Official Site of Speaker, Historian and Author Sean Munger

History, Technology

The dark side of the Moon revealed: The flight of Luna 3.

The above picture¬†looks like a black-and-white photo of a rotting pumpkin transmitted on an early (say, 1950s) fax machine and then Xeroxed about 100¬†times on a machine with failing toner. It’s not. It’s a photograph of the dark side of the Moon. This was a sight no human being had ever seen until 55 years ago today, October 7, 1959.

The photo was transmitted to Earth from a tiny spacecraft called Luna 3, which allowed humankind its first glimpse at the other side of its terrestrial neighbor. The face of the Moon we see from Earth is tidally locked, meaning its rotation and its revolution around the Earth are exactly equal. This does not mean that the Moon literally has a “dark side,” because it gets the same light from the Sun as any other part of the Moon. It just means we can never see it. In 1959 Luna 3 changed that.

The probe blasted off from a Soviet launch pad on October 4, the second anniversary of Russia’s success in putting the first manmade satellite, Sputnik, into orbit. Luna 3 was basically a ball with cameras on it. There were no rockets or anything of that sort for course correction. Once launched, it was designed to keep moving. It would fly past the moon, (hopefully) beam some selfies back to Earth, and then the Soviets would break out the vodka to celebrate another great triumph for the socialist motherland. That’s sort of how it worked, except for a few problems, such as the fact that the probe’s radio signal strength was much weaker than anticipated. After beaming 17 low-res photos back to Earth, Luna 3 lost contact with Moscow on October 22.

No one is quite sure what happened to it after that. Given its trajectory, the probe was certainly recaptured by Earth’s gravity and wound up in orbit around the Earth. It may have survived until April or May 1960 until its orbit decayed and it burned up in the atmosphere, but some people say it was still up there as late as 1962. It’s certainly gone now so we’ll never know.

Of course, the crummy photos by Luna 3 were quickly surpassed, first by more sophisticated space probes like Lunar Orbiter and Surveyor, and eventually by the manned Apollo missions to the Moon. But this grainy picture remains humanity’s first look at the face of another world.

No Pink Floyd jokes, please.

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