Monday, February 18, 2019

A Short History of Manned and Unmanned Moon Missions

Buzz Aldrin salutes the American flag on the Moon

Israel, or, rather, a private company from Israel, is about to launch an unmanned mission to make a soft-landing on the moon.

I think that's pretty cool.

The mission, by the Israeli company SpaceIL and its partner Israel Aerospace Industries is called Beresheet.

Beresheet is the first word of the Hebrew Bible, meaning “in the beginning.”

Mahound's Paradise will have more on this in a few days when, God grant, the attempt is successful.

As many of you know, the United States, the Soviet Union and China have already made manned and/or unmanned soft-landings on the Moon. Japan, India and two European entities have either made hard-landings or put probes into Moon orbit.

As a preview to the Israeli attempt, I wanted to review some of the history of Moon missions, so I created a short list, below. Some of the history is well-known, Some of it isn't.

Part of why it isn't is because the Zeitgeist doesn't care anymore. We've moved on to Climate Change.

A few years ago, I wrote about the almost miraculous success of the American space effort of the 1960's, culminating, of course, in the Apollo Moon landings. But let me, here, say a few brief words about the Soviet space program. Many view it as a failure. The U.S.S.R officially lost the "space race" after all. And the perception of some is that that the Soviet effort featured many unnecessary deaths (most of which were covered up at the time) due to relatively crude technology and a cavalier attitude towards human life.

I think that view is unfair. As we'll see below, most Moon "firsts" were in fact achieved by the Soviets. Yes, their early attempts were crude, but so were ours. But in general they just kept trying until they met with success. In a sense that's what science and exploration is all about.

Some Soviet astronauts died in Earth atmosphere (many more Soviet space program staffers would perish on the ground - the majority in the horrific launch pad explosion, now called the Nedelin Catastrophe). But in the end, as far as we know, fewer Soviets would die in space or after launch than Americans. Of course, all of the heroes from both countries who perished deserve our praise and our prayers.

Yes, the Soviet Union was a tyranny, and its motives for learning how to successfully launch rockets were not pure (then again, neither were ours, completely). But its space program was designed and carried out by human beings, many of whom exemplified the best in human ingenuity.

Give credit where credit is due.

Let's hope the Israeli mission is part of a rebirth of Moon and space exploration - by both private entities and governments. From the news accounts of planned and potential missions it could seem to be. And I hope this country leads it, not because it's my country, but because we're still the best placed to do so. And not doing so would be "dropping the ball". Who wants to do that?

MAGA means more than just building a wall.

Here's a quick review of the history of Moon missions:     


During this period the goal was for an unmanned vehicle to reach the moon. Twenty-two missions were attempted with only three being completely successful. Interestingly, the Soviets generally attempted to hit the Moon while the Americans generally tried to get a craft into Moon orbit. In addition, most of the Soviet missions failed during launch, whereas the Americans had a more even record with some of its failures occurring in space.

1st unmanned attempt to hit Moon : U.S.S.R., 23 September 1958, Luna E-1, No. 1. The craft failed to reach orbit due to a second stage failure.

1st unmanned far flyby of Moon : U.S.A., 3 March 1959, Pioneer 4. The craft flew by the Moon but at a much greater distance than planned, thus unfortunately putting it out of instrument range. But Pioneer 4 was the first vehicle to leave Earth orbit.

1st unmanned impact on Moon: U.S.S.R., 12 September 1959, Luna 2. The United States wouldn't do this until 1962, when Ranger 4 ran out of power in space but drifted into the moon three days later. 

1st unmanned successful flyby of Moon: U.S.S.R., 4 October 1959, Luna 3. The craft was the first to transmit images of the far side of the Moon.


During these years, the goal was to land on the moon with an unmanned vehicle and conduct experiments and studies leading to manned missions.  

1st unmanned soft-landing on Moon: U.S.S.R., 31 January 1966, Luna 9. The United States would land Surveyor 1 four months later.

1st unmanned mission to orbit Moon: U.S.S.R., 1 March 1966, Luna 10. It continued to transmit data for almost two months.

1st unmanned mission to carry Earth life into Moon Orbit: U.S.S.R., 14 September 1968, Zond 5. This was also the first craft to reach the vicinity of the moon and then return to Earth. The "earth life" consisted of two turtles. Unfortunately they didn't survive the journey home.


This period saw the first (and only) manned missions to the moon - among the greatest set of scientific, technological and exploration missions in human history. It's amazing to consider that these occurred with computing memory and power far inferior to that currently found in a dollar store toy, and only a few years after primitive rockets were exploding right and left on launchpads.  

1st manned orbit of Moon: U.S.A., 21 December 1968, Apollo 8. The vehicle would complete ten orbits before successfully returning to Earth.

1st manned landing on Moon: U.S.A., 16 July 1969, Apollo 11. Seven Apollo missions would follow, six of them successful. Twelve men would walk on the moon (with six of them driving a buggy over it). There have been no other manned missions to the Moon in almost fifty years.

1st unmanned soil sample return from Moon: U.S.S.R., 12 September 1970, Luna 16. The Soviets would accomplish this again in 1976. No other mission ever did this.

1st unmanned landing on Moon with an unmanned rover: U.S.S.R., 10 November 1970, Luna 17. The rover was called Lunokhod 1 and looked a bit like a high-tech baby carriage. It survived for almost a year, being controlled from a secret Moscow facility and driven roughly one day per month for up to a mile.

1st manned landing on Moon with a manned-rover or "moon buggy": U.S.A., 26 July 1971, Apollo 15. The rovers on this and the next two Apollo missions would cover over fifty miles.

Lunokhod 1


The modern space age has given us many undeniably cool things - the Hubble Telescope, planetary probes and rovers, and the International Space Station. But judged by the hopes of the 1960's it was a bust. There would be no moon bases, no Howard Johnson's hotels in orbit, no missions to Mars. Instead, we got the internet.

But kudos to Japan, India and China.  

1st unmanned flyby of Moon on the way to other planets: U.S.A., 3 July 1973, Mariner 10. The craft would go on to Venus and Mercury.

1st unmanned flyby/orbit of Moon not by Americans or Soviets (Japan): Japan, 24 January 1990, Hiten.

1st unmanned orbit of Moon by the European Space Agency: ESA, 27 September 2003, SMART-1.

1st unmanned orbit of Moon by China: People's Republic of China, 24 October 2007, Chang'e 1.

1st unmanned orbit of Moon by India: India, 21 October 2008, Chandrayaan 1.

1st unmanned impact of Moon not by Americans or Soviets (India): India, 21 October 2008, Moon Impact Probe.

1st unmanned soft landing on Moon not by Americans or Soviets (China): People's Republic of China, 1 December 2013, Chang'e 3. The craft also deployed a rover.

1st unmanned flyby of Moon by private company: LuxSpace (based in Luxembourg), 23 October 2014, 4M. The craft was launched with a Chinese rocket.

1st unmanned soft landing on far side of the Moon: People's Republic of China, 7 December 2018, Chang'e 4. The craft also deployed a rover.


A private Israeli company lands a probe on the Moon in 2019 (?)

Men from the United States return to the Moon by 2028 (?)

An artist's depiction of the Beresheet lander

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