America Still Lags Behind the Soviet Union by Number of Planets Visited

The Soviets might have landed on two planets to America's one, but the extent of the ultimate U.S. space victory is a sort of metaphor for the Cold War and its resolution.

mf venus p.jpg
The Venera 7, left, landed on Venus in 1970. The Venera 13 took this image of the planet in 1982. (Wikimedia)

In the end, when the nuclear warheads were taken off alert and the borders of Europe and Asia redrawn, history recorded the Cold War as a great American victory. It won the arms race and it won Europe; its economic and political models both triumphed; and it won the war of ideology, with democracy displacing communism and totalitarianism across most of the globe. But there's one arena where the Cold War looked a bit closer to a tie: space.

The Soviet Union was the first to put a satellite in space, the first to put a person in space, the first to land a spacecraft on the moon, and the first -- and only -- to land on Venus. The U.S. was the first to put a person the moon, the first to do flybys of Mars, Venus, and Jupiter, and the first -- but not only -- to land on Mars, most recently with today's Curiosity. (The European Space Agency later got into the game by landing a probe on Titan, a moon orbiting Saturn, in 2005 with assistance from a U.S. spacecraft.) I don't know whether or how you can declare a winner from those two records, but one thing is clear: 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and all it stood for, the U.S. has not met the Soviet record on number of planet surfaces visited.

Of course, space exploration isn't about beating the Soviets anymore, so the U.S. would have little to gain by visiting another planet just to say we did. And, when it comes to actual scientific knowledge gained and height of technological achievement, the Soviet edge is as broken and gone as the Berlin Wall. Still, this old, unchanged record is a reminder of the Soviet Union's deep mark on history, and that it wasn't so long ago that space, an area of global American leadership today, was closely contested, another front in the all-consuming Cold War.

The first manmade object to ever soft-land on another planet was the Soviet-made Venera 7. It launched from an Earth-orbit satellite on August 17, 1970, just over a year after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, and entered the Venusian atmosphere on December 15. The Soviet command received 23 minutes of faint signals, the first data beamed from the surface of another world. In 1975, it landed the more successful Venera 9 and Venera 10, which sent back the first photos. The Venera program returned soil samples and color, panoramic views in 1981 and again in 1985. The U.S. never attempted to land on Venus, but it has sent orbiters, including 1978's Pioneer Venus 1, which dropped three small probes into the atmosphere.

The Soviet Union might have won the race to Venus, but Mars was more contested. In May 1971, as a proxy war in Vietnam raged, the U.S. and Soviet Union hurled five satellites toward the red planet. Mariner 8 and Kosmos 419 fizzled, but on November 13 the American Mariner 9 became the first vessel to enter another planet's orbit. Two weeks later, the Soviet Union's Mars 2 followed into orbit, with the Mars 3 a few days behind. The U.S. satellite took over 100 times as many photos as the two Soviet ships, but Mars 2 and Mars 3 both carried landers. The first crashed; the second achieved the first-ever landing on Mars. But it lasted only 20 seconds, after which its instruments shut down, possibly due to a dust storm.

Both the U.S. and Soviet Union tried a number of Mars landers after that, but the Americans had far more success. In 1974, the Soviet Union had another disappointment with the Mars 6, which landed successfully but sent back bad data due to a computer chip problem, and the Mars 7, which simply missed. The U.S. landed the Viking in 1976, and later upgraded to rovers with the 1997 Sojourner, 2004 Spirit and Opportunity, and 2012 Curiosity. A Soviet vessel never again successfully touched down, despite two 1988 attempts.

In a way, the planetary race can be seen as a metaphor for the Cold War itself. The competition might have been nail-bitingly close at the time, with the Soviet Union taking some historic leaps ahead of the Americans, a few of which are still with us. In the end, though, not only did the U.S. win, but the extent of is victory has surely surpassed even the wildest dreams of either Nixon or Khrushchev.