ESA Science & Technology30-Jun-2005 12:04:52


Why the Moon?

The conquest of the Moon

Today we know that the Moon is not made of green cheese and the cold-war race to the Moon is of another epoch. But Earth's natural satellite is certainly not relegated to the history books. Many people, scientists, engineers and poets alike, are still fascinated by it. A lunar eclipse can spell-bind thousands of watchers and when opinion polls recently asked what was the most significant event of the closing century, many replied by evoking just one name: Neil Armstrong.

The Apollo-11 astronaut's first steps on the Moon on 20 July 1969 materialised many dreams. The technology of modern society, backed by a formidable political will, transformed Jules Verne's novel 'From the Earth to the Moon' and Fritz Lang's film 'Frau im Mond' into reality.

The last crew included the only trained geologist to walk on the lunar surface, Harrison Schmitt. By the time he and Apollo 17 commander Eugene Cernan left the Moon on 17 December 1972, scientists were already adding this wealth of new data to the results of all the preceding unmanned lunar missions.

Much was learnt during the six Apollo missions that landed men on the Moon, and from Soviet lunar sample return missions. Carefully collected samples have been correlated with data obtained by lunar orbiters, including the most recent lunar missions.

Lunar probes and 'selenauts'

Luna 3 Image of the Moon

The first attempt by the United States was unsuccessful. Pioneer-3 was launched in December 1958 but failed to reach its target because of a booster problem. Less than a year later, the Soviet Union scored a bull's-eye when Luna 2 crashed into the Palus Putredinus region. In October 1959, the Luna 3 flyby allowed its cameras to discover for the first time the hidden face of the Moon.

By 25 May 1961, when John Kennedy made his famous speech to the United States Congress promising to take humanity to the Moon "before the decade is out", the United States and the Soviet Union had sent some 50 unmanned spacecraft to Earth's natural satellite. In a climate of intense competition, each mission claimed to be a 'first': first impact, first flyby, first images of the lunar farside, first soft landing, first circumlunar probe to return to Earth, first Moon 'rover'.

Each successful 'Pioneer', 'Ranger', Luna', 'Zond', 'Surveyor', 'Lunakhod', or 'Lunar Orbiter' added to our knowledge of the Moon, but also prepared the science and technology for future Solar System exploration, and for Earth applications. Each 'first' often took the form of impressive photographs and television pictures from which much science data was obtained. But the information from other onboard instruments (temperature sensors, a variety of spectrometers in different wavelengths, chemical composition analysers, seismographs, laser rangers, magnetometers, radiation monitors...) allowed the discipline of lunar and planetary science to advance by leaps and bounds.

The first lunar samples were collected by Neil A. Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin during the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969. Between 1969 and 1972 six Apollo missions brought back samples from six different sites on the Moon. Later, between 1972 and 1976, three Soviet automated spacecraft (Luna's 16,20, and 24) returned samples of lunar rock.

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