Since the dawn of the space age, more than a hundred spacecraft have left Earth en route to the moon, according to NASA's records. Not all of them made it, especially in the early years, but the ones that did embody some of the most amazing feats of human ingenuity ever seen.
The story of lunar exploration splits into two distinct phases. The first, lasting from the late 1950s to mid 1970s, was dominated by the rivalry between the United States and Soviet Union, known as the space race. With a quickfire string of firsts from both countries, this race to the Moon had an undeniably political dimension to it, but it yielded scientific rewards, too. The Apollo and Luna missions told scientists more about our nearest neighbor in space than we ever knew before, and blazed the trail for all the orbiters, landers and rovers — whether on the moon or other planets — since then.
After a pause lasting over a decade, the second phase kicked off in the 1990s — and it's still going strong today. With a stronger focus on science, this phase is also notable for its international flavor, with spacecraft from Japan, Europe, China, India and Israel all playing a part. A key goal of these missions has been to locate water and other resources on the moon — holding out the promise of an exciting future in which humans establish a long-term presence there.
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Impactors, landers and rovers
Some moon missions are designed to study it from a distance, taking photographs and collecting other data as they fly past or orbit it. But we'll start by looking at spacecraft that were designed to descend all the way to the surface, whether in a gentle soft landing, permitting an extended science mission, or a high-velocity impact in which all the science has to be done on the way down.
|Unnamed Luna||Soviet Union||Sep. 23, 1958||Unsuccessful impactor|
|Unnamed Luna||Soviet Union||Oct. 11, 1958||Unsuccessful impactor|
|Unnamed Luna||Soviet Union||Dec. 4, 1958||Unsuccessful impactor|
|Luna 1||Soviet Union||Jan. 2, 1959||Unsuccessful impactor (but first lunar flyby)|
|Unnamed Luna||Soviet Union||June 18, 1959||Unsuccessful impactor|
|Luna 2||Soviet Union||Sep. 12, 1959||Successful impactor|
|Ranger 3||NASA||Jan. 26, 1962||Unsuccessful impactor|
|Ranger 4||NASA||April 26, 1962||Unsuccessful impactor|
|Ranger 5||NASA||Oct. 21, 1962||Unsuccessful impactor|
|Unnamed Luna||Soviet Union||Jan. 4, 1963||Unsuccessful soft-lander|
|Unnamed Luna||Soviet Union||Feb. 3, 1963||Unsuccessful soft-lander|
|Luna 4||Soviet Union||April 2, 1963||Unsuccessful soft-lander|
|Ranger 6||NASA||March 21, 1964||Unsuccessful soft-lander|
|Unnamed Luna||Soviet Union||April 20, 1964||Unsuccessful soft-lander|
|Unnamed Luna||Soviet Union||July 28, 1964||Unsuccessful soft-lander|
|Ranger 7||NASA||July 28, 1964||Successful impactor|
|Ranger 8||NASA||Feb. 17, 1965||Successful impactor|
|Cosmos 60||Soviet Union||March 12, 1965||Unsuccessful soft-lander|
|Ranger 9||NASA||March 21, 1965||Successful impactor|
|Unnamed Luna||Soviet Union||April 10, 1965||Unsuccessful soft-lander|
|Luna 5||Soviet Union||May 9, 1965||Unsuccessful soft-lander|
|Luna 6||Soviet Union||June 8, 1965||Unsuccessful soft-lander|
|Luna 7||Soviet Union||Oct. 4, 1965||Unsuccessful soft-lander|
|Luna 8||Soviet Union||Dec. 3, 1965||Unsuccessful soft-lander|
|Luna 9||Soviet Union||Jan. 31, 1966||Successful soft-lander|
|Surveyor 1||NASA||May 30, 1966||Successful soft-lander|
|Surveyor 2||NASA||Sep. 20, 1966||Unsuccessful soft-lander|
|Luna 13||Soviet Union||Dec. 21, 1966||Successful soft-lander|
|Surveyor 3||NASA||April 17, 1967||Successful soft-lander|
|Surveyor 4||NASA||July 14, 1967||Unsuccessful soft-lander|
|Surveyor 5||NASA||Sep. 8, 1967||Successful soft-lander|
|Surveyor 6||NASA||Nov. 7, 1967||Successful soft-lander|
|Surveyor 7||NASA||Jan. 7, 1968||Successful soft-lander|
|Unnamed Luna||Soviet Union||Feb. 7, 1968||Unsuccessful soft-lander|
|Unnamed Luna||Soviet Union||Feb. 19, 1969||Unsuccessful lander + rover|
|Unnamed Luna||Soviet Union||June 14, 1969||Unsuccessful sample-return mission|
|Luna 15||Soviet Union||July 13, 1969||Unsuccessful sample-return mission|
|Apollo 11||NASA||July 16, 1969||Successful crewed lander|
|Kosmos 300||Soviet Union||Sep. 23, 1969||Unsuccessful sample-return mission|
|Kosmos 305||Soviet Union||Oct. 22, 1969||Unsuccessful sample-return mission|
|Apollo 12||NASA||Nov. 14, 1969||Successful crewed lander|
|Unnamed Luna||Soviet Union||Feb. 6, 1970||Unsuccessful sample-return mission|
|Apollo 13||NASA||April 11, 1970||Unsuccessful crewed lander (but safely returned to Earth)|
|Luna 16||Soviet Union||Sep. 12, 1970||Successful sample-return mission|
|Luna 17 + Lunokhod 1||Soviet Union||Nov. 10, 1970||Successful lander + rover|
|Apollo 14||NASA||Jan. 31, 1971||Successful crewed lander|
|Apollo 15||NASA||July 26, 1971||Successful crewed lander|
|Luna 18||Soviet Union||Sep. 2, 1971||Unsuccessful sample-return mission|
|Luna 20||Soviet Union||Feb. 14, 1972||Successful sample-return mission|
|Apollo 16||NASA||April 16, 1972||Successful sample-return mission|
|Apollo 17||NASA||Dec. 7, 1972||Successful crewed lander|
|Luna 21 + Lunokhod 2||Soviet Union||Jan. 8, 1973||Successful lander + rover|
|Luna 23||Soviet Union||Oct. 28, 1974||Unsuccessful sample-return mission|
|Luna 24||Soviet Union||Aug. 9, 1976||Successful sample-return mission|
|Moon Impact Probe||ISRO||Oct. 22, 2008||Successful impactor deployed by Chandrayaan-1|
|LCROSS||NASA||June 18, 2009||Successful impactor|
|Chang'e 3 + Yutu||CNSA||Dec. 6, 2013||Successful lander + rover|
|Chang'e 4 + Yutu 2||CNSA||Dec. 7, 2018||Successful lander + rover|
|Beresheet||SpaceIL (private)||Feb. 22, 2019||Unsuccessful lander; uncontrolled impact on lunar surface|
|Chandrayaan-2||ISRO||July 22, 2019||Unsuccessful lander + rover; orbiter component was succesful|
|Chang'e 5||CNSA||Nov. 23, 2020||Successful sample-return mission|
First on the moon
Less than a year after launching their first satellite, Sputnik, in October 1957, the Soviets were aiming for the moon. After several false starts, they finally made it with Luna 2 in September 1959. This was a deliberate crash-landing — the 860-lbs. (390 kilograms) spacecraft had no braking rockets or landing legs, and the main payload simply consisted of two grenade-like spheres that scattered Soviet emblems over the lunar surface. All the same, it was an astonishing achievement for the 1950s.
A high-speed impact is one thing, but landing in one piece and surviving long enough to carry out a scientific mission is a technical challenge of a different order. It wasn't accomplished until Feb. 3, 1966, when the Soviets made it into the record books again with their Luna 9 lander. The actual soft-landing was achieved by a small capsule, just 218 lbs. (99 kg) in mass, which was ejected by the main spacecraft just before touchdown. The capsule went on to take the first photographs from the lunar surface, and successfully transmitted them back to Earth.
First humans on the moon
To many people, "the" Moon mission — the one that springs instantly to mind — was Apollo 11 in July 1969. This put the first humans, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, onto the lunar surface, and then returned them safely to Earth — a monumental feat by the United States that was repeated five more times over the next few years. From a technical point of view, the Apollo missions were extremely complex, involving both a regular space capsule called the command module, which remained in lunar orbit with another crew member on board, and a specially designed lunar module to descend to the surface.
Though they had aspirations to do so, the Soviets never put humans on the moon. Instead, they concentrated on robotic missions, such as Luna 17 in November 1970 which delivered the first remote-control rover, Lunokhod 1, to the moon's surface. The rover explored its surroundings for 10 months — a mission duration that would have been impossible for human astronauts in the 1970s. In addition to doing important lunar science, Lunokhod 1 also paved the way for today's Mars rovers.
The far side of the moon
When China embarked on its lunar exploration program, it was playing a rapid game of catch-up with what had gone before. The country's first orbiter, first lander and first rover all came within a few years of each other. Then on Jan. 3, 2019, China achieved something that had never been done before: It dropped a lander, Chang'e 4, and rover Yutu 2, onto the far side of the moon. That's the side we never see — or from a spacecraft's perspective, the side that has no line-of-sight communication with Earth. To solve that problem, China had to place a relay satellite, Queqiao, at the Earth-Moon Lagrange point, which has a clear view of both.
The missions described so far were all designed, operated and paid for by government-owned agencies. The first attempt to put a privately developed spacecraft on the moon wasn't until April 2019, when a small lander called Beresheet almost pulled it off.
The lander made it to the lunar surface, but having lost control on the way down it was a crash, not the intended soft landing. The brainchild of an Israeli nonprofit organization called SpaceIL, Beresheet's operators are hoping that its successor will have better luck.
Orbiters and flybys
Orbiters and flyby missions may not arouse quite the same excitement as a landing, but from space tortoises to finding ice on the moon, they've been just as important to the advancement of science.
|Pioneer 0||NASA||Aug. 17, 1958||Unsuccessful orbiter|
|Pioneer 1||NASA||Oct. 11, 1958||Unsuccessful orbiter|
|Pioneer 2||NASA||Nov. 8, 1958||Unsuccessful orbiter|
|Pioneer 3||NASA||Dec. 7, 1958||Unsuccessful flyby|
|Pioneer 4||NASA||March 3, 1959||Successful flyby|
|Pioneer P-1||NASA||Sep. 24, 1959||Unsuccessful orbiter|
|Luna 3||Soviet Union||Oct. 4, 1959||Successful flyby|
|Pioneer P-3||NASA||Nov. 26, 1959||Unsuccessful orbiter|
|Unnamed Luna||Soviet Union||April 15, 1960||Unsuccessful flyby|
|Unnamed Luna||Soviet Union||April 16, 1960||Unsuccessful flyby|
|Pioneer P-30||NASA||Sep. 25, 1960||Unsuccessful orbiter|
|Pioneer P-31||NASA||Dec. 15, 1960||Unsuccessful orbiter|
|Zond 3||Soviet Union||July 18, 1965||Successful flyby|
|Kosmos 111||Soviet Union||March 1, 1966||Unsuccessful orbiter|
|Luna 10||Soviet Union||March 31, 1966||Successful orbiter|
|Lunar Orbiter 1||NASA||Aug. 10, 1966||Successful orbiter|
|Luna 11||Soviet Union||Aug. 24, 1966||Successful orbiter|
|Luna 12||Soviet Union||Oct. 22, 1966||Successful orbiter|
|Lunar Orbiter 2||NASA||Nov. 6, 1966||Successful orbiter|
|Lunar Orbiter 3||NASA||Feb. 5, 1967||Successful orbiter|
|Lunar Orbiter 4||NASA||May 4, 1967||Successful orbiter|
|Lunar Orbiter 5||NASA||Aug. 1, 1967||Successful orbiter|
|Luna 14||Soviet Union||April 7, 1968||Successful orbiter|
|Zond 5||Soviet Union||Sep. 15, 1968||Successful flyby and return to Earth|
|Zond 6||Soviet Union||Nov. 10, 1968||Successful flyby but crashed on return to Earth|
|Apollo 8||NASA||Dec. 21, 1968||Successful crewed orbiter|
|Apollo 10||NASA||May 18, 1969||Successful crewed orbiter|
|Zond 7||Soviet Union||Aug. 7, 1969||Successful flyby and return to Earth|
|Zond 8||Soviet Union||Oct. 20, 1970||Successful flyby and return to Earth|
|Luna 19||Soviet Union||Sep. 28, 1971||Successful orbiter|
|Luna 22||Soviet Union||May 29, 1974||Successful orbiter|
|Hiten||JAXA||Jan. 24, 1990||Successful orbiter; deliberately impacted moon at end of mission|
|Clementine||DoD/NASA||Jan. 25, 1994||Successful orbiter|
|Lunar Prospector||NASA||Jan. 7, 1998||Successful orbiter; deliberately impacted moon at end of mission|
|SMART-1||ESA||Sep. 27, 2003||Successful orbiter; deliberately impacted moon at end of mission|
|SELENE||JAXA||Sep. 14, 2007||Successful orbiter; deliberately impacted moon at end of mission|
|Chang'e 1||CNSA||Oct. 24, 2007||Successful orbiter; deliberately impacted moon at end of mission|
|Chandrayaan-1||ISRO||Oct. 22, 2008||Successful orbiter|
|Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter||NASA||June 18, 2009||Successful orbiter|
|Chang'e 2||CNSA||Oct. 1, 2010||Successful orbiter|
|ARTEMIS P1 and P2||NASA||Feb. 17, 2007||Successful twin orbiters|
|GRAIL A and B||NASA||Sep 10, 2011||Successful twin orbiters|
|LADEE||NASA||Sep. 7, 2013||Successful orbiter; deliberately impacted moon at end of mission|
|Chang'e 5 T1||CNSA||Oct. 23, 2014||Successful flyby and return to Earth|
|Queqiao||CNSA||May 20, 2018||Successful relay satellite at Earth-moon L2 point|
First to leave Earth
Before a spacecraft can get to the moon or anywhere else beyond Earth orbit, it has to achieve an "escape velocity" of 25,000 mph (11.2 km per second). After several false starts , the first U.S. space probe to do this was Pioneer 4 in March 1959. This was the first lunar "flyby" mission, passing the Moon at a distance of around 37,000 miles (60,000 km).
The Moon's first satellite
On April 3, 1966, the Soviet Union scored another moon first when Luna 10 entered lunar orbit. Not only was it the first spacecraft to do this, but the first to orbit any astronomical body other than Earth. The advantage of an orbiter over the earlier flybys and impactors is that it can make close-range scientific observations over a much longer period. Luna 10's batteries lasted 56 days, during which it sent back valuable data on the moon's composition, gravity field and lack of atmosphere or magnetic field.
The first spacecraft swing around the moon without entering orbit, then return to Earth was the Soviet Union's Zond 5 in September 1968. It was also the first lunar mission to carry passengers, albeit non-human ones. The "biological payload" included two 12-14 ounce (340-400 gram) Steppe tortoises. They survived the journey, splashing down in the Indian Ocean six days after leaving Earth.
The Apollo 11 astronauts weren't the first humans to reach the moon; they were preceded by two test flights that orbited the moon without landing. The first of these, in December 1968, was Apollo 8. Its crew — Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders — became the first humans to travel beyond Earth orbit. Although soon overshadowed by Apollo 11, Apollo 8 was still a tremendous achievement that hasn't been repeated since the end of the Apollo program. While in lunar orbit, the crew took the famous "Earthrise" photo, which became one of the most iconic images of the space age.
Finding water ice
Of all the countries that have sent spacecraft to the moon, India has the distinction of making a truly momentous scientific discovery on its very first mission, Chandrayaan-1. The spacecraft entered lunar orbit on Nov. 8, 2008, and also carried a small moon impact probe, which it fired six days later into Shackleton crater near the lunar south pole. When data from the impact was examined, it strongly indicated the presence of water — a discovery confirmed by a NASA instrument also on board Chandrayaan-1.
Future missions to the moon
Looking at the dozens of future moon missions still in the planning stages, two trends are clear. First, there's the increasing internationalism of the field, with Canada, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, South Korea and even a resurgent Russia keen to embark on their own programs of lunar exploration. The second, even more exciting, trend is the ever-growing prospect of a return to crewed moon missions in the near future. Here's a quick rundown of the strongest contenders.
Space tourism: SpaceX's Starship, currently under development, should make sightseeing trips around the Moon, following the same there-and-back route taken by Zond 5's tortoises, a real possibility for super-rich tourists. The first one has already booked a ticket: Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa.
Chinese ambitions: With its successful rover and sample return missions, China now looks to be the world leader in robotic Moon missions. But the country's plans don't stop there, and it's already developing a new generation of crewed spacecraft that could take Chinese astronauts to the Moon in the 2030s.
A gateway to space: NASA has plans to construct a smaller scale version of the International Space Station to place in lunar orbit. Called Gateway, the first elements of this lunar space station are scheduled to be launched by a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket in 2024. Gateway is an enabler for a much more ambitious NASA project, the Artemis lander.
The heirs to Apollo: The aim of the Artemis program is to land the next astronauts — including the first woman and the first person of color — on the moon by 2024. That's a tight timescale, but the plan is for the landing to be preceded by just two test flights: an uncrewed circumlunar mission and a crewed one. The third flight will be the landing itself and will use a variant of SpaceX's Starship.