Click here if you want to read this page in Spanish

Moon exploration is an exciting job

In the cover image you can see an artist’s depiction of a mission at work, exploring pits in the surface of the Moon. Credit: William Whittaker, Carnegie Mellon University

Moon exploration has been an international competition

The space exploration of the Moon began when, at the end of World War II, the Soviets and Americans imposed a frenetic pace of work in order to demonstrate to the world, their technological preeminence.

The result was spectacular, because, for the first time in history, the magnificent achievement of reaching the Moon was achieved.

No matter how great this triumph, it cannot be forgotten that the Moon is 380,000 km away from Earth, just over a second light.

The planet Mars is 100 times farther away (2 light minutes). Jupiter is 1,500 times farther than the Moon (30 light minutes). The closest star is 4 light years away, 120 million times farther.

So, for now, this “conquering space” must be taken with due reserve and humility. It may be that within 10,000 years, the most interesting visions of Isaac Asimov will come true, and men will be scattered throughout the galaxy.

The exploration of the Moon can be considered in three phases:

  • Phase 1, lasted 18 years, from 1958 to 1976, was a period of frenzied activity, during which 90 launches were made to the Moon.
  • Phase 2, a period of 13 years, from 1976 to 1990, during which lunar exploration took a back seat.
  • Phase 3, which began in 1990 and continues to this day, is characterized by the return of interest in exploring the Moon; and this challenge has been assumed not only by the United States and Russia, but also by the European Union, China, India and Japan.

However, in 20 years, from 1990 to 2010, the launches of lunar devices have been only nine times.

The great advantage is that the technology has been perfected to limits dreamed of only by science fiction writers

People that have walked on the Moon

Twelve people have walked on the surface of the Moon. They did so, between July 1969 (Apollo 11) and December 1972 (Apollo 17).

Since then, no one else has set foot on the Moon.

Each of seven Apollo missions, carried three astronauts. They returned to Earth bringing 400 kg of rocks and lunar soil.

Currently ESA (European Space Agency) dedicated since 1975 to space exploration, has several lunar projects in which the use of robots is considered.

The first man to walk on the moon

The NASA decided that Neil Armstrong would be the first of the three Apollo XI crew members, to step on the Moon on that historic July 20, 1969.

Apolo 11. Moon exploration
Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, July 20, 1969. Credit:  NASA, web “”

In the 1940s, Germans, Americans, and Russians were trying to overcome the pull of gravity, and put a small satellite into Earth orbit.

This was achieved by the Russians on October 4, 1957, when Sputnik 1, orbiting the Earth at distances of between 214 and 938 km, began to soar through the skies and radio the most famous beeps of the 20th century.

The beep, beep of this small artificial satellite, brightened our nights until January 4, 1958, when it re-entered the atmosphere and burned up completely.

The successful launch of Sputnik I, marked the beginning of a feverish race toward a more ambitious goal, already seen within the reach of technology: putting a man on the Moon.

Artistic representation of Sputnik. On October 4, 1957 was the first artificial satellite in history. Credit: ESA

Between 1958 and 1976, in 18 years, 90 launches were made towards the Moon, some of which ended in failures; but many achieved their planned goals, and all contributed to the advancement of space technology.

The best known projects are the LUNA Project (from the USSR, with 24 missions) and the APOLO Project (from the USA, with 17 missions).

The US was the only country to conduct manned lunar missions.

The first objective was to make an impact on the Moon. The second was to get an unmanned vehicle to orbit around it.

Several historical landmarks can be highlighted; among which are:

– the first photographs of the far side of the satellite (Luna 3, 1959),

– the first Moon landing of an automatic probe (Luna 9, 1966),

– the first orbital round trip of living beings (Zond 5, September 1968),

– first manned round trip and orbital flight around the Moon (Apollo 8, December 1968),

– the first Moon landing of a manned spacecraft (Apollo 11, 1969)

– and the first automatic probe that landed and brought samples of the lunar soil to Earth (Luna 16, 1970).

This 18-year period of intense activity, ended after the launch of the Luna 24 probe in 1976 and Apollo 17 in 1972.

Apolo. Moon exploration
Takeoff of an Apollo spacecraft aboard a Saturn rocket. Credit: NASA, web “nasa.gob”, Editor: Sarah Loff

In this stage of great space activity, the USSR made 46 launches, of which 19 failed.

The tenacity and intelligence demonstrated, was rewarded with 27 successes distributed in 2 artifacts that managed to hit the Moon, 9 vehicles that flew over and orbited the Moon, 14 unmanned spacecraft that managed to land on the moon.

Finally, the USSR managed to capture the first photographs of the far side of the Moon, deposit two all-terrain vehicles on the lunar surface, and bring samples of lunar fragments to Earth.

In the image, you can see Luna 1. It was the first vehicle to escape Earth’s gravity. Launched by the Russians in January 1959, it passed 6,000 km from the lunar surface.

Lunik 1. Moon exploration
The probe Lunik 1 was an 80 cm diameter sphere, that weighed 361 kg.  Credit: Wikipedia

In this initial stage of great space activity, which lasted until 1976, the United States carried out 36 launches, of which 7 failed.

Initially, the work was carried out separately by the United States Army, Navy and Air Force, until NASA centralized the national effort aimed at achieving the goal of reaching the Moon.

The 29 successes achieved in those 15 years, culminated in the feat of taking six different crews to the Moon and bringing large quantities of lunar material to Earth.

Apolo 17. Moon exploration
Apollo 17 lunar module. Credit: NASA

Apollo 17 was the last launch made, it was December 1972 and the sixth American crew that went to the Moon.

Commander Gene Cernan was the last human being to set foot on the surface of the Moon, in the Taurus Mountains, on the border between the Sea of ​​Tranquility and the Sea of ​​Serenity.

The “Challenger” descent module landed with Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt as crew members.

During their stay on the lunar soil, they carried out three explorations on foot and with the LRV lunar rover of 7 hours each (35 kilometers in total), in which they collected 110 kg of lunar rock samples.

Also they left installed:

  • a surface gravimeter, to analyze the attraction that the Sun and the Earth exert on our satellite
  • a device to measure the mass, speed and frequency of meteorite fall and erosion of the material ejected by the impact
  • a device to determine the seismic profile based on explosive charges
  • as well as a meter of the lunar atmospheric composition near the surface.

    Apolo 17
    The moon shot, Apollo 17, is pictured here awaiting its December 1972 night launch. Credit: NASA

By clicking on this paragraph, you can see six Videos produced by NASA to inform about Apollo 11.

Do not stop reading what is said in Wikipedia about Apollo 13. Incredible! It is exciting to see the coolness, courage and intelligence of these crewmembers and the entire team that was on the ground.

Apolo 13 crew. Moon exploration
Crew of the famous Apollo 13. Credit: web “”

Crew of the Apollo 13:

  • Jim Lovell, born March 25, 1928, was the mission commander.
  • Jack Swigert, born August 30, 1931, was the command module pilot.
  • Fred Haise, born November 14, 1933, was appointed as the lunar module pilot.

In August 1976, the Soviets sent the Luna 24, the last robot (until 1990) to land on the Moon and which brought 170 grams of lunar samples to Earth.

After this, a period of 13 years followed (1976 to 1989) during which no vehicle was launched to the Moon.

Also in these years, China, Europe, India and Japan, were preparing to carry out unmanned lunar missions.


In 1990, Japan restarted the world’s space exploration of the Moon with its Hiten probe. There are currently several projects under development by various countries to return to manned missions to the Moon starting in 2018.

The Hiten mission (“Angel of space” in Japanese) succeeded in making Earth orbits wide enough so that, when it passed close to the Moon.

Hite. Moon exploration
Japanese moon probe HITE  Credit: web “”

The Hagoromo satellite it carried on board, was put into lunar orbit. The Hagoromo was prepared to conduct space navigation experiments, and to detect and measure micro particles from lunar space.

On April 10, 1993, the Hiten spacecraft ended up crashing against the surface of the Moon.

On September 14, 2007, the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) launched Selene, an unmanned spacecraft, in an ambitious lunar expedition that, using the 15 scientific instruments carried in three orbiters, was sending data to Earth for 20 months, until they made controlled impact on the lunar surface on June 10, 2009.

Selene Japanese Spaceship, released, September 14, 2007. Credit: Wikipedia


On September 7, 2019, the Indian Space Research Agency (ISRO) came close to getting a small rover to land on the lunar surface.

Unfortunately, the final maneuvers failed, and communications with this module were lost.

However, the lunar orbiter that had transported it, continues to operate about 100 km from the surface and has managed to locate the place where the vehicle fell.


In 1994, the USA restarted the exploration of the Moon.

Although from that date to December 2010, only three missions have been carried out (there are another four under development), the improvement of space navigation and the instrumentation carried on these ships allows setting ambitious objectives.

Clementine lunar probe

On January 25, 1994, NASA launched Clementine, an unmanned spacecraft, with the aim of making scientific observations of the Moon, and determining the size, shape, characteristics of rotation, surface properties and craters of the asteroid Geographos that it moves in an orbit close to Earth’s.

lunaclementine Clementine lunar probe, launched in January 1994. Credit: NASA web “ón_pages/”

For two months, Clementine made a detailed map of much of the lunar surface, from 60 degrees south to 60 degrees north.

Lunar Prospector

On January 7, 1998, NASA launched Lunar Prospector, an unmanned space microprobe, with the aim of continuing the studies carried out by the Clementine probe.

On this occasion, the study was carried out just 10 km from the lunar surface, and also covered the polar surfaces of the Moon.

It was possible refine the current model of the lunar gravitational field, and track the existence of ice, radioactive gases that escape from the interior of the Moon.

Numerous other elements were detected; such as thorium, potassium, iron, uranium, oxygen, magnesium, silicon, aluminum, calcium and titanium.

Lunar Prospector, launched in January 1998. Credit: NASA, web “”

On March 6, 1998, the probe sent data, that made it possible to deduce the more than probable existence of ice water in the craters of both poles of the Moon.

This finding gave serious thought to the possibility of establishing lunar bases.

On July 31, 1999, the probe was sent to hit an area located on the far side near the south pole of the Moon.

The probe did not land where it was expected, and it was not possible to confirm the existence of ice there.

The LRO Space probe

On June 18, 2009, NASA launched the LRO, a space probe designed to explore the Moon.

The launch put an unmanned satellite into orbit around the Moon, that collected scientific data for a year, in preparation for future exploration of the Moon, by humans.

LRO lunar probe, launched in June 2009. Credit: NASA, web “”

The LRO mission was the first satellite in a larger project, whose ultimate goal is to send astronauts to the Moon, establish permanent bases on its surface, and achieve the first manned flight to Mars.

The LRO’s observations are especially focused on studying the lunar poles, and tracking areas that are appropriate for landing manned spacecraft.

It has also been providing data about the possible existence of ice water in the areas that are permanently in shadow, inside craters near the poles.

The Artemis misión

In March 2019, Vice President Mike Pence ordered NASA to carry out the so-called Artemis mission (Apollo’s sister in Greek mythology) with the aim of, once again, taking North American crew to the Moon.

This time also including women  to 2024, ahead of the previous forecast of 2028.

NASA wants to carry out these new missions gradually aboard the Orion spacecraft in collaboration with the European Space Agency.


On August 21, 2008, the Indian Agency for Space Research, in collaboration with NASA and the European Space Agency, launched an unmanned space probe: the Chandrayaan-1.

In Sanskrit,  Chandra means: Moon and Yaan = Ship.

Chandrayaan-1 consisted of an orbiter and a lunar impact module.

Chandraa 1. Moon exploration
ChandraYaar-1 Indian Probe. Credit: web “”

The orbiter launched the impact module, on November 14, 2008, from a distance of 100 km from the surface, 6 days after the probe was placed in lunar orbit.

Equipped with instruments to obtain images of the Moon, the satellite obtained during 312 days valuable images of the lunar topography obtained in the visible spectrum, near infrared and X-rays.

With them, in addition to the chemical characteristics, it was possible to build a complete map in three dimensions of the lunar topography.


The Chinese space program is mainly developed in two branches:

  • One, with manned flights in Earth orbit with the ultimate goal of installing a permanent space station.
  • The other, simultaneous with the first, of lunar exploration.

The Chinese Space Agency plans to carry out, in 2013, a controlled moon landing of a lunar module, without a crew, and that will release a motorized vehicle, that will travel the selenite surface.

Sonda china 1. Moon exploration
Chinese lunar probe. Credit: web “”, author: Jade Rabbit

The Chinese space program intends to send its first astronauts to the Moon in 2025.

Chinese lunar probes are called “Chang’e”, the name of a legendary Chinese goddess.

In October 2007, the first probe was launched, an unmanned spacecraft, the “Chang’e-1” which, after 13 days of travel, entered an orbit 200 km from the Moon and produced a three-dimensional map of our satellite, taking pictures of the lunar surface until it impacted on the lunar surface in March 2009.

The Chang’e 2 probe was launched on October 20, 2010 and after 5 days of travel it entered orbit 100 km from the Moon and immediately began sending high-resolution three-dimensional photos of the selenite surface.

Probe China
Chinese probe Chang’e 2. Credit: web “”

One of the main objectives of this mission of the Chinese unmanned spacecraft is to find places for a future moon landing of the Chang’e 3 probe.

Moon Earth
The fascinating photograph taken by the Chinese probe Chang’e 5 of the Earth and the Moon together. Credit: China National Space Administration (CNSA)

The photograph was captured from a distance of 1.5 billion kilometers from Earth.


On April 12, 2019, a private Israeli company (Space IL) managed to take an explorer robot to the Moon.

Unfortunately, the probe called the Bersheet, could not be controlled and, at the last moment, crashed against the Moon.

However, this was a great feat that made Israel the fourth country to reach the moon, after three powers such as the USA, Russia and China. Israeli businessmen had invested 35 million euros in this attempt.


On September 23, 2003, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched its first robotic space mission, SMART-1, with the aim of crashing into the Moon, after an orbital flight around our satellite.

The Smart-1 measured one meter in length and, at the time of its launch, weighed 367 kg, including 287 kg of propellant.

The probe’s main goal was to test the solar-powered ion thruster, which will later be used on other ESA missions.

Other important objectives were:

  • to test the efficiency of the miniaturized instrumentation carried by the probe.
  • photograph the entire surface of the Moon from different angles, to obtain a three-dimensional representation of the lunar surface.

Finally, on September 3, 2006, it was made to hit the Moon.

Impact of Smart-1 on the Moon Credit: ESA web “”

In addition to NASA, China, Japan and the European Space Agency are preparing manned moon landings for the 2020s and 2030s.

When the Apollo XI module landed on the Moon, the first to know were NOT the engineers from Houston, but a team of Spaniards from NASA, in Robledo de Chabela, a beautiful town, near Madrid.

There were exciting moments there, especially with the great success of Apollo 11 and with the harrowing hours of Apollo 13 when: “Houston, we have a problem.

From the Apollo 11 missions to the Apollo 17 missions, a very important part of the monitoring of the Apollo ships was carried out from the vicinity of this small town in the mountains of Madrid.

On July 11, 1973, the United States Government had given Spain two small pieces of moonstone, as a token of affection and appreciation for the services provided by the Apollo Tracking Station.

The European Space Agency (ESA) presented one of the projects that has the best potential to be carried out for the installation of a future base on the moon.

Moon exploration
Graphical representation of a possible moon base. Credit: ESA