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.

Engine Failures Don’t Mean Mission Failures

Apollo 11 launches towards the Moon on July 16, 1969. This Saturn V isn’t one that experiences a premature engine shutdown. Credit: NASA

Last Sunday (October 7), SpaceX launched another Falcon 9 rocket. This one carried a cargo-laden Dragon capsule to the International Space Station on the first formal mission under the Commercial Resupply Service contract with NASA. It was the fourth launch of a Falcon 9, the ninth overall launch for SpaceX, and was a partial failure. One of the nine Merlin engines shut down prematurely, just 79 seconds after launch. The rocket managed to get the Dragon into orbit but missed its secondary objective of putting a commercial satellite into the correct orbit. The whole story, and why the Falcon was able to fly with one engine out, is over at Motherboard. In the press release addressing the failed engine, SpaceX singled out the Saturn V as another rocket that had engine failure problems. The Saturn V had more than just engines fail – one was struck twice by lightning – but two launches did have engine failures in the second stage. The story of both these missions is over at Discovery News.