The United State won the race to put a man on the Moon. But we weren't the first to land anything on the Moon. That prize went to the Soviet Union, which successfully put Luna 2 on the surface of the Moon in 1959.
Their later missions were less successful and the USSR never made it past unmanned moon landers. Even some of those failed. Last week, NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spotted the remains of two of these Luna missions, still sitting on the Moon. At Vice, Amy Teitel talks about the Luna program and what NASA has learned about why it failed.
Luna 23 met a similar fate. Launched on October 28, 1974, it malfunctioned halfway through its mission and ended up crashing on the surface in the Mare Crisium (the Sea of Crisis in the northwest on the Earth-facing side). The spacecraft stayed in contact with Earth after its hard landing, but it couldn’t get a sample. Mission scientists expected the spacecraft had tipped over as a result of its landing, but without a way to image the moon at a high resolution, they weren’t able to confirm, and the mystery endured.
It turns out they were indeed right. The whole spacecraft is still on the surface, its ascent engine never fired, and high resolution image from LRO’s cameras show the spacecraft lying on its side.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.