The earliest radar echo from the Moon was achieved by the US Army on 10 January 1946. As our closest neighbour, the Moon inspired Man’s first ventures into space, and the first attempt to reach the Moon was made by Thor-Able 1, launched 17 August 1958 in the USA. This, and the next three US Pioneer attempts, failed.

On 2 January 1959 the Soviet researchers dispatched Luna 1, their first Moon probe. This passed the Moon at 3,730 miles and went into solar orbit. Next, on 14 September 1959 at 0002hr 24 sec (Moscow time) Luna 2 (launched 12 September) hard-landed on the Moon (at 30N 1W, near Mare Serenitatis). This was quickly followed by Luna 3, launched 4 October 1959 (exactly two years after Sputnik), which went right around the Moon and took the first historic photographs of the far side.

The USA had more failures attempting to reach and photograph the Moon’s surface before striking the Moon (at 15S5 130W7) with Ranger 4, and with Ranger 6 in February 1964 (at 0N2, 21E5), but cameras failed on both occasions. The first photographs the USA achieved were from Ranger 7, launched 28 July 1964, which landed in Mare Nubium (10S7 20W7), now Mare Cognitum, or Known Sea, and returned 4,316 pictures. Zond 3 (launched 18 July 1965) obtained 25 more pictures of the Moon’s far side for the USSR, but landed unsuccessfully. Luna 9, launched 1100 hr GMT, 31 January 1966, had the distinction of being the first spacecraft to successfully soft-land on the Moon, on the grey plain of the Oceanus Procellarum (Ocean of Storms)(7N06 65W24), 1845:30 hr GMT, 3 February 1966, and sent back live pictures from the surface. Several more American and Russian unpiloted moon missions followed.

The first wheeled vehicle to land on the Moon was Lunokhod I, which was controlled from Earth. Luna 17 landed it on 17 November 1970 (launched 10 November) and the vehicle travelled in the Mare Imbrium (38N24 35W0) at gradients of up to 30% until 4 October 1971, when it ceased to function.



The Apollo program was initiated by President John F Kennedy on 25 May 1961, in an attempt to steal a march on the USSR. In his speech to congress he said, "I believe this nation should commit itself to the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth." It was an epochal venture, described well by one Apollo mission employee: "The President reached out to the 21st Century, grabbed a decade of time, slipped it in the 60s and 70s and called it Apollo." Another US journalist said Apollo was like a dog marking his territory and then ambling off to do something else.

The program got off to a tragic start on 26 January 1967 when the crew of Apollo 1, Ed White, Roger Chaffee and Virgil Grissom, perished in a fire that swept through the oxygen rich cabin as it sat on the launch pad during a test countdown. It was not until October 1968 that the Apollo Project got off the ground with the launch of Apollo VII, bearing Wally Schirra, Donn Eisele and Walt Cunningham into an Earth orbit, a shake down mission for the Command and Service module part of the Apollo spacecraft.

It is said that a Russian cosmonaut, Pavel Belyayev, was due to be launched on 9 December 1968 for a manned flight in Zond 7 to orbit the Moon, but the launch did not take place.

The USA therefore had the first manned lunar orbiter with Apollo VIII, launched 21 December 1968. It completed 10 lunar orbits over 20 hours beginning on 24 December, with a crew of three led by Capt James Lovell (b. 25 March 1928, 0210 hr EST, Cleveland OH) with Frank Borman and William A Anders. The far side of the Moon was photographed for the first time, as well as some possible landing sites. On Christmas morning, a famous reading of the opening passages of Genesis was transmitted. Apollo IX contained the first Lunar Module (nicknamed Spider), though an Earth orbit was chosen for the test. It was launched in March 1969 with a crew of Jim McDivitt, Dave Scott and Rusty Schweikart, who practised docking, undocking and independent flying. The lunar surface spacesuits were also tested in space on a space walk.

Apollo X was a dress rehearsal for the planned first landing in July of 1969 and was launched in May 1969, on an 8-day mission crewed by Tom Stafford, John Young and Gene Cernan.

Apollo XI was launched with the Saturn 5 rocket, at Pad 39A, Kennedy Space Centre, Cape Canaveral FL (28N22 80W36), at 0932 hr EDT (1332 GMT), 16 July 1969, but it was controlled throughout the mission from the Space Centre at Houston, Texas [29N46 95W22]. The identity of the crew, who would be the first men to land and walk on the Moon, had been announced by NASA on 9 January 1969 after much media speculation.

"Mr Neil Armstrong, Lieutenant-Colonel Michael Collins and Colonel Edwin Aldrin successfully completed the first major manoeuvre in man’s most exciting journey 12 minutes after lift-off today when they placed their spacecraft into orbit 115 miles above the Earth", reported The Times, on 17 July 1969. "At the time, they were 16,500 miles an hour from the Moon, which by now was 218,000 miles away. The launching was precisely on schedule at 2.32 BST. As the five engines of the Saturn 5 rocket ignited nine seconds before lift-off, a great sheet of flame shot down over the launch pad, covering about 20 acres of the surrounding marshland with fire and smoke, scattering the sea birds that rest on the water.

"Then, with an immense roar and as its engines built up to their full 7.5 million lb of thrust, the space rocket — standing as tall as St Paul’s Cathedral — lifted truly, almost ponderously, off the launch pad.

"Waves of sound reached the press stand as the Apollo rose through the smoke of exhaust. It quickly gathered speed as it passed above the layers of light cloud that flecked the blue sky along the Florida coast. When the flight was two minutes old, the first stage of the launch engine could be seen falling away shortly before the rocket vanished in the distance, leaving behind it a faint pall of smoke.

"The launching was watched by Mr Spiro Agnew, the Vice-President. ‘With the lift-off of Apollo 11, America enters a new age of discovery", he said. ‘as today marks the beginning of man’s landing on the Moon, the flight of Apollo 11 represents the overture to a new era of civilisation.’

"Mr Rocco Petrone, the jubilant director of the launching operations, said: ‘This is the big one. This is the one we have been working on for eight years. The first step in this historic mission has been just the step we want to take.’

"As reporters began to arrive near the launching site during the hours before dawn, the Apollo rocket could be seen glittering against the sky in the light shed by powerful floodlights.

"From all across the state and throughout the neighbouring country, the crowds had come in during yesterday afternoon and last night, camping in caravans, in their cars or on the beaches, for a glimpse of the awesome moment of the lift-off. When the moment finally came, civil defence authorities estimated that at least a million people had assembled to see it."

The historic first manned Moon landing took place at 1517 hr 42" CDT (2017 hr 42" GMT) on 20 July 1969. Neil Armstrong (b. 5 August 1930, 0130 EDT, Wapakonata OH [40N34 84W13], of Scottish [via Ireland] and German ancestry) was accompanied by Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin (b. 20 January 1930, 1417 EST, Montclair NJ [40N48 74W12], of Swedish, Dutch and British ancestry). They touched down on the Sea of Tranquillity (Mare Tranquilitatis), at Tranquillity Base, lunar latitude 7N38 50", 23E30 17 in the Lunar Excursion Module, Eagle. This was roughly 4 miles from their expected destination. Aldrin said, "OK, engine stop", then Armstrong announced, "Houston. Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed." The third member of the crew, Michael Collins (b. 31 October 1930, Rome [41N54 12E29], Italy), was manning the command module Columbia.

Man’s first step on the Moon took place a few hours after the landing, at 2156 hr 20" CDT on 20 July 1969 (0256 hr 20" GMT, 21 July 1969). Neil Armstrong placed his left foot on lunar soil and said, "That’s one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind", a scene witnessed live on television around the world. His script was "one small step for a man", and he later claimed to have said this, though audio records indicate otherwise. Later, on the Apollo XII mission, when Michael Collins made his final 3ft step from the landing module onto the lunar surface he said, "Man, that might have been a small one for Neil, but it was a long one for me". Aldrin, who was initially to have been the first, followed Armstrong onto the Moon, and later spoke of the "magnificent desolation".

They found an environment of extreme contrasts, -279°F in the shade, 240°F in the glare of the Sun. While on the Moon’s surface a plaque was erected inscribed, "Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon July 1969 AD. We came in peace for all mankind." 48.5lbs of lunar rock were collected for examination on Earth. Samples of lunar rock and dust have been brought back to Earth by all Apollo astronauts. They date back further than any found on Earth, the most famous being Genesis Rock, which is 4,100 million years old. Eagle spent 21 hr 36’ on the Moon, of which 2 hr 31’ 40" was spent outside the module by the astronauts, hatch open to hatch closed. The event was watched live on TV by an estimated record 600 million people and President Nixon congratulated them via telephone.

While Armstrong and Aldrin were due to lift-off, the Russians were attempting to steal the American’s limelight by landing an unmanned spacecraft, Luna 15, on the surface of the Moon, on a rock-collecting mission. Its retro-rockets failed to fire, however, and it crashed. The Russians got Luna 15 back automatically a year later and little was heard of the attempt by the world.

The ascent stage of Eagle was re-launched from the same site on the Moon at 1254 hr CDT (1754 hr GMT), 21 July. It rendezvoused with the command and service modules of Apollo XI, which was in orbit 70 miles above the Moon, after an individually manned flight time of 1 day 3 hours 51 minutes. Eagle was then also jettisoned; and the command module splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean at 1150 hr CDT (1650 hr GMT), 24 July 1969, 210 miles from Johnson Island at 169W 13N. USS Hornet, with President Nixon on board, was waiting 13 miles away to pick them up.

Less than four months later, Apollo XII (launched 14 November 1969, returned 24 November 1969) touched down in the Oceanus Procellarum on 19 November, a precision landing close to the unmanned probe Surveyor 3 (launched 17 April 1967). Astronauts Charles "Pete" Conrad Jr (b. 2 June 1930, Philadelphia PA; d. 8 July 1999, Ojai CA) and Alan Bean set foot on the Moon to set up an improved nuclear-powered ALSEP (Apollo Lunar Surface Experimental Package). They recorded the longest stay on the Moon’s surface, totalling 31 hr 32’ in the lander Intrepid. The lunar module was nicknamed the Yankee Clipper in honour of the crew, including the CMP, Dick Gordon, being the first all naval Apollo team. TV coverage came to a sudden halt before it had begun when Al Bean accidentally pointed the colour TV camera at the Sun and fried the vidicom detector.

The greatest altitude achieved by man, however, was 248,665 miles above Earth’s surface. The crew of the ill-fated Apollo XIII was at apocynthion (the furthest point beyond the Moon), 158 miles above its surface, at 0121 BST, 15 April 1970. The crew comprised Capt James Lovell, Fred Haise (b. 14 November 1933, Biloxi MS), and John L Swigert (1931-1982). Technical problems (an oxygen tank in the Service Module exploded) prevented a Moon landing, as was later documented in the motion picture Apollo XIII.

Further refinements included the lunar cart used by Apollo XIV on a mission to find ejecta from a crater called Cone Crater, launched 31 January 1971. It was commanded by Alan B Shepard, with Edgar Mitchell and Stuart Roosa (lunar touchdown 5 February 1971, 0918 GMT, Fra Mauro). The Lunar Roving Vehicle, or moonbuggy, was first used by Apollo XV, during the first continuous colour television broadcast of moonwalking. Apollo XV was manned by David Scott, with James Irwin and Alfred Wordern and landed the furthest distance yet from the moon’s equator. The Falcon lunar module landed near to a deep gorge named Hadley Rille at the edge of the Apennine mountain range on 30 July 1971, at 2216 GMT. It had been launched 26 July 1971 and returned 7 August, bearing Genesis Rock, the oldest rock ever brought back from the Moon.

Apollo XVI, led by with John Young, with Thomas Mattingley and Charles Duke, was launched on 16 April 1972. It was due to land inside the impact crater Tycho but for technical reasons was switched to the Descartes highlands in an unsuccessful search for volcanic material. It landed on 21 April at 0223 GMT, and came back to Earth on 27 April.

Apollo XVII included a professional geologist (Harrison Schmitt), specially trained as an astronaut. Apollo XVII was launched 7 December 1972 with a three-man crew (Eugene Cernan, Harrison Schmitt, Ronald Evans), and its Challenger module landed in Taurus-Littrow valley (21N12 30E36) on 11 December at 1954 GMT, marking the sixth and final landing in the Apollo program. They stayed on the surface for a record 75 hours, studying some interesting formations called cinder cones, and took samples from rockslide. They also stumbled upon some orange soil to the surprise of geologist Schmitt, as it suggested that water had existed on the Moon. In fact, disappointingly, volcanic eruptions had formed the orange-coloured glass globules. They returned to Earth on 19 December 1972.

On the twentieth anniversary of Apollo XI, President George Bush signed up to the Space Exploration Initiative that aimed to put humans on Mars by 2019. The idea came to nothing at the time but may be revived as cost-cutting measures could limit the astronomical expense.



The Russian Luna program continued to collect data using unmanned spacecraft throughout the period, and culminated with Luna 24, which was launched 9 August 1976, landed in Mare Crisium (12N42 62E12), drilled to 2 metres, and returned to Earth on 22 August 1976.