The space race was much more than trying to be the first global power to send satellites into Earth orbit or to explore the Moon. It was a real contest for space exploration which had become the linchpin of the technological and cultural rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union.
As many of you already know, the USSR became the first country to successfully launch an artificial satellite. That happened on October 4, 1957 with Sputnik 1, but only three years later, with the first technological advances of the time, the Soviets had already set their sights on Mars and were beginning to send their first missions.
Between 1960 and 1962, the USSR launched five Molniya rocket-borne probes bound for Mars, as reflected in this NASA compilation. All failed and some could not even reach Earth orbit. At first these attempts were made in complete secrecy, so NASA administrator James Webb told Congress that believed that the USSR was trying to send missions to the red planet.
The United States looks at Mars and accelerates
The US response was not long in coming. The country added Mars to its list of priorities and in 1964 launched the Mariner 3 probe aboard an Atlas LV-3 Agena-D rocket. Although the launch had been successful, a problem arose in the separation phase and it could not fulfill its objective.
However, just 23 days later, the US space agency tried again. This time with Mariner 4. The mission was a success. It reached the orbit of Mars and captured the first 21 photographs of the planet, explains the US agency.
The USSR was falling behind. On November 28, he launched the Zone 2 probe, also with a Molniya, but once again they failed, this time due to a problem with communications. About five years later, the US launched the seaman 6 successfully and sent to Earth another 75 images of our neighboring planet.
While the US had a good launch streak, until a problem with the Mariner 8 in 1971, the USSR was losing this game. How to take advantage? Taking images from Martian orbit was no longer enough, you had to land on the planet one way or another.
Thus, the Soviets updated their program to reach the US, but of course, before landing on a planet, it must be studied from its orbit so as not to carry out a mission blindly. With failed attempts in between, the USSR managed to reach the orbit of Mars and later to send to reach the surface of the planet.
A probe called Mars 2 was the first to touch the surface of the red planet, but in an uncontrolled way. Landing failed, finished aircraft destroyed. With previous missions they had concluded that landing on Mars was much more difficult than they imagined, mainly because of its thin atmosphere and dust storms. Even so, it had to be tried, the Soviets were convinced that their technology could succeed.
On May 28, 1971 they launched Mars 3. A Proton-K rocket took off with an orbiter and lander with a small 4.5 kg rover on board. After a long journey, on December 2, 1971, the descent module faced the terrifying minutes of landing in the Martian atmosphere and, using aerodynamic braking, parachutes and retrorockets, it managed to land smoothly.
At that time, a historic event was taking place. For the first time in history, a probe had successfully landed on Mars. A probe equipped with two cameras with 360-degree vision to capture the Martian landscape, a spectrometer to study the atmospheric composition, temperature, pressure and wind sensors, a mechanical shovel to search for signs of life on earth and the rover that would move on the surface connected by a 15-meter cable to its mother ship.
In addition to dealing a hammer blow in the space race, the USSR saw a sea of scientific possibilities, it is that no other country in the world could collect data from this neighboring planet because they simply had not arrived there. However, that victory lasted only a few seconds. Once the Mars 3 lander touched down, it began transmitting, but after 20 seconds it was silent.
The loss of connection was total and since then the Mars 3 elements on Mars have not been heard from again. It is unknown to date if the failure originated in the lander or in the orbiter’s communications system. Some experts believe that a strong storm could have damaged communication hardware.
That 360-degree camera could not shine, as we can see in the capture published by The Planetary Society. According to VG Perminov, author of the book ‘The hard road to Mars‘, the image arrived incomplete and was “a gray background with no detail”. The Mars 3 orbiter, although it suffered some damage, remained in Martian orbit capturing and sending almost 60 images to Earth.
The USSR kept trying. They had been very close. The descent system they had developed worked. What else could go wrong? After all there are not always storms on Mars. Other Mars missions were sent. While the orbiters generally performed well, the landers were unable to touch Martian soil again.
For the next few years, NASA also sent Mariner probes, but to orbit the red planet. And it wasn’t until 1975 that the United States was finally able to land on Mars. with viking probe on a mission that lasted until 1980. The American module was designed to capture high-resolution images of the Martian surface, analyze the structure and composition of the atmosphere, and search for evidence of life.