Jenny Howard, National Geographic Staff
For as long as humans have lived on planet Earth, the moon has been a focus of fascination. First, we could view our cosmic partner only with the naked eye, then with telescopes, and finally in the 20th century the first humans were able to visit Earth’s moon in person.
Thanks to these missions, we now know a lot about the moon. The first lunar exploration vehicles of the 1950s and early 1960s were primitive pioneers. But aerospace technology developed so rapidly that only about a decade separated the first flyby forays and Neil Armstrong’s history-making steps on the moon’s surface.
Early forays into space
In January 1959, a small Soviet sphere bristling with antennas, Luna 1 was the first spacecraft to escape Earth’s gravity, a huge feat. Although Luna 1 did not reach the moon’s surface, as was likely intended, the spacecraft flew within about 4,000 miles of it. Its suite of scientific equipment revealed for the first time that the moon had no magnetic field. (Read more about early spaceflight.)
Later in 1959, Luna 2 became the first spacecraft to land on the moon’s surface, making impact near the Aristides, Archimedes, and Autolycus craters. A third Luna mission subsequently captured the first, blurry, images of the far side of the moon.
Nine NASA Ranger spacecrafts, launched between 1961 and 1965, gave scientists the first close-up looks at the moon’s surface. The Ranger missions were kamikaze-style; the spacecraft were engineered to streak straight toward the moon and capture as many images as possible before crashing onto its surface. In 1962, Ranger 4 was the first Ranger spacecraft to hit its target, the moon. Unfortunately, Ranger 4 slammed into the far side of the moon before collecting any scientific data.
Two years later, however, Ranger 7 streaked toward the moon and captured more than 4,000 photos in the 15 minutes before it smashed onto the surface. Images from all the Ranger missions, particularly Ranger 9, highlighted the moon’s rough terrain and the potential challenges of finding a smooth landing site.
In 1966, the Soviet spacecraft Luna 9 overcame the moon’s topographic hurdles and became the first vehicle to soft-land safely on the surface. The small craft was stocked with scientific and communi