On this day in 1959, the Soviet Union launched a 4-foot-diameter metal ball — a close copy of the Sputnik satellite that had kicked off the space age two years earlier — in the direction of the moon. On January 4 Luna 1, also known as “Mechta” or Dream, passed within 6,000 kilometers of the lunar surface. The Soviets had meant for it to hit the moon, and had loaded commemorative “pennants” on board that were supposed to scatter in every direction at the moment of impact. But a faulty rocket burn caused the probe to miss its target. Fifty-three years later, Luna 1, the first object to escape Earth’s gravity, is still in orbit around the sun.
In 1959, such a demonstration of Soviet rocket power didn’t sit well with American notions of technological superiority, and there was much fretting in the Western press. LIFE magazine editorialized about “The Warning of Mechta,” and pointed fingers at the politicians and bureaucrats. One writer named Lloyd Mallan took it a step further, claiming, in an article titled “The Big Red Lie,” published in the April 11, 1959 issue of True magazine, that the Soviets had made up the whole story about Luna 1.
After a long fact-finding trip (“14,000 miles behind the Iron Curtain”), Mallan concluded not only that “Lunik does not exist and never did” but that “the Russians do not have any ICBMs,” and that the striking power of the Red Air Force had been greatly exaggerated. Mallan based his conclusions partly on the mistaken idea that no Westerners had heard signals from the Russian moon probe.
In August of that year, a Congressional fact-finding committee alarmed by Mallan’s claims heard different from people who actually knew what they were talking about. William Pickering, head of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, told the committee that the Goldstone tracking antenna had detected signals from a spacecraft moving away from the moon on January 4. According to the committee report, “Dr. Pickering said there was no doubt in his mind that the object being tracked was the Soviet Moon rocket.” None of the expert witnesses doubted it, in fact.
During the hearings Mallan’s patriotism even came into question, based on his past involvement with communist-sympathizing groups during the Spanish Civil War. Although the hearings put to rest any serious possibility of Luna 1 being a hoax, Mallan went on to a dubious career debunking (usually erroneously) other Russian space achievements.
As for the Russians, they scored again later that year with Luna 3, the first spacecraft to photograph the far side of the moon. Boris Chertok, a veteran of the cold war space race, wrote in his multi-volume memoir about those early days when his country was briefly ahead of the United States:
You can criticize the utopian plans for building communism, the trampling of human rights, and the Communist Party’s dictatorship in a totalitarian state all you want. But it is impossible to erase from the history of the Khrushchev era the favorable conditions created for developing cosmonautics and its related sciences. Cosmonautics did not arise simply from militarization, and its aims were more than purely propagandistic. During the first post-Sputnik years, the foundations were laid for truly scientific research in space, serving the interest of all humankind. All Soviet people, not just those of us who were directly involved in the missile and space programs, felt proud and were thrilled to be citizens of the country that was blazing the trail for the human race into the cosmos.