This is the 11th in an exclusive series of 50 articles, one published each day until July 20, exploring the 50th anniversary of the first-ever Moon landing. You can check out 50 Days to the Moon here every day.
In the early days of the Space Age, the Soviet Union was the dominant space power, achieving almost every significant space milestone first.
Those accomplishments gave the Russians not only a sense of triumph and confidence, but also brought out the Soviet sense of humor, which was often mocking–and aimed right at the United States and its sometimes slow-moving space program.
Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev took particular joy in twitting the United States.
On September 13, 1959, just two years into the Space Age, the Soviet Union put a robotic probe onto the Moon. Luna 2 carried two metal spheres–one 3 inches in diameter, one 5 inches–that looked like small soccer balls, and the surface of each was composed of small pentagonal panels, one of which had the U.S.S.R.’s hammer-and-sickle symbol, the other of which had a single star with the Cyrillic initials of the Soviet Union, C.C.C.P. Luna 2 crash-landed, by design, so that the spheres would blow apart and scatter the individual “pennants,” as the Russians called the metal facets, onto the surface of the Moon. It was the Soviets’ way of planting their flag on the Moon, in 1959, and the point wasn’t lost on either the New York Times or the Washington Post, which noted it in their banner headlines about Luna 2’s mission.
Two days after Luna 2 scattered its hammer and sickles on the Moon, Khrushchev arrived in the United States for an official state visit, the first ever to the United States by a Russian leader. As a gift, Khrushchev gave President Dwight Eisenhower an identical version of one of the metal balls that had just hit the Moon. “We have no doubt,” said Khrushchev in his arrival remarks, standing alongside Eisenhower, “that the excellent engineers and workers of the United States of America who are engaged in the field of conquering the cosmos will also carry their pennant over to the Moon. The Soviet pennant, as an old resident, will then welcome your pennant and they will live there together in peace and friendship.”
A year later, on August 19, 1960, the Russians launched two dogs into space, Strelka and Belka. They spent 24 hours in orbit on Sputnik 5, and returned safely to Earth, the first living creatures of any kind to go into space and come back. The following spring, Strelka had a litter of puppies. They were born at the same moment President Kennedy gave his “go to the Moon” speech, challenging Americans to beat the Russians to the Moon.
Four weeks after Kennedy’s “go to the Moon” speech, three Russian diplomats visited the White House with a fluffy, white-haired puppy as a gift for the Kennedys’ daughter, Caroline. In a letter to Kennedy, Khrushchev said the puppy, named Pushinka, was “a direct offspring of the well-known cosmic traveler Strelka.” Pushinka joined a Kennedy White House that already had one dog named Charlie, and Pushinka learned to climb the ladder of Caroline Kennedy’s slide, then slide down.
Pushinka the puppy was a gift, but she was also a good-humored message to the American president. Give all the speeches about space you want: Americans still hadn’t beaten Russians to a single big moment in space.
Charles Fishman, who has written for Fast Company since its inception, has spent the last four years researching and writing One Giant Leap, a book about how it took 400,000 people, 20,000 companies, and one federal government to get 27 people to the Moon. (You can order it here.)
For each of the next 50 days, we’ll be posting a new story from Fishman–one you’ve likely never heard before–about the first effort to get to the Moon that illuminates both the historical effort and the current ones. New posts will appear here daily as well as be distributed via Fast Company’s social media. (Follow along at #50DaysToTheMoon).