Forty-three years ago, on 20 July 1969, the United States Apollo 11 became the first manned mission to the moon. Were you aware, however, that it the first space vehicle to reach the vicinity of the moon was not manned at all? Intrigued? This geek hopes so.
Fun fact: Unmanned spacecraft reached the vicinity of the moon a decade before the first manned mission landed on the lunar surface.
The Soviet Union’s Luna 1 unmanned vehicle became the first spacecraft to reach the vicinity of the moon, passing within 3,200 nautical miles (3,700 miles or 6,000 kilometers) of the moon’s surface on 4 January 1959. It did not achieve lunar orbit.
Luna 3, which launched on 4 October 1959, was the first unmanned spacecraft to complete a circumlunar free return trajectory. Luna 3 performed a figure-8 trajectory that swung around the far side of the Moon and returned to the Earth. This mission did not achieve lunar orbit, but it did provide the first pictures of the far side of the moon.
The Soviet Union’s Luna 10, another “robotic spacecraft,” became the first spacecraft to orbit the moon, between April and May of 1966—the same year the first U.S. spacecraft orbited the moon (Lunar Orbiter 1 in August). In fact, five spacecraft were launched during that time, over a period of 13 months, to map the moon and find suitable Apollo program landing sites.
In other space news, the space community lost a pioneer this week: Sally Ride, the first American woman and then-youngest American in space (at age 32 aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1983), sadly lost her battle with pancreatic cancer at the age of 61. Space geeks everywhere mourn the loss of a national treasure.