Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.
In 1983, Michael Jackson made pop history with his first televised moonwalk during a live performance of Billie Jean. From that point on, the term “moonwalker” became synonymous with Jackson. He wasn’t the first to perform the move, but he changed the way we think about it forever.
It wasn’t the first time a moon walker transformed the popular consciousness; it happened in 1969 when Neil Armstrong made his first giant leap; and it happened again in 1970 with a moon walker of a different sort.
Forty-five years ago this month, the Soviet Union sent the first remotely operated rover to the lunar surface. The vehicle was called the Lunokhod — which translates to “Moon Walker,” Michael Jackson need not apply.
And while it seemed like a minor achievement in the context of NASA’s manned moonshots, the Lunokhod actually helped transform our entire approach to manned space missions and planetary exploration.
Let’s set the scene:
It was 1970, and NASA had already sent four men to the moon. So when the Russian probe Luna 17 soft-landed in the Sea of Rains in November of that year and deployed the Lunokhod, it was a relatively minor milestone, just another robotic mission in an era of manned exploration.
But in a broader historical sense, the Lunokhod continued the tradition of Soviet space superiority that stretched back to the very first robotic missions to the moon.
It all began in January of 1959 with the launch of Luna 1, the first lunar flyby mission. Luna 1 missed the moon, but became the first manmade object to orbit the sun. And in the process it measured the Earth’s radiation belt, revealed that the moon had no magnetic field, and discovered solar winds.
Luna 2 fared better, becoming the first probe to actually hit the moon. And Luna 3 became the first lunar orbiter, sending back the first images of the moon’s dark side. All of these milestones happened in 1959. By comparison, the first U.S. probe to successfully hit the moon was Ranger 6 in 1964, and that was after a long string of failures.
The Russians continued this robotic winning streak until 1966, when Luna 9 made the first soft landing on the moon. Shortly thereafter, NASA finally got its act together and sent six Surveyor lunar orbiters between 1966 and 1967, to map landing sites for the astronauts. It proved to be a turning point, and a couple of years later the United States won the space race.
But the defeat didn’t deter the Soviets from achieving subsequent lunar milestones. In September of 1970, Luna 16 became the first mission to robotically return a sample of lunar material back to Earth.
Luna 17 followed in November, carrying the Lunokhod with it. And it was a payload unlike any other the moon had ever seen.
Lunokhod 1 was like something out of a fevered steampunk fantasy. It had a silver, washtub-shaped body, topped by a solar collector, which was set into a hinged lid that looked laughably like a toilet seat. An array of antennae and cameras stuck out of it, and it boasted a cosmic-ray detector, an x-ray spectrometer, an x-ray telescope and a few different of soil testers. The entire tubby contraption rolled along on 8 independently powered wire-mesh wheels. It was at once awesome and absurd, like a space prop from a B-movie that someone had the audacity to call into active duty. You can see pictures of it on my website at DeFlipSide.com.
The Lunokhod was controlled remotely by two teams of five drivers on Earth, who had to steer by a series of still images and navigate around a giant blind spot right in front of the rover. Despite these limitations, the “Moon Walker” explored the lunar surface for 11 months and covered 6-1/2 miles. It transmitted thousands of photos, tens of thousands of TV images, carried out soil analyses, and measured solar flares.
All of this was happening while the Apollo 14 astronauts were trudging across the lunar surface on foot, dragging a handcart with them. NASA wouldn’t send up its own lunar rover until the Apollo 15 mission a year later.
The Lunokhod was originally part of a planned Soviet moon shot. The idea was to send the rover first, along with a spare lander. A manned mission would follow, homing in on the Lunokhod’s radio signals. If the cosmonaut’s lander failed — a distinct possibility in those early missions — the Lunokhod had 24 hours worth of life support, and would provide ferry service to the backup lander.
But after the Americans beat them to the punch, the Russians changed their story, claiming that they had never intended to send men to the moon. Too dangerous, they said. It was posturing, but it was prescient posturing.
Up until then, getting men to the moon had been the primary driver of space exploration on both sides. But the Lunokhod’s success allowed the Russians to change the conversation. Why bother to send men to the moon at all when rovers like the Lunokhod could gather samples more safely? Embracing this revisionist philosophy, Russia doubled down on long-duration, orbital missions, preparing to build the very first space station — which it did in 1971, with Salyut 1.
And as America became increasingly mired in civil unrest and the Vietnam War, the image of Alan Shepard whacking golf balls across the lunar surface turned from a symbol of triumph into one of misplaced priorities. By 1972, it was all over. Apollo 17 was the last mission to send men to the moon.
And the Soviet model — bolstered by the success of Lunokhod 1 — dictated the future of manned space flight, with low-earth orbit missions giving rise to the era of the space station — from Salyut to Skylab to Mir to the ISS.
There’s been a lot of lip service recently about embarking on new manned missions to the moon, but these days, Americans would more readily associate moon men with MTV music video awards, and moon walking with the King of Pop.
Planetary exploration has become the exclusive province of robotic probes, like the Mars rovers. But when you look at those sleek little droids rolling across the red Martian sands, remember where it all began — with the laughably lunky Lunokhod, the first robotic moon walker.