Ensuring that all this equipment works correctly together is not trivial either. The speed of the spacecraft and planetary surface have to be matched to an accuracy of meters per second. It was already clear in 1966 that landing humans on the moon would require all these systems, but at least there were going to be astronauts on board to look out of the window and throw the switches. Doing it all automatically on Luna 9 was almost as astonishing as the event itself.

The successful landing meant the cameras and necessary communication equipment still worked after touch down, allowing Luna 9 to send back the first ever pictures from the surface of the moon. The photos were black and white, very grainy, and intercepted first by Jodrell Bank in the UK, much to the annoyance of the Russians who saw them some hours later. However, none of this detracted from the immense psychological impact of the first pictures from the moon’s surface.

Over the last 50 years we have become accustomed to landing safely on other planets, at least on most occasions. We have visited the moon, MarsVenus, and Saturn’s moon Titan. But it is still a tricky game to play when the surface is poorly mapped beforehand. Hitting an unexpected rock at even one or two meters per second (three or six feet per second) is more than enough to destroy an unsuspecting spacecraft.

Soft landings have recently become a technological target again 50 years on. A number of commercial companies are competing to provide cheaper launch services to NASA and to also to develop a “space tourism” industry. Not surprisingly, tourists prefer to return home in one piece and, preferably, the right way up. This requires a craft that can journey into space and then return to Earth with a soft landing.

The companies Blue Origin and Space-X both recently celebrated the soft landing of their rockets in an upright stance. Returning a vehicle to Earth without damage ready for the next flight will be a major element in reducing launch costs. So the soft-landing technology has to be mastered reliably for the enterprise to be economic.

Each and every soft landing demands the same degree of precision and attention to detail. The story of Luna 9 reminds us that the theory is easy but delivering it every time is far from trivial.

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