While the world watches spellbound, little did people know that a Soviet spacecraft was landing on the other side of the Moon. It’s a story from the Space Race that no one talks about.
In the Space Race, putting a man on the moon looms as the big prize. The US has been working all along on the Apollo program, whose mission is to land a manned spaceship on the moon. After a battery of test missions in 1969, Apollo 11 is ready for a lunar launch.
At around the same time, in an effort to undercut America’s achievements, the Soviets launch the Luna 15 space probe on July 13th. Luna’s mission is to collect the very first soils samples from the moon. If it is successful, the Soviets will throw a national celebration with a parade for the soil through Red Square and hopefully steal some of America’s thunder.
In Washington, NASA officials get wind of the Luna 15 mission and fear radio transmissions might jam Apollo 11’s frequencies. But the US won’t let anything stand in the way of the moon launch. On July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 blasts off from Cape Kennedy and on July 20th, while a worldwide television audience of more than 500 million watch Neil Armstrong take the first giant leap for mankind, Luna 15 is already nearing its 42nd orbit around the moon.
After 21 hours, Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin complete their mission. But as they pack up and prepare to head back to the command module, Luna 15 is coming in for a landing on another part of the moon and it’s traveling way too fast.
Luna 15 loses control and crashes into the moon’s surface at almost 300 mile per hour – just 500 miles from the Apollo landing site.
It’s wrecked along with the Soviet dream of getting a soil sample.
Despite the crushing blow and years of intense rivalry between the US and the USSR, the Soviet’s viewing room burst into applause when watching Neil Armstrong take that first step.
A cosmonaut, Alexi Leonov later wrote:
“Everyone forgot for a few moments that we were all citizens of different countries on Earth. That moment really united the human race.”