The line

"Therefore the USSR sent detailed instructions to Jodrell Bank how to find their second lunar probe, Luna 2, that was launched on 12 September 1959 and hit the moon the next day."

from a block quote in this excellent answer to the question Why did Jodrell Bank assist the Soviet Union to collect data from their spacecraft in the mid 1960's? surprised me.

Launching one day and impacting the Moon the next sounds pretty fast relative to most lunar missions.

What are the records for the fastest trips to the Moon:

  1. from launch to landing or impact?
  2. from launch to low lunar orbit insertion?

I thought about adding a third; *low lunar flyby on return trajectory" but it's a bit messy to define the time that a low lunar flyby "happened" (e.g. Luna 3) whereas impact/landing and insertion can be fairly easily identified. If you can think of a way, it would certainly be an interesting addition to the answer.

Possibly helpful:

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    $\begingroup$ The time of closest approach to the moon would be the most natural reference for a flyby, if you really needed a tiebreaker. Loss-of-contact-behind-the-moon time might be easier to find in some cases. If you chose a milestone like "time to get within X distance of the moon", say 1000km, that would tend to put impact, LLO, and flyby missions all on the same footing, but that figure would be hard to find in most cases. $\endgroup$ – Russell Borogove Jul 17 '19 at 18:53
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    $\begingroup$ @called2voyage NASA says On 14 September, after 33.5 hours of flight, radio signals from Luna 2 abruptly ceased, indicating it had impacted on the Moon. but I see what you mean. The question might not be so severely impacted if it turns out that Luna 2's 33.5 hours was not the record. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Jul 17 '19 at 18:57
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    $\begingroup$ Just noticed the timestamp on Luna 2's MET isn't matching as stated previously, so in terms of impact I do not know. In terms of fly-by/orbit I am 80% positive that it is Luna 1 after sifting through the missions on the Wiki page as almost all of them use passive adjustments like gravity assists to save delta-v. $\endgroup$ – Magic Octopus Urn Jul 18 '19 at 16:44
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    $\begingroup$ @MagicOctopusUrn perhaps somebody needs to tweet to, or instant message to or write to Jonathan McDowell to get these historical dates cleared up $\endgroup$ – uhoh Jul 18 '19 at 16:46
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps what the quoted passage was intended to say was that the lunar impact occurred the day after the request was made. Perhaps it was already about a day after launch that the USSR issued the request, thus impact occurred "the next day". $\endgroup$ – Anthony X Aug 31 '19 at 17:23

Luna 2 went from launch to lunar impact in 2 days 16 hours 23 minutes, according to NASA: 1959 Sept 12 06:39:42 UTC to Sept 14 23:02:23 UTC.

This was faster than any of the other Lunas, and the Rangers and Surveyors, of which only a few took less than 3 days.

More recent trips have all taken even longer. Although direct ascent used less fuel, guidance, and calculation, lunar orbit was preferred once viable it was preferable, because that gave more flexibility in choosing a landing (or even crashing) location suitable for the lander's instruments.

The original source is page 23 of Deep Space Chronicle: A Chronology of Deep Space and Planetary Probes 1958-2000 by Asif A. Siddiqi, NASA, published 2002 (paper), 2017 (online). (An alternate link to this pdf is in the original question.) The relevant excerpt is copied here:

enter image description here

Much more recently, New Horizons showed that lunar orbit could be reached in just 9 hours, if some eccentric billionaire wants to take a crack at the record.
  • $\begingroup$ Yep you're right. I don't know why other NASA sites are saying September 13, 1959. Maybe that's EDT rather than UTC? $\endgroup$ – Star Man Aug 30 '19 at 22:20
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    $\begingroup$ Thank you for posting a conclusive answer, and for clearing up the confusion with the times and dates! $\endgroup$ – uhoh Aug 30 '19 at 23:06
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    $\begingroup$ "for reasons mentioned in the comments" -- comments should be considered ephemeral, so the answer would be improved by summarising or quoting those comments $\endgroup$ – user20636 Dec 4 '20 at 10:46
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for the heads up @jcrm. I just did that in one of my answers. $\endgroup$ – Oscar Lanzi Dec 4 '20 at 17:44

The fastest probe to land or impact on the moon was in fact Luna 2 with a duration of 2 days 16 hours 23 minutes (credit to @CamilleGoudeseune's answer).

The fastest spacecraft to successfully orbit the moon was Apollo 8 with a duration of around 2 days and 20 hours (launch to orbital insertion).

The fastest probe to do a flyby was Pioneer 4. It was within 60,000 km of the moon's surface. It took approximately 1 day and 17 hours from launch to closest approach.

You can look for other satellites and their travel times in the thorough moon.NASA.gov/exploration page Moon Missions.


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