For as long as humans have lived on planet Earth, the moon has been a focus of fascination. First, we could view our cosmic partner only with the naked eye, then with telescopes, and finally in the 20th century the first humans were able to visit Earth’s moon in person.
Thanks to these missions, we now know a lot about the moon. The first lunar exploration vehicles of the 1950s and early 1960s were primitive pioneers. But aerospace technology developed so rapidly that only about a decade separated the first flyby forays and Neil Armstrong's history-making steps on the moon's surface.
Early forays into space
In January 1959, a small Soviet sphere bristling with antennas, Luna 1 was the first spacecraft to escape Earth’s gravity, a huge feat. Although Luna 1 did not reach the moon's surface, as was likely intended, the spacecraft flew within about 4,000 miles of it. Its suite of scientific equipment revealed for the first time that the moon had no magnetic field. (Read more about early spaceflight.)
Later in 1959, Luna 2 became the first spacecraft to land on the moon's surface, making impact near the Aristides, Archimedes, and Autolycus craters. A third Luna mission subsequently captured the first, blurry, images of the far side of the moon.
Nine NASA Ranger spacecrafts, launched between 1961 and 1965, gave scientists the first close-up looks at the moon’s surface. The Ranger missions were kamikaze-style; the spacecraft were engineered to streak straight toward the moon and capture as many images as possible before crashing onto its surface. In 1962, Ranger 4 was the first Ranger spacecraft to hit its target, the moon. Unfortunately, Ranger 4 slammed into the far side of the moon before collecting any scientific data.
Two years later, however, Ranger 7 streaked toward the moon and captured more than 4,000 photos in the 15 minutes before it smashed onto the surface. Images from all the Ranger missions, particularly Ranger 9, highlighted the moon’s rough terrain and the potential challenges of finding a smooth landing site.
In 1966, the Soviet spacecraft Luna 9 overcame the moon's topographic hurdles and became the first vehicle to soft-land safely on the surface. The small craft was stocked with scientific and communications equipment and photographed a ground-level lunar panorama. Luna 10 launched later that year and became the first spacecraft to successfully orbit the moon.
The Surveyor space probes (1966-68) were the first NASA spacecraft to perform controlled landings on the moon's surface. Surveyor carried cameras to explore the moon's surface terrain and soil samplers that analyzed the properties of lunar rock and dirt.
In 1966 and 1967, NASA launched five Lunar Orbiter missions that were designed to circle the moon and chart its surface in preparation for subsequent crewed landings. These orbiters photographed about 99 percent of the moon's surface and provided photos of potential lunar landing sites.
These crewless, robotic probes paved the way for a giant leap forward in space exploration. (See a map of all lunar landings.)
Humans on the moon
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy committed the United States to land a person on the moon before the decade was complete. The Apollo program was designed to send humans safely to the moon—and back. Before the Apollo project ended in 1972, six missions and a dozen men had visited the moon.
On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin became the first people to reach the moon when their Apollo 11 lunar lander Eagle touched down in the Sea of Tranquility. Armstrong famously said, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Journalist Walter Cronkite—deemed “the most trusted man in America”—would come to say that people living 500 years in the future would regard the Apollo 11 lunar landing as “the most important feat of all time.”
Each mission after Apollo 11 set new milestones in space travel and lunar exploration. Only four months after the first human on the moon, Apollo 12 launched. The goal was to further explore the moon’s surface, but one of the mission’s main successes was achieving a much more precise landing on the moon.
Apollo 13 narrowly avoided a near-disaster when oxygen tanks exploded in April 1970. The crew was forced to abort a planned moon landing, but all survived.
The third lunar landing happened in January 1971 with Apollo 14. Commander Alan Shepard set a new record for the farthest distance traveled on the moon: 9,000 feet.
Apollo 15, launched July 1971, was the first of three missions capable of a longer stay on the moon. Victories included collecting hundreds of pounds of lunar samples and traveling more than 17 miles in the first car driven by humans on the moon.
Apollo 16 and Apollo 17 in 1972 were the last two crewed missions to the moon, and Russia’s Luna-24 crewless spacecraft in 1976 was the last to land until the following century. Samples collected during these lunar explorations gave us huge amounts of knowledge about the geology and formation of the Earth’s moon. (See a timeline of the space race and its modern-day version in private spaceflight.)
In 2019, as of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, 12 humans—all American and all men—have set foot on the moon. After the dramatic victories of the 1960s and 1970s, the major space programs turned their attention elsewhere for several decades.
Moon curiosity builds again
Returning to the moon was not on the forefront of space programs for decades. According to space policy expert John Logsdon, there seemed to be no scientific reason to go back to the moon—Apollo missions had already collected 842 pounds of moon rocks, some still unanalyzed.
But in 1994, a joint mission between NASA and the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization again focused on the moon. The Clementine mission succeeded in mapping the moon's surface in wavelengths other than visible light, from ultraviolet to infrared. More than 1.8 million digital photos taken by Clementine revealed the possible existence of ice on some of the moon’s craters.
Later, the Lunar Prospector in 1999 orbited the moon, confirming Clementine’s discovery of ice at the lunar poles. The mission's end was spectacular: The craft was intentionally crashed into the moon in the hopes of raising a plume that could yield evidence of water ice, but none was observed.
In 2009, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter made high-resolution maps of the lunar surfaces, finding super-cold temperatures (-397°F) on the moon’s surface.
The recent—and future—status of moon exploration
Israel and China more recently jumped into lunar exploration, with mixed success. After a 37-year hiatus, China joined the United States and Russia in becoming one of only three countries to land on the near side of the moon. China’s Yutu rover touched down in 2013.
In January 2019, a Chinese lander, Chang`e-4, touched down on the far side of the moon—the first spacecraft to ever do so.
The Israeli spacecraft, Beresheet, orbited the moon in April 2019, but crashed during its attempt to land. Although it failed in landing, its successful launch from the privately owned SpaceX rocket was still considered a significant accomplishment.
One day, we may even see privatized human travel to the moon. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and his spaceflight company Blue Origin have announced the goal of returning to the moon, to set up a lunar base where people would work and live. The company’s New Glenn rocket could take its first flight in 2021, supporting NASA’s goal of putting Americans back on the moon by 2024.
Some space experts even suggest that NASA should build a research base on the moon. This would help the United States maintain its influence in space and be a useful step if, and when, the prospect of colonizing Mars becomes a reality.
NASA Ames Research Center: Lunar Prospector
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center: Lunar Orbiter
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center: Surveyor
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory: Moon Missions
NASA Mission Pages: The Apollo Missions
NASA Science: Solar System Exploration
NASA Space Science Data Coordinated Archive: Spacecraft
Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum: Apollo Program
U.S. Naval Research Laboratory: Clementine