The Soviet Intersection with Apollo 11

Apollo 11's Lunar Module Eagle during rendezvous with the Command Module Columbia. This would be about the time Luna 15 was beginning its landing sequence.

Apollo 11’s Lunar Module Eagle during rendezvous with the Command Module Columbia. This would be about the time Luna 15 was beginning its landing sequence.

When Apollo 11 landed at the Sea of Tranquility 44 years ago today, eight years and two months after Kennedy challenged the nation to a manned lunar landing, it marked the end of the Space Race as defined by the race to the Moon. But there’s a little known facet of this historic event: whether or not NASA would be able to send Apollo 11 on it’s planned mission was called into question just three days before launch when the Soviet Union launched Luna 15 on a lunar sample return mission. The worry wasn’t that Luna 15 would overshadow Apollo or somehow physically prevent it from reaching its goal. Rather, NASA was concerned that communications between Luna 15 and Moscow would disrupt communications between Apollo 11 and Houston. It was Apollo 8 commander Frank Borman who saved the day, securing the flight plan of Luna 15 and assuring NASA the two missions wouldn’t cross paths. The whole story, including astronomers at the Jodrell Bank Observatory listening in on both missions, is detailed in my latest article at DVICE. (You can listen to the Jodrell recording here.)

Earlier this month, the Military Channel aired the Apollo 11/Air Force One episode of “America: Fact vs. Fiction” for which I was interviewed along with author Francis French about the lunar landing. Here’s the (overly sensationalized) clip that talks about the intersection between Apollo 11 and Luna 15.


  • Cynthia Grlx says:

    Good articles, thank you for sharing. I remember taking the day off work to watch the landing on black and white TV

  • John says:

    Cool to see Amy on the Tee Vee. Too bad that the program was absolutely atrocious! At least Amy provided some saving grace. The producers take things that were common knowledge at the time, and pretend that they’re revealing some long-held secret or something. A good example is the broken ascent engine arm switch on Apollo 11’s LM. They pretend that NASA covered up that fact for all these years, as if that gives their programming some kind of gravitas that doesn’t exist. Most Military Channel programs are well produced and informative, but “America Fact vs. Fiction” is sensationized garbage, not worthy of broadcast.

  • Greg Maynard says:

    Great article as always Amy, and an aspect to the Luna 15 mission that I was unaware of. Thanks.

  • Mark says:

    I think its important to point out that the US didn’t just want to win a race.
    A country doesn’t spend Billions of dollars without strong motivations.
    The main aim was to influence small developing countries.

    In those days US politicians were worried that too many countries were aligning themselves with Communism. To the US, it seemed as if the Socialist ideology was spreading and may become the dominant political system of the world (Domino theory).

    This would weaken the US’s influence and power in the world and isolate it. Making Russia more powerful, with the support of all the other Communist countries.

    The Space Race was motivated by fear. Fear that the world will look at Russia’s economic and industrial success’s as a reason to become Communist.

    Going to the Moon was essentially a PR job for Democracy. Kennedy ‘chose to go to the Moon’ to influence developing countries that they should choose Democracy over Communism.

    A number of Kennedy’s speeches talk about the importance of influencing developing nations and it is also the same reason why the US went to war in Korean and Vietnam.

  • Dave Donovan says:

    of course it was propaganda. most every great advance was always fueled by the propaganda machines of the cold war. these have set the paths of man in stone for the future of space exploration. now we don’t have to prove we can do it, we just have to repeat it cheaply enough!

  • Big Al says:

    At the time I remember Russia launching the probe. I though “what a cheap shot”. Everyone understood this. We were going to land people on the moon!

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