by Larry Klaes
[The Space Race continues to run at an ever-accelerating pace. To keep up with all the new developments, I've tapped my friend and fellow professional space historian to tell us a very special program that just might score for the United States in the next inning…]
President Kennedy declared three weeks ago before Congress that America shall make the bold step of “sending a man to the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” before the end of this decade. This has given a much needed – and quite literal – boost to the American space program.
It couldn’t have come at a better time. Since that day in October of 1957 when our geopolitical and space rivals, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR for short, lofted that 184-pound silvery sphere they called Sputnik 1 into Earth orbit, the Communists have handily outpaced us on virtually all key fronts of the Space Race. First animal in orbit. First man in orbit. First probe to Venus. First victories in the race to that big golden prize in our night sky, the Moon.
In one year alone, 1959, the Soviets sent the first space probe flying past the Moon and on into solar orbit. This was followed by the first manmade vehicle to impact another world, with their Luna 2 littering the lunar dust with pennants engraved with the Soviet Coat of Arms. The USSR rounded out their lunar triumphs of 1959 with a circumlunar imaging mission that revealed the hitherto unseen lunar farside.
So which Superpower will be the first to orbit the Moon? The first to land, with robots and then with manned spacecraft? Experts in various fields might understandably side with the Soviet Union, including those in the West. In a mission-by-mission comparison, America’s efforts at exploring and conquering the Moon pale.
All of the first three Air Force Pioneer lunar probes, fell short of their celestial goal. Of the next two, made to order by Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, California (JPL), Pioneer 4 alone escaped the confines of Earth’s gravity and headed into interplanetary space in March 1959. Unfortunately, the small conical craft was many thousands of miles too far away for its scientific instruments to examine the Moon and slipped on to join its Soviet counterpart, Luna 1, in solar orbit.
Then it was the Air Force’s turn again with their advanced Atlas Able Pioneers. All four of them failed. Spectacularly.
And so, back to JPL. They have a new robotic lunar exploration program named Ranger that they are confident will return some of NASA’s prestige in space and ensure that one day soon the Stars and Stripes will be standing tall on the lunar surface -- before the Hammer and Sickle.
(see the rest at Galactic Journey!)