It happens occasionally that I come across a picture so striking that I stop what I’m doing to track down its backstory. This morning, it was this picture of the Moon taken by the Soviet Zond 8 spacecraft that sent me hunting through books for context. It incredible how much this picture of the Moon looks like the one in Georges Méliès’ 1902 silent movie “Le Voyage dans la Lune.” Unsurprisingly, the story behind Zond 8 is a fascinating if minor episode of the Space Race.
The L1 program was the Soviet Union’s attempt to put men into orbit around the Moon in the 1960s. In essence a Soyuz spacecraft without the habitat module, the lunar version was dreamed up by the program’s Chief Designer Sergei Korolev in 1965. The program was meant to demonstrate the nation’s power, ideally with a manned lunar mission in celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of the October Revolution in 1967.
But things didn’t go according to plan. Korolev died suddenly in 1966. His deputy, Vasili Mishin, stepped in and unwittingly inherited a lunar program plagued with problems. And things got worse when, in the spring of 1969, Soviet officials issued an order canceling all manned mission to the Moon.
By early 1970, Mishin couldn’t deny there was no longer a political need to send cosmonauts to the Moon – not only had NASA landed two crews on the Moon, the Soviets’ success with unmanned missions proved they had a knack for robotic exploration. Undaunted, Mishin argued that there was still a technological reason to pursue the mission. The hardware – spacecraft and launch vehicle – were ready to go. Sending a crew would prove the Soviet Union could do it, and would also provide valuable experience for future complex manned mission to the Moon and beyond. So convinced was Mishin this manned mission should happen that he briefly considered launching it without permission.
He didn’t, but he did strike a compromise with Soviet authorities. He was cleared to continue with robotic missions. The compromise mission was prepared in the fall of 1970. On October 20, twenty-two seconds after 10:55 in the evening Moscow time, Zond 8 launched to the moon.
Zond 8 was fitted with a suite of science instruments. Among them was a series of aluminum foil “targets” like the ones on the Apollo solar wind experiments mounted outside the spacecraft to gather data on the solar wind’s isotropic concentration. This mission also followed a different trajectory than previous Soviet lunar missions. It was designed to fall back to Earth over the Northern Hemisphere rather than the Southern to give radio operators in Soviet territories a chance to follow and control the mission throughout reentry.
Zond 8 also carried cameras to the Moon. It photographed the Earth during it’s transit to the Moon. When it reached its target on October 24, 1970, it turned its eyes to the Moon. Zond 8 got as close as 745 miles to the surface, taking pictures of the surface in both colour and black and white. The spacecraft took 20 full-Moon pictures before focusing on the surface and snapping 78 more detailed images.
After leaving the Moon and making two mid-course corrections, Zond 8 made a nearly pinpoint splashdown at five to five on the afternoon of October 27 near the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean. It brought with it a series of high quality images of the Moon and the Earth.
The mission was a striking success, one of the few of the Zond program that was dogged by politics, poor planning, and a healthy dose of bad luck throughout its lifetime. It was another Soviet program that was never able to realize its full potential. It’s incredible to think that had the official order been different, Zond 8 mission could have carried Soviet cosmonauts around the Moon in 1970.