Like 50 years ago, the Moon continues to attract the world's leading space agencies. In 2009, an impatient NASA will move to reinstate its Saturn V moon-rocket launch facility in order to repeat the triumphant July 1969 lunar landing.
Objectively speaking, the Soviet Union was the first country to launch an automated probe called Mechta (Dream) on January 2, 1959. The probe flew 6,000 km above the lunar surface. On January 4, Mechta overcame terrestrial gravity and later became the first man-made spacecraft to circle the Sun. It also attained escape velocity for the first time in history and provided data on terrestrial and cosmic radiation belts.
In September 1959, the U.S.S.R. launched its second lunar probe that delivered pennants with the Soviet state emblem to the Moon. A month later, the Luna-3 carrying a 500-kg instrument module relayed photos showing 50% of the lunar surface.
After scoring initial successes in the field of lunar research, Moscow strove to accomplish even more ambitious objectives. Unfortunately, the Soviet lunar program later faced major setbacks.
Moscow and Washington were divided on the significance of Yury Gagarin's trailblazing April 12, 1961 space flight. The United States realized that it had to implement a truly ambitious space program in order to uphold its waning superiority.
On April 20, 1961, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy asked his Vice-President Lyndon Baines Johnson whether the United States was capable of defeating the U.S.S.R. in the Space Race in the foreseeable future.
Wernher von Braun, the father of the United States space program, told Vice President Johnson that the U.S.S.R. had superior launch vehicles, and that the United States could not hope to develop the first manned orbiter in history.
Von Braun said the United States could exert every effort in order to successfully vie with Moscow in the field of lunar programs, and that its astronauts could try and fly around the Moon and land on its surface in 1967-1968.
However, Gagarin's epic flight persuaded Moscow that the Soviet space program stipulating preparations for a manned lunar expedition was far from perfect. In 1962, the design bureau of Sergei Korolyov (1906-1966), then the main Soviet rocket engineer and designer, proposed its own concept to explore the Moon.
The concept which was a response to the U.S. Apollo lunar program called for developing a system of three spacecraft for orbiting the Moon and landing on its surface.
The project seemed a mind-boggling task because the U.S.S.R. had so far failed to launch a single spacecraft with several cosmonauts onboard and to streamline orbital docking systems.
Vladimir Chelomei (1914-1984), another leading Soviet rocket engineer, proposed launching a lunar mission atop a three-stage Proton-K rocket.
In 1964, the United States successfully tested its legendary Saturn V moon rocket after von Braun was placed in charge of the U.S. lunar program. In response, the Soviet Communist Party's Central Committee issued a special resolution stipulating a manned lunar mission not later than in 1968.
This document virtually forced Korolyov and Chelomei to work separately. Korolyov dealt with the lunar fly-by program, while Chelomei began to develop the heavy N-1 rocket for launching the lunar module. As it turned out the split did not facilitate success.
The N-1 lunar rocket never became operational. Many analysts explain this by Korolyov's untimely death during surgery in early 1966 and by the mistakes of his successor, Vasily Mishin. The human factor notwithstanding, the N-1 had a number of technical drawbacks.
The N-1's four abortive test launches were caused by its defective first stage. In May 1974, the Soviet lunar program and N-1 project were scrapped, and the remaining two rockets destroyed.
The Soyuz spacecraft was initially developed for the Soviet lunar program. However, the first three unmanned Soyuz spacecraft were plagued by numerous problems. In December 1966, fire started prior to the launch of the second unmanned Soyuz, nearly destroying the entire launch facility.
Despite the aborted unmanned spacecraft tests, Soviet leaders decided to launch two manned Soyuz spacecraft in April 1967 and to dock them in orbit. Vladimir Komarov (1927-1967) who flew Soyuz-1 with a malfunctioning attitude-control system was killed during re-entry when its parachute failed to open.
A decision not to launch Soyuz-2 with Valery Bykovsky, Alexei Yeliseyev and Yevgeny Khrunov onboard saved their lives because the three men were to have docked with Komarov's spacecraft for subsequent re-entry.
Nonetheless, several cosmonauts wrote a letter to the Politburo of the Soviet Communist Party's Central Committee, requesting permission to fly to the Moon insisting that a manned spacecraft would prove dependable. However, Soviet leaders decided not to risk it.
Although the Soviet manned mission program fell behind that of the United States, Moscow compensated for all the setbacks by launching unmanned lunar probes. In February 1966, the Luna-9 became the first probe to achieve a soft landing on another planetary body, namely, the Moon. In all, 24 lunar probes gathered unique scientific data and delivered nearly 200 kg of lunar soil to the Earth.
It appears that the long-term Russian space program will continue to stake its progress on heavy-duty automated lunar probes. Sometime after January 20, Russia plans to launch a remote-sensing spacecraft for studying the Moon's inner structure. The probe will also search for mineral deposits. Under a Russian-Indian project, a new generation Moon exploration vehicle weighing 400 kg is scheduled to be launched in 2011.
The Moon continues to beckon as before.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti (nor those of the Lunar Pioneers).