On this day 50 years ago, the Soviet spacecraft Luna 9 achieved the first soft landing on the lunar surface and sent back the first photographs from there. Today, a major digital archeology effort is underway. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has mapped every square inch of the Moon in astonishing resolution, and a race is afoot to find Luna 9. The problem? The lander is really, really tiny—less than 2 feet across. So scientists are searching the Moon pixel by pixel to find what perhaps one day could be some sort of national park for lunar inhabitants.

THE SPACECRAFT 

Before we visited the Moon, no one knew for sure what the lunar surface would be like, and whether a lander would touch down and sink into a layer of snow-like dust, or what. That was just one of the fundamental questions to be answered if humans were ever to travel there. Luna 9 launched from Earth on January 31, 1966 and arrived at the Moon three days later. There are two parts of the spacecraft on the lunar surface: the descent stage, which oriented and slowed the spacecraft when it reached the Moon; and the landing capsule, which was ejected from the descent stage just 16 feet from the lunar surface. The capsule's landing wouldn't have been gentle; it came down at 14 miles per hour, and bounced a bit before finally settling at Oceanus Procellarum ("Ocean of Storms"). For some frame of reference, Apollo 11, the mission that brought humans to the Moon for the first time, touched down so gently that its shock absorbers never compressed.

The landing capsule itself is a 22-inch, 218-pound sphere. Its hermetically sealed innards contain the basics: a battery, thermal control, a computer, a radio, and a science payload. After settling on the surface, its top popped open (intentionally), revealing its antenna and what NASA describes as a "television camera rotatable mirror system, which operated by revolving and tilting." Over the next three days, it transmitted eight hours of data and imagery back to Earth. Before the battery died, Luna 9 gave us four panoramas of rocks and the horizon. These were the first photographs ever taken from the surface of another world. 

THE SEARCH

Researchers are using the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to find Luna 9. The spacecraft maps the lunar surface and characterizes everything from temperature and radiation to water ice hidden in craters. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera, or LROC, is so powerful that we can see footpaths left by the Apollo astronauts. Its narrow-angle cameras can capture imagery at 1.6 feet per pixel. Last year, flight controllers at NASA brought the spacecraft 12 miles from the lunar surface, which is lower than some spy planes fly on Earth.

The imagery data—hundreds of terabytes and growing—is publicly available. You can explore the Moon yourself here. Find a spot you like and click on it. Then keep clicking. Even when you think, "Wow, this is really close!" keep clicking still. The only people in history who've seen the Moon closer than this were part of the Apollo program.

So why is Luna 9 so hard to find? In addition to the spacecraft's pixel size, there is no "before image" from which to compare images captured by LROC. Scientists have to figure out which pixel is the correct one. Luna 9's descent stage might help in this hunt: It might have created a blast pattern. Even so, the work is slow, and the spacecraft remains elusive.

WHAT ABOUT NASA?

So when the Soviets were landing television cameras on the Moon, what was NASA doing? Playing catch-up. The Soviet Union dominated the first few years of the Space Race. Really, it wasn't even close. They were the first to put a manmade object into space (Sputnik 1) and the first to put an animal in orbit (Sputnik 2). As Tom Wolfe described it in The Right Stuff

The United States had succeeded in putting up some small satellites, mere 'oranges,' as Nikita Khrushchev liked to put it, in his cruel colorful farmboy way, as compared to the 1000-pound Sputniks … loaded with dogs and other experimental animals. But the only obvious American talent was for blowing up. They had many names, these rockets, Atlas, Navaho, Little Joe, Jupiter, but they all blew up.

The Soviets put Yuri Gagarin in orbit, making him the first man in space, and NASA could respond only with a sub-orbital flight (an extraordinary achievement all the same, manned by Alan Shepard). The following year, NASA finally managed to get an American in orbit and the Soviets responded by flying two manned spacecraft in orbit in formation. (The pilots couldn't steer, but still.) A year later, as NASA was celebrating having sent an astronaut into orbit for 34 hours, the Soviets repeated their "formation" feat, upping the ante by sending up the first woman to space, Valentina Tereshkova, and keeping the cosmonauts in orbit for three days.

It seemed clear that the Soviets had orbital dominance. NASA's moonshot was a kind of Hail Mary pass to find supremacy somewhere in space. NASA landed Surveyor 1 on the Moon four months after Luna 9. By Apollo 8—the first manned mission to orbit the Moon, in 1968—America's space program was on solid footing. The Soviets delayed and eventually abandoned plans to set cosmonauts on the lunar surface. Today, using LRO, scientists are looking for relics of the race to get there.