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I just learned today about the Luna 15 mission which was a Soviet attempt to land an unmanned probe on the moon which coincided with the successful Apollo 11 mission.

Were the Apollo 11 astronauts aware in any way of the the Luna 15 mission?

  • According to this article, Jodrell Bank was tracking Luna 15. Was this information relayed to NASA, and was it given to the Apollo 11 astronauts during their mission?

  • Were the Apollo 11 astronauts able to intercept radio transmissions from Luna 15?

  • Were the Apollo 11 astronauts able to see the Luna 15 spacecraft or its rocket trail as it orbited the moon?

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Yes, they were aware. According to the Apollo transcript, Luna 15 was prominent in the daily news items that mission control shared with the crew.

In the transcript, timestamps are day/hour/minute/second; speakers are:

  • CC = CAPCOM
  • CDR = Commander (Armstrong)
  • LMP = Lunar Module Pilot (Aldrin)
  • CMP = Command Module Pilot (Collins)

23 hours into the mission (i.e. on July 17), we have the first mention of Luna 15:

00 23 14 09 CC 11, this is Houston. If you are interested in the morning news, I have a summary here from PAO. Over.

00 23 14 20 CDR Okay. We're all listening.

00 23 14 23 CC Okay. From Jodrell Bank, England, via AP: Britain's big Jodrell Bank radio telescope stopped receiving signals from the Soviet Union's unmanned Moon shot at 5:49 EDT today. A spokesman said that it appeared the Luna 15 space ship "had gone beyond the Moon." Another Quote: "We don't think it has landed," said a spokesman for Sir Bernard Lovell, Director of the Observatory.

Buzz Aldrin was probably the most interested in spacecraft trajectories among the crew, so small surprise that he was the one to inquire the next day:

01 08 53 58 LMP Roger. What's the latest on Luna 15?

01 08 54 02 CC Stand by. I'll get the straight story for you.

01 09 37 44 CC Hello, Apollo 11. Houston. Over.

01 09 37 48 CMP Go ahead, Charlie.

01 09 37 50 CC Roger. Latest on Luna 15 - TASS reported this morning that the spacecraft was placed in orbit close to the lunar surface, and everything seems to be functioning normally on the vehicle. Sir Bernard Lovell said the craft appears to be in an orbit of about 62 nautical miles. Over.

Three days in, before the landing, another news item:

03 00 31 11 CC In Moscow, space engineer Anatol Koritsky was quoted by TASS as saying that Luna 15 could accomplish everything that has been done by earlier Luna spacecraft. This was taken by the press to mean Luna 15 could investigate the gravitational fields, photograph the Moon, and go down to the surface to scoop up a bit for analysis.

Much later, after leaving the moon, another daily news update from CAPCOM:

06 04 23 13 CC Luna 15 is believed to have crashed into the Sea of Crises yesterday after orbiting the Moon 52 times. The Soviet News Agency TASS reported that "scientific research in near Moon space was carried out." Sir Bernard Lovell at Jodrell Bank Observatory said that Luna 15 hit the surface of the Moon at a speed of about 300 miles per hour.

There's no mention of Luna 15 in the transcript outside of the world news context; it's very unlikely they would have seen it. Space is big, exhaust plumes are small, rocket burns are short, and spacecraft windows are surprisingly dirty.

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    $\begingroup$ As an additional reference, this year's BBC Stargazing Live hosted Buzz Aldrin at the Jodrell Bank and they discussed this with its associate director Prof. Tim O'Brien. Some of what they did at Jodrell surprised Aldrin, especially the precision with which they were able to measure Luna 15's trajectory, but Apollo 11 astronauts were quite aware of it. $\endgroup$ – TildalWave Jul 28 '15 at 23:31

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