|Mission type||Lunar sample return|
|Mission duration||8 days achieved|
|Launch mass||5,600 kg (12,300 lb)|
|Start of mission|
|Launch date||13 July 1969, 02:54:42UTC|
|Launch site||Baikonur 81/24|
|End of mission|
|Destroyed||21 July 1969, 15:51UTC|
|Orbital insertion||17 July 1969, 10:00 UTC|
|Lunar impact (failed landing)|
|Impact date||21 July 1969, 15:51 UTC|
On 21 July 1969, while Apollo 11 astronauts finished the first human moonwalk, Luna 15, an unmanned Soviet spacecraft in lunar orbit at the time, began its descent to the lunar surface. Launched three days before the Apollo 11 mission, it was the second Soviet attempt to return lunar soil back to Earth with a goal to outstrip the US in achieving a sample return in the Moon race. The previous mission, designated E-8-5-402, launched June 14, 1969, did not achieve Earth orbit because the third stage of its launch vehicle failed to ignite. The Luna 15 lander crashed into the Moon at 15:50 UT, hours before the scheduled American lift off from the Moon.
Luna 15 was capable of studying circumlunar space, the lunar gravitational field, and the chemical composition of lunar rocks. It was also capable of providing lunar surface photography. Luna 15 was placed in an intermediate Earth orbit after launch and was then sent toward the Moon. After a mid-course correction the day after launch, Luna 15 entered lunar orbit at 10:00 UT on 17 July 1969. The spacecraft remained in lunar orbit for two days while controllers checked all on-board systems and performed two orbital manoeuvres.
After completing 86 communications sessions and 52 orbits of the Moon at various inclinations and altitudes, it began its descent. Astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin had already set foot on the Moon when Luna 15 fired its main retrorocket engine to initiate descent to the surface at 15:47 UT on 21 July 1969. Transmissions ceased four minutes after de-orbit, at a calculated altitude of 3 kilometres (1.9 mi). The spacecraft had probably crashed into the side of a mountain. Impact coordinates were 17° north latitude and 60° east longitude, in Mare Crisium.
In a race to reach the Moon and return to Earth, the parallel missions of Luna 15 and Apollo 11 represented, in many ways, the culmination of the Space Race between the space programs of both the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s. The simultaneous missions became one of the first instances of Soviet–American space cooperation: the Soviet Union released Luna 15's flight plan to ensure it would not collide with Apollo 11, though its exact mission was unknown.
- "Luna 15". NASA: Solar System Exploration: Missions to the Moon. Archived from the original on 2015-06-21. Retrieved 2015-06-22.
- "Russian spacecraft landed on Moon hours before Americans". telegraph.co.uk. 4 July 2009. Retrieved 2009-11-15.
- "Recording tracks Russia's Moon gatecrash attempt". 3 July 2009.