The First Lunar Era - Race to the Moon (1958 to 1976)

Author: Konrad Nieradka

Adapted by: Alicia Vílchez Bedmar

Apollo 1Apollo 11 Lunar Module returning from the surface while Earth is setting over the lunar limb.
Apollo 11 Lunar Module returning from the surface while Earth is setting over the lunar limb. NASA.

With this is the article, we open a short series dedicated to the history of the lunar exploration and its phases, or Lunar Eras. Let’s start with the First Lunar Era – the Race to the Moon – covering years 1958 to 1976.

Everybody to the Moon!

The race to the Moon is in the media again. The global mix of public and private efforts is changing the way we think about our natural satellite and about the boundaries of human activity.

The United States is on track to returning there in the coming three to five years, bringing along a dozen other countries under the banner of the Artemis Accords. China is partnering with Russia to establish a robotic lunar base near the South Pole. The European Space Agency (ESA) is promoting the idea of a lunar public-private partnership called the Moon Village. Furthermore, private companies like SpaceIL and ispace are attempting to land their own spacecraft on the Moon.

In this renewed lunar race, everybody participates for a bit of different reasons. If we look at the history of lunar exploration, we can distinguish several phases, or Lunar Eras, each with its distinctive set of actors and motivations. Let’s review the first one!

Chart of number of lunar missions between 1958 and 1976.
Number of lunar missions (1958-1976). Nieradka, K.

“Mission to the Moon”

For most people, the phrase “mission to the Moon” immediately brings back the images of the 1969 Apollo 11 landing, with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin jumping around the alien-looking landscape of the silver globe. This was, however, only the culmination of one of the greatest and most transformative endeavors in human history.

There were many more missions to the Moon around that time, including five other manned landings, one aborted manned landing, one manned flyby, and tens of robotic missions led by the United States and the Soviet Union.

Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin walking on the Moon (left) and a reflection of Neil Armstrong taking the photo (right).
Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin (left) and Neil Armstrong's reflection (right). NASA.

To be the first

The first lunar era started just a few months after the first Soviet and first American satellite launches of 1957 and 1958. Having settled the score for who launches something to space first, both countries were looking to raise the bar. Besides the race to launch the first living creature and the first human, launching spacecraft to the Moon and further into the solar system sounded like an obvious choice. 1958 saw four American and three Soviet lunar missions take off. But the Moon was not kind to both superpowers, as all attempts ended up with failure due to problems during launch.

Thought the Americans were the first to try with their ill-fated Pioneer 0 mission, the Soviets were the first to succeed when in January 1959 their Luna 1 probe flew by the Moon at a distance of 6,400 km. Originally, the probe was intended as an impactor, but continued launch vehicle issues caused it to miss its target by 2 diameters. It still gave the Soviets two new firsts – the first spacecraft to reach the vicinity of the Moon and the first to enter a heliocentric orbit.

Three months later, the Americans joined the club in a very similar fashion when their intended lunar orbiter Pioneer IV missed the Moon by 60,000 km and entered the orbit around the Sun.

Luna 1 replica and Pioneer IV flight model during assembly.
Luna 1 replica (left) and Pioneer IV flight model during as0sembly (right). Wikipedia Commons; NASA.

In October 1959, Soviet probe Luna 3 relayed the first ever images of the far side of the Moon. Until that time, people have theorized and fantasized about the mysteries it might hold. It revealed what seemed to be a duller version of the familiar near side, with only few significant features distinguishable. However, this was an illusion caused by low resolution and contrast of the images. In reality, the far side has much more rugged landscape with more craters and fewer maria (the smoother and darker areas of solidified lava).

Luna 3 replica and the first photo of lunar far side.
Luna 3 replica (left) and the first photo of lunar far side (right). Wikipedia Commons; Roscosmos.

Geopolitical motivations

The main actors involved in the race to the Moon during the First Lunar Era were the two major superpowers of that time – the United States and the Soviet Union. Their intentions were initially hidden under the facade of the International Geophysical Year, which was the Cold War era’s first initiative to bring together the scientists from the East and West, modeled on the previous International Polar Years.

It quickly became clear, however, that the nature of this competition was about proving the superiority of one form of government over the other – democracy and free market versus communism and central planning. Scientific discovery was only a convenient arena for this fight. We are certainly lucky that this escalation at the peak of the Cold War took this benevolent form rather than one of an open military conflict.

The magnitude of challenge

By July 1969 when Apollo 11 was about to launch, a total of 73 robotic missions were sent to the Moon. They came from the extensive Luna program of the Soviet Union and from five different American programs – Pioneer, Ranger, Surveyor, Explorer, and Lunar Orbiter. Only 32 of those missions ended in at least partial success, representing merely 44% success rate.

Chart of cumulative success rate of different lunar mission between 1958 and 1976.
Success of lunar missions (1958-1976). Nieradka, K.

Entering orbit around the Moon proved at to be as difficult as landing on it. It took 3 years and 12 failures till Luna 9 became the first spacecraft to safely land on another celestial in February 1966. The American lander Surveyor I evened out the score just five months later. In comparison, it took 8 years and 6 failures for Luna 10 to become the first spacecraft to enter into orbit around another celestial body in March 1966. Americans caught up in August the same year with Lunar Orbiter I successfully entering orbit around the Moon.

Ironically, both the US and the USSR perfected the art of crashing spacecraft on the Moon, often intentionally as impactor probes, pretty early on.

The first images from lunar surface, sent by Luna 9 lander.
First images from lunar surface, sent by Luna 9 lander. Donald Davis.

On January 27, 1967, the American lunar program claimed its first astronaut lives when the crew of Apollo 1 perished in an accident during a simulated launch of the Saturn IB rocket. Fatal accidents did happen before on both sides of the Atlantic and were related mostly to rockets exploding on the launch pad or to a training jet crashing. The Apollo 1 tragedy, however, caused much stronger ripples across America and threatened the future of the entire program. The Apollo astronauts had a status of heroes and celebrities and often appeared on television.

Losing three of them in one incident, and even before launch, shocked the American public and the staff at NASA. It led to serious revisions of internal procedures and forced a shift in the organizational culture and approach to risk taking. The young and ambitions engineers, scientists, and managers had learned the true stake of their endeavor and their adventure with space program became a much more serious matter.

Pushing the limits of discovery

As the Americans were preparing to land men on the Moon, they intensified the studies of the lunar surface. It was important to understand if the surface was rigid and stable enough to support a large lander and humans. Out of 7 attempts, they have managed to land 5 spacecraft between 1966 and 1968.

In November 1967, the Surveyor VI lander became the first spacecraft ever to perform a lift off from another celestial body (a rare first for the Americans until Apollo 11). It performed a short “jump” to evaluate the marks left in the regolith by its initial landing and by the blast of the engines.

The Soviet Union, in the meanwhile, shifted its focus towards bringing lunar samples back to Earth. After 5 failed attempts, in September 1970, Luna 16 returned the first sample from another celestial body. Two months later, Luna 17 delivered to the surface Lunokhod 1 – the first lunar rover and the first wheeled vehicle on another celestial body. Lunokhod 1 operated for 11 lunar days and traveled over 10 km.

Surveyor VI model and Lunokhod 1 model.
Surveyor VI model (left) and Lunokhod 1 model (right). NASA.

On Christmas 1968, Apollo 8 crew became the first human beings to orbit the Moon. They were followed by crews of Apollo 9 and 10, performing rehearsal of the lunar landing. These three missions were also the first to fly on the Saturn V rocket – the most powerful rocket to ever enter service as of 2021.

Man on the Moon

The Apollo landings were the culmination of the First Lunar Era. In total, up to 10 lunar landings were planned, designated with numbers from 11 to 20. The missions were not simple repetitions of the first landing. Each carried upgraded equipment and scientific packages and attempted new things.

Apollo 12 landed near the 2-year-old Surveyor III lander, using the opportunity to inspect its surface for damage caused by its descent engine and to bring back a few parts for inspection.

Apollo 13 missed its chance when the oxygen tank explosion blew a hole in the Service Module and almost cost the lives of the three astronauts on board, but the heroic effort of ground and flight crews helped bring them safely back to Earth.

From Apollo 15, the missions included a Lunar Roving Vehicle, or “Lunar Buggy”, allowing the astronauts to cover much larger distances in shorter time and move more equipment and samples.

Apollo 12 astronaut Charles Conrad inspecting the Surveyor III lander of 1967 and the first Lunar Roving Vehicle of Apollo 15 mission in 1971. NASA.
Apollo 12 astronaut Charles Conrad in November 1969 inspecting the Surveyor III lander of 1967 (left) and the first Lunar Roving Vehicle of Apollo 15 mission in 1971. NASA.

The declining of the First Lunar Era

Unfortunately, the success of manned lunar landings executed at a pace of 2 landings per year became its own worst enemy. In the eyes of the American public, they became routine. People got bored with the topic, and the media started to dedicate less and less coverage to the lunar program. America was at the peak of the Vietnam War, which strained its budget.

Social changes and anti-war movement were providing for further distraction. Soon, the expensive manned lunar program became a burden. Apollo missions 18 through 20 were cancelled. Apollo 17 astronauts Harrison Schmitt and Gene Cernan became the last to walk on the Moon, at least in that era.

The end of lunar programs

The Soviet lunar program stagnated after the death of its main architect, Sergei Korolev, in 1966. Further budgetary problems and internal competition bogged down any progress. Korolev’s lunar rocket, N1, failed at four launch attempts and the program was terminated in 1974. Once Americans won the race, the rationale for further spending on this effort disappeared and funding was redirected to other programs, like the Salut space stations.

On the American side, various alternative programs have been proposed, including a manned Mars mission, a large space station, and a space shuttle to help build and support it. In 1972, President Nixon chose the space shuttle and soon the funding got reallocated there.

Only six spacecraft visited the Moon after Apollo 17, with only four succeeding. On August 19, 1976, the last of them, Luna 24, landed in the middle of Mare Crisium, took a sample of lunar regolith and launched it back to Earth, closing the first chapter in lunar exploration.

What followed after this First Lunar Era, was a 14-year-long gap when nothing happened on or around the Moon. How ironic that at the same time Gerard K. O’Neil was publishing his famous book “The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space” and started a movement of space colonization advocacy. The Moon was an essential element of his vision which aimed at lifting human civilization from Earth to enable its advancement, save it from an energy, resource, and overpopulation crises, and to preserve the precious terrestrial biosphere.

To be continued…

If you are interested in reading about the other episodes in the history of lunar exploration, stay tuned for future articles in this series. Next, we will explore the 14-year-long gap and then the eras of lunar internationalization and commercialization that followed.

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