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Early History of Mars Missions

We have always dreamed about exploring the Universe. The first step to charting galaxies is conquering the Solar System. The best planet for us to travel to is Mars! This means lots of prep work before astronauts can land there. Here is a timeline of the early history of Mars missions! 

A 3D illustration of a lander on Mars.

How many missions to Mars are there? Let’s find out!


A Long Timeline


The 1960s

Space missions to Mars started as early as the 1960s. The first country to send spacecraft to Mars was actually the Soviet Union! Now the Soviet Union has broken up into dozens of countries in Eastern Europe. The first two missions were flybys Marsnik 1 and 2. They launched on October 10th and 14th of 1960. Sadly, neither reached Earth’s orbit and couldn’t go any further. 

A 3D illustration of a probe orbiting Mars.

The first spacecraft sent out to Mars were small and unmanned.

The Soviet Union kept trying after their failures. In 1962, they sent out 3 other spacecraft to fly by Mars. These were Sputnik 22, Mars 1, and Sputnik 24. These all failed, for different reasons. 2 only reached Earth’s orbit and no further. On another, the radio broke and couldn’t send back any information! 
The US joined in the Mars race soon after. In 1964, NASA sent out Mariner 3, which couldn’t get far enough into space. But then, the first success happened! Mariner 4 went out in 1953. In 1965, it passed Mars and sent back pictures to the US base! NASA then launched Mariner 6 and 7 in 1969. The 2 took hundreds of photos of Mars and collected data about Mars’ landscape and atmosphere. 

An image of the desolate martian landscape.

The first photos of Mars weren’t very good quality. But they gave us an idea of what Mars looked like. It also showed that there was no life on Mars!

The Soviet Union continued to send spacecraft after the Mariner success. The Mars 1969 A and B, however, failed to break Earth’s orbit. 

The 1970s

The 1970s brought the Soviet Union a couple of successes in reaching Mars. The Mars 2 orbiter launched in 1971. It reached Mars but crash-landed on the planet instead. The Mars 3, also in 1971, brought better results. The Mars 3 orbiter worked well, but the lander was still not fully functional. 

An image of a stamp dedicated to the Mars Missions in the USSR.

The USSR couldn’t get landers up to Mars yet in 1971.

In 1971, the Mariner 8 from the US fell into the Atlantic Ocean. The Mariner 9 after it brought exciting news! Mars was in a dust storm at the time. As the storm settled, it revealed tops of dormant volcanoes on Mars! Mariner 9 orbited Mars for almost a year afterward. 
Mariner 9 collected over 7000 photos from Mars’ orbit. The US then decided to explore Mars’ landscape. They sent out 2 pairs of orbiters and landers: Viking 1 and 2. Both orbiters remained in place around Mars. Meanwhile, the landers successfully gathered information about Mars until the 1980s. 

The 1980s

There weren’t many space missions to Mars in the 1980s. The USSR wanted to explore Phobos, one of Mars’ moons. Phobos 1 and 2 launched in 1988. However, both got lost while on their way to their final destination. 
Click here to learn about Mars missions that happened after the 1980s!

Other Great Resources


Historic Mars Missions – Space.com: https://www.space.com/13558-historic-mars-missions.html

NASA on Past Mars Missions: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/mars/missions/index-past.html

NASA’s Mars Timeline: https://history.nasa.gov/marschro.htm

The Planetary Society on Mars Missions: http://www.planetary.org/explore/space-topics/space-missions/missions-to-mars.html



50 Years of Mars Exploration: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pwipxdQ74pU

A Shorter History of Mars Exploration: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C-Y9J0FyH4w


Written by: Minh Nguyen