Science: Luna First

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Shortly before Apollo 11 was launched in July 1969, Russian scientists sent an unmanned spaceship to the moon. Its probable mission was to land on the lunar surface, scoop up some soil and beat the Americans back to earth with the first samples of moon material. Luna 15 never achieved that ambitious goal. Several hours after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first mortals to step onto the moon, the Soviet spaceship dropped out of lunar orbit, apparently crashed and was never heard from again.

Last week, in a rerun of that abortive flight, the Soviets had far better luck. Their unmanned Luna 16 landed on the moon, gathered up a small sample of lunar soil, took off again and returned its cargo safely to earth. The entire mission was an impressive technological tour de force that gave the Russians a sorely needed boost in morale (a typical Muscovite-in-the-street comment: "See, we're not so far behind the Americans"). NASA's acting chief, George Low, sent his congratulations to Moscow, and called the first unmanned recovery of extraterrestrial material "a major engineering and scientific achievement."

Crucial Maneuver. It was indeed. In 1966, the Russians had made the initial soft landing on the moon, but their equipment at the time was relatively primitive—a simple sphere covered with balsa wood that was ejected just before its carrier rocket smashed into the lunar surface. After bouncing and rolling to a stop, the sphere unfolded its panels like petals of a flower, righted itself and exposed its TV camera and transmitter. Luna 16 was a far more sophisticated instrument. Although the Soviets revealed few details, Western space experts believe that the spacecraft that descended to the lunar surface weighed about a ton (compared with the Apollo LM's 8 tons); it was braked first by its main engine and then in the last few yards of descent by smaller thrusters. The landing operation on the Sea of Fertility, an unexplored portion of the moon about 200 miles east of Apollo 11 's landing site, was controlled entirely by a computer program fed from earth—not by the combination of computers and manual controls used in Apollo lunar modules.

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