Thursday, June 28, 2012

Luna 15 and Apollo 11: A Near-Miss on the Moon?

It was mid-day on July 21, 1969. Engineers at Mission Control in Houston were preparing for Apollo 11's departure from the moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's excursion onto the moon's surface was over, and they were stowing equipment in preparation for liftoff early in the afternoon. Meanwhile, a Soviet probe, Luna 15, crash landed on the moon!

Apollo 11. Source: Wikipedia.

Luna 15 was launched three days before the Apollo 11 lift-off. Its aim was to land on the lunar surface, collect rock samples, and return to Earth. If all went well, it could have arrived back on Earth the same day the astronauts came home: a small victory for the Soviets (whose Luna 2 spacecraft was the first human-made object to reach the moon, in 1959). But after several dozen orbits of the moon, the probe's landing didn't go as planned. It stopped transmitting four minutes into its descent, and crashed at Mare Crisium.

A Luna probe. Source: Wikipedia.

I was curious about how far the Luna crash was from the Apollo 11 Lunar Module. Mare Crisium is the "sea" directly north of Mare Tranquilltatis, site of Apollo 11's landing. According to Yahoo Answers (maybe not the most reliable source?), the two crafts were a little over 740 miles apart. 

Was the Apollo 11 mission ever in danger of a collision with Luna 15? Were the Soviets aiming to crash their probe into the Lunar Module? We know now that the answer to both questions was "no." But apparently back in 1969 NASA officials had some concerns. Astronaut Frank Borman put a call into one of the leaders of the Soviet space program, Dr. Mstislav Keldysh, asking him to confirm that the probe posed no threat to Apollo 11's mission. In what some describe as the very first instance of U.S.-Soviet cooperation in the space race, the Soviets released Luna 15's flight plan to NASA officials, allaying fears that it was on a collision course with the Lunar Module or the Command Module. 

During their mission, Armstrong, Aldrin, and Michael Collins were kept apprised of Luna 15's status. Apparently there were others tracking the craft as well. Astronomers at the University of Manchester Jodrell Bank radio telescope eavesdropped on Luna 15's final minutes. Their recordings were released in 2009; you can listen to a British scientist narrate the craft's crash here.

Jodrell Bank Observatory. Source: Space Today.

So the space race effectively ended that day. Americans were first to walk on the moon, hours before an unmanned Soviet landing failed. But, in the process, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. first cooperated in space!

Sources: Yahoo Answers (always reliable???); Wired; NASA; Collect Space

21 comments:

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  17. I was with the Defense Intelligence Agency for a few years and worked with the Space Command. On the Naval side. It was the S.S.G. called Space Services Group. I had much background on the man moon missions as well as the Post Apollo Man Moon Missions done by the SSG. The Military kept going to the moon after Apollo. This was all background info on our current programs in the late 1990's. I dont know why they kept going and or what activity they were conducting. Not so shocking was the fact that the Soviets put a Single Cosmonaut on the Luna 15 craft. There were just living quarters and climate control but all opperations were done from Cosmodrome. Remote operated. The Soviets tracked Apollo 11 landing profile and then conducted their own landing attempt. What i understand was they lost telemetry and the craft landed hard but the cosmonaut was unhurt. The craft was dammage and the accent stage would not operate. The Soviets planned to land very close to Apollo 11 and plant their own flag and take some of the victory away from the Americans. Speculation was that the cosmonaut could walk over shake hands and if a problem coule actually hitch a ride home. Due to the malfunction the craft landed 50- 150 miles from Apollo. Of course Apollo could not stage a rescue attempt. The Apollo guys spoke to the cosmonaut on the secure channel to see if he could walk over but Nasa said he was too far. Apollo 11 guys were very angry at Nasa who knew the ship was manned. Rumors persist that the signal side of ISA of the Army used signal interference and may have brought down the craft. The Apollo guys wanted to take the guy back but it was not possible. They spoke to him for the next days. Not sure when the Cosmonaut air ran out but the rumor was he sat against a rock facing the Earth and fell asleep and died. We were told the post apollo press Conference the Apollo 11 guys were angry, disgusted and upset. Go watch their post splash down press Conference. Definitely not normal very upset. Neil left the Program after. I found this out and just a few other things during my time. Sadly we will never know this hero's name.

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  18. I forgot to mention this. If you look at Google moon and the lunar reconnaissance orbiter and Clementine in no place will you find the crash site of the Luna 15 ship. Try to find it? You cant. They know where it is but no way they even show anyone where that ship is. I imagine thr cosmonaut with air and food for over a week most likely drew out a huge help message or a last word message. I wondered why the guy didnt take his suicide pills. It was like ketamine and some type of time released high level potassium and a sodium removing isomer. This would put him asleep and then stop his heart and hour later.

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  19. https://www.nasa.gov/images/content/346619main_moonimg_07_full.jpg

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  20. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Moon_landing_sites.svg

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