It was 50 years ago today that Surveyor 1 became the first American spacecraft to land on the Moon – although the prize of first lander on the Moon was won by the Soviet Union, whose Luna 9 touched down four months earlier.
NASA’s unmanned Surveyor program was designed to show that a soft landing on the Moon was possible and pave the way for the manned Apollo missions.
Between 30 May 1966 and 7 January 1968, NASA landed seven robotic spacecraft on the lunar surface.
Besides proving that it was feasible to land unharmed on the surface, the Surveyor landers also gathered data that would be needed for the manned landings that began in 1969.
The pathfinder, Surveyor 1, touched down in the Ocean of Storms, the vast lunar mare on the western edge of the near side of the Moon.
Surveyor 1 transmitted 11,237 still photos of the lunar surface back to mission control using a television camera and a radio-telemetry system.
Now, 50 years later, NASA aims to send astronauts to Mars by the 2030s. But the European Space Agency has its sights set closer to home, with plans for a return to the moon, this time to set up a “moon village”, combining the resources of several countries. ESA envisions this as a base for science, business, mining – and even tourism.
ESA director general Johann-Dietrich Wörner presented the plans during the 32nd Space Symposium in Colorado last month.
The moon village would be used by ESA member states and other space-going nations, Wörner said. He sees it as the logical next step.
“I think we should go first to the moon and then further on,” he told the symposium. He called the moon base “a stepping-stone, a test bed … to go further, for instance, to Mars and beyond”, adding, “I would not call Mars the ultimate goal. I am quite sure humans will go further.”
The video above marks the anniversary with an overview of the past, present, and future of Moon exploration.
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
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