60 years of lunar exploration
On this day in 1959, at the height of the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States, the Russian spacecraft Luna 2 crashed (intentionally) on the surface of the moon. It became the first human-made object to ever reach another celestial body, opening up that final frontier for exploration. In the 60 years since Luna 2 (officially called the Second Soviet Cosmic Rocket), humans have sent many missions to the moon — the latest of which is India’s Chandrayaan-2. Even as attempts are being made to regain communication with the Vikram lander, at least we know it has many objects for company in that desolate landscape.
The Luna 2 mission, which was the Soviet Union’s sixth attempt to impact the moon, carried five different types of instruments to conduct measurements and tests on its way to the satellite. It even carried pennants of the Soviet Union with emblems and dates on them. Luna 2 was the latest in a series of Soviet achievements in the space race at the time. Within two years of Sputnik 1 becoming the first satellite ever launched, and Sputnik 2 carrying the dog Laika (1957), the first living creature to travel to space, the Russian Space Agency (after the partial success of Luna 1) became the first to reach a celestial object outside the earth with Luna 2. Much to the consternation of their American rivals, this mission had been one to firmly establish the Soviets in the lead in the space race. In the middle of the Cold War, the Russians would put a man, Yuri Gagarin (in 1961), and a woman, Valentina Tereshkova (in 1963), in space. In the past six decades, more than 80 missions to the moon have left behind human-made objects on it, including remains of spacecraft, many scientific instruments, cameras and accessories, magazines, flags, and even 96 bags of human waste. All in all, humans have left about 1.8 lakh kg of things on the moon. Perhaps now, missions to clean it up should be considered. NASA may be considering bringing back the human waste at least, to study what happens to microbes in the moon’s atmosphere over long periods of time.
As Luna 2’s moon mission turns 60, the wonder of humans reaching the moon has not diminished. Each rover, lander, and probe, teaches us more about our cosmic neighbours and the universe that we live in. In the near future, if humans are able to visit other planets, these milestones on the path of knowledge will always be the lights that guide our path to the future.