Archive for July, 2009|Monthly archive page

Please: A moment of silence for Luna 15

So. We’re in the week of Apollo 11. The first step into a world where there isn’t just one world.

But there was another mission that week, the Soviet Luna 15.  Don’t take my word for it. Let’s see what NASA has to say about it.

Luna 15 was placed in an intermediate earth orbit after launch and was then sent toward the Moon. The spacecraft was capable of studying circumlunar space, the lunar gravitational field, and the chemical composition of lunar rocks. It was also capable of providing lunar surface photography.

Notice the date. Notice the absence of a reference to Apollo 11. Actually, from what I gather, the mission was designed to return samples to the Soviet Union the same week that the Americans were there.

But at the time the Luna 15 was of interest not only to journalists sensing a Soviet plot to sabotage the Apollo mission but to the people at NASA who were concerned that there could be a collision with Apollo. In, what might be considered an unprecedented cooperation between the two countries at the hight of the Cold War and in the middle of the Space Race, the Soviets shared the flight plan with NASA.

There is an interesting press conference discussing Luna 15 at the NASA history site  (search for “Luna 15”). The most humorous part is when a journalist asks when the information was given to NASA and why the press hadn’t been informed. The answer. “Oh we got the – I didn’t – I didn’t, quite frankly, didn’t see any – I thought there wouldn’t be any more news last night than there was this morning, and we… [laughter] …put it out. I was at home.“ A classic in journalistic gotcha journalism shot down by someone admitting that he didn’t think it was all that important.

But as so many Soviet missions in 1969, the Luna 15 wasn’t a success. It crashed into the moon at 15:50 UT on July 21, 1969. The Apollo Astronauts saw the spacecraft pass over the Apollo landing sight.

While the recording is difficult to understand, there is a recording of the loss of the Luna.   The recording was made using the radio antenna at Jordell Bank, Macclesfield, England where scientists were following both the Apollo and the Soviet missions.

So, let’s have a moment of silence for Luna 15. A mission doomed from the start. Even if it had successfully landed, started and returned to the Earth, It wouldn’t have been enough. Quoted from the Asif Siddiqi’s book Challenge to Apollo:

There was one small irony to the whole mission. Even if there had not been a critical eighteen-hour delay in attempting a landing, and even if Luna 15 had landed, collected a soil sample, and safely returned to Earth, its small return capsule would have touched down on Soviet territory two hours and four minutes after the splashdown of Apollo 11. The race had, in fact, been over before it had begun.