At some point, mankind stopped looking at the Moon as some impossible object in the sky and started to decipher the science behind making the journey there. Since that time, many spacecraft have made the journey successfully to the Moon. In this article, we take a look at how long it took different types of craft to get to the Moon.
Logistics of Getting to the Moon
The Space Race between the former Soviet Union and the United States put the Moon on a pedestal. Each country wanted to be the first to put a man on the lunar surface, and the rivalry spurned an era of space exploration.
Getting to the Moon, though, was no easy task. There are several factors that a spacecraft must overcome to travel roughly 238,900 miles (384,480 kilometers) to even make it there in the first place.
While on Earth, a spacecraft needs to travel 25,020 mph (40,270 km/h) to clear our atmosphere. It’s then necessary to keep traveling away from the Earth to remove any risk of being pulled back down to the planet’s surface.
Once safely in space, a spacecraft needs boosters of its own to keep the spaceship headed in the right direction.
What Was the First Country To Visit the Moon?
The United States and the former Soviet Union battled to see who could put an unmanned craft on the Moon first. After a series of rocket failures by both countries, the Soviet Union’s Luna 2 spacecraft intentionally impacted the Moon, becoming the first-ever to reach the lunar surface.
How Long Did Manned Missions Take To Reach the Moon?
It’s incredible to think that nine different crewed spacecraft have made their way to the Moon with the United States Apollo program. Six of these actually landed on the lunar surface. The missions of the 1950’s and 1960’s paved the way for such a feat to even be possible.
However, getting a man to the Moon would prove much more challenging than any unmanned craft.
The Apollo program used massive 363 foot (111 meters) tall three-staged Saturn V rockets to propel astronauts from Earth out into the confines of space. As each stage emptied its fuel, it was dropped from the spacecraft into the ocean.
Once actually in space, astronauts switched to the Command and Service Module to pilot themselves to the Moon.
It took careful calculations from the team at NASA to guide the astronauts to the Moon, as the Moon was hurtling through space at the same time! A simple miscalculation would leave craft traveling indefinitely into the unknown regions of space.
En route to the Moon, it took astronauts aboard the Apollo spacecraft approximately three days to settle into orbit around our rocky neighbor. The astronauts were required to slow down considerably upon entering the Moon’s orbit so it can be caught by lunar gravity.
The Apollo crew for each mission floated in orbit around the Moon over a day as they prepared for their actual landing on the lunar surface. When the Lunar Module finally began its descent, it took a few hours before touching down on the Moon.
Each Apollo mission took a different length of time from blastoff on Earth to actually reach the Moon. While the travel distance between worlds was only around three days, it would take astronauts somewhere between four and five days to actually reach lunar soil.
Getting Back From the Moon
As incredible as it was to put humans on the Moon, it was imperative that those astronauts also make it safely home. Using thrusters on the Lunar Module, the Apollo astronauts reunited with their crewmate aboard the Command and Service Module.
On the return trip, the Apollo crew would not have to orbit the Earth before landing. The astronauts would pierce the Earth’s atmosphere and splash down in the ocean.
Being much more direct than the trip to the Moon, it only took the Apollo spacecraft approximately three days to touch down back on Earth.
What Was the Slowest Trip to the Moon?
In 2003, the European Space Agency launched the SMART-1 spacecraft to test out new technology for future lunar missions. The craft intentionally traveled in a slow spiral to the Moon to conserve fuel. It would arrive at the Moon an incredible one year, one month, and two weeks after its launch date.
Impressively, the SMART-1 spacecraft performed its lunar mission for nearly two years before being intentionally crashed into the Moon.
What Was the Fastest Trip to the Moon?
NASA launched the New Horizons spacecraft back in 2006 to visit the far reaches of our Solar System, including the Kuiper Belt and beyond. The New Horizons craft didn’t stop at the Moon but used our rocky satellite to launch itself further into the depths of space.
Without the need to slow down, New Horizons took only 8 hours and 35 minutes to reach the Moon.
Currently, the New Horizons craft is well into the far reaches of the Solar System, having passed Pluto and much of the Kuiper Belt.
A Renewed Interest in the Moon
We’ve seen a new excitement in the Moon in recent years, with China landing unmanned craft on the Moon and other countries attempting to follow suit. The recent confirmation of water on the lunar surface has sparked a desire to better understand just what our Moon is made up of.
Crewed missions back to the Moon could be a huge stepping stone to sending humans further out into the Solar System. NASA has made plans to put man back on the Moon by 2024 with their Artemis program.
How Long Would It Take To Get to Other Celestial Objects?
With several successful missions to the Moon, scientists have begun to turn their attention to other objects in our Solar System. Our Moon is a stone’s throw away, celestially speaking. Even some of our other closest neighbors require a considerable amount of travel time.
At this point in history, we’ve been able to send unmanned spacecraft to just about every part of the Solar System.
Several countries, including the United States and the former Soviet Union, have been able to send unmanned rockets to the Red Planet as early as 1965.
Some of these have even been able to land safely on the surface. NASA’s Mars 2020 mission is the latest to reach the Martian surface, with both a rover and a helicopter in tow.
On all accounts, these journeys to Mars took about 7½ months to make the journey. A human-crewed mission may be in the works for launch some time in the next five years, and it’s estimated to take the same amount of time to make the trip.
The New Horizons spacecraft is the most recent to make a trip out to minor planet Pluto. It is the fastest ship to ever leave the Earth and has traveled over one million miles per day through the Solar System.
Even at such insane speeds, New Horizons took 9½ years to come within 8,000 miles (12,875 kilometers) of Pluto’s frozen surface.
Any manned craft would need to travel at much slower speeds to support the life on board. Assuming an average speed of an Apollo craft on the way to the Moon, it would take astronauts 40 years to reach Pluto. Hopefully, scientists can get that time down before any type of actual mission.
As humanity prepares to some day travel farther into the Solar System, we must first look to the Moon. Our neighbor still proves to be a challenge for us, with many failed attempts at reaching its surface. Until we master crewed flights to the Moon, the rest of the Solar System may remain out of reach.