Moon Mission Failures, Or Why Are Lunar Landings So Hard?

China's Chang'e-4 mission made the first-ever landing on the far side of the Moon in 2019. (Credit: Xinhua/Alamy)

Given the number of spacecraft (both crewed and uncrewed) that touched down on the Moon during the Space Race it’s sometimes hard to imagine why today, with all our modern technology, our remotely operated vehicles seem to have so much trouble not smashing themselves to bits on the regolith surface.

This is the focus of a recent article in Nature that explores the aspects which still make soft landings on our closest space body so much harder than the tragic lithobraking as most recently demonstrated by ispace’s M1 lander.

So far only three entities have successfully landed a craft on the Moon’s surface: the government-funded space agencies of the US, USSR, and China. Of them, only China managed to do so on their first try in 2013 (Chang’e-3), and again in 2019 on the far side of the Moon (Chang’e-4). What is the toughest part about a Moon landing is not to get near the Moon, but it’s about getting close to the surface without getting lost. Since there are no navigation satellites beyond those you put up before the landing, and a lot of Moon dust that will be kicked up by any landing rocket engines, it can be tough to gauge one’s exact location and distance to the surface.

In the case of the ispace lander it would appear that it tragically ran out of propellant before it could safely touch down, which is another major concern. Both the US and USSR would smash Moon landers into its surface until the first successful landing in 1966, which makes the manned touchdown by Apollo 11 in 1969 even more impressive.

41 thoughts on “Moon Mission Failures, Or Why Are Lunar Landings So Hard?

    1. lol

      you beat me to it!

      I was(am) obsessed with Lunar Lander simulations!

      first one I ever tried was running on a mainframe(CDC) displayed on a tektronics vector display terminal
      then a text based one on an ASR33 teletype

      first one I built was from a US magazine, the design was all op amps with 3 meters, fuel, altitude, velocity

      when I got my SYM 1, my grand dad still had an auto wrecker yard, I salvaged three speedos and drove them with PWM

      Byte magazine had a great project for 6800, displayed on a CRO
      then came a Marsport program for HP calculators

      still writing them in what ever language, with what ever display is handy

  1. ” … with all our modern technology, our remotely operated vehicles seem to have so much trouble not smashing themselves to bits on the regolith surface. ”

    The three countries who would absolutely lie to save face are the only ones claiming to have successfully landed on the moon. Meanwhile, a country revered for its engineering prowess and attention to detail fails. If you don’t believe we’ve landed men on the moon, it’s hard to see why you’d change your thinking. Just saying.

    1. Just scroll a bit down on
      And you’ll see the US and USSR successfully landed on the moon by just throwing a shitload of landers and eventually one would stick. It’s unfair to compare one failed attempt by one nation to one successful after a dozen failures. That’s like looking at one of those silly trick shot videos that take a 1000 attempts and say other people suck at trick shots.

    2. If the USA were willing to fake the famous moon landings, they’d have no reason not to try to make themselves look better than they did. But it’s actually harder to fake what we know came from the moon landings than it would be to actually go to the moon. After all, we’ve got records of radio transmissions (which seemed to come from where they were supposed to), physical samples, retroreflectors, a bajillion images, even broadcast video that would be really hard to fake with old tech. We’ve seen the giant spacecraft launch and return, and a ridiculous number of people have been involved over the course of decades – all of whom must have been prevented from revealing such a conspiracy if it existed. All to the purpose of faking something that would be easier (though riskier) to do legitimately? Nah.

      1. “After all, we’ve got records of radio transmissions”
        True. An observatory in W-Germany, the Sterwarte Bochum, received the telemetry transmissions independently at the time, also. And if something had been fishy, the UdSSR would have been the first to complain. That’s also something to keep in mind.

    3. You smell that kids? That’s the smell of anti-intellectualism.

      If any conspiracy nut wants to do the leg work themselves, just like the flat earthers you can easily disprove your silly ideas yourself.

      Get a laser and a sensitive photodiode. Shoot a beam at the Apollo 11 retroreflectors and watch a few photons return in ~2.5 seconds.

      Do mental gymnastics to explain how it’s not the Apollo 11 retroreflectors but something else.

      1. Well, you need the right to shoot the fairly powerful laser up in the sky (have fun with the paperwork), and probably a rather large telescope that will hold the flux… so probably not so cheap and trivial I would say

    1. Yes, and by the 70’s and early 80’s the US & USSR would land probes on both Venus and Mars. Given the limitation of technology, those were quite the ccomplishment. But current failures still show it pretty hard, even with better cpmputers & sensors.

    2. Still not an inconsequential achievement, but even more impressive is Tianwen-1: a Mars orbiter-lander-rover mission that hit it right out of the park on the first attempt (and thoroughly busted the ‘Mars Curse’).

    3. Yes, 50 years is plenty of time to “borrow” IP from NASA’s publicly available material providing every minute detail of US taxpayer funded knowledge of space missions. So of course the chi-coms will exploit it to their benefit. Why not ? Saved them plenty of re-inventing the wheel conundrums.

      Interesting Space X is much more OPSEC oriented.

  2. the other thing to remeber is path delay , that greatly affects remote landing control , it was easyer for the maned missions where the crew could control the burn maualy than to rely on instrumentation and auto land systems that are not always able to get it right , listen to amstrongs recap of the landing and how close it was to fuel they used on that burn , scary

      1. Wait… what if we just add an atmosphere? We could take all the CO2 that’s causing problems here and ship it to the moon. I hear it’s pretty cold on the moon, so the greenhouse effect would probably benefit the moon!

  3. Feels like calculating the amount of propellant necessary is pretty trivial, so that’s not the root cause. I wonder if the stability algorithms were too aggressive or some other function was consuming more propellant than expected.

    1. AFAIK it is known there was a navigation failure of some sort and surface was not found at expected altitude which triggered a fallback to a slow descend instead of shutting engines immediately so not only propellant amount wasn’t the root cause, it wasn’t a cause at all, it was just last ditch effort.

  4. I think US has also landed on a bunch of other planets successfully as well as asteroids and stuff. It isn’t like the US did moon landings in the 60’s and 70’s then declares victory and gave up.

    1. The major difference is the other planets have atmosphere. There is even a drone flying on Mars, something you couldn’t do on the moon. Atmosphere provides drag and stopping force. The moon has no atmosphere, that makes it harder.

  5. Wrote laser rangefinder software that’s supposed to be helping Nova-C make a soft landing in a few months. Needless to say, I’m nervous about lunar dust being kicked up into the path of the laser.

  6. “…it’s sometimes hard to imagine why…” Is it? Really?
    The cheapest materials, shortest timetables, least testing, and influence from executive/marketing meddling.
    Do people also have trouble imagining apples being red/green?

    People seem to forget that capitalism is actually really BAD at doing most things. It is about gambling a large number of times and making a gain by betting on the statistical winner because the only thing that really matters is getting more money out than you put in.

    That is nothing like the beurocratic method which costs 5x as much but aims to actually have a 99.9% success rate at the ACTUAL task.

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