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On 3 February 1966 the Luna 9 spacecraft became the first spacecraft to achieve a soft landing on the Moon, or any planetary body other than Earth, and to transmit photographic data to Earth from the surface of another planetary body. Luna 9 was the twelfth attempt at a soft-landing by the Soviet Union; it was also the first successful deep space probe built by the Lavochkin design bureau, which ultimately would design and build almost all Soviet / Russian lunar and interplanetary spacecraft. Approximately five minutes after touchdown, Luna 9 began transmitting data to Earth, but it was seven hours before the probe began sending the first of nine images (including five panoramas) of the surface of the Moon.

The pictures from Luna 9 were not released immediately by the Soviet authorities, but scientists at Jodrell Bank Observatory in England, which was monitoring the craft, noticed that the signal format used was identical to the internationally agreed Radiofax system used by newspapers for transmitting pictures. The Daily Express rushed a suitable receiver to the Observatory and the pictures from Luna 9 were decoded and published worldwide. The BBC speculated that the spacecraft's designers deliberately fitted the probe with equipment conforming to the standard, to enable reception of the pictures by Jodrell Bank.

This event received huge commemoration by the philatelic society – stamps, special cancellations, commemorative official and club covers. Even 1966 definitive issue had a special Luna 9 purple stamp that was used later on many space covers including Tartu issues. In 2016 Luna 9 50th anniversary was marked as well by an official postcard issued by ITC Marka and several private designs like these from BaikonurSvyazInform and Obninsk Cartmaximum. Special cancellations were used in Moscow, Baikonur and Korolev town. Interesting point regarding the official ITC Marka postcards – there were 2 batches of 19,000 pcs and 15,000 pcs. The first one issued was missing the inscription on the printed stamp – “Conquering space”, the second one has it. Moreover it also issued a copy of Korolev town special cancellation device with the date 31.03.2016 lacking text “Russian Post” and used it in Moscow for unofficial cancellations for collectors.

Some interesting notes on Luna-15 cover from “Doc’s Local Post” out of Colorado Springs, Colorado and in particular his description of the NORAD “Space Traffic Control & Identification Center” which was underground inside Cheyenne Mountain. The name of the space operations activity was really called the “Space Defense Center” (SDC) and there was no “tracking station” at Cheyenne Mountain.  What the SDC did (in part) was to control and receive data on satellites from a worldwide network of satellite tracking stations.  Computers at the SDC would take that tracking data and use it to maintain a catalog of all satellites and their mathematical parameters. Those parameters (called “orbital elements”) would allow the SDC to predict where satellites were and where they were going.  The SDC also received reports from the tracking stations on what the satellites looked like which the SDC used to help identify which satellites were which and what mission they might be performing. When Luna 15 was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome the first radar to track that satellite (still attached to its upper rocket stage) as it was inserted into an Earth orbit – was Shemya, Alaska (located on an island at the eastern end of the Aleutian Islands).  So in that manner Doc’s local post NORAD covers related to the tracking of Soviet spaceship are valid by all means.

Info brought by Jim Reichman

Luna 15 entered lunar orbit two days ahead of Apollo 11, and on the day Apollo 11 began circling the Moon lowered its own orbit to 9 by 203 km. At this point there was concern in the United States that the Russian probe would somehow interfere with the manned mission. However, assurances were quickly given by the Soviets that this would not be the case. On Jul. 20, just hours before Apollo 11’s scheduled landing, Luna 15 carried out another maneuver to put it in a 16 by 110-km orbit. The next day, while Armstrong and Aldrin were on the surface, the little probe made its last retrorocket burn and began to descend to what was supposed to be a soft landing. Unfortunately, it made contact instead at 480 km/hr in the Sea of Crises. Almost twenty years would pass before the Soviets officially admitted that Luna 15 was a failed sample-return attempt. Whether, if all had gone well, it could have beaten Apollo 11 is unclear. Even if its landing attempt had succeeded, it would not have returned to Earth until the day after Apollo 11 splashed down. On the other hand, Lunar 15 did spend one day longer in lunar orbit than was typical of later sample missions. If the probe had made it down in three days instead of four, or if Apollo 11 had failed to return samples, the Soviets might just have pulled off an outrageous coup.

An audio recording of the minutes in which British technicians at the radio telescope facility in Jodrell Bank observed Luna 15's descent was first made available to the public on 3 July 2009.

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Korolev town official postmark

Venera 3 launched on 16 November 1965 was the first spacecraft to impact on the surface of another planet.

During 1965, the Central Committee, frustrated at the poor track record of Sergei Korolev's OKB-1 design bureau, reassigned the planetary probe program to the Lavochkin Bureau. In over two dozen attempts dating back to 1958, Luna 2 and Luna 3 were the only probes to complete all of their mission objectives.

The Lavochkin Bureau began a comprehensive testing program of the Venera and Luna probes, while Korolev had always opposed the idea of bench tests except on manned spacecraft. Among other design flaws they discovered was that the Venera landers, after being subjected to a centrifuge test, failed at half the G forces they were supposed to handle.

The mission of this spacecraft was to land on the Venusian surface. The entry body contained a radio communication system, scientific instruments, electrical power sources, and medallions bearing the State emblem of the USSR. The probe crash-landed on Venus on 1 March 1966 but its communications systems failed before it reached the planet.

Venera 3 has received by far more modest philatelic attention than its lunar colleagues Luna 9 and Luna 10. In 1966 there was a dedicated stamps issue along with Luna 10 and in 2016 the 50th anniversary of the event was marked by special cancellations from Moscow, Korolev and Baikonur as well as official and privately issued postcards and covers.

Mars 3 was launched on May 28, 1971, nine days after its twin spacecraft Mars 2. The probes were identical robotic spacecraft, each consisting of an orbiter and an attached lander. After the Mars 2 lander crashed on the martian surface, Mars 3 lander became the first spacecraft to attain soft landing on Mars on December 2, 1971. Unfortunately after 14 seconds the transmission has stopped and no further signals received. The possible cause of the damage may have been related to the extremely powerful martian dust storm. A partial image was received but with no recognizable details. This was the only soft landing on Mars achieved by Soviet probe. All others missed the target or crash-landed.

In the soviet philately this Martian story received almost no attention besides a couple of known stamps and a souvenir sheet. This is not surprising as it fades out on the background of Lunar and Venusian programs achievements. Interestingly that the main astrophilately contributors for the Soviet Martian program were western cachet makers – Carl Swanson and Wolfgang Anklam.

A notable success was achieved by the Vega program. Vega 1 and Vega 2 were unmanned spacecraft launched in a cooperative effort between USSR, Soviet block and western countries including France, Austria, Germany and limited assistance from USA. The probes had a two-part mission to investigate Venus and also flyby Halley's Comet launched from Baikonur on on December 15 and 21, 1984, respectively.

Vega 1 arrived at Venus on June 11, 1985 and Vega 2 on June 15, 1985, and each delivered a 1,500 kg, 240 cm diameter spherical descent unit. The units were released some days before each arrived at Venus and entered the atmosphere without active inclination changes. Each contained a lander and a balloon explorer.

After their encounters, the Vega motherships were redirected by Venus's gravity to intercept Comet Halley. Vega 1 made its closest approach on March 6, around 8,890 km from the nucleus, and Vega 2 made its closest approach on March 9 at 8,030 km. The data intensive examination of the comet covered only the three hours around closest approach. In total Vega 1 and Vega 2 returned about 1,500 images of Comet Halley. Spacecraft operations were discontinued a few weeks after the Halley encounters. TV data were processed by international team, including the USSR, Hungary, France, Germany and USA scientists.

In soviet astrophilately the mission enjoyed high attention – stamps, covers, special cancellations and of cause mini-sheets – the fancy way of making stamp appearance, especially popular from the early 1980s.

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