The Other Moon Landings
The Soviets lost the moon race but won a dram of glory with the first robotic craft to roam another world.
- By Andrew Chaikin
- Air & Space magazine, March 2004
NASA History Office
(Page 3 of 4)
But Basilevsky soon realized that the very things he wanted to get close to and study—large rocks—were hazards the drivers and commanders wanted to avoid. Having learned (just as the Apollo astronauts had) that distances on the moon are difficult to perceive, and wary of the time delay, Lunokhod rarely ventured closer than about seven feet from a boulder. “They were cautious people,” Basilevsky says about the crews, adding that he never saw them disagree about how to proceed, or any other breach of military discipline. And, having watched the controllers during their challenging pre-mission practice runs, Basilevsky didn’t try to persuade them to do otherwise.
He did challenge the crews’ supervisors, who equated the mission’s success with the total distance logged by the rover. The only way to obtain panoramic images with Lunokhod’s high-resolution cameras was to use the craft’s narrow-beam antenna, which required the rover to be stationary. At one point, Basilevsky recalls, “We could see beautiful rock fragments. I was saying to Babakin, ‘Let’s stop here. We’ll make good panoramas; we’ll see something unusual here.’ His deputies told me, ‘Sasha, it is Lunokhod, not Lunostop.’ ”
It was even harder for Basilevsky to use Lunokhod to obtain stereo images, one of the geologists’ key tools for studying lunar landforms. The easiest way was to take a panorama, have the rover turn in place for a few degrees, then stop and take a second panorama. But for the mission managers, taking a second panorama of “the same boring place” precluded the logging of more distance, which looked good in Pravda, the state newspaper. To publicists, “it was a serious indicator of our success: meters, meters, meters,” Basilevsky says. In his frustration, Basilevsky took one of the few stereo panoramas he had acquired and spread it out, with a special stereo viewer, on a table in the control center. He then sought out the army colonel who was responsible for the Lunokhod crew and showed him the moon in 3-D. With the desolate beauty of the Sea of Rains spread out before him, the colonel registered his amazement; “This is why,” Basilevsky told him. After that, Basilevsky says he “had a green light” to request panorama shots.
Even with these occasional victories, Basilevsky and the other geologists still faced battles with scientific colleagues about how best to use the rover’s precious time on the moon, because Lunokhod was also constantly studying cosmic rays and X-rays and measuring the brightness of the lunar sky early and late in the lunar day. And the sheer length of the working day—a communications session with Lunokhod might last as long as 10 hours—could wear out everyone involved. The geologists could not afford the luxury of a full night’s sleep either, because they needed to wake up well in advance of the next communications session to review the latest data. Only during the three-day lunar noon did the scientists get a break, with a visit to a seaside resort. During the two-week lunar night, the scientists returned to Moscow; then they headed back to the Crimea. “It was exhausting,” Basilevsky says. And this went on longer than anyone expected, because instead of lasting the four months planned, Lunokhod 1 lasted almost 11 months.
But there was compensation. After one particularly grueling session, Basilevsky emerged from the control center to see the moon hanging above the horizon in the early morning sky. It was a magically disorienting sight. “When you are involved in driving, psychologically you are on the moon,” he explains. “So [when I saw the moon] it was like, ‘Okay, but I was there!’ And it was some special moment in my life when I realized that through these devices, I was there. On that shining object in the sky.”
In the United States, that bright, cratered world had become a place for men, not machines, to explore. As it happened, the Soviet robotic successes came as NASA was recovering from the previous April’s Apollo 13 fiasco. At the same time, U.S. space budgets were in decline, forcing the cancellation of the last few Apollo landings. The Soviet robots’ success fueled a debate in the U.S. on whether sending people to the moon was worth the cost and the risk when machines could do the job—or so critics claimed. That point of view never held any sway with the scientists. Apollo 11 and 12 lunar sample co-investigator Bevan French recounts: “Anyone who…said that the Luna 16 and Lunokhod missions were so successful that it meant we should have stopped doing manned lunar missions would’ve been laughed out of the room.”
No one needed to tell Basilevsky that. “It was obvious that the science we were doing [with Lunokhod] was much less important than what was obtained by Apollo,” he says. But to the Soviet people, the value of the Lunokhod and Luna robots had little to do with absolutes. In the USSR, where information about the Apollo landings was scarce, these machines were a source of enormous pride. Soviet scientists could now contribute lunar samples for research instead of merely borrowing; in 1971 NASA and the Soviet Academy of Sciences agreed to each exchange three grams of returned samples.
In January 1973, a month after Apollo 17, the final U.S. moonwalk, Lunokhod 2 landed at the Sea of Serenity’s eastern edge. By this time, the stature of Basilevsky and the other geologists had risen substantially—as had the confidence of the two crews—so much so that after four months on the moon Lunokhod 2 had driven more than 21 miles, three times as far as Lunokhod 1 had traveled in twice the time. (It helped that Lunokhod 2’s navigation cameras were improved, and sent an image every three seconds.) Near the end of its fourth lunar day, the rover approached a long, straight valley where the geologists could see boulders and even the rarest of features on the dust-covered moon: an outcropping of bedrock. Basilevsky was ecstatic. “He kept exclaiming, ‘Wonderful, this is it! Stop, look at this, show me that!’ ” says Dovgan.