The unmanned spacecraft’s mission would be an epic coup: get to the moon, scoop up rocks and jettison back toward Earth before the Americans returned with their own samples.
That did not happen. Luna 15 plummeted toward the moon on July 21, crashed into a mountain and cratered near the aptly named Sea of Crises — before Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin even left the surface.
NASA had worried Luna 15 would interfere with radio transmissions and present a safety risk with Apollo 11, prompting high-level officials to cross the divide in an unprecedented level of cooperation.
It signified something else. The competition between Apollo 11 and Luna 15 to land on the moon and return to Earth did not exactly finish when “the Eagle” landed, as most believe.
“The race to the moon ends when Luna 15 crashes,” William P. Barry, NASA’s chief historian, told The Washington Post.
The Soviet exploration timeline was aggressive and, at turns, tragic. Cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov melted during reentry, along with the Soyuz 1 capsule in which he was riding, in 1967, all the while “cursing the people who had put him inside a botched spaceship.”
In the next year, two Soviet tortoises became the first Earth beings to circle the moon.
Luna 15′s design and launch time frame was incredible for its time, Barry said. Plans were drawn up for a robot designed to land, collect samples and scurry back to Earth.