How long does it take to get to the moon?

Last Updated: February 5, 2021

Humans have always been fascinated by the prospect of visiting the Moon – our closest celestial neighbor, and the first stepping stone in the exploration of the solar system. Even with the use of modern technology and advanced propulsion systems, reaching the Moon remains a very difficult and very expensive endeavour.

Between 1969 and 1972, NASA sent 18 astronauts to the Moon as part of the Apollo space program. In addition, five nations and two political unions have successfully landed unmanned spacecraft on the lunar surface or placed them into lunar orbit.

The last moon landing occurred almost 40 years ago! In fact, humans have not set foot on the lunar ground since December 14, 1972. That being said, NASA’s new “Artemis” mission is generating a great deal of public interest. The next moon landing is scheduled for 2024!

We know that the Moon is located at an average distance of 238,855 miles from Earth. But how long does it take to travel this far, and what are the factors that can influence the duration of this journey? Let’s dive in! Or should I say, let’s take off?

Apollo 12 lunar module landing

The Apollo 12 mission arrived at the Moon in 3.5 days.

Does the Moon's orbit around the Earth affect the time it takes to get there?

The trajectory of the Moon around the Earth is referred to as “elliptical”, with one side closer to Earth than the other and an average eccentricity of 0.0549.

Since its path is not perfectly circular, there is a moment when the Moon is as close as possible to the Earth (the perigee) at 221,500 miles, and another moment when it is as far away as possible (the apogee) at 252,700 miles. Although the distance between the Moon and the Earth is an important factor to consider when planning the trajectory of a spacecraft, there are additional considerations that come into play regarding the duration of the flight.

The time it takes to get to the Moon varies according to various factors:

  • The chosen itinerary;
  • The selected type of propulsion system ;
  • The presence or the absence of crew members aboard the spacecraft;
  • Whether the spacecraft is scheduled to land on the surface, orbit around the Moon, or just fly by the Moon while heading towards a more distant target.

For example, if the space probe “New Horizons” was travelling at its maximum speed of 36,400 mph while the Moon is at its perigee (221,500 miles), the probe would reach the Moon in only 6 hours and 15 minutes! If the Moon was at its apogee (252,700 miles), the space probe would take about 6 hours and 50 minutes to pass by the Moon.

How long does it take a manned spacecraft to get to the Moon?

The most popular lunar mission is undoubtedly Apollo 11, during which the astronauts Neil Amstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins travelled to the Moon for the first time. After blasting off from the Kennedy Space Center on July 16, 1969, the astronauts landed on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969, and the journey took exactly 4 days, 6 hours and 45 minutes

To date, the Apollo 11 mission still holds the record for the shortest travel time ever achieved by a spacecraft carrying astronauts on board. NASA subsequently made five additional landings on the Moon as part of the Apollo program.

Although other countries have conducted orbital placements as well as landings of unmanned spacecraft, the United States remains to this day the only country to have successfully landed astronauts on the Lunar surface.

As you can see in the table below, the travel times to reach the Moon are different for each mission. There are several explanations for this:

  • The purpose of some missions was only to orbit the Moon rather than landing on it.
  • NASA was researching and testing for the best possible trajectory.
  • Some missions involved transporting very heavy equipment, such as the lunar rover.
Spacecraft
Launch Date
Travel Time
Apollo 8 (the quickest mission)
December 21, 1968
2 days 21 hours 8 minutes
Apollo 10
May 18, 1969
76 hours
Apollo 11
July 16, 1969
4 days, 6 hours, 45 minutes
Apollo 12
November 14, 1969
83 hours and 25 minutes.
Apollo 13
April 11, 1970
3 days
Apollo 14
February 5, 1971
5 days
Apollo 15
July 30, 1971
4 days
Apollo 16
April 21, 1972
5 days
Apollo 17
December 11, 1972
3 days 14 hours 41 minutes
rocket launch at night

How long does it take for an unmanned spacecraft to reach the Moon?

Even for unmanned space probes, there is no such thing as a consistent travel time… It all depends on whether the spacecraft is just passing by the Moon, whether it is intended to be placed into orbit or to land on the surface. New Horizons holds the record for the shortest trip to the Moon: 8 hours and 35 minutes! 

The record for the longest journey to the Moon is held by SMART-1, a space probe engineered by the European Space Agency: it took a full year to reach the Moon! Although SMART-1 is the slowest spacecraft to ever reach the Moon, it remains the most fuel-efficient spacecraft in history.

Spacecraft
Launch Date
Travel Time
Luna 1
January 2, 1959
34 hours (flyby)
Luna 2
September 14, 1959
34-35 hours
Luna 3
October 7, 1959
3 days
Ranger 7
30 July 1964
2 days
New Horizons
January 20, 2006
8 hours and 35 minutes
SMART-1
November 11, 2004
1 year and 1 month and two weeks

In summary, the time it takes to reach the Moon is about 3 days on average for manned spacecraft. On the other hand, for unmanned spacecraft, the travel time can vary considerably depending on the mission objectives. They usually reach their destination much faster.

I eagerly look forward to the launch of the next lunar mission scheduled for 2024.  Mankind will return to the lunar surface for the first time in 40 years! And this time, a woman will be part of the crew! How amazing!

Is it possible that 40 years of technological progress will significantly reduce the time it takes to reach the moon? Perhaps the new private space companies, such as SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, will beat all previous records? We’ll find out the answer in a few years…!

Tom Urbain

Welcome to StarLust.org

Hey! I’m Tom Urbain, the founder of StarLust.org. I’ve been fascinated by space and astronomy from a very young age. When I’m not watching space-themed documentaries, movies or TV series, I spend most of my free time in my backyard admiring the planets and galaxies with my telescope.

More about StarLust

Recommended Reading

Moon exploration has come a long way since Russia’s first lunar probe reached the Moon…

Let’s talk about the people who have paved the way to the moon and made space exploration possible.

The gibbous moon is one of the various phases that the Moon goes through during its monthly lunar cycle.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.