Luna 1: The Greatest Failed Spaceship in History

Luna 1 was a Soviet-launched spacecraft that managed a lot of firsts. It was the first craft to achieve escape velocity. It was the first artificial comet. It was not the first failure of the space race, but it managed to be the first spacecraft whose failure was more impressive than its achievement. This is a tale of when something going wrong makes it oh so right.

The early space race was simply two nations sending rockets up into the air and watching them come back down again. It wasn't so much a space race as a game of tag with the outer atmosphere. The only winner was gravity. Luna 1 changed all of that. It became the first spacecraft to achieve escape velocity and make space its permanent home. This isn't to say it was a successful mission. It failed. It just failed in such a way that its failure was even more impressive than its intended achievement.

Luna 1 launched in January of 1959, only a few months after America's Pioneer 1 struggled up to 71,000 miles before falling back to Earth. The Luna craft was a silver ball, outfitted with communication devices and scientific testing equipment. Not only did Luna achieve escape velocity, it was also the first craft to detect the solar wind — the charged particles that the sun emits. When it got about 100,000 kilometers from Earth, it emitted a stream of sodium gas, which allowed scientists to test how gas acts in space, and which made Luna 1 the first artificial comet. Then it proceeded towards its target: the Moon.

One can only feel bad for the Soviet scientists when they realized that their precious spacecraft was slowly, and inexorably, drifting off course. A slight bit of programming code had nudged it away from the Moon and out into space. This would not have been good news. They must have been quite relieved when they realized that, although they weren't going to hit the Moon, they were going to make the first "artificial planet." Luna 1 was going into a heliocentric orbit that would have it turning round the sun between Earth and Mars. It was renamed Mechta - dream - and remains in orbit today.

Which isn't to say the Soviet scientists didn't keep trying for the Moon. They were the first to hit it in September of that year, with Luna 2. Still, it's nice to see that, occasionally, one can fail upwards.

Via NASA and Maps of the World.