The fabulous destiny of the Soviet lunar probe Lunik II

At a blackboard, Serge Lapointe of the Département de Physique of the Université de Montréal showing the evolution of rocketry since the Second World War. Anon., “Le fabuleux voyage de ‘Lunik II’.” Le Petit Journal, from 20 to 27 September 1959, 97.

A big interplanetary hello, my reading friend. Yours truly wishes to begin this text with an irrevocable promise: I shall be brief. A big thank you for your applause. I think.

I must confess to being a little short of time these days and that’s why I looked at the photograph above, published in the 20 to 27 September 1959 issue of the weekly Le Petit Journal of Montréal, Québec. I dare to hope that this space topic, closely related to the fields of activity of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa, Ontario, my place of employment since 1987, will please you. If not, please note that I have a no refund policy.

This being said (typed), now is the time to embark on the great adventure that awaits us this week. The year is 1955. We are in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), in offices occupied by the team of Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, the anonymous chief designer of the first intercontinental ballistic missile of the USSR, the R-7 Semyorka. And yes, Korolev was mentioned in February and September 2019 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

By the way, yours truly will try to minimise these reminders of the past about said blog / bulletin / thingee, but our world being what it is, a jumble of interconnections, I cannot make you a promise to that effect.

We were in 1955, say I. Even then, as he worked on the Semyorka, Korolev was considering the possibility of using a more powerful version of this (thermo)nuclear messenger of death to send a probe to the Moon. The worldwide success of Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite, launched in October 1957, gave him the opportunity to create 3 work teams within his experimental design bureau, on telecommunication satellites, piloted spacecraft and lunar probes. And yes, my reading friend, you are absolutely right. Sputnik I was mentioned a few times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since July 2018, but back to our subject.

At the end of 1957 or the beginning of 1958, a team of Soviet researchers developed a lunar exploration program that included 6 types of probes which were more and more sophisticated:
- the type Ye-1 which would crash on the Moon,
- the type Ye-2 which would photograph the hidden face of the Moon,
- the type Ye-3 which would photograph the Moon,
- the type Ye-4 which would carry an explosive charge detonated on the Moon,
- the type Ye-5 which would take detailed photographs of the Moon, and
- the type Ye-6 which would land on the Moon to capture a panorama of our satellite.

Examined by both the Akademiya Nauk Sovestskogo Soyuza and Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, this ambitious program was officially approved in March 1958. You will remember that we are dealing here with the USSR’s academy of sciences and the first secretary of the central committee of the Kommunisticheskaya Partiya Sovetskogo Soyuza, a character but not a gentleman mentioned in February and March 2019 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

By the way, the version of the Semyorka intended to send probes to the Moon was also used to put in orbit Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, the first human being to go into space, in April 1961. This gentleman was mentioned in several issues of our... Darn, my apologies for this reference. Gagarin was mentioned since July 2018.

As the development of the Ye-1 probes and the more powerful version of the Semyorka continued, the United States Air Force (USAF) and the United States Army announced their intention to send probes to the Moon during the summer of 1958. If the USAF hoped to place its Pioneer probes in orbit around the Moon, the second hoped at most that its Pioneer probes would fly over the surface of our satellite. The rockets available to these 2 services being very different, the United States Army probes were much lighter, smaller and rudimentary than those of the USAF.

The American military, which was completely ignorant of the Soviet program, thus unwittingly embarked on a prestige race to the Moon. Dare I say that the USAF and the United States Army were participating in their own prestige race to the Moon? If the United States Navy was not thinking about going there, the fact was that it had its own space program. Would you believe that the National Aeronautics and Space Agency, today’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), an organisation mentioned in many issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee since March 2018, was born in July 1958 to put an end to this rivalry, and this shameless waste of resources? It also aimed to place the American space exploration program under civilian control.

Be that as it may, the USAF and United States Army announcements were typical of the American government’s approach which announced in advance the launch of a probe or satellite, as well as its function. Said approach was to the credit of that country. It had the disadvantage, however, of showing to everyone the failed launches, unfortunately quite common at the beginning of the space race.

The Soviet government, on the other hand, did not announce the launch of a satellite or probe unless it was successful. Failed launches were not made public. As a result, international public opinion had a false opinion of the Soviet space program, deemed to be much better than that of the United States.

In some cases, the American government twisted its approach to preserve certain secrets, say ye? That’s correct. One only needs to think about the 15 satellites of the Discoverer series, launched from February 1959 onward but almost all victims of technical problems. NASA described these spy / photographic reconnaissance satellites as intended for the preparation of future piloted flights, but back to our story.

The first probe of the American Pioneer program, oddly called Pioneer 0, took off in August 1958. The rocket exploded before leaving the Earth’s atmosphere, however. The first Soviet Ye-1 type probe took off in September 1958. The rocket exploded before leaving the Earth’s atmosphere, however.

The following table gives an idea of ​​the setbacks encountered by Soviet and American engineers.
August 1958, Pioneer 0 - failure – failure of rocket
September 1958, Ye-1 number 1 - failure – failure of rocket
October 1958, Pioneer 1 - failure – failure of rocket
October 1958, Ye-1 number 2 - failure – failure of rocket
November 1958, Pioneer 2- failure – failure of rocket
December 1958, Ye-1 number 3 - failure – failure of rocket
December 1958, Pioneer 3- failure – failure of rocket
January 1959, Ye-1 number 4 - failure – passage of the probe far from the Moon
March 1959, Pioneer 4 - failure – passage of the probe too far from the Moon
June 1959, Ye-1A - failure – failure of rocket

If the 5 consecutive failures of the Pioneer lunar probes were known to all, only a few rare initiates knew about those of the 5 Ye-1 probes.

You will remember that another September 2019 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee was about the Soviet astrophysicist Alla Genrikhovna Masevitch. If that is the case, you may remember that she attended a press conference in February 1960, in London. She said she had not heard of Soviet rocket launches which had gone wrong. Yours truly wonders if this statement might have been a lie, but back to our history.

Why shake your head, my reading friend? How can one miss an object the size of the Moon? The fact is, it was / is pretty easy. A change of 0.01% in the speed of a rocket or of 10 seconds in the time of its launch put / put a lunar probe 200 kilometres (125 miles) from the surface of our satellite.

Reaching the Moon from the Earth was / is not easy. According to Heinz Kaminski, a West German chemical engineer then well known for his interest in everything related to space exploration, this was equivalent to placing a rifle bullet in the eye of a fly almost 10 kilometres (6 miles) away – an analogy of great violence if I can may say so.

Given the number of failures encountered by the Pioneer probes, you will imagine very well the reaction of Mrs. and Mr. Anyone when the Soviet government announced that one of its probes, Lunik II, had hit the Moon, as expected, in September 1959. Tens of millions of Soviets exulted. Tens of millions of Americans did not.

Outraged by the scepticism of some American media which all but stated that the information received from Lunik I during its passage near the Moon was false, Soviet researchers provided information on the trajectory, the time of impact and the frequency of the radio signal of the Lunik II probe, well before it reached the Moon. The first director of the Jodrell Bank Observatory, in the United Kingdom, Alfred Charles Bernard Lovell, confirmed the veracity of the announcement of the Soviet government. The latter even played a recording of the Lunik II radio signal during a telephone conversation with journalists in New York, New York.

As you well know, the Jodrell Bank Observatory and Lovell were mentioned in another September 2019 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

The Soviet government obviously did not make public the fact that the launch of Lunik II was apparently postponed 3 times. A launch had to be aborted 3 days before the start of its historic flight, for example, when the main engines of the rocket refused to give their full power.

You will be happy to hear (read?), or not, that Lunik II was the first human made spacecraft to reach the surface of another celestial body. It was also the first probe having
- proved the presence of the solar wind in interplanetary space,
- confirmed the absence of a magnetic field around the Moon, and
- revealed the absence of radiation belts around the Moon.

The solar wind, by the way, was / is a stream of ionised atoms and electrons ejected by the Sun.

It should be noted that the Soviet team apparently made every effort to prevent the presence of living organisms on its probes before their launch to the Moon.

Do you have a question, my reading friend? If there was / is a Lunik II, was / is there not a Lunik I, say ye? Your logic is flawless. Yes, Virginia, there was a Santa Claus, sorry, a Lunik I. This designation was given to the aforementioned Ye-1 type probe that passed about 6 000 kilometres (3 700 miles) from the Moon in January 1959. Known initially under the name of Mechta, this spacecraft was apparently redesignated Luna 1 by its designers around 1960. And yes, Lunik II was probably redesignated Luna 2 around the same time.

If said Lunik II was pulverised when it impacted the Moon, destroying any information about its origin, the fact was that Korolev and his team had thought of a way to preserve forever the proof of the success of their probe. Lunik II and the final stage of its carrier rocket each carried a small sphere consisting of 72 (stainless steel?) pentagonal elements, 12 of which bore the coat of arms of the USSR and the acronym CCCP (USSR in Cyrillic letters) and 60 bearing that same acronym and the date of the flight, September 1959. The controlled explosion of one of these spheres shortly before the impact of Lunik II dispersed its elements on the surface of the Moon. The second having failed to explode, it may, I repeat may, be relatively intact. And yes, my sport mad reading friend, the Lunik II spheres looked a little like 150 millimetre (about 6 inches) diameter soccer balls.

And yes, you are right, my reading friend, the Leningradskiy monetnyy dvor had to make new spheres after each failed launch of a lunar probe.

Two days after the impact of Lunik II with the Moon, the aforementioned Khrushchev, on an official visit to the United States, offered a replica of one of the Lunik II spheres to the American president. If the former probably had a broad smile, Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower probably appreciated this evidence of Soviet superiority in space technology a lot less. Incidentally, Eisenhower was mentioned in March 2018 and February 2019 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

The Soviet government used Lunik II and its other space successes to promote its political system. Let’s not forget that many colonies of European countries gained their independence from the 1950s onward.

Let us mention for example that said Soviet government presented a model of the rocket stage which sent its Lunik / Luna probes to the Moon in several / many technical, scientific and / or cultural traveling exhibitions held in Europe, Asia and America. One of these exhibitions opened its doors in Ciudad México, México, in November 1959.

As incredible as it may seem, Central Intelligence Agency agents managed to gain access to said model in early 1960, and this to define the characteristics and performance of the Soviet rocket which, let’s not forget, was a more powerful version of the aforementioned Semyorka intercontinental ballistic missile. To their great surprise, they realised that the model was for all intent and purposes a real rocket stage without its engine and certain of its electrical and electronic components.

Convinced of the importance of better examining said rocket stage, the agents managed to intercept the truck that transported it to a train station so that the content of the exhibition got to another destination (Cuba or Norway?). They had plenty of time to take the satellite out of its crate and examine it until the following morning. The truck and its surprisingly cooperative driver then went to the train station. The Soviet custodian arrived a little later and, seeing / believing that everything was in order, had the crate placed on a flat car.

At the risk of seeming cruel, and / or anti-American, let me mention that NASA launched 3 Pioneer X / Pioneer P lunar probes between November 1959 and December 1960. None of these spacecraft intended to enter orbit around the Moon could leave the Earth’s atmosphere. By the way, it was in July 1964 that the first American lunar probe filled its mission. Ranger 7 hit the Moon then, after transmitting a series of photographs.

What about the 6 series of Soviet probes mentioned at the beginning of this article, say ye? Hmm, you have a lot of questions today, my reading friend. And me who wanted to leave early today... Sigh.

Know then that a Ye-2 type probe, Lunik III / Luna 3 more precisely, photographed the hidden face of the Moon in October 1959 – another world first for the Soviet space program. The two Ye-3 type probes launched in April 1960 failed to leave the Earth’s atmosphere. A Ye-6 type probe, Luna 9, landed smoothly on the Moon in February 1966 – yet another world first for the Soviet space program. This probe was the 13th in this series which, until then, had suffered failure after failure. Eight of these failed launches were kept secret.

What about the Ye-4 and Ye-5 type probes, say ye? Unenthusiastic at the idea of exploding a nuclear, yes, nuclear, warhead on the Moon, the aforementioned Korolev and his team managed to get the project abandoned. The explosion of a conventional explosive charge not being a better confirmation of an impact with the Moon than the end of a radio signal, the Ye-4 type probes were simply abandoned. The Ye-5 type probes suffered the same fate.

With that, I wish you a good day, a good week, a good... Uh, what is it, my reading friend? I did not say (type?) a blessed word about the Serge Lapointe of the Département de Physique of the Université de Montréal who was on the photograph at the beginning of this article, say ye? That’s very true, but I told you I wanted to be brief, and... You want to know who he was? Sigh. Very well.

Born in Montréal in 1928, Lapointe studied at the Université de Montréal (Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, 1950 and 1952) and at Cornell University, in the United States (Doctoral degree, 1960). He was a teaching assistant at Cornell University between 1951 and 1956. This theoretical physicist who specialized in geophysics and plasma physics joined the teaching staff of the Département de Physique of the Université de Montréal in 1956 – as an assistant professor. Lapointe became a full professor in 1960.

Geophysics and astrophysics being related disciplines, Lapointe did some work in the latter field in 1960-61 in the laboratories of the National Research Council, a world-renowned organization mentioned in several issues our blog / bulletin / thingee since May 2018. He also continued his work in astrophysics in 1963-64 at the Observatoire de Paris, an equally well-known organization mentioned in a March 2019 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee. In either case, Lapointe was particularly interested in the Sun and its eruptions.

This being said (typed?), Lapointe had to give up some of his work in astrophysics, geophysics and plasma physics when he became
- director of the Département de Physique of the Université de Montréal, in 1966,
- president of the Association des professeurs de l’Université de Montréal, in 1967, and
- dean of the Faculté des sciences of the Université de Montréal, in 1968.

Lapointe may have left the Université de Montréal to work for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Yours truly cannot say if this gentleman is still with us on this Earth. He would probably be 91 years old, just like my father.

With that, I wish you a good day, a good week, a good... Sigh. Let me guess. You now want to know more about the blackboard which was in the photograph at the very beginning of this article. Very good. Know then, my reading friend, that Lapointe showed the evolution of rocketry since the Second World War.

In a first step (drawing 1), the teams designed and launched rockets that fell back to Earth after reaching a high altitude. Lapointe chose as examples the infamous German A-4 / V-2 missile of the Second World War as well as 3 post-war American sounding rockets, the Martin Viking, the Aerojet General Aerobee (and not Aeorobee) and the Douglas WAC / WAC Corporal. The V-2 was mentioned in a February 2019 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

If I may be permitted a brief digression, the acronym WAC meant / means Without Any Control, or, much less officially, Women’s Army Corps. What did / does the women’s division of the United States Army, put on active duty in July 1943, had / have to do with our story, you ask? I share your perplexity, believe me. Know then that the designers of the WAC noted that it resembled the Firestone M2 Corporal short range nuclear tipped missile, but in a thinner / slimmer form. And yes, Firestone Tire & Rubber Company made weapons of mass destruction in the 1950s, but back to our story.

In a second step (drawing 2), the aforementioned teams designed and launched rockets that succeeded in placing satellites in orbit around the Earth. Lapointe chose as examples the Soviet Sputnik I satellite and the American Vanguard and Explorer satellites. The latter were mentioned in a February 2019 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

In a third step (drawing 3), the teams designed and launched rockets that managed to direct probes to the Moon, or not. Lapointe chooses as examples the Soviet Lunik I probe and the American Pioneer probes.

In a fourth step (drawing 4), the teams designed and launched rockets that managed to place a probe on the Moon. Lapointe chose as an example the Soviet Lunik II probe.

It should be noted that Lapointe used the term alunissage, or Moon landing, in the French language description he provided to the journalist of the weekly Le Petit Journal. Was this the first use of this term in a Québec newspaper? Nay, my reading friend. What would you say if I told you that the word alunissage can be found in articles from 2 Montréal dailies dating from June 1914? This is actually true. An astronomer from the aforementioned Observatoire de Paris and well-known scientific populariser, Charles Nordmann, spoke with great seriousness about the possibility of making a trip to the Moon at an indeterminate future date. He was not talking about himself of course. Le Canada and Le Devoir reproduced almost in its entirety an article published in May in a Paris daily, La Gazette de France.

And yes, I share your opinion regarding the use of the term Moon landing to describe Lunik II’s arrival on the Moon. A spaceship involved in a Moon landing aimed / aims to come out of it in good condition, just like an aircraft involved in a landing actually.

Answering a question from the journalist of the aforementioned Le Petit Journal about the possibility of going on the Moon, again not himself, Lapointe made a very interesting comment, given the fact that he spoke in September 1959: “This is likely in the next decade, if scientific progress is unimpeded and continues at the current rate. Telling you more would wake Jules Verne in his grave!”

We both know when the first Moon landing took place, now don’t we? No, not in September 1969, in July 1969. And we both know the name of mission responsible for this exploit, now don’t we? No? No!? Sigh.

With that, I wish you a good day, and that’s it for the 100th topic offered to you for free courtesy of you know who since July 2017.
This writer wishes to thank all the people who provided information. Any mistake contained in this article is my fault, not theirs.

Profile picture for user rfortier
Rénald Fortier