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Lunar lander is kind of a generic term. It can refer to any lunar module on any mission or, a little more ambiguous, anything that has been left on the Moon. This article will stick to the lunar modules that have made actual landings on the Moon’s surface and the proposed Altair lander.
The most famous lunar lander is the Apollo lunar module(LM). It was designed as part of the Apollo space program and was meant to carry a crew of two from lunar orbit to the surface and back. Six landed on the Moon between 1969–1972. The lander consisted of an ascent stage and d stage and was brought to lunar orbit by the command/service module. After completing its mission, the LM was discarded. Being a true spacecraft, it was capable of operation only in outer space and was structurally and aerodynamically incapable of flight within the Earth’s atmosphere. During early production the design was unpopular and plagued with delays throughout its development, but the LM eventually became the most reliable component of the Apollo/Saturn system. It was the only component to never suffer a failure that significantly impacted a mission.
America was not the only country dreaming of landing on the Moon(they were the only ones to be successful, though). The LK (Lunniy Korabl) was a Soviet lunar lander. The LK was meant to land a single astronaut on the Moon, hopefully, before the Americans. It completed development and was test flown successfully in Earth orbit, but never reached the Moon. The LK never made it beyond Earth orbit because the N1 rocket system that was to deliver it was a failure from beginning to end.
As the space shuttle program is scheduled to be retired, NASA has again turned it eye towards lunar landings, hoping to replace the shuttles with the Constellation program. The Altair spacecraft, previously known as the Lunar Surface Access Module or LSAM, is the planned lunar lander for that program. The entire program looks to be on the chopping block of the Obama administrations budget cuts for 2011. Who knows, President Obama’s administration will be over long before NASA gives up hope of landing on the Moon again.
We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about the Explorations on the Moon. Listen here, Episode 114: The Moon, Part 2: Exploration of the Moon.