August 22, 1976 is thought of as the true conclusion of the first Moon Race. It was also the last gasp of the Soviet Union’s lunar program, and the final soft landing on the Moon by any nation in the 20th Century. We generally think of the beginning of the first race to the Moon as beginning with the launching of Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957 by the Soviet Union. So the first Moon race lasted a couple of months shy of 19 years.
The last of the major lunar missions by the USSR was Luna 24. Like two of its predecessors, its mission was to retrieve a drilled core sample from the Moon’s surface. The main difference was that the final mission aimed to drill deeper than previous spacecraft. Luna 24 was designed to obtain a sample 2.5 metres below the lunar surface.
At 15:04 UTC, August 9, 1976, the Luna craft was launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome atop a four stage Proton rocket. It was inserted into a temporary Earth orbit in readiness for its journey to the Moon.
On August 17th, Luna 24 began its lunar orbit. The next day, its engines fired for the descent towards a soft landing. At 06:36 UTC, Luna 24 successfully touched down. It is only a few hundred metres away from the unsuccessful Luna 23, in the Mare Crisium area of the Moon.
The next day, the specially designed drill collected its core sample. The Moon material is 1.6 metres long and weighs 170 grams. The amount was more than triple that of previous missions. It was placed inside the return module of the spacecraft. Early the next day, the return module fired its rocket engines to begin the trip back home.
The lunar sample was removed from the return module, then stored and studied at the Vernadsky Institute of Geochemistry and Analytical Chemistry of the Soviet Academy of Sciences in Moscow.
In February of 1978, two of the institutes scientists published a paper showing that the Luna 24 samples contained 0.1 percent water by mass. By 1980, the Soviets published a total of 30 scientific papers regarding the soil samples. One of the conclusions was that the material appeared to be about 300,000,000 years old.
Thanks to Роскосмос (Roscosmos) and NASA for background data.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes the Commander of Apollo 15, David Scott. “When I look at the Moon, I do not see a hostile, empty world. I see the radiant body where man has taken his first steps into a frontier that will never end.”