Every mission to the moon

This view of the Apollo 12 lunar module was captured from lunar orbit by command module pilot Richard Gordon shortly after the two modules separated to prepare for the lunar landing.
This view of the Apollo 12 lunar module was captured from lunar orbit by command module pilot Richard Gordon shortly after the two modules separated to prepare for the lunar landing. (Image credit: NASA)

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.

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.

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Impactors, landers and rovers
NameAgencyLaunch DateOutcome
Unnamed LunaSoviet UnionSep. 23, 1958Unsuccessful impactor
Unnamed LunaSoviet UnionOct. 11, 1958Unsuccessful impactor
Unnamed LunaSoviet UnionDec. 4, 1958Unsuccessful impactor
Luna 1Soviet UnionJan. 2, 1959Unsuccessful impactor (but first lunar flyby)
Unnamed LunaSoviet UnionJune 18, 1959Unsuccessful impactor
Luna 2Soviet UnionSep. 12, 1959Successful impactor
Ranger 3NASAJan. 26, 1962Unsuccessful impactor
Ranger 4NASAApril 26, 1962Unsuccessful impactor
Ranger 5NASAOct. 21, 1962Unsuccessful impactor
Unnamed LunaSoviet UnionJan. 4, 1963Unsuccessful soft-lander
Unnamed LunaSoviet UnionFeb. 3, 1963Unsuccessful soft-lander
Luna 4Soviet UnionApril 2, 1963Unsuccessful soft-lander
Ranger 6NASAMarch 21, 1964Unsuccessful soft-lander
Unnamed LunaSoviet UnionApril 20, 1964Unsuccessful soft-lander
Unnamed LunaSoviet UnionJuly 28, 1964Unsuccessful soft-lander
Ranger 7NASAJuly 28, 1964Successful impactor
Ranger 8NASAFeb. 17, 1965Successful impactor
Cosmos 60Soviet UnionMarch 12, 1965Unsuccessful soft-lander
Ranger 9NASAMarch 21, 1965Successful impactor
Unnamed LunaSoviet UnionApril 10, 1965Unsuccessful soft-lander
Luna 5Soviet UnionMay 9, 1965Unsuccessful soft-lander
Luna 6Soviet UnionJune 8, 1965Unsuccessful soft-lander
Luna 7Soviet UnionOct. 4, 1965Unsuccessful soft-lander
Luna 8Soviet UnionDec. 3, 1965Unsuccessful soft-lander
Luna 9Soviet UnionJan. 31, 1966Successful soft-lander
Surveyor 1NASAMay 30, 1966Successful soft-lander
Surveyor 2NASASep. 20, 1966Unsuccessful soft-lander
Luna 13Soviet UnionDec. 21, 1966Successful soft-lander
Surveyor 3NASAApril 17, 1967Successful soft-lander
Surveyor 4NASAJuly 14, 1967Unsuccessful soft-lander
Surveyor 5NASASep. 8, 1967Successful soft-lander
Surveyor 6NASANov. 7, 1967Successful soft-lander
Surveyor 7NASAJan. 7, 1968Successful soft-lander
Unnamed LunaSoviet UnionFeb. 7, 1968Unsuccessful soft-lander
Unnamed LunaSoviet UnionFeb. 19, 1969Unsuccessful lander + rover
Unnamed LunaSoviet UnionJune 14, 1969Unsuccessful sample-return mission
Luna 15Soviet UnionJuly 13, 1969Unsuccessful sample-return mission
Apollo 11NASAJuly 16, 1969Successful crewed lander
Kosmos 300Soviet UnionSep. 23, 1969Unsuccessful sample-return mission
Kosmos 305Soviet UnionOct. 22, 1969Unsuccessful sample-return mission
Apollo 12NASANov. 14, 1969Successful crewed lander
Unnamed LunaSoviet UnionFeb. 6, 1970Unsuccessful sample-return mission
Apollo 13NASAApril 11, 1970Unsuccessful crewed lander (but safely returned to Earth)
Luna 16Soviet UnionSep. 12, 1970Successful sample-return mission
Luna 17 + Lunokhod 1Soviet UnionNov. 10, 1970Successful lander + rover
Apollo 14NASAJan. 31, 1971Successful crewed lander
Apollo 15NASAJuly 26, 1971Successful crewed lander
Luna 18Soviet UnionSep. 2, 1971Unsuccessful sample-return mission
Luna 20Soviet UnionFeb. 14, 1972Successful sample-return mission
Apollo 16NASAApril 16, 1972Successful sample-return mission
Apollo 17NASADec. 7, 1972Successful crewed lander
Luna 21 + Lunokhod 2Soviet UnionJan. 8, 1973Successful lander + rover
Luna 23Soviet UnionOct. 28, 1974Unsuccessful sample-return mission
Luna 24Soviet UnionAug. 9, 1976Successful sample-return mission
Moon Impact ProbeISROOct. 22, 2008Successful impactor deployed by Chandrayaan-1
LCROSSNASAJune 18, 2009Successful impactor
Chang'e 3 + YutuCNSADec. 6, 2013Successful lander + rover
Chang'e 4 + Yutu 2CNSADec. 7, 2018Successful lander + rover
BeresheetSpaceIL (private)Feb. 22, 2019Unsuccessful lander; uncontrolled impact on lunar surface
Chandrayaan-2ISROJuly 22, 2019Unsuccessful lander + rover; orbiter component was succesful
Chang'e 5CNSANov. 23, 2020Successful 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.

Related: Sputnik 1! 7 fun facts about humanity's first satellite

Soft landing

A model of the Soviet Union's Luna 9 moon spacecraft in Museum of Air and Space in Paris, France. (Image credit: Pline , CC BY-SA 3.0)

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.

Related: NASA's 17 Apollo moon missions in pictures

Robot explorer

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

The Yutu 2 rover, as seen by the Chang'e 4 lander. (Image credit: CNSA)

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.

Related: China on the moon! A history of Chinese lunar missions in picture

Private enterprise

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.

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Orbiters and flybys
Pioneer 0NASAAug. 17, 1958Unsuccessful orbiter
Pioneer 1NASAOct. 11, 1958Unsuccessful orbiter
Pioneer 2NASANov. 8, 1958Unsuccessful orbiter
Pioneer 3NASADec. 7, 1958Unsuccessful flyby
Pioneer 4NASAMarch 3, 1959Successful flyby
Pioneer P-1NASASep. 24, 1959Unsuccessful orbiter
Luna 3Soviet UnionOct. 4, 1959Successful flyby
Pioneer P-3NASANov. 26, 1959Unsuccessful orbiter
Unnamed LunaSoviet UnionApril 15, 1960Unsuccessful flyby
Unnamed LunaSoviet UnionApril 16, 1960Unsuccessful flyby
Pioneer P-30NASASep. 25, 1960Unsuccessful orbiter
Pioneer P-31NASADec. 15, 1960Unsuccessful orbiter
Zond 3Soviet UnionJuly 18, 1965Successful flyby
Kosmos 111Soviet UnionMarch 1, 1966Unsuccessful orbiter
Luna 10Soviet UnionMarch 31, 1966Successful orbiter
Lunar Orbiter 1NASAAug. 10, 1966Successful orbiter
Luna 11Soviet UnionAug. 24, 1966Successful orbiter
Luna 12Soviet UnionOct. 22, 1966Successful orbiter
Lunar Orbiter 2NASANov. 6, 1966Successful orbiter
Lunar Orbiter 3NASAFeb. 5, 1967Successful orbiter
Lunar Orbiter 4NASAMay 4, 1967Successful orbiter
Lunar Orbiter 5NASAAug. 1, 1967Successful orbiter
Luna 14Soviet UnionApril 7, 1968Successful orbiter
Zond 5Soviet UnionSep. 15, 1968Successful flyby and return to Earth
Zond 6Soviet UnionNov. 10, 1968Successful flyby but crashed on return to Earth
Apollo 8NASADec. 21, 1968Successful crewed orbiter
Apollo 10NASAMay 18, 1969Successful crewed orbiter
Zond 7Soviet UnionAug. 7, 1969Successful flyby and return to Earth
Zond 8Soviet UnionOct. 20, 1970Successful flyby and return to Earth
Luna 19Soviet UnionSep. 28, 1971Successful orbiter
Luna 22Soviet UnionMay 29, 1974Successful orbiter
HitenJAXAJan. 24, 1990Successful orbiter; deliberately impacted moon at end of mission
ClementineDoD/NASAJan. 25, 1994Successful orbiter
Lunar ProspectorNASAJan. 7, 1998Successful orbiter; deliberately impacted moon at end of mission
SMART-1ESASep. 27, 2003Successful orbiter; deliberately impacted moon at end of mission
SELENEJAXASep. 14, 2007Successful orbiter; deliberately impacted moon at end of mission
Chang'e 1CNSAOct. 24, 2007Successful orbiter; deliberately impacted moon at end of mission
Chandrayaan-1ISROOct. 22, 2008Successful orbiter
Lunar Reconnaissance OrbiterNASAJune 18, 2009Successful orbiter
Chang'e 2CNSAOct. 1, 2010Successful orbiter
ARTEMIS P1 and P2NASAFeb. 17, 2007Successful twin orbiters
GRAIL A and BNASASep 10, 2011Successful twin orbiters
LADEENASASep. 7, 2013Successful orbiter; deliberately impacted moon at end of mission
Chang'e 5 T1CNSAOct. 23, 2014Successful flyby and return to Earth
QueqiaoCNSAMay 20, 2018Successful 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).

Related: Sixty years ago, NASA opened for business with first try for moonshot

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.

Translunar tortoises

The Soviet Union's Zond 5 capsule is seen during recovery operations in the Indian Ocean after returning to Earth following a trip around the moon with two steppe tortoises and an extensive biological payload. The tortoises survived. (Image credit: S.P.Korolev RSC Energia)

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.

Overshadowed pioneers

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.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk shared this view of the company's Starbase facility for Starship and Super Heavy launches near Boca Chica village in southern Texas on Oct. 22, 2021. (Image credit: SpaceX/Elon Musk via Twitter)

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.

Related: This is China's new spacecraft to take astronauts to the moon (photos)

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.

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Andrew May

Andrew May holds a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Manchester University, U.K. For 30 years, he worked in the academic, government and private sectors, before becoming a science writer where he has written for Fortean Times, How It Works, All About Space, BBC Science Focus, among others. He has also written a selection of books including Cosmic Impact and Astrobiology: The Search for Life Elsewhere in the Universe, published by Icon Books.