Fifty years ago today, the Soviet space program launched Luna 9, the first spacecraft ever to achieve a soft landing on the Moon, or any extraterrestrial world for that matter. At that point, the Soviets had already tried to pull off a lunar landing 11 times over a period of three years, so when Luna 9 touched down a few days later, the mission leads rejoiced.
"The Moon speaks Russian," declared headlines across the Soviet Union.
But though Soviet space officials were forthcoming about their success in achieving this historic milestone, they kept the images transmitted by Luna 9 under wraps for several days. You would think that in the midst of the Soviet Union's intense rivalry with the United States, its leaders would want to flaunt the first postcards from the Moon, taken by a Soviet lander. But for reasons that are still mysterious a half-century later, no pictures were released to the press, leading some skeptics to suspect that the Soviets were lying about Luna 9's success (the "soft" in soft landing here means it was a controlled descent as opposed to a crash landing, which had been achieved many times by this point).
The plot thickened when Sir Bernard Lovell, a radio astronomer at the Jodrell Bank Observatory in Manchester, noticed that the transmissions his team intercepted from the lander were not encoded, which was unusual for a Soviet mission. Intrigued, Lovell and his colleagues called upon Manchester's Daily Press newspaper staff to decipher and print Luna 9's images using the same image converter that reporters used to transmit news photos.
"Initially there were problems in adjusting the scan rate," according to Robert Reeves, author of The Superpower Space Race. "The first effort showed a series of dark lines about 6 millimeters (0.25 inches) apart. Another showed just light lines."
"Then the correct combination was hit and, incredibly, when the Luna signals were fed into the machine, it began to produce a photograph of the lunar surface. By a stroke of insight and resourcefulness, the Jodrell Bank staff and assembled reporters were the first people outside of the Luna control center to view the stark landscape of the Moon."
So weirdly enough, British newspapers scooped the Soviet press on their own Moon landing, and images from the surface were rapidly disseminated outside the USSR's borders several days before the average Soviet citizen had access to them.
This was deemed an act of "piracy" by many Soviets, including scientist and diplomat Anatoly Blagonravov, who said Lovell did not obtain the correct permission to publish the images and accused him of having "apparently some motives of a sensational nature."
Of course, something doesn't quite add up here. If the Soviets wanted a monopoly over the propagation of the first lunar snapshots, why wouldn't they encrypt them, or release them as soon as they received word from Luna 9? This question still inspires all kinds of theories about the mission to this day, including speculation that the whole thing was masterminded by the Luna mission leads.
"Some analysts suggest that Semyon Lavochkin, designer of the Luna spacecraft, purposely outfitted it with universal imaging equipment, intending receivers at Jodrell Bank—who had the best equipment in the world—to decode and publish the information," wrote Michael Carroll in his book The Seventh Landing. "In this way, the lower quality of Soviet technology would not come to light."
Regardless of whether that is true, it does reflects the state of the Soviet space program in 1966. Though the soft landing of Luna 9 was an unprecedented achievement, it was also one of the last big victories the Soviet Union scored over the United States during the space race.
Indeed, in many ways, 1966 was the year the tables began to pivot in America's favor, despite the fact that the Soviets kicked it off with such an important win. On June 2, NASA soft landed its own lunar probe, Surveyor 1, in the same region as Luna 9. Only three short years later, the Eagle had landed on the Moon, which was the symbolic end of the Space Race, if not the functional one. The Soviets may have held a huge lead for a long time, but when NASA reached its full momentum, it was unstoppable.
Even so, it's compelling to reflect on that brief week 50 years ago, when humans were finally able to soft land an emissary to an alien world, and receive its letters home.