Humanity has long looked up to the night sky to see our incredible moon.
Writers and visionaries wrote stories of visiting, but it wasn’t until the end of World War II that the U.S. had a true opportunity to meet those dreams.
German scientists had been experimenting with successful rocketry that were far beyond any that other countries had achieved.
When the war ended, the United States brought 1,600 of these scientists, headed by Wernher Von Braun as part of the Operation Paperclip program.
In this program, the scientists were given the ability to expand on the previous rocket experiments and this eventually led to the development of space missions.
The U.S.S.R also began active space programs and they were the first to succeed in many of the missions, including having the first manned mission.
The 1957 Sputnik rocket was the first to complete a mission into space. Their most notable of the time was the 1959 Luna 1 that made a moon flyby at 3,725 mi (5,995 km).
While it was supposed to hit the moon and failed, it did send back information that proved that the moon didn’t have a magnetic field and space phenomena such as the ionized plasma that we now know as the solar wind.
In 1961 Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet cosmonaut, returned to be the first man to orbit the Earth.
Luna 2 made it to the surface of the moon, becoming the first manmade item to reach the surface.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy addressed the “space race” with an expansion of the U.S.
space program, committing America to lofty goals of landing a man on the moon and returning him by the end of the decade.
The Soviets continued their Luna missions and had success with the first craft to achieve a soft landing as well as go in orbit around the moon.
NASA had its first spacecraft on the moon in 1962 with the Ranger missions.
These missions were known as “kamimaze missions” because they were to get as many pictures as possible and transmit them back to Earth before crashing into the moon.
The Ranger 4 mission wasn’t very successful but the later Ranger 7 mission took over 4,000 pictures in 17 minutes and then crashed to the surface of the moon.
The Ranger 9 mission showed the rough surface of the moon which demonstrated that it will be a challenge to find a smoother place to land future missions.
Von Braun worked closely with his crew of scientists and those in the U.S. to produce rockets that were very close in appearance to those used in Germany.
Between 1958 and 1963, Project Mercury was established for the purpose of putting a man in space.
The program had six manned missions that ran from 1961 through 1963 with goals of:
- To orbit a manned spacecraft around Earth.
- To investigate man’s ability to function in space.
- To recover both man and spacecraft safely.
Between 1966 and 1968 NASA launched the Surveyor space probes which were designed to have controlled landings on the moon.
Their additional purpose was to get samples of moon soil and do an analysis of the lunar rock and dirt.
During this same time NASA had five additional missions that were to circle the moon and charge the surface so that they could prepare for landings in the future.
These missions photographed almost 99% of the surface of the moon.
Rocket types changed over the years and what began with the Atlas rockets transitioned to the Saturn V rockets in the U.S.
The space program was becoming so successful that Von Braun was made the Director of NASA’s Marshall Center.
It took a lot of trials and errors during the early days of getting to the moon, but most people are more familiar with the manned missions of NASA’s Apollo program.
From 1968 through 1962 there were 13 missions total, with six missions bringing successful manned landings on the moon’s surface.
It was Apollo 11, headed by Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin that made the name of being the first to land on the moon; with astronaut Neil Armstrong being the first man to walk on the moon.
Upon touching down Armstrong made the first of two iconic quotes:
“Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
When Armstrong first stepped out to the moon’s surface, he said the second quote:
“That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Other U.S. missions to the moon under the Apollo name have deployed rovers that the astronauts rode over the surface of the moon, and an enormous number of rock samples collected by the astronauts.
Although the U.S. was focused on fulfilling President Kennedy’s desire for a manned moon landing, the Soviet Union was instead sending unmanned missions to the moon to deploy rovers and get samples back to them.
Of the three rover missions that they launched, two were successful in bringing back eleven samples.
Moon exploration is now part of missions by many countries including:
- Soviet Union
- United States
- ESA (European Space Agency)
- People’s Republic of China
In addition to exploring the moon, there have been other spacecraft with different purposes:
- Four spacecraft used the moon for gravity assistance.
- A spacecraft used the moon as part of a radio telescope.
- Explorer 49 was put in a special orbit so that it could use the moon to block terrestrial radio source interference.
Additional missions to the moon include:
- NASA’s 1994 Clementine mission to map the surface of the moon in non-visible wavelengths such as infrared and ultraviolet.
- NASA’s 1999 Lunar Prospector searched for possible ice at the moon’s lunar poles, remapped the moon’s surface, and explored the gravitational field of the moon.
- What was the name of the German rocket scientist that led the U.S. rocket missions?
Wernhner Von Braun
- What was the name of the first successful space mission?
- What U.S. astronaut first stepped foot on the moon’s surface?
- What two countries were involved in the “space race?”
The U.S. and the Soviet Union
- So far, how many countries have had some kind of moon mission?