Fifty years ago, Luna 10 – an unmanned Soviet Union spacecraft – became the first spacecraft to ever successfully orbit around another celestial body. Launched from Tyuratam, USSR on March 31, 1966, Luna 10 – or Lunik 10 – made history when it completed its full orbit around the moon on April 4. The mission helped the Soviet Union jump ahead in the Space Race.
The USSR started the Luna program in 1959, which succeeded in carrying out the first fly-by, impact, and soft-landing. Luna 10 was built to be the first to orbit the moon, but also gave the USSR more experience in orbital missions to prep for astronaut orbital missions. The metal robotic orbiter model weighed 245 kilograms, measured 1.5 meters tall and 75 centimeters in diameter, and carried seven pieces of equipment for lunar data collection. Over its 56 days in orbit, Luna 10 completed 460 orbits around the moon and sent 219 active data transmissions.
While Luna 10’s collection of accomplishments were major for space history, the USSR also used it as a political pawn. It was the height of the Space Race and the Cold War, which meant that any USSR or United States victory mattered.
The whole launch was timed so that Luna 10 would make its first full orbit around the moon when the 23rd Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union convened. During the meeting, Luna 10 was to play a live broadcast of the country’s national anthem, the “Internationale,” over loudspeakers to the 5,000 delegates. The concert from the moon did happen, and was met with roaring applause, as seen from some historic footage. However, it turns out that the version of the tune that was being played was pre-recorded from Luna 10’s broadcast the night before.
The fabrication was discovered 30 years after the broadcast – long after Luna 10’s battery petered out and the radio signals discontinued. USSR operation controllers were weary of doing a live broadcast, not wanting to make any errors in front of the large crowd of political delegates. When they did a test run earlier that morning, the transmission failed, so operations plugged in the recording from an earlier, successful test.
So, yes, the story of Luna 10 comes laced with some lies from the Russian government. (Big surprise.) But those details shouldn’t detract from the spacecraft’s historical importance.