement to be sent up again, aboard Soyuz 20 in 1975. This time, they were in for the long-haul, spending a total of 90.5 days in space and consequently breaking the record for the longest amount of time an animal had spent in space. Finally, in February of 2010, the Iranian Space Agency sent up their first biological payload into a sub-orbital flight; aboard were two turtles.4,5

So now you know the story of tortoises in space. From being among the first animals to take a trip around the Moon, to breaking records for time in space, tortoises are very much a part of “animaled” spaceflight. Like all of the others that have made Earth’s space programs successful, I tip my hat to the shelled reptiles for their contributions.

  1. Monkeys had gone into space as early as the late 1940’s, though it wasn’t until 1957 when Laika, the dog, became the first animal to orbit the Earth.
  2. And unfortunately, Laika was the first animal to die in orbit, as well.
  3. Third-generation, Mars/Venus
  4. Yes, I’m aware that there is a difference between tortoises and turtles, but the definitions can actually vary depending on which country you’re from. I haven’t been able to find out the specific species of the Testudine Iran sent to space, so they may or may not be tortoises. To be mentioned in this article, I say close enough!
  5. And apparently, at least 64 people are outraged enough by this that they’ve “Liked” a “Save Turtles From Iran’s Space Program” Facebook page.