Between 1970 and 1976, Soviet automatic probes of the Luna series landed on the Moon, brought back small rock samples and traveled extensively over its surface with remotely controlled Lunakhod rovers, analyzing its soil and transmitting thousands of pictures.
Apart from the Soviet Union, the United States and China, no other country so far has achieved a soft landing of a crewed or uncrewed vehicle on the Moon. However, Japan, the US, Europe, China and India have explored the Moon in detail from lunar orbit, and are still doing so, with probes such as Muses-A, Clementine, Lunar Prospector, Smart 1, Selene/Kaguya, Chang’e, Chandrayaan and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Japan, India and the US have also crashed space probes intentionally into the Moon (Selene/Kaguya, Chandrayaan, LCROSS), creating artificial craters and generating debris clouds that have allowed remote analysis of the surface of the Moon. In 2013 China achieved the first soft landing on the Moon by any spacecraft in 37 years when its Chang’e 3 lander, carrying the Yutu rover, touched down in the Moon's Bay of Rainbows (Sinus Iridum); in 2019 it performed the first soft landing on the far side of the Moon, with the Chang’e 4 probe and Yutu 2 rover.
Thanks to the vast amount of science data gathered by these probes, today we have an extremely detailed altimetric map of the entire lunar surface and know its geology in detail. For example, their ongoing work has allowed scientists to confirm the presence of water on the Moon.
The exploration of our satellite continues: several national and private missions with robotic landers and rovers are planned for the near future. However, there are no solid plans for crewed trips back to the Moon, except for the United States’ Artemis program, which is tentatively scheduled to land a crew on the Moon by 2024.
In the decades after Apollo, human presence in space has been frequent, with Russian, American and Chinese flights which also carried astronauts from many other countries and used advanced vehicles such as the US Space Shuttle.
Shifting from competition to cooperation, Russia, the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan have carried out joint missions and built the International Space Station, which has now been inhabited uninterruptedly since 2000 and orbits the Earth at an altitude of approximately 400 km (250 miles). All these missions, however, have remained very close to Earth: nobody has ventured as far as the Apollo lunar crews.
The six Moon landings were seen at the time as a prelude to ongoing, ever-expanding crewed space exploration, but today they appear to be destined for many more years to remain unrivaled adventures, extraordinary leaps forward whose early promise was later abandoned.
NEXT: Chapter 2. How we went to the Moon