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From Luna 1 to Chandrayan 3, Moon Landings Manifest a Succinct History of Space Exploration: A Quick Review

Successful and attempted moon landings have a colourful history in space exploration that dates back to the time of the USSR in 1959.
ISRO's Launch Vehicle Mark-III (LVM3) M4 rocket carrying 'Chandrayaan-3' lifts off from the launch pad at Satish Dhawan Space Centre, in Sriharikota, Friday, July 14, 2023.

ISRO's Launch Vehicle Mark-III (LVM3) M4 rocket carrying 'Chandrayaan-3' lifts off from the launch pad at Satish Dhawan Space Centre, in Sriharikota, Friday, July 14, 2023. Image Courtesy: PTI

New Delhi: Successful and attempted moon landings have a colourful history in space exploration that dates back to the time of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) or simply Soviet Russia in 1959. 


In January 1959, Luna 1 became the first spacecraft in human history that could reach the vicinity of the moon. This was the first series of “Soviet automatic interplanetary stations successfully launched in the direction of the Moon,” writes NASA. On January 4, 1959, Luna 1 passed by 5995 kilometres of the moon's surface. 

Then came the Luna 2, which became the first spacecraft to be landed on the moon in the same year and in September. On September 14, 1959, Luna 2 impacted the lunar surface, as indicated by the radio signals' abrupt stop. The impact point was identified as in the lunar region of Palus Putredinus. The Luna 2 impact, for the first time, provided the information that the moon has no appreciable magnetic field and no evidence of radiation belts on the moon. 

Again in the same year, Luna 3 photographed the lunar surface for the first time. “These first views of the lunar far side showed mountainous terrain, very different from the near side, and only two dark regions, which were named Mare Moscovrae (Sea of Moscow) and Mare Desiderii (Sea of Dreams). (Mare Desiderii was later found to be composed of a smaller mare, Mare Ingenii (Sea of Ingenuity) and other dark craters.)”—says NASA

Although a little deviant from the moon landing, it is worth recalling Yuri Gagarin, who became the first cosmonaut to complete one orbit around the Earth aboard the Vostok 1 in 1961. Vostok 1 was the first successful manned spaceflight, and Yuri Gagarin became the first human to have travelled to outer space. This manifests the development of Soviet space missions at that time.

In 1966, the Luna 9 paved the way for the ‘Soft-Landing’ of a robotic spacecraft (unmanned) on the mare plain or Oceanus Procellarum. The Luna 16 (1970) was the unmanned moon landing that collected lunar soil for the first time, and Luna 17 became the first unmanned lunar rover mission (1970). The Luna missions set the path more accessible for the following moon landing missions by means of providing the first-ever valuable information about the lunar surface. 


After Yuri Gagarin’s successful voyage to outer space, US President John F Kennedy promised to send the first man to the moon by the end of the 1960s. Thus began the Apollo missions. 

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped on the lunar surface aboard the Apollo 11 mission. Neil Armstrong became the first human to have landed on the moon, followed by Aldrin. Millions of people witnessed the televised images of Armstrong and his voice with the famous line—“One small step for a man, one giant leap for humankind.” 

Neil Armstrong was the commander, and Aldrin was the Lunar Module Pilot and command module pilot Michael Collins accompanied them. 

The Apollo 12 mission became the second manned moon landing on November 19, 1969, with commander Charles Conrad and pilots Alan Bean and Richard Gordon. Experiments were conducted, and photographs and samples were collected from the lunar surface in that mission.

Apollo 14, Apollo 15, Apollo 16 and Apollo 17  were the four other manned moon landing missions. Gene Cernan became the last man to have stepped off from the lunar surface in the Apollo 17 mission ending on December 14, 1972. 

During the six manned moon landing missions, 12 men landed on the moon with two astronauts at a time in each of the attempts. 


Apart from the early successful moon landings led by Soviet Russia and the USA, five national moon missions have reached the moon without astronauts. China, India, Japan and the ESA (European Space Agency) along with USA and Russia, add to the list with two more missions that are private or commercial from Israel and Japan. 

The Japanese lunar orbiter Hiten impacted the lunar surface on April 10, 1993. In fact, the Hiten, designed for testing and verifying technologies for future planetary explorations, intentionally crashed on the moon. 

The ESA launched its first moon mission in the form of SMART-1, which also deliberately crashed on the moon's surface in September 2006. ESA’s mission was also a test for new technologies like solar electric propulsion, communication techniques and miniature science instruments. 

Similarly, Chang’e 1, the Chinese Lunar orbiter, executed a controlled crash on the moon's surface in March 2009. The ongoing Chinese moon programme has landed thrice since 2013, and Chang’e 4 made the first unscrewed soft landing on the moon's far side in January 2019. 


The first Indian moon mission came into reality on October 22, 2008, in the form of Chandrayan 1. The spacecraft was launched with the PSLV-XL rocket, and it was a great success as the Moon Impact Probe (MIP) detected water on the moon, performing other tasks like mapping and conducting atmospheric profiling. The MIP (Mon Impact Probe) was made to undergo a controlled crash on November 14, 2008. 

Chandrayan 2 was launched in July 2019, comprising an orbiter, lander and rover to explore the uncharted South Pole of the moon. “The mission is designed to expand the lunar scientific knowledge through a detailed study of topography, seismography, mineral identification and distribution, surface chemical composition, thermo-physical characteristics of topsoil and composition of the tenuous lunar atmosphere, leading to a new understanding of the origin and evolution of the Moon”—says Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). The lander was lost on September 6 while attempting to land on the moon. 

The Chandrayan 3 was launched on July 14, with the LVM3 vehicle launching successfully into orbit and the world's eyes on its lander Vikram, scheduled to land at around 6 PM. 

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