56 years ago: Luna 2 is launched to the Moon

1959.  The Cold War was raging, and both East and West had realized that spaceflight offered a new and less damaging way to fight it, as both sought to demonstrate their missile prowess with increasingly accurate shots into deep space.  NASA was just a year old at this point, and both it and its counterparts in the Soviet Union were feverishly working to be the first to place an object on the ultimate high ground: the Moon.  On August 17, 1958, the US made the first attempted launch beyond Earth orbit, of a spacecraft called Pioneer that was meant to orbit the Moon.  This was perhaps a little too ambitious — the launch vehicle exploded 73 seconds into the flight, and the next two fared little better.  The fourth made it off the launch vehicle, but with insufficient speed to reach the Moon.  Meanwhile, the Soviets made three attempts at launching lunar impactors the same year; all three suffered launch vehicle failures.  In 1959, Luna 1 made the first successful flight beyond Earth orbit, passing the Moon about 6,000 km away, but as it was intended as an impactor, it can’t be classed as a full success.  The Soviets launched yet another Luna soon after, but it failed to reach Earth orbit.  The Americans finally reached the Moon with Pioneer 4, but too far away to trigger the sensors designed to turn on all of its instruments; it carried on into heliocentric orbit, the first American spacecraft to do so.

And then, on September 12, 1959, Luna 2 was launched.  It was the Soviets’ fifth attempt to impact the Moon.  Two days later, it became the first fully successful lunar probe, impacting east of Mare Imbrium.  The crash site has never been found, as the spacecraft was quite small and likely broke into a lot of very small pieces on impact.



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