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The Things History Forgets

Posted by Bob Kohm on July 8, 2009

There is an amazing story running at Wired Magazine today (http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/07/luna-audio/) detailing what may be the greatest story of the Space Race era– one that I’d never heard before.

The Space Race is one of the most detailed chronicles in modern history, both in the popular culture realm (The Right Stuff comes immediately to mind) and in countless tomes of historical works. We know all about Sputnik and Explorer, about Laika the Soviet space dog and Able and Baker the American space monkeys, about Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard. The early years of the race were tit for tat, an exchange of feats and breakthroughs that pitted the US & Soviets in a tight race for the ultimate high ground. When John Kennedy announced that America would go to the moon within ten years the race actually ratcheted up even as it went a bit more covert, especially on the Soviet side of things. I don’t need to tell you these things, though– you know them, and that’s the point. We all know just about all there is to know about the drama of the early years of space exploration.

Oh, except for the fact that the Soviets tried to upstage the Apollo 11 moon landing by putting their own unmanned lander on the lunar surface first while Apollo 11 was in lunar orbit and then again while Armstrong and Aldrin were on the surface, with the Soviet lander ultimately crashing close to the Tranquility Base site that our own lander was sitting on.

According to the story (and the accompanying original audio recordings) astronomers at a British observatory were monitoring transmissions from the moon when they discovered that a Soviet orbiter, Luna 15, had dramatically changed its orbit while Apollo 11 was in orbit and then, after the landing, had made a radical change to get very close to the lander. Apparently that day a “reliable rumor” emerged from Moscow that Luna 15 would land, retrieve lunar rock samples, and return to Earth, demonstrating not only that the Sovs were the equals of the Americans but that they were far ahead in robotics and, presumably, in humanity as they could do what we did without putting lives at risk. It all went awry, however, on July 21st with panicked broadcasts from a Soviet mission control center that Luna was landing but was coming in much too fast, according to Wired & the recording. Luna smashed into the lunar surface and was obliterated, ending what could have been the most dramatic chapter in the competition.

As fascinating as the story of Apollo 11-Luna 15 is, what interests me even more is how this story was lost to history for 40 years. The recordings of the events, monitored at Jordell Bank Observatory in the UK, were put in the ever-popular drawer and lost. There was no problem of classified materials, no effort to obscure the facts, no cover-up. History, in this case, was simply misplaced and stumbled upon 40 years later when someone was doing research for a tribute to the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, a story that could have been radically different.

When a story that we know so well, that was so well documented can have an unsuspected component of the magnitude of this one you have to question all events in human history and accept the concept that even the best known history may not accurately reflect the facts in their totality. The temptation to question the history of events that would have shown a strategic benefit to obscure– the story of FDR knowing that Pearl Harbor was coming would be a good example– gets new life in light of something like this, and the saw that victors write the history gains emphasis. That history, especially military and security history, can be intentionally obscured, distorted, or had false emphasis placed upon aspects of it is no secret; that benign history can be so greatly impacted by simply tossing something hugely important in a drawer and forgetting about it for decades is breathtaking if not, perhaps, surprising to the historian.

The Race to the Moon almost had a dramatically different– and largely unsuspected– outcome. It has often been said that history is a guide, but it is also an area as worthy of reasearch as science and mathematics; just as man has confronted in the past unique and challenging situations, so to do we now and shall we do again. Knowing how we actually met those situations informs how we can do so the next time we are faced with one, and that is a road map worth having.

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One Response to “The Things History Forgets”

  1. Piney Boy said

    Wow. I had no idea of this. What an amazing story. I had always wondered why the Soviets seemed to me just to give up at trying to get to the moon while we went for the gusto.

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