We are well aware of the illustrious Apollo 11’s moon landing. This mission was groundbreaking that it officially marked the end of the space race and also fulfilled a national goal proposed by John F. Kennedy.
The prime objective of Apollo 11 was to send a crewed spacecraft to collect lunar samples. To date, most people believe that the Americans were the only ones who were present on the lunar surface at that time period. Astonishingly USSR, America’s arch-rival in the space race, made sure that Apollo 11 astronauts were not alone during their monumental feat!
Soviets were second to none :
Firstly we need to acknowledge the fact that the Soviets were pioneers when it came to space exploration.
- They launched the first artificial satellite, “Sputnik 1”, on October 4th 1957. The successful launch of Sputnik-1 truly shocked the world and marked the beginning of the space age.
- On 3rd November 1957, they launched “Sputnik 2”, which carried the first biological organism “Laika-Dog” to space. Though being a suicide mission, the Russians still proved their mettle when it came to technological developments in ridiculously short time frames.
- They also sent the first man to orbit “Yuri Gagarin”, who made a 108-min orbit flight on the Vostok 1 spacecraft.
All these achievements came well before America even attempted space flight. This evinces the fact that the Soviets had several laurels well before American participation. But little did they know they were competing in a game that was yet to be “defined”.
The Sinister secret…
The fact is that John F Kennedy was indirectly responsible for declaring the prime objective of the space race. His vision was to aim for the lunar surface. This goal at that time seemed far more significant than mere orbital flights. Furthermore, such a mission was beyond just testing spaceflight capability; it had the enormous potential to foster posterity for future space explorations.
Hence due to this the most heated mission of the space race commenced in the name of scientific & exploratory reasons beyond political dreams.
America’s answer to this was the Apollo 11 mission, but the Soviets resorted to working in the dark on a highly classified project called Luna 15 ”. This project aimed to reach the lunar surface before Apollo 11 and collect rock samples. But there is always a catch in Soviet strategy.
Unlike Apollo 11, the soviets planned an unmanned spaceflight. They believed that having an automated approach had a higher probability of outstripping the US of their lunar target of retrieving lunar samples.
All this information was so well concealed that NASA had no idea what the Soviets were up to until Apollo 11 was launched. But unlike previous attempts, the soviets were blinded by their burning desire to win over the Americans. They committed some fatal errors, which eventually resulted in the failure of the mission.
It all started when the Russian government gave its space agency an unrealistic 18-month time frame to finish the lunar project; they aspired to reach the moon’s surface on the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution in 1969. To cater to this interest, the entire project was accelerated.
Due to this, the Soviets had to follow a very aggressive schedule which turned out to be tragic. The complications started with numerous engineering flaws & failed test flights. Naturally, disasters only stacked up, and the only thing the Soviets achieved in this phase was the world’s first human fatality in space. (Cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov melted during reentry, along with the Soyuz 1 capsule in which he was riding, in 1967), All this information was obviously concealed.
The final push…
The final flight of Luna 15 was launched on July 13th 1969, from Baikonur Cosmodrome; this flight was deliberately scheduled 3 days before the launch of Apollo 11. The aim was to land the probe on a site called the “sea of crises”, which was 540 km northeast to the landing spot of Americans, which was called the “sea of tranquillity”. Little were the soviets aware of the fact that these simple names of sites had far deeper implications.
The spacecraft seemed stable for most of the mission and entered the moon’s orbit well before Apollo 11. But that’s when things went horribly wrong & due to technical malfunctions & faulty ground calculations, the space probe was locked in the moon’s orbit & later crash-landed at around 300 miles per hour. By this time, the Americans succeeded in their mission & also collected lunar soil & rock samples.
During this time, the main concern of NASA was that Luna 15 had the potential to interfere with Apollo 11 operations and jeopardize the mission completely, as the intentions & scheduled path of the soviet mission was largely unknown.
This naturally led to a plethora of confusion and uncertainty during this primal moment. On top of this, anxiety also kicked in, as deep within NASA knew that the Soviets were powerful contenders and would never lose without a hard fight.
“The race to the moon ends when Luna 15 crashes” — William P. Barry, NASA’s chief historian
The truth hurts
In the end, destiny and good fortune parted ways with Luna 15. This was an extremely close encounter for Russia and one of the most tragic failures.
Ironically in the raw, unedited video when Neil Armstrong uttered his famous quote, Luna 15, can be seen overshooting in the background. Moreover, Luna 15 orbited the moon 52 times when Apollo astronauts were collecting their prized possessions. This was indeed the most painful failure to accept for the Soviets, which they eventually did after 20 yrs in 1989!
- If your curious to know what makes the lunar surface so “special”, this article would give you a convincing answer!