The Moon Landings

The Moon is a well-visited place because it is our closest neighbor in space: it is where Apollo astronauts made history as the first humans to walk on another celestial body. 

The Moon has also witnessed numerous missions. 40% of them failed. But, every mission taught us more about the Moon, its history, and how humans can visit it more often.

This article gives you an in-depth look into the Moon landings till date, the Apollo missions, the space vehicles, and the current and future countries in the captivating race to the Moon.

Let’s go!

How Many Moon Landings Have There Been?

Quick Answer: Out of the 133 attempted missions to the Moon, 15 were hard landings, 17 were soft landings, and the rest were partially or fully unsuccessful. A hard landing is one that was uncontrolled, i.e. little or no deceleration before touchdown.

This image shows the list of missions to the Moon and their landing sites
List of Moon landings (Source)

NASA’s fact sheet states that 40% of total Moon missions failed either during launch errors, errors while the spacecraft was in orbit, or when it crash-landed onto the lunar surface rather than softly touching down.

Luna 15, which was Soviet Union’s effort to bring home lunar samples, is thought to have crashed into a lunar mountain after it stopped transmitting a few minutes into its descent.

NASA’s Surveyor 4 in 1967 was meant to photograph the lunar surface for upcoming crewed Apollo missions. It stopped transmitting 2.5 minutes before its soft landing and crash-landed.

Israel’s Beresheet mission’s lander crash-landed after the spacecraft’s main engine shut off.

There have been many failures, but many missions have been successful too.

Unmanned Missions

NameCountryLaunch DateDuration to reach MoonReturn datePurpose
Luna 2Soviet UnionSeptember 12, 19592 days 14 hours 22  minutesThe first spacecraft to reach the lunar surface, although it impacted
Ranger 7USAJuly 28, 19642 daysMeant to send photographs until impact
Ranger 8USAFebruary 15, 19653 daysFirst images of the Moon up close. Sent 7137 images until impact
Ranger 9USAMarch 21, 19653 daysSame as Ranger 7 and 8
Luna 9Soviet UnionJanuary 31, 19663 daysFirst spacecraft to land on the lunar surface
Surveyor 1USAMay 30, 19663 daysFirst spacecraft from the USA to achieve soft-landing
Luna 13Soviet UnionDecember 21, 19663 daysSecond spacecraft from the Soviet Union to soft-land after Luna 9
Surveyor 3USAApril 17, 19673 daysFirst to scoop lunar soil
Surveyor 5USASeptember 8, 19673 daysThird in Surveyor program to accomplish soft-landing
Surveyor 6USANovember 7, 19673 daysFourth in the Surveyor program to accomplish soft-landing
Surveyor 7USAJanuary 7, 19683 daysFifth spacecraft of Surveyor program to achieve soft-landing
Luna 16Soviet UnionSeptember 12, 19705 daysSoft landed on the lunar surface, first landing made on the Moon’s dark side.
Luna 17Soviet UnionNovember 10, 19707 daysDeployed the Luna program’s first robotic rover.
Luna 20Soviet UnionFebruary 14, 19724 days to reach lunar orbit, 3 more days to landFebruary 25, 1972Luna program’s second sample return mission.
Luna 21Soviet UnionJanuary 8, 19734 days to reach lunar orbit, 3 more days to landDeployed Luna program’s second rover.
Luna 24Soviet UnionAugust 9, 19765 days to reach lunar orbit, 4 more days to landAugust 22, 1976The third successful sample return mission
LCROSSUSAJune 18, 20094.5 days to complete lunar swingby, impacted on October 9, 2009Impacted
Chang’e 3ChinaDecember 1, 20135 days to reach lunar orbit, 8 additional days to landChina’s first rover
Chang’e 5ChinaNovember 23, 20207 days to land on the MoonDecember 16, 2020China’s first sample return mission

Manned Missions

NameCountryLaunch DateDuration to reach MoonReturn datePurpose
Apollo 11USAJuly 16, 19693 days to reach lunar orbit, 1 additional day to landJuly 24, 1969First crewed landing
Apollo 12USANovember 14, 19693.4 days to reach lunar orbit, 1.1 more days to landNovember 24, 1969The second crewed landing
Apollo 14USAJanuary 31, 19713.3 days to reach lunar orbit, 1.5 days to landFebruary 9, 1971Third crewed landing
Apollo 15USA July 26, 19714 daysAugust 2, 1971Fourth crewed landing
Apollo 16USAApril 16, 19723 days to reach lunar orbit, 1.3 additional days to landApril 27, 1972Fifth crewed landing
Apollo 17USADecember 7, 19723 days to reach lunar orbit, 1 additional day to landDecember 19, 1972Sixth and last crewed landing

The Human Moon Landings

12 astronauts landed and “moonwalked” as part of NASA’s Apollo program. 

A total of 11 flights occurred from 1968 to 1972, first four of which were uncrewed to prepare for upcoming seven crewed flights.

Of the planned 7, only 6 manned missions actually landed on the Moon while one mission (Apollo 13) had to be aborted.

Humankind hasn’t returned to the Moon since the Apollo missions over half a century ago. To date, the successful Apollo missions reflect humankind’s highest accomplishments and potential in space exploration.

Apollo 11

Astronauts: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins.

Purpose: This mission was the fifth Apollo mission (the first four were test missions without landings). 

Outcome: Astronauts launched in a Saturn V rocket on July 16, 1969. Once in lunar orbit, Michael Collins remained in the orbiter while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin entered Eagle and successfully landed in Tranquility Base on July 20, 1969. 

Neil Armstrong was the first human to walk on the Moon. Buzz Aldrin was second. 

This image shows Neil Armstrong near the lunar module and U.S. flag on the left
Astronaut Neil Armstrong as photographed by Buzz Aldrin (Source)

While on the lunar surface, both astronauts collected 21.5 kg lunar material to be brought back to Earth. They also planted the U.S. flag.

[This image shows Buzz Aldrin saluting the U.S. flag
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin saluting the U.S. flag (Source)

Apollo 12

Astronauts: Charles Conrad, Alan Bean, and Richard Gordon

Purpose: Apollo 12 was a second successful crewed landing on the Moon, during which Charles Conrad and Alan Bean performed two moonwalks while Richard Gordon remained in the orbiter. 

Alan Bean descending the module (Source)

Outcome: 

By landing exactly as planned a few meters from Surveyor 3, Apollo 12’s success proved that precise landings were possible

Astronauts of this mission also carried the first color television camera to the Moon, but Alan Bean accidentally pointed the camera toward the Sun while setting it up, and all transmission was lost. 

During the second moonwalk, astronauts went to Surveyor 3 and removed certain parts to be returned to Earth. 

Most of their time was spent in deploying and troubleshooting the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package which contained scientific instruments meant to work autonomously once the astronauts left.

The astronauts landed safely on November 24, 1969. 

Apollo 14

Astronauts: Alan Shepard, Stuart Roosa and Edgar Mitchell

Purpose: The third set of astronauts to perform a successful crewed mission to the Moon. Apollo 14 was the first to land in the highlands.

The mission was initially delayed for one year due to investigations and changes in spacecraft made after Apollo 13’s failure. 

Apollo 14 itself came very close to being aborted due to issues in docking mechanism and landing, but Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell successfully landed in Apollo 13’s original landing site, Fra Mauro. 

Stuart Roosa remained in the orbiter to click pictures of the Moon, Earth and potential target sites for the Apollo 16 mission

This image shows Apollo 16’s landing site
Apollo 16’s landing site, Descartes Highlands, captured by Apollo 14’s astronaut Stuart Roosa (Source)

He also had 500 seeds that the U.S. Forest Service had given. Those seeds remained in orbit and germinated into “Moon trees” which are now planted across the US (but aren’t different from Earth trees even after 50 years).

This image shows the plaque of a Moon tree planted in Arkansas
Moon tree plaque in Arkansas (Source)

Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell performed two moonwalks during which they collected 42.8 kg worth of moonrocks to bring home

They also deployed their own Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package similar to Apollo 12, with seismometers to calculate moonquakes. 

Apollo 14 is most fondly remembered for Alan Shepard’s mini-golf session. 

This image shows Alan Shepard playing golf on the Moon
A blurry image of Alan Shepard playing golf (Source)

The astronauts landed safely on Earth on February 9, 1971.

Apollo 15

Astronauts: David Scott, James Irwin, and Alfred Worden

Purpose: The fourth successful crewed mission. 

David Scott and James Irwin landed onto the surface while Alfred Worden remained in the orbiter. Scott and Irwin also deployed and used the first Lunar Roving Vehicle, which is popularly known as “Moon Buggy”. 

With this vehicle, the two astronauts were able to travel farther than previous missions. They spent a total of 18 hours and 30 minutes on the surface during which they collected 77 kg of lunar material to bring home. 

One of the rocks was the Genesis Rock, which is younger than the Moon and is theorized to have formed after the Moon’s crust solidified. The rock is now at a laboratory in Texas.

Apollo 15 is also known for Scott’s famous experiment in which he dropped a hammer and a feather for a live demonstration for Earthlings. 

The fact that both items fell onto the lunar surface at the same time proved Galileo’s theory that in the absence of air resistance, objects released from the same height drop at the same rate irrespective of their masses.

[Insert video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oo8TaPVsn9Y]

The astronauts returned safely to Earth on August 7, 1971. 

Apollo 16

Astronauts: John Young, Charles Duke and Ken Mattingly.

Purpose: The fifth crewed mission. Young and Duke landed on the lunar surface while Mattingly remained in the orbiter. 

This image shows astronaut Charles Duke standing near a rock
Astronaut Charles Duke is seen on the image’s left (Source)

The landing site was Descartes Highlands, the site photographed during the Apollo 14 mission. This site was chosen to allow the astronauts to collect older samples than what were collected in the previous missions. 

During their 71 hours and 3 moonwalks on the lunar surface, Young and Duke gathered 95.8 kgs of lunar material, part of which is the Big Muley — the biggest rock collected of all Apollo missions

This image shows the astronaut Charles Duke picking up Big Muley
Astronaut Charles Duke picking up the Big Muley (Source)

Lunar material from this site disproved a long standing theory that the highlands originated from volcanoes. 

The crew returned safely to Earth on April 27, 1972.

Apollo 17

Astronauts: Eugene Cernan, Harrison Schmitt and Ronald Evans

Purpose: The sixth and final set of astronauts as part of the Apollo missions to land on the Moon.

Apollo 17 remains the most recent crewed landing on the lunar surface. In fact, this mission carried not only the astronauts but also 5 mice for biological experiments!

This mission made history for many reasons. First, Cernan and Schmitt collected 110kg of lunar material — the highest amount in the entire Apollo program. 

The astronauts also spent 6 days and 4 hours in orbit, setting the record for the longest time. Moreover, the astronauts set a record as they drove the third “moon buggy” for 22 hours and 4 minutes.

This image shows astronaut Eugene Cernan driving a lunar roving vehicle
Astronaut Eugene Cernan driving the moon buggy (Source)

All astronauts and mice returned safely to Earth on December 19, 1972. 

Apollo 13 — The Most Famous Failed Mission

What was supposed to happen:

Apollo 13 was meant to be the third crewed mission to land on the Moon as part of the Apollo program. Their designated site was Fra Mauro. 

What actually happened: 

One of the two oxygen tanks exploded after 55 hours 55 minutes (a little over 2.2 days) into the mission, causing the astronauts to abort the landing and return home. 

Why the issue occurred: 

  1. Apollo 10’s oxygen tank was modified, tested, and installed as tank No. 2 in Apollo 13. 
  2. Apollo 13’s crew module was improved in multiple aspects five years before the launch. One of the improvements was increasing the allowed voltage in the oxygen tanks’ heaters from 28 volts DC to 65 volts DC. But the switches on these heaters weren’t modified accordingly. 
  3. NASA performs demonstration tests on the launch pad, during which the oxygen tanks are tested if they empty to half full. The first tank performed well, but No. 2 only dropped to 92% and stopped. The person in charge at the time ordered the heaters in the tank to boil the oxygen, which took 8 hours.
  4. This boiling increased the wiring’s temperature to 1000 degrees Fahrenheit inside the tank — for 8 full hours, and other warnings went “unheeded”, according to the Apollo 13 Accident Review Board. The tank was now “a potential bomb the next time it was filled with oxygen.”

What the astronauts did to return home safely:

  1. 55 hours 55 minutes into the mission, oxygen tank No. 2 exploded, and tank No. 1 also failed. 13 minutes later the crew noticed oxygen leaking out of the spacecraft at a rate of 300 pounds per square inch. 
  2. The crew lost their supply of electricity and water. Only 2 of the 3 fuel cells were functioning. 
  3. The crew cut down their water supply to 1/5th their original intake. 
  4. Prior to the explosion, the crew had corrected their course to transition from a free course to entering the lunar orbit. They now tried to get back to the free course route to set their path toward Earth. 
  5. They changed their spacecraft’s alignment but couldn’t verify if it was right: there was a ton of debris around them, blocking their view from the stars.
  6. They instead used the Sun for their alignment — a method that ended up working. 
  7. The temperature inside the module was a freezing 38 degrees Fahrenheit and it “rained” inside, but the crew — who set a record for losing 50% more weight than other Apollo astronauts, returned home safely on April 17, 1970.

The mission is deemed as a “successful failure” because new protocols were drafted and executed in record time of 3 days, a sharp timeline compared to the usual necessity of 3 months. 

The Apollo Space Vehicles

Saturn V Rocket

Saturn V was 363 feet tall, 33 feet wide and weighed 6.5 million pounds when filled with fuel. Saturn V is so tall that it takes a full 12 seconds to clear the tower during liftoff. This rocket, till date, holds the record for the most powerful rocket.

This image shows the Saturn V rocket firing up
The Saturn V rocket is 58 feet taller than USA’s Statue of Liberty (Source)

Its initial design was crafted to send 90,000 pounds to the Moon, but upgrades for the last three Apollo missions increased that capacity to 107,000 pounds. 

The rocket had three main stages: S1C (with 5 F-1 rocket engines), S-II (with 2 J-2 rocket engines) and S-IVB (with 1 J-2 rocket engine). 

The rocket had three main parts as well: The Command Module, Service Module and Lunar Module. 

From bottom up, the Lunar Module went in first on top of which service module sat. The command module came on top. Only the launch escape system meant to remove command and service modules during emergency sat on the very top of the rocket. 

How the Apollo Space Vehicles put Astronauts on the Moon

  • The rocket lifts off with the help of a burn from S1C’s 5 F-1 rocket engines, which continue powering the spacecraft for 2 minutes 42 seconds into the flight. They shut off and detach at 42 miles (67 km). 
  • The second stage, the S-II’s J-2 rocket fires up now and continues till 9 minutes 12 seconds. It shuts off at 109 miles (175 km) and detaches. 
  • The third stage, S-IVB’s J-2 engine fires for 2 minutes to get the spacecraft to parking orbit, where it remains for 2 hours at 118 miles (189 km). But the third stage does not detach at this time because another burn would be needed. 
  • It fires up again for a full 6 minutes to propel the spacecraft towards the Moon, an event called the Trans Lunar Injection. The third stage detaches after this. 
  • The command module (CM) and service module (SM) detach from the spacecraft as a single unit. But the lunar module (LM) is still inside the rocket. So CM and SM dock again with the rocket and attach to LM, pull it out and start rolling in a “barbeque roll” motion to maintain even heat distribution in the cold outer space.
  • The engine in SM fires up to slow the spacecraft as it gets captured by the Moon’s gravity. Two of the three Apollo astronauts go into the lunar module to prepare for their landing. One astronaut remains in the command module. 
  • The LM fires for 30 seconds to take the astronauts near the surface. All this while, the LM is sideways to show the astronauts the Moon’s surface where they would be landing. It turns before touchdown, so that it is upright when it touches the surface.

How Did the Astronauts on the Moon return to orbit? 

The lunar module in which astronauts landed itself is made of two parts: the ascent stage and the descent stage. The descent stage’s thrusters and engines were used to land on the lunar surface, but for an astronaut’s return, it is useless. 

The ascent stage has engines of its own. This stage burns for nearly 7 minutes to return to the lunar orbit, but it hasn’t docked with the orbiting command module yet. 

The ascent stage takes at least 2 orbits and over 3 hours around the Moon to get closer to the command module. The two eventually dock and return on a free trajectory toward Earth. 

Then Vs Now

The Apollo program’s code is now available online for free. The entire mission demonstrated exemplary technology. In comparison, phones and laptops today use software that is more powerful than the entire Apollo program’s technology. 

This image shows NASA’s Margaret Hamilton standing beside the stack of papers containing the code used in the Apollo program
NASA’s software engineer Margaret Hamilton beside the immense code required to put astronauts on the Moon (Source)

However, the Orion spacecraft that NASA might use in future crewed missions, follows the same basic design of structure and heat shields from the Apollo program. 

Where Did the Landings Happen?

How to see Apollo Landing Sites on the Moon

All Apollo missions landed near major craters on the lunar surface. 

Apollo 11: Mare Tranquillitatis near the Theophilus crater

Apollo 12: Oceanus Procellarum near the Copernicus crater

Apollo 14: Fra Mauro near the Copernicus crater

Apollo 15: Hadley Rille near the Archimedes crater

Apollo 16: Descartes Highlands, between Theophilus and Plotemaeus craters

Apollo 17: Taurus Littrow Valley near the Posidonius crater.  

Landing sites of the Apollo missions (Source)

Future Moon Landings

Humans haven’t returned to the Moon since the Apollo missions, but it is very close to becoming a much busier and crowded space in the next decade.

NASA’s Artemis mission aims to land humans on the Moon by 2024. 

Russia is shooting for a Moon landing in 2030 (test crewed flights are aimed for 2029).

After India’s Chandrayaan-2 failed to land on the lunar south pole in 2019, the Indian Space Research Organization is planning Chandrayaan-3, which will be India’s first soft-landing on the lunar surface.

China’s Chang’e 5 was the country’s first successful lunar sample return mission. The country is now aiming to build a station on the Moon by the end of this decade. 

Countries such as South Korea and Japan are joining the race with probes, orbiters, landers and rovers of their own.

These are all each country’s official space agencies. Private space companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic have their eye on the Moon too.

Contracting companies such as Astrobotic are being awarded millions of dollars to support NASA in its lunar journey.

SpaceX’s missions are not planning to land on the Moon (yet), but are offering trips around the Moon and back as part of space tourism.

Summary

Humans have invested a lot of technology in building instruments to send to the Moon. Although 40% of the missions failed, the successful ones provided ample knowledge about the Moon and its past. 

Half a century after the historic Apollo missions, this knowledge is once again being used to send humans to the Moon. The USA, India, China, Russia, Korea and Japan are currently in the lunar race. 

2020 to 2030 is going to be a captivating decade, don’t you think so?

Improve your moon observing skills, with our Guide to The Lunar 100

Written by Sharmila Kunthuner