First to reach the Moon

The Earth's natural satellite, the Moon, sits on our cosmic doorstep and was an obvious first stop in the exploration of the Solar System. But in the 1950s, reaching it was still a major technological challenge.

Considering the Soviet Union's clear lead in the Space Race at the start of 1958, it is somewhat surprising that history's first moonshots were in fact launched from Cape Canaveral. The first attempt, in August 1958, was part of the United States' programme for the IGY. It made use of a Thor Able-I rocket - the Air Force's new Thor IRBM with the second and third stages of a Navy Vanguard bolted on top of it. Unfortunately, the first stage failed just 77 seconds into the flight.

The following month, the newly formed NASA took over the lunar programme and immediately attempted a repeat of the earlier launch. This probe, named Pioneer 1, got a little further than its unnamed sibling, but a programming error meant that it still did not achieve sufficient speed to escape the Earth's gravity and reach the Moon - instead it

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The Moon's far side is hidden from Eorth because the Moon takes the same time to orbit the Earth as it does to spin on its own axis. The first images revealed a heavily cratered terrain.

weight of the new probes, a new upper stage would have to be fitted to the existing R-7 to propel its payloads towards the

Moon. Launch attempts began on 23 September 1958 but the first three ended in explosions, and it was not until 2 January 1959 that Luna 1, also known as Mechta (Dream) and popularly nicknamed Lunik, broke free of the Earth's gravity and sailed past the Moon at a distance of 5,995km

(3,723 miles), some 34 hours after launch. The spacecraft had been intended to crash directly into the Moon, but a control failure saw the mission change to a not-so-close flyby. However, the Soviet

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