The command module of Apollo 11 was not the only spacecraft orbiting the moon. In a nearly parallel mission, the USSR had launched Luna 15, an unmanned probe, and it was also in orbit around the moon, taking pictures and analyzing surface features. But it was supposed to do what Apollo 11 was doing: land on the moon and return to Earth with samples. Apollo 11 and Luna 15 were in a literal space race.
This was at the height of the cold war. There were no joint space efforts between the two nations, but the Soviets did release the flight path of Luna 15 to the Americans, making this the first ever sharing of information about space exploration between the two world powers. There was no concern that the two vehicles would collide, after all, space is big. But there was concern that communications would interfere with each other, and coordination was necessary to prevent this.
The Soviets had gotten to the moon first with Luna 2 in 1959. Its hard landing made it the first manmade object to ever land on a celestial body that wasn’t Earth. Luna 3 managed to get pictures of the moon’s badly-named “dark side.” If all went to plan, Luna 15 would land on the moon and then send samples back to Earth. And if the Soviets were successful and the Americans weren’t, it would just demonstrate how superior the Soviet program was. And how reckless of the Americans to risk lives unnecessarily!
But the exact opposite happened. Luna 15 crashed into the moon while the Americans were in the Lunar Module making final preparations to return home. The Soviet Union’s effort to keep pace with the Americans had faltered, and Luna 15 still sits on the Moon among the samples it had hoped to return to its creators.
Its ambitious mission is largely forgotten, while everyone knows that Americans were the first to walk on the moon and return with samples.
But Luna 15 leaves us with this question: why were we risking the lives of astronauts to go to the moon? If it was theoretically possible for robots to do the same thing, shouldn’t we have focussed our efforts on that?
From a scientific standpoint, that argument has merit. But from an emotional standpoint, “man walks on moon” is a statement unparalleled in human history. Is the moon as majestic if there’s no one who has been there? I guess we know the answer to that now, as people prepare to visit Mars, a planet populated entirely by robots. The answer is… no.
Here’s a link to the entire recording from the Jodrell Bank Centre as they listened to Luna 15 on that fateful day.