July 3 1969, 20:18 GMT Baikonur, Kazakhstan, USSR: The 344 foot tall N-1, the booster on which the Soviet Union has placed its hopes for defeating the United States in the race to the Moon, roars to life, its thirty rocket engines heaving the six million pound vehicle with aching slowness into the night sky, hammering the launch pad with hellish columns of burning kerosene and liquid oxygen, together blasting out over nine and a half million pounds of thrust.
A scant one-quarter second into the flight, something goes terribly wrong … a fragment of metal jams an oxidizer pump and causes it to explode, igniting a fire in the base of the first stage. The engines shut down and the behemoth scarcely clears the tower before it slides out of the sky into the pad and detonates with the force of a small tactical nuclear bomb.
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As a child who was absolutely fascinated by the Space Race, the heady days of the Apollo flights leading up to the Moon landing of July 20, 1969, were some of the most exciting times of my young life. The mocking, arrogantly trumpeted space successes of the USSR, America’s mortal enemy, were a faintly threatening counterpoint which added enormous drama to the endeavor.
With the launch of Luna 15, what was reportedly a probe designed to collect a small core-sample of the lunar surface and return it to the Earth, my adolescent attention was captured, and my suspicions were piqued. What are those damned Russians up to? I wondered. The small vehicle entered lunar orbit the day after Apollo 11 lifted off, though crashed (the official story stated an intentional crash landing) in Mare Crisium — the “Sea of Crisis” — several days later, roughly same the time astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin took their first walk on the lunar surface.
About two years later, still an unabashed space nut, I wrote what must have been an embarrassingly rough short story entitled “Sea of Crisis” (which I have fortunately long since lost), based on the idea that Luna 15 was in fact a last ditch attempt by the Soviets to beat America to the Moon.
With Glasnost and the fall of the Soviet Union a vastly clearer picture of their Moon program came to light. — along with the spectacular catastrophe of the July 3 N-1 launch attempt — and the premise of my rough little story did not seem like fiction at all.
There are still unanswered questions about the July 3 N-1 launch, thirty eight years later. Unlike the American space program that stood exposed for all to see, sweltering in the heat of the spot lights at the center of the world stage, the Soviet effort was enshrouded in perpetual secrecy, and revealed little beyond what served the State’s interests. Some, of course, was known through the efforts of the intelligence communities of the Free World, but only with the fall of the Soviet Union did a clearer picture of the reality of their Moon program come to light. These revelations put lie to the Soviet assertion, made shortly after the triumph of Apollo 11, that the USSR had never lowered itself to participate in this wasteful and pointless Moon Race to begin with.
Mark Wade, of the online rocketry and space flight reference Encyclopedia Astronautica, notes in his article “The Real Moon Landing Hoax,” that it is still not known with certainty what the payload in the July 3 N-1 attempt truly was — an instrumented lunar orbiting probe, following the stated initial intention for the flight, or a manned mission?
Citing his own research and making reference to an extensive and very technical two-part article by Peter Pesavento and Charles Vick in the space journal Quest (2004 issues Volume 11, numbers 1 and 2), Wade notes there is evidence of extreme efforts to at least upstage an American victory during the last few months of the Moon Race.
My best friend in junior high school, Dave Michaels, was even more intrigued by the Soviet space program than was I, and followed the revelations of the hidden Soviet lunar program with interest. He was in New York in the mid-1990s for a coin exhibition (he is a classical numismatist) and, after hours, stumbled across a Sotheby’s auction, featuring nothing less than hardware from the Soviet space program, including functional space capsules and the prototype space suit specifically intended for use on the lunar surface. He remembered my short story, and over a period of years we crafted a screen treatment and then a novel — entitled Red Moon — built around the central premise.
Red Moon by David S. Michaels and Daniel Brenton
With a desire for technical accuracy regarding the possibility of the Soviets using Luna 15 as a last-ditch attempt, we approached the idea with the question: is this technically possible? Could it have been done?
Through his contacts with the Friends and Partners in Space mailing list, Dave was able to connect with Encyclopedia Astronautica’s Mark Wade, and posed the question. To our delight (and relief) the answer was not only yes! but Mark provided drawings, fuel masses, and even engine burn times for our fictional manned Luna 15. These are now posted on the website I’ve put together for not just the novel but other creative efforts of Dave Michaels and mine, www.luna15.com.
The real question is, of course, did this really happen? Several nations, including the United States, have gone on record with their intentions of manned space flight to the Moon in a few short years, and the necessity of making additional surveys of the lunar surface in preparation for future attempts may provide ample opportunity to find the answer.
That said, the answer may in fact be sooner than we think.
At this moment, the massive Japanese Kaguya probe is circling the Moon, meticulously scrutinizing its surface with not just photographic imagery, but live video. Soon images from this craft will almost certainly reveal the remains of the human race’s forays to its surface.
I for one will be deeply interested in seeing the wreckage — or perhaps, not wreckage at all — of Luna 15.
Copyright © 2007, by Daniel Brenton. All Rights Reserved.