Arun VenkatramanJul 22, 2019 12:20:09 IST
On 18 July 2019, the world will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo Moon landings. However, this won’t be the only Moon-related milestone we’d be celebrating that week, as India has just made official its plans to upstage the historic day with the launch of Chandrayaan 2.
The mission will be the country's ride back to the Moon, more than a decade after the launch of its predecessor Chandrayaan 1. This time, it will go a step further by parking a lander on the Moon and a briefcase-sized rover on the surface of our celestial neighbour. In doing so, India would join an elite list including just three other countries and one private company (this latter being a ready reminder for the trying times for space exploration that we live still in).
The history of lunar exploration is a storied one. While the Moon was the mainstay of the initial phase of the space race, it took a backseat after the end of the Apollo missions. However, after several decades, the Moon is once again at the centre of the global space race, making it the perfect time to take a look back at some of the most important missions to the moon.
The 1950s — Baby steps towards the Moon
While the thought of visiting celestial bodies has captured the imagination of several thinkers over the centuries, this dream only became possible with the advent of launch vehicles – or in common parlance – rockets. However, even with the invention of rockets, the beginning of humanity’s space journey was far less ambitious than one would expect. When the first functional rocket — the V2 — was tested by Nazi Germany in the 40s, the destination they had in mind was not distant moons or stars. Rather, it was London, just across the English Channel.
Missions to the moon began in earnest in the mid-fifties following the beginning of the space race between the US and USSR. After the success of the Sputnik programme, the USSR took the lead in missions to the moon, starting with the Luna programme.
The Luna Programme
Starting in 1958, the Luna programme was a politically-motivated and pioneering attempt that brought mankind closer to the Moon than ever before in history. While the first three missions failed at launch, the fourth iteration, Luna-1, became a huge milestone for space exploration despite having failed at its intended mission of impacting the Moon’s surface. Just days after its launch on 2 January 1959, Luna-1 became the first man-made object to escape the geocentric orbit. It flew past the Moon without impacting and also becoming the first to enter the heliocentric orbit around the Sun.
The Luna-1 created a lot of records, but the glory of being the first man-made object to impact the surface of the moon squarely belongs to Luna-2, which was a roaring success – impacting on Palus Putredinis mare (basaltic plains) of the moon on 14 September 1959.
Other important Luna missions by the USSR included the Luna-3, which became the first to take pictures (it took a grand total of 3 images) of the far side of the moon. After a string of failed missions in the early sixties, the Luna 10, launched in 1966, became the first to enter the orbit of the moon. It was followed up by another orbiter, the Luna 11, which also became a success, conducting several experiments for the USSR in space. In the same year, the Luna 12 mission became a phenomenal success by taking a total of 1100 pictures of the Moon’s surface.
The Luna program cost the USSR a total of US$ 4.5 billion and lasted until 1976. And despite having a success rate of just 36 percent, the Luna programme was one of the most successful space programmes of the USSR.
While the USSR was busy with the Luna programme, NASA had its own early lunar exploratory programme called the Pioneer programme in the late 50s. The Pioneer programme conducted a total of six missions starting in 1958 with the ‘Pioneer 0’, which failed after the rocket exploded. In fact, the first four iterations of the programme did not succeed in reaching the moon’s orbit. It was the Pioneer 4 flyby, launched in March 1959, which reached the moon and sent back important data on radiation around the celestial body.
The success of the Pioneer 4 gave the US some much-needed respite after the initial string of very public failures of NASA. Unlike the USSR’s failures, NASA's weren't kept a secret. While the Luna programme gave USSR important naming rights to some of the aspects and features of the moon – an important victory considering how much of the space race was fuelled by the quest for bragging rights!
Swinging '60s – Putting Man on the Moon
The early phase Luna missions and Pioneer missions in the 50s helped space exploration make some extremely important advances. However, the credit for being the most active decade for space exploration by humans belongs to the 60s. Spurred by the USSR’s success with the Luna programme, in September 1962, US president John F Kennedy publicly promised to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. And while the USSR never really acknowledged taking part in the ‘race’, it secretly continued researching potential future manned missions that could one-up the US.
Starting in 1961, NASA’s Ranger missions proved to be an important stepping stone for the eventual success of the Apollo programme. The aim of the Ranger missions was to demonstrate key technologies in space that would be of use in the American human spaceflight programme. These included the ability to 'park' a spacecraft in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO), before launching for the Moon, and the capability of space-bound communications.
Of the total 9 missions conducted under the Ranger programme, the first six failed either completely or partially, with most never even reaching the Moon. However, the last three missions – Ranger Impactor 7, 8, & 9 – achieved considerable success, together taking more than 10,000 high-quality images of the Moon's surface. In particular, the Ranger Impactor 9 became the first space mission in history that was broadcasted live on TV directly from the spacecraft (another technology that will prove critical to the Apollo missions’ success).
USSR’s Zond & Kosmos
Much like NASA's Ranger missions, the USSR's Zond missions were supposed to be crucial stepping stones for eventual human spaceflight and landing on the Moon. Conducted in the mid-sixties, five out of seven Zond missions achieved success – a great improvement over previous odds – conducting tasks such as taking pictures of the Moon and mapping parts of the lunar surface. In particular, the Zond 7 & 8 missions conducted flybys of the Moon in 1969 and became the first to take colour images of the Moon’s surface.
Apart from the Zond missions, the USSR also conducted a few other Moon-related space programmes such as the Kosmos missions and the Sputnik 25 Lander, which was launched as early as 1963. While all missions under these programmes failed to achieve their goals, they aided in demonstrating several crucial technologies.
The Apollo Missions
In the long and illustrious history of the US’ space programme, there are no projects that come even close to the success and fanfare surrounding the Apollo project.
Focussed on human spaceflight, the project was particularly related to Kennedy’s goal of landing a human on the surface of the Moon and bringing them back safely to the Earth by the end of the decade. While it was the Kennedy administration that greatly expanded the programme, the Apollo project was conceptualised during the Eisenhower administration as a follow up to Project Mercury, which put the first American astronauts in space.
Early Apollo Missions
Spurred on by fears of Soviet advances in the space race – particularly the spaceflight of Maj Yuri Gagarin in 1961 – the Apollo missions were responsible for greatly expanding the power, influence, and budget of NASA. In fact, the Apollo project was the costliest space programme at the time, with nearly US$ 25 billion committed exclusively to the goal of putting a human on the Moon.
The early Apollo missions were aimed at firmly establishing the technological capabilities required for successfully achieving Kennedy’s goal. This resulted in a number of advancements including the birth of the US’ heaviest yet launch vehicle – Saturn V, which carried the crew members of the Apollo 11 and subsequent missions.
However, despite the fanfare surrounding them, the Apollo project started on the worst possible note.
The astronaut module of Apollo 1 – a ground test caught fire and resulted in the death of three astronauts – Gus Grissom, Roger Chafee, and Edward White. However, the programme pushed on after a comprehensive investigation and a total of four Apollo missions – Apollo 5, 6, 7, & 8 – were conducted in the year 1968 alone. These demonstrated crucial technologies and were also meant to test the Saturn V launch vehicle.
Apollo 11 & the Moon Landings
While Kennedy would not live to see it, the US indeed became the first country to land astronauts on the surface of the Moon on the 20th of July, 1969. The story of astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins and their journey to the Moon has since acquired legendary status and hardly requires repeating.
While Collins flew the command module in orbit around the Moon, Armstrong and Aldrin landed on Tranquility Base, Sea of Tranquility on the lunar surface and spent a grand total of two-and-a-half hours on it conducting experiments and collecting samples. Days later, despite the heavy odds, the crew returned safely with samples from the moon intact.
The Apollo project subsequently sent a total of 19 other astronauts to the Moon over five different missions during the course of the next three years – making the programme one of the most successful human spaceflight programmes to date!
The 70's & '90s: Emergence of New Players
Flying high on the back of the success of Apollo 11, the US continued the Apollo programme into the early 70s, with the trusty Saturn V flying a total of 10 manned missions. And while the names of Neil Armstrong and his crewmate Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin are etched in the memories of everyone as two astronauts that have walked on the moon, there were, in fact, ten others who achieved the same feat between 1969 and 1972.
In particular, the Apollo 15 mission, which was crewed by Commander David Scott and James Irvin achieved the milestone of landing the first rover on the surface of the moon – albeit a diminutive one that resembles a dune buggy – called the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV).
The last Apollo mission to the Moon was the Apollo 17, which landed on the Mare Serenitatis crater on December 11. Its crew – Commander Eugene Cernan and module pilot Harrison Schmitt – stayed on the lunar surface for a record 75 hours and became the last people to have walked on the moon (Till date). In all, the programme had a total of six successful manned landings on the moon before the plug was pulled.
The Soviet Moonshot
While the US was hitting one milestone after the other, it wasn’t as if the Soviet cosmodromes were collecting dust. In fact, the 70s were busier than ever for the Soviet space programme – which continued the extremely successful Luna programme of the 60s into the 70s and also greatly expanded the Zond programme, which was supposed to be the Soviet answer to the US’ Apollo missions. The first stage of the Zond programme largely used the 3MV or 3rd Gen Mars/Venus probe and was initially aimed at expanding the reach and capability of the Soviet space programme to our neighbouring planets.
However, with the success of the Apollo programme, the Zond programme set its eyes on the moonshot. Missions in the latter half of the programme – from Zond 4 to Zond 8 – were intended to be technology demonstrations for a manned mission to the Moon. While Soviet cosmonauts never got to land on the moon, the Zond 5 created history by successfully doing a flyby of the moon with the first ‘living’ crew that consisted of two Russian tortoises, fruit fly eggs, and mealworms! And in fact, when the crew module was opened four days after re-entry, the scientists opening it found all the specimens alive and well.
However, this success did not translate into manned missions. Nearly all the missions of the Zond programme faced problems in re-entry – a problem which sadly ended the entire programme, with the Zond 9 & 10 missions, planned for the early 70s, scrapped indefinitely.
The 90's brought resurgence after a lull
With the end of the storied Apollo and Zond missions, human exploration of the moon was kept alive by the Luna programme – which was well past 20 iterations by mid-70s. Luna 24, which entered the lunar orbit on 11 August 1976 and was recovered nearly 10 days later with samples of lunar regolith, was the last mission of the Luna programme. While the 80s was a vibrant decade back on Earth, the decade marked a dramatic end for the first phase of humankind’s lunar exploration. This lull in interest in going to the moon lasted an entire decade with the last mission being the ISEE-3, which conducted a flyby of the Moon before being placed in an orbit around the sun to study the impact of solar wind on the Earth’s magnetosphere.
The curtain raiser to the new era of lunar exploration came in the form of Japan’s Hiten lunar mission, which was launched in January, 1990. The Hiten broke new ground as it was the first time a country other than the US or the USSR had reached Earth’s natural satellite – paving the way for several new players to burst on to the scene in space exploration. Launched by Japan’s Institute for Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS), one of the predecessors of JAXA, the Hiten’s mission included a flyby and the deployment of a lunar orbiter, Hagoromo. However, Hagoromo’s communication unit failed soon after deployment, making any data it captured inaccessible. Nonetheless, the Hiten mission marked an important first for the global age of space exploration. The ISAS was one of the most active space agencies of the 90s. Soon after the partial success of Hiten, it collaborated with NASA to launch the Geotail satellite which conducted a series of flybys of the Moon and in 1998 launched its ambitious mission to Mars – the Nozomi.
The dissolution of the USSR in the early 90s unofficially brought the Cold War space race to a close. And unlike the first phase of lunar exploration, lunar missions by the US in the 90s were focussed more on practical applications and technological capacity building. This included missions such as the Clementine lunar orbiter – which was a collaboration between the US Air Force (USAF) and NASA. Clementine was part of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization of the US Department of Defense, making it one of the most important developments towards militarization of space. The 90s also saw NASA undertake important missions to the Moon, such as the Global Geospace Science (GGS) WIND satellite, which was aimed at studying radio waves near the lunar environment and conducted two flybys of the Moon.
Lunar Exploration in the 21st Century
It would take an entire decade before another non-US non-USSR entity succeeded in achieving what the ISAS did. And the agency that followed ISAS to the Moon was Europe’s ESA, which sent the SMART-1 satellite in 2003 to study the lunar surface. SMART-1 spent nearly three years orbiting the Moon, before finally ending with a planned crash on to the Moon’s surface in late 2006.
The success of SMART-1 and the prolific space exploration efforts of agencies such as the newly formed JAXA or Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency broke the hegemony of US and Russia in lunar exploration. However, the real inflection point for a second space race, this time on a global scale, came with the entry of countries such as China and India into the higher echelons of space technology.
Chang’e and Chandrayaan
Both China and India have had a space agency since 60s – the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). However, for most of their existence, their efforts were focussed mostly on developing launch capability and developing space technologies such as communication and remote sensing. This changed with the launch of China’s Chang’e-1 in 2007 as it was the first attempt to reach the Moon by a developing nation.
Unlike CNSA’s earlier efforts, the Chang’e satellite was designed purely for research purposes – a domain previously dominated by the developed countries. The satellite was launched using the Long March 3A orbital carrier vehicle and was a completely indigenous operation – pinning China in the global space map as a serious contender. Chang’e-1 even broke new ground by becoming the first satellite to conduct a microwave remote sensing exercise on the moon, which resulted in the creation of a complete map of the lunar surface.
While the aughts saw China speed ahead with its space ambitions, it’s regional rival India also wasn’t far behind. India’s ISRO soon caught up to China’s Chang’e-1 with the launch of the Chandrayaan-1. Launched in 2008 using ISRO’s trusty workhorse, the PSLV-XL, the Chandrayaan-1 was an important milestone in the history of not just ISRO and India, but also of the global space age. Apart from the orbiter fitted with advanced sensors, the Chandrayaan-1 mission also included a Moon Impact Lander – which separated from the orbiter on 14 November and reached the lunar surface near the south pole, making India only the fourth country in the world to land its flag on the Moon. As for the orbiter, even though it only functioned for 10 months instead of the originally planned 2 years, it fulfilled 95 percent of its objectives and even created history by becoming the first to discover the presence of water on the moon.
Apart from its scientific achievement, the Chandrayaan-1 was a symbolic success that announced the arrival of India – a lower-middle income country – into an elite club dominated by first world countries. This success can also be credited for spurring the space ambitions of several other developing countries in its region and beyond.
The Asian Counterweight
The 90s and early aughts faced the implications of a unipolar world where space technology was largely driven by the US and the western world in the face of the decline of Russian space programme. However, this changed with the arrival of China which successfully sent a total of nine missions to the Moon between 2007 and 2018, compared to the six missions sent by NASA in the same period. The Chang’e programme alone operated a total of five missions to the Moon, all of which have been successful (so far, since Chang’e 3, 4, and 5-T1 are currently still operational). Apart from the Chang’e programme, China has also successfully conducted other crucial lunar exploration missions such as the Longjiang-2, which performed a soft landing on the far side of the Moon in May 2018. Plus, with the Chang’e 5 scheduled to launch in December this year, China’s lunar ambitions are showing no signs of stopping. As for India, it is expected that the performance of Chandrayaan-2, which will include a lander, rover, and orbiter, will prove to be an important stepping stone to greater achievements in space exploration.
While China and India’s success has been the highlight of lunar exploration in the 21st century, nothing captures the future of exploration – not just for the Moon, but for space in general – like Israeli firm SpaceIL’s Beresheet lunar lander and probe. Originally a contender for Google’s Lunar X prize (Similar to India’s Team Indus), the Beresheet mission was launched in late February this year aboard the SpaceX Falcon 9 (also a private enterprise). Furthermore, it created history in April when its lander crashed spectacularly onto the lunar surface, making SpaceIL the first private company to reach the lunar surface.
A New Global Space Race
After retiring the space shuttle programme in 2011, NASA has in recent years taken a backseat in terms of lunar exploration. However, nearly 60 years after Kennedy kickstarted the race to the moon, there is now another president in the White House who is equally keen on putting boots on the ‘lunar’ ground. With the US preparing to restart its manned missions to the Moon and China, India, and other major space-faring nations (and private players such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic) increasing their capability and influence in space technology, it wouldn’t be too far fetched to say that the world is at the cusp of another space race – but on a much larger scale and much higher stakes (think lunar colonisation).
At the very least, this means there are interesting times ahead for lunar exploration!
The author is a science writer and student at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.
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