In the late 1950s and early 1960s, it was a no-holds-barred race between the USSR and the United States in an effort to be the first to explore beyond the boundaries of our own planet: outer space.
For the first few years, the Soviets had the lead. On Oct. 4, 1957, the USSR launched the world’s first ever satellite, Sputnik-1, using an R-7 rocket. This was an incredible feat considering how heavily the world uses satellites today for communication and location services.
One month later on Nov. 3, another R-7 rocket was used to launch Sputnik-2, which carryied a dog name Laika, the first-ever living thing launched into space.
During this time the U.S. was still in the testing phase of launching rockets. It was only on Dec. 6, 1957, that the U.S. made its first attempt to launch the Vanguard (TV-3) satellite. It blew up two seconds after launch . . .
The end of 1957 was reached with the U.S. failing to match the Soviet accomplishments in space, leaving the score: USSR two points, the United States zero.
The year 1958 wasn’t particularly productive for either nation. The USSR launched Sputnik-3 and the U.S. succeeded sending their first satellite, Explorer-1, into orbit — in addition to accidentally blowing a lot of things up.
In early 1959 the USSR launched Luna-1, which was the first spacecraft to escape Earth’s orbit. On Sept. 12, Luna-2 is launched and hits the moon successfully on Sept. 14, 1959. Great success! The USSR won the race to the moon, but then it all went down hill from there.
In the mid 1960s, the USSR struggled to develop and fine-tune the N-1 rocket booster. The N-1 was the propulsion system that would have been able to power a multi-stage rocket — and the future LK lunar lander — to the moon. Unfortunately, the rocket was never fully developed and exploded on each of the four unmanned tests, it was shelved in 1971.
This, among many other small developmental failures, and in combination with a political power shift, slowed the USSR’s progress greatly.
By 1969 the U.S. were back in the lead, and won the race to land men on the moon with the Apollo 11 mission on July 20.
The USSR just kept hammering and “sickling” away. During the 1970s, experiments to recover samples from the lunar surface using unmanned technology failed. At this time the USSR began developing the LK Lander and many successful unmanned tests were completed.
In 1976, a Soviet government decree officially cancelled the N1-L3 program, lunar exploration is halted and the LK lander never gets a chance to go to the moon.
If you’re still reading, you’re probably wondering why any of this is important since the USSR no longer exists, many trips to the moon by the U.S. have been successfully completed and the world’s eye is now on Mars.
On Oct. 15, photos from inside a Russian aviation museum showing, for the first time, the LK lander that could have (or if you love conspiracy theories, may have) landed on the moon were leaked.
Previously only schematics and basic drawings of what the lander looked like were available.
According to an article on Wired.com only students of this aviation institute in Moscow are allowed to see the collection, and one of them was kind enough to take some photos, which were leaked to the net.
So, now you know that the Russians almost put a man on the moon. Despite that largely private failure though they were able to achieve dozens of astronomical firsts in the world of space exploration. For example, not many people know that in June of 1963 the USSR put the first woman into space, Valentina Tereshkova, who completed an orbital flight of the Earth.
The U.S. was the underdog for the first decade and then came back in the 9th inning and won hard. The question is now, with the imminent retirement of the American Space Shuttle and budgetary cuts at NASA, how long will the U.S. stay on top?