The Soviets dominated the early days of space travel. Up until the Apollo manned lunar missions by NASA, most of the big space firsts and milestones were followed by a little hammer and sickle. It was frustrating and demoralizing for the West. But, once, in 1966, on the verge of yet another Soviet triumph in space, a plucky little country with barely any space program of their own pulled off one of the best hacks and biggest scoops in the history of space exploration. This is the story of how the British stole the first picture from the surface of the moon from the Soviets.
On January 31, 1966, the Soviets launched a Molniya-M rocket with the Luna 9 space probe on top. As the name implies, this was the USSR’s ninth attempt to soft-land on the moon, though there were actually a few more, but they had issues early enough in the mission that they didn’t even get an official “Luna” name. The Soviets were, as you can imagine, very determined to soft-land a probe on the moon.
Finally, on February 3, they did it. Landing the spherical craft with a combination of retro-rockets and a pair of airbags, the probe touched down at a relatively gentle 14 MPH, and was found to be completely operational.
The ball-shaped probe opened the four flower-like petals that comprised its protective shell, sprung out some antennae, and got to work, establishing radio contact with ground control and using its on-board electromechanical television camera to take the very first images of the moon from its own surface.
Here’s where things get even more interesting: the camera on board Luna 9 transmitted its images back to Earth via radio, over the course of seven sessions totaling over eight hours, with three series of TV images sent.
Now, radio signals are hardly private, even if they can be directed, which is why sensitive information tends to be encrypted, or at least in some obscure format. The Luna 9 launch was of course of great interest to the West, and of course the West was listening.
One of the places eavesdropping on Luna 9’s talks with the Mother Russia were the radio astronomers at Jodrell Bank, who had been using their powerful radio telescopes and equipment to listen in on the radio signals from Soviet space missions.
Jodrell Bank researchers picked up the signals from Luna 9, and in the process of listening to the beeps and bloops from the lander, one of the researchers realized that the signal seemed familiar.
The signal reminded him of a radiofax signal—an early sort of fax-type signal for transmitting images that newspapers have been using since the 1920s. Once they realized the signal was likely an image, the Jodrell Bank team scrambled to find the proper equipment to decode the signal.
Jodrell Bank got ahold of the Daily Express newspaper, who agreed to drive over radiofax equipment, some from their London office, some from their Manchester office, so that Jodrell Bank could decode the signal and see the pictures.
Once they got the equipment set up and listening to the signals from the moon, they were greeted with this image:
That’s a section from one of the three panoramas Luna 9 sent back, and was among the first pictures ever sent from the surface of another orbiting body in the solar system. Hell, it was one of the first pictures taken from the surface of anywhere other than Earth, ever, in all of history.
This was, of course, a Big Deal.
Incredibly, the Soviets didn’t release their images immediately, thinking they could analyze them and release them at their leisure. This gave the British the incredible opportunity to leak one of the most amazing photographs ever taken, and gave the Daily Express one hell of a scoop:
So, thanks to the clever ears of the scientists at Jodrell Bank, the Soviets didn’t even get to be the first to release the first images taken from the moon.
It has been speculated that Soviet space program scientists and technicians deliberately chose to use the internationally-known radiofax standard to either have a way to get higher-quality pictures from Western sources with superior imaging equipment without having to be embarrassed to ask, or as a way of attempting to de-fang the lunar images for the Soviet Union’s political and propaganda purposes.
I know we get leaked images of unreleased cars all the time on the internet, and we all tend to think that’s pretty exciting. But nothing holds a space-candle to this leak, the first image from the surface of the moon, and it’s likely no leaked image ever will.
Well, maybe if someone steals a selfie from an alien’s phone. But it’d have to be that good.