Almost two hours before Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were slated to take off from the moon after the famous and historic moonwalk, an unmanned Russian probe called Luna 15 crash-landed on the moon about 540 miles away from Eagle.
The Luna missions began back in 1958, much before the Apollo program was even conceived. The mission of the Luna program was to send a series of robotic spacecraft to the moon either as a lander or an orbiter. The end goal was to bring samples back from the moon. Luna 15 was the fifteenth officially designated mission; however; it was the thirty-first if we are keeping track of the actual launches.
The Luna program had to face a number of failures earlier in the mission. A number of their launches were not able to reach the orbit of Earth. The ones that did reach the orbit were unable to leave it. A few them were able to go all the way to the moon only to simply fly past it. A few of them even crashed into the moon. Soviet government refrained from publicly acknowledging these failures, so the number of Luna missions were always lesser than the actual launches.
However, you should not be laughing at the Soviets because the early Pioneer missions that were being executed by the United States were also facing more or less the same failure rates. The first spacecraft to ever leave the earth’s orbit was actually Luna 1 that achieved this feat in its fourth attempt. It was also the first man-made object to reach the moon, the very first probe that was able to execute a soft landing, the first man-made satellite of the moon, the first to take a picture of the far side of the moon and the first to send back close-up pictures of the moon’s surface.
Luna 15 left earth on 13 July 1969, three days before Apollo 11. It entered the orbit on July 17, 1969 – a full three days ahead of the Americans. However, the Soviets had not taken into account the ruggedness of the moon’s surface. So, the Soviet controllers spent invaluable time studying and analyzing the moon’s surface for the next four days.
Soviet controllers decided to land the Luna 15 after two hours of Apollo 11 landing, collect samples, and start the journey back to earth before Apollo11. However, the uncertainty of the terrain delayed the landing again. Finally, two hours before Apollo 11 was slated for liftoff, the controllers pushed for a landing. By then, the Luna 15 had circled the moon for fifty-two times. After four minutes of descent, it crashed into the side of a mountain.
The Luna 16 mission later on succeeded and was the first robotic probe to land on the moon and bring a sample back to earth. Further Luna missions have also placed two lunar rovers – again another first – on the lunar surface.