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The first living things to fly to the Moon and back weren’t astronauts, cosmonauts, or even chimpanzees. They were two tortoises, some flies, and some meal worms. They completed their trip 50 years ago today aboard Zond 5 — the first spacecraft to safely complete a round-trip to the Moon and back.
Zond 5 was a test of the hardware designed to send cosmonauts on a trip around the Moon, perhaps as early as the end of 1968. They wouldn’t land or enter orbit, but their flight would beat America to the Moon.
But things hadn’t been going well. The Zond 4 mission, in March, was off course as it returned to Earth, so it blew itself up. And a test rocket blew up on the launch pad in July.
Zond 5 took off on September 14th, 1968. It passed just 1200 miles above the lunar surface a few days later, then returned to Earth. Because of a failure in its guidance system, it made an uncomfortable re-entry, but capsule and passengers survived.
The CIA had learned about the Soviet lunar missions. It alerted NASA, which decided to send the second Apollo to orbit the Moon in December.
The Soviets kept working on their mission, which they’d pushed back to 1969. But the next unmanned test flight suffered serious problems. The cabin depressurized, and the parachute system failed, so the capsule crashed.
When Apollo 8 made its lunar-orbital mission as planned, the Soviets abandoned their plans for trips around the Moon. The Moon Race was all but over.
Script by Damond Benningfield