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.