The “space race” is a phrase that most of us have heard of. We understand it to be the race between the United States and the Soviet Union to get to the moon. The race to the moon was one of the many “battles” fought during the Cold War, and America’s winning of that war was in part because we beat the Soviets there. But many have not heard of the literal race that began on July 13th, 1969, three days before the launch of Apollo 11 which would result in Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin being the first humans to walk on the surface of the moon.
Three days prior to the beginning of Apollo 11’s journey, the USSR launched an unmanned Proton K rocket from Baikonur Cosmogrome, Kazahkstan containing a Ye-8-5 spacecraft. Dubbed Luna 15, its mission was to land on the moon before Armstrong and Aldrin and return with a sample of lunar soil. This was the Soviets second attempt at such a mission and their last of the decade.
NASA and the three Apollo 11 astronauts were aware of the Luna 15 mission and were concerned. Not that the Soviets would win the space race, but that communications between Mission Control and the Apollo 11 spacecraft would be disrupted by the Soviet spacecraft. To find out more about their intentions, NASA turned to Apollo 8 commander Frank Borman who had just returned from a goodwill trip to the Soviet Union. Borman returned from that trip with contacts within the Soviet Academy of Sciences. He called one of them, and within days, NASA had assurances from the Soviets that Luna 15 would not disrupt the Apollo 11 mission, although the true nature of the mission was kept secret.
On July 17th, Luna 15 entered lunar orbit with plans to make two orbits, each containing a course correction which would result in the vehicle being put on it’s correct landing track. Delays in making those corrections put the mission behind schedule, and further delays would result in a lunar landing attempting being made on July 21rst at 1546 hours UT after 52 orbits. By this time, Armstrong and Aldrin had already made their successful moon walk and were preparing to lift off from the surface.
Luna 15’s mission, which was monitored by British scientists, ended when it crashed into a mountain as a result of incorrect data. It didn’t much matter thought, the United States had won the race to the moon and a very important battle of the Cold War. A war that would eventually be won by the United States and its allies. The western system of democracy, of which, individual liberty was its main tenant was proven to be superior to the Soviet communist system. The fall of the USSR would result in freedom and prosperity for millions, and the Soviets willingness to cooperate with NASA by providing information on its own lunar mission, in a small way, contributed to their own demise.