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How Close Was the Space Race in 1969?

The Space Race was an aspect of the Cold War that was more about achievement than animosity. The Soviet Union beat the United States with Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, and Yuri Gagarin, the first person to travel into space. But America came back strong, landing humans on the moon in the summer of 1969. What's less well known is that as the Apollo 11 astronauts sped along on their lunar journey, a Russian space probe known as Luna 15 was already arriving, with the goal of touching down and collecting data. The probe entered orbit around the moon on July 17, 1969 -- two days before Armstrong took his famous "small step" onto the surface -- but trouble prevented it from landing and grabbing the soil samples that would have earned it a place in the history books. Instead, it faced delay after delay, as the Soviets couldn't come up with a safe plan to drop the probe onto the pockmarked soil. It wasn't until the Apollo 11 crew was getting ready to return home that the probe made its descent, but even then the problems persisted: As Luna 15 tried to alight, communication was suddenly lost, apparently because the probe had crashed into a mountainside.

Inside the Space Race:

  • "Astronaut" means "star sailor," while "cosmonaut" means "sailor of the universe."

  • Alan Shepard was the first person to play golf on the moon, driving two balls "miles and miles" after his Apollo 14 lunar landing in 1971.

  • In 1975, an Apollo spacecraft docked with a Soyuz capsule, signifying a move towards cooperation between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. and the end of the Space Race.

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