On July 13, 1969, Apollo 11’s Saturn V sat on launchpad 39A at Cape Canaveral. The pre-launch countdown was already underway though the actual final countdown wouldn’t start for another day and a half. Nevertheless, there was plenty of activity buzzing around the Cape, but the big news in space that day wasn’t the impending manned lunar landing attempt. It was Luna 15, the Soviet mission that would reach the Moon while Apollo 11 was in orbit.
The Luna Program
The Luna program was conceived in 1955 by Sergei Korolev, the powerhouse behind the Soviet Union’s early successes in space. Years before he helped launch history’s first artificial satellite, he wanted to develop a multi-stage version of the R-7 rocket (the one that launched Sputnik). This version would be powerful enough to large, sophisticated spacecraft to the Moon to explore the surface before the Americans got there. The climax of the program as he conceived of it was a sample return mission.
The sample return would be fairly simple. A modular spacecraft with a descent stage, ascent stage, and Earth return vehicle would land on the surface. Once there, an instrument would then collect a sample and transfer it to ...