Soviet Lunar Probes
From the late 1950s through the 1970s the Soviet Union launched 24 unmanned Luna missions and five Zond probes to the Moon. The spacecraft were the first to image the far side of the Moon, the first to make a soft landing, and the first to send living creatures to lunar orbit and return them safely to Earth. The Soviet Union also successfully returned lunar samples with their robotic probes.
Luna 3 Photographs the Far Side
The Luna program began in January 1959 with the launch of Luna 1 that performed a lunar flyby. Luna 2 crashed into the Moon in September 1959. Luna 3 launched October 4, 1959. Three days later the spacecraft took 29 photographs of the Moon’s far side from a range of about 40,000 miles above the lunar surface. These were the first images of the lunar far side. Though the photographs lacked precise detail, the images revealed a landscape with more mountains and fewer mares, or seas, than the near side.
Luna 9 Makes a Soft Landing
Luna 9 launched January 31, 1966, and made a soft landing in Oceanus Procellarum (Ocean of Storms) on February 3. It was a spherical spacecraft, about two feet in diameter with a weight of approximately 200 pounds. Luna 9’s science payload included a radiation detector and a television camera, which took a series of four panoramic images of the lunar surface. The mission ended on February 6 when the spacecraft’s batteries were depleted.
Zond 5 Sends Animals to Lunar Orbit
Zond 5 launched September 14, 1968, for a circumlunar mission three months before NASA planned to send astronauts to lunar orbit aboard Apollo 8. The Soviet probe carried two turtles, flies, worms, plants, seeds, and bacteria. The spacecraft flew around the Moon on September 18 and splashed down in the Indian Ocean three days later. The biological payload survived the trip. The turtles lost body weight but were otherwise healthy.
Luna 16 Returns Lunar Samples
Luna 16 was the first robotic probe to return lunar samples to Earth. The spacecraft landed in Mare Fecunditatis (the Sea of Fertility) on September 20, 1970. A drill aboard the probe gathered a core tube sample at a depth of about 14 inches. The ascent stage of Luna 16 lifted off the Moon after a 26-hour stay on the surface. It returned 3.6 ounces of lunar soil.