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.

Artist's conception of the Lunokhod rover about to descend ramps from the landing module. (NASA History Office)
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Dovgan, now 66, was well prepared by intensive training. “Driving on the moon felt even easier than it was in the lunodrome,” he says, but his comment belies the difficulties of navigating the rover. The low resolution of the slide show made it difficult to spot craters and boulders, especially at high sun angles, and there was a “dead zone”—a three-foot-wide area immediately in front of the rover that Lunokhod’s cameras could not see. The only solution, according to Dogvan, was to memorize the features in this area from the previous image, before the rover reached it. “When we were looking ahead and thinking of the obstacles that we did see, we also had to remember what was just behind,” he says.

Dovgan also had to constantly verbalize what he saw to Fyodorov. “103,” Dovgan would say, using the commander’s call sign, “this is 101 reporting on the situation. Twenty degrees left of the course, a stone; distance, five meters; height, 35 [centimeters], width, 50. Straight ahead, a crater, diameter, nine meters. To the right, 15 degrees, a gap. Decision: Will turn left 60 degrees to avoid both crater and stone, and then regain the straight-ahead direction.” Although Fyodorov sometimes challenged Dovgan before approving his plans, he ultimately trusted his driver’s judgment as if Dovgan were actually on the moon. And indeed, Dovgan sometimes felt as if he were. “Not that I forgot that I was on Earth, but it felt like I was so phased into my work that the only thing that wasn’t part of me being on the moon was the constant, continuous reporting,” he recalls. “It almost felt like I was talking to myself all the time, or that I was talking to Lunokhod.”

Unlike cosmonauts of the day, Dovgan and crewmates were unknown to the Soviet public and under strict orders not to talk about their work. For Dovgan, who grew up in Simferopol, the secrecy was especially tough. “I couldn’t even tell my friends,” he recalls. “And you know, all my friends were there; I went to school there. It was particularly hard…for me to keep my mouth shut.” For Basilevsky, there was an even more frustrating problem: The control room was off-limits to him and other scientists taking part in the mission. Relegated to another room in the Crimea complex, they could listen to the crew’s workmen-like dialogue only over a loudspeaker. During mission operations, the researchers were expected to be passive consumers of data, not participants in the exploration. “Scientists were considered, in the beginning, as something unnecessary,” Sasha Basilevsky explains.

Meanwhile, on the Sea of Rains, with its Earthbound masters ever mindful of its safety, Lunokhod made halting progress until, on November 22, having traveled some 646 feet, the rover was put to sleep for the approaching two-week night. During the hibernation, astronomers in Crimea and the French Alps bounced a laser beam off a French-built reflector mounted on the rover; these experiments were designed to provide ultra-accurate measurements of the moon’s periodic wobbles, called librations, as well as the moon’s distance from Earth. Some team members worried about whether Lunokhod could be revived, but after the sun had risen on the Sea of Rains, the rover was ready for its first full lunar day of work.

As the controllers gained more experience, they also gained confidence, until they were able to let the rover proceed as long as they could see no clear hazard on the monitors. Progress had to be halted for three days during the lunar noon, when the lack of shadows made driving too dangerous. Lunokhod logged almost an additional mile before night fell. And during the third workday, starting on January 17, navigators steered the rover back to its landing spot, where the landing stage stood like a tiny fortress.

It was around this time that Basilevsky ventured into the control room at last. “I came and brought a chair with me,” he says. “Nobody allowed me, actually. I just did it. And I stayed. And they looked at me, and nobody said anything. The next day I came with my chair again, feeling ‘I have a right to do this.’ And then, it was my place.”

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.

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