1959: Luna 1 is launched. The spacecraft, launched by the USSR, is also known as Mechta, E-1 No.4, and First Cosmic Ship. It’s Harvard designation is 1959 Mu1. The 796 pound satellite was loaded with radio equipment including a tracking transmitter and telemetry systems. There were also five instruments to study the Moon, the target of the spacecraft. These included a magnetometer, geiger counter, scintillation counter, and micrometeorite detector. The craft was to impact on the Moon, but an early miscalculation for a course burn put Luna 1 onto a different path and rather than reach the Moon, she became the first craft to leave geocentric orbit. The closest the craft came to the Moon was on January 4 after 34 hours of spaceflight when she was 3,725 miles away from the hoped for target.
The historic flight began with a launch atop the Luna 8K72 rocket at 10.41 PM local time (4.41 GMT). After traveling 74,300 miles from Earth, at 00.56.20 UTC on January 3, one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of sodium gas was released by the spacecraft which formed a cloud behind it, making it appear like an artificial comet. The resulting orange glow tail was visible from Earth over the Indian Ocean for a few minutes. This was one of the experiments planned for the venture and was designed to test the behavior of a gas in space. The glow appeared as bright as a sixth-magnitude star and Mstislav Gnevyshev, positioned at the Mountain Station of the Main Astronomical Observatory of the academy of Sciences of the USSR was on hand to photograph the event.
While not a complete success, the flight was also not a total failure. Luna 1 was able to gather critical information while travelling through the Van Allen radiation belt. The scintillator aboard ship observed a small number of high energy particles in the outer belt which was new data for scientists back home regarding both the radiation belt and outer space itself. While doing its flyby of the Moon, some data was also able to be gathered. Most notable was the fact that the Moon did not have a detectable magnetic field. The mission also made the first accurate measurement of the solar wind – a strong ionized plasma radiation emitting from the Sun outward. Another milestone was the first radio communication at the half-million kilometer mark.
Because of the mistimed upper stage burn, however, the mission failed to impact on the Moon. But, because of this error, it was also the first ship to pass out of Earth’s orbital field. This means the Luna 1 became the first man-made object to reach heliocentric orbit and was then dubbed a “new planet” and renamed Mechta (Dream). Even now, Mechta remains orbiting the Sun between the orbits of Earth and Mars. Luna 2 was launched in September 1959 and did manage to impact on the Moon.
I looked and looked but I didn’t see God. – Yuri Gagarin
Space is to place as eternity is to time.- Joseph Joubert
Don’t tell me that man doesn’t belong out there. Man belongs wherever he wants to go and he’ll do plenty well when he gets there.- Wernher von Braun
The human space program has existed in the collective unconscious of humanity since the dawn of awareness.- Frank White