Three Days, Three Lunar Launches … A Few Years Apart

It seemed interesting that the anniversaries of three lunar launches fell on three consecutive days, so I’ve grouped them all in one blog post.

(Lunar Prospector. NASA image.)

The first of the three launches happened 45 years ago today — January 7, 1968 — when Surveyor 7 launched from Cape Canaveral on an Atlas Centaur rocket. The spacecraft landed on the Moon on January 9, making it the fifth of the Apollo pathfinder series to achieve a soft landing.

And 40 years ago tomorrow — January 8, 1973 — the Soviet Union launched Luna 21 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on a Proton K rocket. Luna 21 carried and deployed Lunokhod 2, the USSR’s second lunar rover. The rover covered about 37 km during its four months of operations.

Finally, 15 years ago yesterday — January 6, 1998* — Lunar Prospector launched on an Athena 2 rocket out of Cape Canaveral. Lunar Prospector entered a low lunar polar orbit in order primarily to map the Moon’s surface for possible polar ice deposits, though it also carried instruments to study the Moon’s magnetic and gravity fields.

The mission ended on 31 July 1999 at 9:52:02 UT (5:52:02 EDT) when Lunar Prospector was deliberately targeted to impact in a permanently shadowed area of a crater near the lunar south pole. It was hoped that the impact would liberate water vapor from the suspected ice deposits in the crater and that the plume would be detectable from Earth, however, no plume was observed.

The spacecraft was sent into Shoemaker crater, and carried a portion of the remains of astronomer Eugene Shoemaker, which became a topic of discussion among the lunar colonists in my unpublished novel, Walking on the Sea of Clouds.

*It was already January 7 under Greenwich Mean Time (Universal Time).

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