Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The First Race to the Moon

Engineer Special Study of the Surface of the Moon (1960, 1961), "Generalized Photogeologic Map of the Moon" (Robert J. Hackman, USGS; Prepared for the Office, Chief of Engineers, Department of the Army, U.S.) [LPI, USGS].
David S. F. Portree
Beyond Apollo

The race to the moon began on August 17, 1958, and the Soviet Union won. This isn't the opening line of an alternate history story; rather, it is an acknowledgment that more than one moon race took place. The first, with the goal of launching a small automated spacecraft to the moon, began with the liftoff of the Able 1 lunar orbiter, a 38-kilogram U.S. Air Force (USAF) probe. (It was later redesignated Pioneer 0.) Just 77 seconds after launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, Able 1's first-stage Thor rocket exploded, ending the world's first attempted lunar mission.

A month later, on September 23, 1958, the Soviet Union joined the race. A spherical Luna probe intended to impact the moon fell victim to the failure of its upgraded R-7 booster rocket just 93 seconds after liftoff from Baikonur Cosmodrome in central Asia.

On October 11, 1958, USAF launched Able 2, a near-copy of Able 1. It was the first lunar launch conducted under NASA auspices. The civilian space agency had opened its doors on October 1, 1958. NASA absorbed most Department of Defense space projects, though in practice the USAF and Army continued to carry out missions while interagency relations and lines of command became defined. Able 2, later redesignated Pioneer 1, burned up in Earth's atmosphere on October 13, after its Able second stage shut down early, placing it on an elliptical path that took it about a third of the way to the moon. The Soviets launched their second Luna moon impactor just 16 hours after the U.S. launched Able 2. The Luna's upgraded R-7 launch vehicle exploded 104 seconds after liftoff.

And so it went, with launches from Florida and Kazakhstan alternating and failing.

Read the Remarkable Chronicle HERE.

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