NASA landed the first man on the Moon half-century-ago on July 20, 1969. But when Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin arrived at the Moon on July 19, the Russians were already waiting. Three days before the historic Apollo 11 mission flew into space, an unmanned space probe dubbed Luna raced the US to the Moon. Luna 15 was the Soviet Union’s second attempt at landing a spacecraft on the Moon for a sample return mission.
Up until that point, the Soviet Union had the upper hand over virtually every stage of the Cold War Space Race.
Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space, cosmonaut Alexei Leonov was the first to perform an extravehicular activity (EVA) and Luna 3 was the first spacecraft to fly past the far side of the Moon.
And on September 13, 1959, the Luna 2 probe was the first manmade object to crash into the Moon’s surface.
So, when President John F Kennedy announced in 1961 his dream of putting a man on the Moon, the Soviet Union was spurred into action.
NASA said: “Luna 15, launched only three days before the historic Apollo 11 mission to the Moon, was the second Soviet attempt to recover and bring lunar soil back to Earth.
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“In a race to reach the Moon and return to Earth, the parallel missions of Luna 15 and Apollo 11 were, in some ways, the culmination of the Moon race that defined the space programs of both the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s.”
Luna 15 entered a lunar orbit on July 17, 1969, a whole two days before Apollo 11 reached the lunar orb.
But the Russian probe’s journey to the Moon was not without any hiccups.
On the way to the Moon, the probe risked exploding after one of its propellant tanks began to boil in the Sun’s heat.
A midcourse flight correction kept the fuel tank out of the heat allowing the probe to safely reach the Moon.
But even at that crucial stage of the mission, the Luna 15 was forced to undergo another two delayed course corrections.
The Moon’s pockmarked surface was too rugged for Luna’s controllers to chart a safe descent trajectory.
NASA said: “Less than six hours after the second correction, Apollo 11 began its descent to the Moon, landing at 8.17pm UT on July 20, 1969.
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“The original plan was for Luna 15 to embark on the Moon less than two hours after Apollo 11, but it was not to be.
“Unsure of the terrain below, controllers delayed the landing by another 18 hours.
“During this critical period, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil A. Armstrong and Edwin E ‘Buzz’ Aldrin walked on the Moon.”
In the end, the Luna 15 failed on its mission to retrieve a soil sample from the Moon.
Just two hours before Apollo 11 blasted off from the Moon and back into lunar orbit, the Luna 15 descended to the Moon’s surface.
However, four minutes into the flight communications with the probe ceased, suggesting something went wrong.
A subsequent analysis of the mission concluded the Luna probe likely crashed into the side of a lunar mountain 298mph (480kph).
The failure was attributed to an incorrect descent angle that threw the probe off-course.
After the success of Apollo 11, NASA landed 10 more men on the moon by the end of 1972.
The Soviet Union, on the other hand, landed its first unmanned Lunokhod 1 probe on the Moon on November 17, 1970.