There are many different paths that can be taken from Earth to the Moon. The distance to the Moon from Earth is between 360,000 km and 405,000 km, depending on if the Moon is at its perigee (closest point) or apogee (farthest-away point).
The distance to the Moon has little or no effect, however, on how long it actually takes to get to the Moon. Instead, it depends more on what kind of spaceship is going to the Moon, how fuel efficient the ship is, and which path the ship takes. Space agencies also consider whether or not they want to bring the spaceship back to Earth - it can’t come back if it used up all its fuel getting to the Moon really quickly!
Many countries have travelled to the Moon at different points throughout history, but the time it takes to actually arrive can vary quite a lot. Some space ships can make it to the Moon in a matter of hours, while one particular mission took over a year!
The first spacecraft to make it to the Moon was the Luna 2. The Luna 2 was made by the Soviet Union, and it reached the Moon in 1959. The Luna 2 took a direct path to the Moon, and the journey took approximately 34 hours. The shortest trip to the Moon was undertaken in 2006 by NASA, by the probe New Horizons. New Horizons travelled at 58,000 km/hr, and arrived at the Moon in 8 and a half hours.
The longest mission to the Moon was also a relatively recent one; it was slow not because it was an old ship, but because it was extremely fuel and energy efficient. This mission was undertaken by the European Space Agency (ESA) SMART-1 lunar probe, and it took 1 year and 1 month to reach the Moon.
The first successful manned trip to the Moon was the Apollo 11, which blasted off from Earth on July 16, 1969. This is the Moon landing that most people know about, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon. They walked on the Moon for a few hours, and conducted some experiments. They also collected Moon rocks! They arrived back to Earth safely a few days later, on July 24.
Figure 1: Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin walks on the surface of the moon. Image credit: NASA (public domain).
Now NASA and other organisations send robots to the Moon to explore, instead of sending people. This is because sending people is very difficult, and costs a lot of money! People need to be able to go the moon and come back, while robots can be sent up to the Moon and then transmit data back by satellite. Robots can also more easily collect scientific information and explore large parts of the Moon without needing food or water to survive. NASA started a new project in 2010 called Project Morpheus, specifically to send more modern robotic landers to the Moon to conduct research.