A U.S.-Built Spacecraft Lands on the Moon for the First Time Since 1972

by The Technical Blogs

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For the first time in a half-century, an American-built spacecraft has landed on the moon.

The robotic lander was the first U.S. vehicle on the moon since Apollo 17 in 1972, the closing chapter in humanity’s astonishing achievement of sending people to the moon and bringing them all back alive. That is a feat that has not been repeated or even tried since.

The lander, named Odysseus and a bit bigger than a telephone booth, arrived in the south polar region of the moon at 6:23 p.m. Eastern time on Thursday.

The landing time came and went in silence as flight controllers waited to hear confirmation of success. A brief communication pause was expected, but minutes passed.

Then Tim Crain, the chief technology officer of Intuitive Machines, the Houston-based company that built Odysseus, reported that a faint signal from the spacecraft had been detected.

“It’s faint, but it’s there,” he said. “So stand by, folks. We’ll see what’s happening here.”

A short while later, he announced, “What we can confirm, without a doubt, is our equipment is on the surface of the moon and we are transmitting. So congratulations.”

Later, he added, “Houston, Odysseus has found its new home.”

But with the spacecraft’s ability to properly communicate still unclear, the celebration of clapping and high-fives in the mission control center was muted.

Later in the evening, the company reported more promising news.

“After troubleshooting communications, flight controllers have confirmed Odysseus is upright and starting to send data,” Intuitive Machines said in a statement. “Right now, we are working to downlink the first images from the lunar surface.”

While this venture was much more modest than the Apollo missions that led to astronauts walking on the moon, the hope at NASA was that it could help inaugurate a more revolutionary era: transportation around the solar system that is economical as far as spaceflight is concerned.

“I think it is a smart thing that NASA is trying to do,” said Carissa Christensen, chief executive of BryceTech, a space consulting firm, “which is to essentially create a competitive ecosystem of providers to meet its needs.”

Intuitive Machines is one of several small companies that NASA has hired to transport instruments that will perform reconnaissance on the moon’s surface ahead of the return of NASA astronauts there, planned for later this decade.

For this mission, NASA paid Intuitive Machines $118 million under a program known as Commercial Lunar Payload Services, or CLPS, to deliver six instruments to the moon, including a stereo camera that aimed to capture the billowing of dust kicked up by Odysseus as it approached the surface and a radio receiver to measure the effects of charged particles on radio signals.

There was also cargo from other customers, like a camera built by students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., and an art project by Jeff Koons. Parts of the spacecraft were wrapped in reflective material made by Columbia Sportswear.

Odysseus left Earth early on Feb. 15 aboard a SpaceX rocket. It pulled into lunar orbit on Wednesday.

The lead-up to the landing included last-minute shuffling.

After the spacecraft entered lunar orbit, Intuitive Machines said it would land on the moon at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday. On Thursday morning, the company said the spacecraft had moved to a higher altitude and would land at 4:24 p.m.

Then on Thursday afternoon, the landing time changed again, with the company saying that an extra lap around the moon would be needed before the 6:24 p.m. landing attempt. A company spokesman said a laser instrument on the spacecraft that was to provide data on its altitude and velocity was not working.

The extra orbit provided two hours for changes in the spacecraft’s software to substitute a different, experimental laser instrument, which had been provided by NASA.

At 6:11 p.m., Odysseus fired its engine to begin its powered descent to the surface. The laser instrument appeared to serve as a suitable fill-in, and everything appeared to be working until the spacecraft went silent for several minutes.

The landing site for Odysseus was a flat area near the Malapert A crater, about 185 miles north of the moon’s south pole. The moon’s polar regions have attracted much interest in recent years because of frozen water hidden in the shadows of craters there.

Getting to the moon has proved to be a tricky feat to pull off. Other than the United States, only the government space programs of the Soviet Union, China, India and Japan have successfully put robotic landers on the moon’s surface. Two companies — Ispace of Japan and Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh — had previously tried and failed, as has an Israeli nonprofit, SpaceIL.

In an interview before launch, Steve Altemus, the chief executive of Intuitive Machines, said he hoped NASA would persevere with the moon-on-a-budget mindset even if Odysseus crashed.

“It’s the only way to really go forward,” he said. “That’s what this experiment is supposed to do.”

In the past, NASA would have built its own spacecraft.

Before Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the moon, NASA sent a series of robotic spacecraft, Surveyor 1 through Surveyor 7, to validate landing techniques and examine the properties of the lunar soil. Those robotic landings allayed concerns that astronauts and spacecraft would sink into a thick layer of fine dust on the moon’s surface.

But when NASA designs and operates spacecraft itself, it generally seeks to maximize the odds of success, and its designs tend to be expensive.

The Apollo moon landings from 1969 to 1972 became a paradigm for a colossal program that tackled a problem nearly impossible to solve with a near-limitless budget — the proverbial moonshot — while CLPS seeks to harness the enthusiasm and ingenuity of start-up entrepreneurs.

Thomas Zurbuchen, a former top NASA science official who started the CLPS program in 2018, estimated that a robotic lunar lander designed, built and operated in the traditional NASA manner would cost $500 million to $1 billion, or at least five times as much the space agency paid Intuitive Machines.

NASA hopes that capitalism and competition — with companies proposing different approaches — will spur innovation and lead to new capabilities at lower costs.

But even if they succeed, these companies face uncertain business prospects attracting many customers beyond NASA and other space agencies.

“It’s not obvious who those other customers might be,” Ms. Christensen said.

Intuitive Machines has contracts for two more CLPS missions, and other companies are expected to take their shots at the moon, too. Astrobotic Technology, the Pittsburgh-based company, has a second mission in preparation to take a robotic NASA rover to one of the shadowed regions where there might be ice. Firefly Aerospace, near Austin, Texas, has its Blue Ghost lander mostly ready but has not yet announced a launch date.

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