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Moon missions in 60 years: The success stories and many, many failures

If history is anything to go by, such momentary setbacks only serve as stepping stones for the inevitable success.

As a part of the human quest to explore the outer space, especially Earth’s only natural satellite-Moon, numerous missions have been undertaken by various space agencies to have a deeper understanding of the familiar, yet so strange celestial object revolving around the Earth. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) had recently launched an ambitious mission of exploring the South Pole region of Moon, which is a region not much is known about. However, Yesterday, India’s Mission Moon was dealt with a setback as communication with the ‘Vikram Lander’ was lost after 13 minutes of the descent phase.

The landing sequence went as planned until the lander reached an altitude of 2.1 km (1.3 mi) above the surface. Unfortunately, communication with the lander was lost at that point and it is unclear whether the lander crashed. Nevertheless, ISRO was still successful in positioning its orbiter revolving around the Moon with whose help ISRO is analyzing data collected by it to determine what happened.

Chandrayaan-2, as India’s Mission Moon is popularly known, was ISRO’s second mission to the Earth’s satellite. India’s first exploration of the Moon- Chandrayaan 1, in 2008 was successful in injecting an orbiter around the Moon.

Failure is the first step towards achieving success. Countries like the United States, Russia, and China, who have achieved unparalleled expertise in their respective Space programmes have immensely benefitted from the failures encountered by them in the various initial missions undertaken by them to the Moon. Let’s have a look at different countries who remained steadfast in their aim to explore the Moon despite unnerving hurdles strewn on their paths.

The United States

Since the late 1950s, the United States’ premier space agency-NASA has been resolutely focused on sending space missions to Moon. Before being partially successful in a flyby-type mission named as Pioneer 4 in 1959, NASA had failed in previous 4 attempts- Pioneer 0, Pioneer 1, Pioneer 2, Pioneer 3. Even the subsequent space missions to Moon- Pioneer P-1(1959) and Pioneer P-3(1959) were failures.

In the early 1960s, from 1960 to 1962, the US had sent 5 missions to Moon-Pioneer P-30, Pioneer P-31, Ranger 3, Ranger 4, Ranger 5, from the orbiter to impact mission, however, all five of them remained unsuccessful. The US persevered and tried with Ranger 6 on January 30, 1964, for an Impact mission to Moon. But, this too failed. On almost the 13th attempt, the US was successful in its Impact mission to Moon when Ranger 7 mission in June 1964 succeeded. The following Impact missions-Ranger 8 and Ranger 9 too accomplished their objectives.

The United States’ Surveyor 1- the Lander mission to Moon in May 1966 was successful in touching down on the surface of Moon. Surveyor-2 was unsuccessful but it did impact the Moon. Surveyor 3 was a success but Surveyor 4 failed. The subsequent missions-Surveyor 5, 6, 7, Apollo 8, Apollo 10 were all successful, following which the US proceeded on its most ambitious mission till date and emerged successful in landing humans on the Moon for the first time in July 1969.

Soviet Union (Russia)

In the late fifties, apart from the US, their cold war adversary-Soviet Union too displayed an equal alacrity in pursuing its space missions to the Moon. USSR’s three unnamed Luna in the period 1958 to 1960 remained unsuccessful before the fourth one named as Luna 1 which partially succeeded. In the meanwhile, Russia sent another spacecraft to the Moon but it didn’t succeed. Russia’s first Impact mission to Moon-Luna 2 in September 1959 was a success.

In the early sixties, Russia had undertaken 6 unnamed Luna projects to Moon while a mission named Luna 4- aimed to Land on Moon also failed. In 1965 alone, Kosmos 60, Unnamed Luna, Luna 5, Luna 6, Luna 7, Luna 8, all Lander mission to Moon failed, before Luna 9 touchdown on the Moon’s surface in January 1966. In the period between 1966-1970, Luna 10, Luna 11, Luna 12, Luna 13, Luna 14, from the Orbiter to the Lander mission were successful. Russia kept trying with Unnamed Luna projects, Kosmos 330, 305 for Rover, Sample Return missions but they were all failures.

After several setbacks on its mission to Moon, USSR was finally able to land a robotic rover in October 1970 for the first time on the surface of the world beyond Earth through its programme- Lunokhod 1. In August 1973, Russia was able to land the second iteration of its Lunokhod rover named as Lunokhod 2.

China

Until the 2000s, there weren’t many countries interested in exploring the Moon. In 2007, China’s Chang’e 1 was the first Chinese space mission-Orbiter/Impact to the Moon. However, in the last 5 years, from 2013 onwards, China has shown greater interest in exploring Moon than any other countries. It has successfully undertaken 5 missions to the Moon. China’s Chang’e 3 delivered China’s Moon rover to the Moon in June 2013.

On January 3, 2019, China became the first country to soft-land a rover on the far side of the Moon. Chinese mission Chang’e 4 carried Yutu 2 rover on the hemisphere of the Moon that always faces away from the Earth and has one of the largest craters in the Solar System.

NASA’s fact sheet states that more than 40 per cent of missions to Moon have failed so far in the last 60 years. The success rate of lunar missions is 60 per cent with many countries failing several times over before registering their first success, only after acquiring years of knowledge from failures and experience. Out of 109 lunar missions till date, 61 have succeeded while 48 have failed.

It is also notable here that India’s first moon mission Chandrayaan-1 was a success. It had provided some very valuable imagery that has been immensely beneficial in lunar research.

ISRO has been very nascent in this field of exploration of the Moon. Such transient hiccups such as Chandrayaan-2’s partial failure will only serve to strengthen the resolve of the scientists at the ISRO and provide the space agency with valuable learnings go into the future with its upcoming ambitious projects, the Gaganyaan and Mangalyan-2. American Space Agency-NASA, Russian Space Agency encountered multiple failures before being successful in the missions to Moon. If history is anything to go by, such momentary setbacks only serve as stepping stones for the inevitable success.

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Jinit Jain
Engineer. Writer. Learner.

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