Thursday, May 14, 2015

50 Years Ago: Soviet Luna 5 crashes into the Moon

Soviet Union's Luna 5 Moon probe.

Back in May 1965, the Russians were also trying their hand at lunar reconnaissance before sending humans to the Moon. The Luna program was a huge program of launches to send robotic explorers to the Moons orbit or to land on the surface. More than 24 missions were successful. Failures were kept in secrecy or relabeled. Luna 2 became the first man-made object to reach the surface of the Moon when it impacted on the surface in September 1959. Luna 3 sent the first pictures to Earth of the Moon's far side. Luna 5 was supposed to be the first probe to safely land on the surface.

Soviet illustration of how the lander would have been deployed. This did not succeed until Luna 9.

On May 12, 1965 the Soviet propaganda arm declared to the world that Luna 5 had successfully impacted the lunar surface in the area of the Sea of Clouds and that many important pictures had been taken. Western space experts correctly guessed that the mission had failed, and that the Soviets had been attempting to make a soft landing.  On May 13, The Soviet leadership must have decided that honesty was a preferred course to take. They announced that the mission failure may have occurred because of the late firing of landing thrusters, pointing out that the 2.5 second radio delay in that distance would have prevented ground controllers from taking corrective action.

Today we know that the craft had suffered from uncontrolled spinning after a mid-course correction on the way to the Moon. The main landing engine failed to fire because of a ground-control error.

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