How long does it take to travel to the Moon?
Last Updated: November 13, 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.
So how long does it take to get to the Moon? The short answer is that it takes an average of 3 days to reach the Moon.
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!
So, what are the factors that can influence the duration of this incredible journey? Let’s dive in! Or should I say, let’s take off?
Cargo load is one of the many factors that can influence the time it takes to travel to the Moon.
Does the Moon's orbit affect the time it takes to get there?
We know that the Moon is located at an average distance of 238,855 miles from Earth. However, the trajectory of the Moon’s orbit around the Earth is elliptical, with one side closer to the 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 (lunar perigee) at 221,500 miles, and another moment when it is as far away as possible (lunar apogee) at 252,700 miles.
While the distance between the Moon and Earth is an important factor to consider when planning a spacecraft’s trajectory, other considerations come into play regarding the duration of the flight to the Moon.
The duration of a journey to the Moon varies according to the following 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 perigee (221,500 miles), the probe would reach the Moon in only 6 hours and 15 minutes! If the Moon was at 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 to fly a manned spacecraft 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 75 hours and 49 minutes.
To date, the Apollo 8 mission still holds the record for the shortest travel time ever achieved by a spacecraft carrying astronauts on board (69 hours et 8 minutes). In total, NASA conducted 6 lunar landings during 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 time taken to reach the Moon is different for each Apollo mission. There are several explanations for this:
- The purpose of some missions was only to orbit the Moon rather than land on it.
- NASA was constantly researching and testing for the best possible trajectory.
- Some missions involved transporting very heavy equipment, such as the lunar rover.
Apollo 8 (the quickest mission)
December 21, 1968
69 hours and 8 minutes
May 18, 1969
75 hours and 55 minutes
July 16, 1969
75 hours and 49 minutes
November 14, 1969
83 hours and 25 minutes
April 11, 1970
February 5, 1971
81 hours and 56 minutes
July 30, 1971
78 hours and 31 minutes
April 21, 1972
74 hours and 28 minutes
December 11, 1972
86 heures et 14 minutes
The Apollo 12 mission arrived on the Moon after a voyage that took three and a half days.
How long does it take to send an unmanned spacecraft to 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.
January 2, 1959
34 hours (flyby)
September 14, 1959
October 7, 1959
30 July 1964
January 20, 2006
8 hours and 35 minutes
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…!
Written by Tom Urbain
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.
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