The Unlikely Soviet Explorers That Beat America To The Moon

Here’s a fun bit of space history for you. The first animals to go to the Moon were not human. They were two tortoises, along with an “ark” of other small animals, sent by the Soviet Union in 1968.

The bizarre story is one of many from the early days of spaceflight. It was an age that saw dogs, monkeys, and even cats fly to space. Nothing is perhaps as unusual as the story of these two tortoises that could (and did).

As the race to the Moon neared the finishing line, the Soviets and Americans were busy trying to outdo each other. The former had put the first satellite and the first human in space, but the latter was winning the race to get humans to the lunar surface.

So the Soviets planned a number of ambitious unmanned missions around the Moon, to prepare for a manned lunar landing. The first of these was Zond 5, which launched on a Proton rocket on September 14, 1968, from Tyuratam in Kazakhstan.

It took three days to get to the Moon, when the spacecraft flew about 1,950 kilometers (1,200 miles) from the surface. It took another three days to come back to Earth, landing in the Indian Ocean on September 21.

On board were two steppe tortoises, alongside mealworms, wine flies, plants, seeds, bacteria, and other life. There was even a human mannequin 1.75 meters (5.7 feet) tall, weighing 70 kilograms (154 pounds), sitting in the pilot’s seat. But the reptiles grabbed the headlines.

“Turtles Sent Around Moon”, the Toledo Blade proclaimed on November 15, 1968, slightly misreporting what the animals were.

Unlike other space animals such as the dog Laika, the first mammal in space, the tortoises survived (it’s unclear how long for after the mission). They were said to have “good appetites”, but they had lost about 10 percent of their body weight. “Blood analysis showed no substantial difference from a group of stay-at-home-turtles used as a test control,” the Toledo Blade noted.

The tortoises on Earth, safe and sound.

However, it wasn’t all plain sailing. NASA says that en route to the Moon, “the main stellar attitude control optical surface [used to orientate the spacecraft] became contaminated and was rendered unusable.” So backup sensors had to be used to guide the spacecraft.

Just before re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, another sensor failed, making a planned guided entry and landing in Kazakhstan impossible. Instead, the spacecraft had to undergo a ballistic re-entry, using just atmospheric drag to slow the spacecraft. This would have been pretty uncomfortable for humans – but thankfully the tortoises survived.

After 21 days, the tortoises had an excess of glycogen in their livers and the structure of their spleen had been altered somewhat. No reason was given for these changes, but the Soviets at the time said it was vital information for their planned manned missions to the Moon.

Onboard the spacecraft was a number of scientific experiments, too. These included taking high-quality photos of Earth from a distance of 90,000 kilometers (56,000 miles).

The tortoises were kept inside a box on the spacecraft, so they didn’t actually get to see the lunar surface. They also probably didn’t get to enjoy being weightless that much either, if animals can.

They are somewhat forgotten now, but those tortoises actually played a huge role in the space race. The mission was tracked intently by the US, and when they saw it had been successful, they may have fast-tracked the Apollo program (although that claim is contested). They sent the first humans around the Moon in December 1968 on Apollo 8, rather than performing another test of the lunar module in Earth orbit.

And that, of course, led to the first manned lunar landings in July 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the surface. Little known to the public, though, they had been beaten to the Moon somewhat by two tortoises.

As for the Soviets, well, their manned lunar program was scrapped after their planned Saturn V rocket competitor, the N1, failed to launch four times. But they remain the first – and, would you know it, only – country to send tortoises around the Moon. That’s worthy of a pub quiz question, at the very least, right?

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