This article was originally written in 2008, but we’ve now updated it with this spiffy new video.
In a recent interview, Richard Branson outlined his vision for Virgin Galactic’s future. Once tourists are taken into Earth orbit, it seems possible that space hotels could be developed for longer stop-overs in space. He then went on to mention that short “sight-seeing” tours to the Moon could be started from these ultimate hotels. If we are to make travel to the Moon routine enough to send tourists there, the trip would need to be as short as possible. So how long is the commute from the Earth to the Moon anyway? Man and machine have made that trip already, some took a very long time, and others were astonishingly fast…
Many missions have arrived in lunar orbit and landed on the lunar surface, but the means of getting there are widely varying. Whether a mission uses a rocket to blast its way there, or a subtle ion engine to slowly edge its payload closer, we have many options open to us when we travel to the Moon in the future. To this end, I’ll give a quick rundown from slowest to fastest flights to Earth’s natural satellite 380,000 km away.
Slowest: 1 year, 1 month and 2 weeks
The slowest mission to fly to the Moon was actually one of the most advanced technologies to be sent into space. The ESA SMART-1 lunar probe was launched on September 27th 2003 and used a revolutionary ion engine to propel it to the Moon. SMART-1 slowly spiralled out from the Earth to arrive at its destination one year, one month and two weeks later on November 11th 2004. SMART-1 may have been slow, but it was by far the most fuel efficient. The craft used only 82 kg of xenon propellant for the entire mission (ending with a lunar impact in 2006).
The SMART mission is an oddity as it is by far the longest mission to the Moon, the rest of the missions took a matter of days to reach lunar orbit. China’s Chang’e-1 mission was launched from Xichang Satellite Launch Center on October 24th 2007 but sat in Earth orbit til October 31st when it began its transit to the Moon. It arrived in lunar orbit on November 5th. Chang’e-1 therefore took five days to cover the distance, using its rocket boosters.
Manned missions do it quicker: 3 days, 3 hours, 49 minutes
Next up, the Apollo missions in comparison were fairly quick to reach the Moon. The Apollo 11 astronauts were launched atop a huge Saturn V multi-stage rocket on July 16th 1969 from Kennedy Space Centre and sent quickly on their way. They reached lunar orbit after only three days in space on July 19th 1969.
The first ever mission to the Moon was the Soviet Luna 1 probe that completed a flyby in 1959. This basic, but pioneering probe was launched on January 2nd and flew past the Moon by a few thousand kilometers on January 4th. It only took 36 hours to make the trip, therefore travelling an average speed of 10,500 km/hr.
By far the fastest mission to fly past the Moon was NASA’s New Horizons Pluto mission. This mission had a speedy launch, rockets powering the probe to over 58,000 km/hr to give it a good start on its long trip to the outer Solar System and Pluto. Although this is impressive, it’s worth keeping in mind that New Horizons was not slowing down to enter lunar orbit (like the Moon-specific missions above), it was probably still accelerating as the Moon was a dot in its rear view window. Still, it took eight hours and thirty-five minutes to cover the 380,000 km distance. Impressive.
So, space tourism companies have a few options for their sight-seeing tours around the Moon. They could offer long cruises, gently gliding to the Moon, using ion engines to slowly let the tourists take in the views, or they could opt for the exhilarating rocket ride of a lifetime, getting tourists there and back in a day or two… not sure which option I’d prefer…
Original publication date April 10, 2008