Intuitive Machines lands on the moon during a nail-biting descent of a private Odysseus lander, a first for the US since 1972

By | February 23, 2024

After a nerve-wracking descent and tense silence from the lunar surface, the United States is back on the moon.

Odysseus, a robotic lander built by Houston-based company Intuitive Machines, landed near the moon’s south pole tonight (Feb. 22).

It was a milestone for space exploration: No private spacecraft had ever landed softly on the moon before, and an American vehicle had not softly touched down on the gray Earth since NASA’s manned Apollo 17 lander did so in December 1972.

“What a triumph! Odysseus has conquered the moon,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a video message the agency sent out shortly after confirming a successful touchdown. “This achievement is a giant leap forward for all of humanity. Stay tuned!”

Related: Missions to the moon: past, present and future

A private lunar lander from Intuitive Machines in lunar orbit with the moon's cratered surface below with black space in the background.

A private lunar lander from Intuitive Machines in lunar orbit with the moon’s cratered surface below with black space in the background.

Return to the moon

The moon was a frequent target of American spacecraft in the 1960s and early 1970s. This impetus did not arise purely from scientific curiosity: landing astronauts on Earth’s nearest neighbor was seen as a national security imperative, a way to demonstrate technological superiority over the country’s Cold War rival , the Soviet Union.

The US famously placed twelve astronauts on the lunar surface over the course of six Apollo missions from 1969 to 1972. With the moon race thus definitively won, NASA was ordered to focus on other goals for its human spaceflight program – especially development and operation of the Space Shuttle program.

The US launched a number of robotic lunar probes after the Apollo era; NASA’s sharp-eyed Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, for example, has been circling the moon since 2009. But despite some frustrating fits and starts, returning to the surface wasn’t a priority – until recently.

In December 2017, then-President Donald Trump directed NASA to return astronauts to the moon in the relatively near future. This directive has given rise to a broad and ambitious program called Artemis, which aims to establish a sustainable human presence on and around the moon by the end of the 2020s – and use the knowledge gained to help astronauts get to Mars late 2030 or early 2040.

NASA plans to set up one or more Artemis bases in the moon’s southern polar region, where water ice is believed to be abundant. Before astronauts are sent there, however, the agency wants to gather more data about this little-explored area – to help determine, for example, how much water it contains and how easily this crucial resource is accessible.

That’s why NASA created another program called CLPS (“Commercial Lunar Payload Services”), which books rides for agency scientific instruments on robotic lunar landers built by American companies.

“The goal here is for us to explore the moon in preparation for Artemis, and really do business differently for NASA,” said Sue Lederer, CLPS project scientist at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, during a press conference on February 12. “One of our main goals is to ensure that we develop a lunar economy.”

And that’s where intuitive machines come into the picture.

Related: The 10 most beautiful images from NASA’s Artemis 1 moon mission

Sending NASA science to the moon

In 2019, CLPS selected Intuitive Machines to deliver a suite of NASA scientific instruments to the lunar surface using the company’s Nova-C lander, which is about the size of a British telephone booth.

After some adjustments, the task order turned out to be worth $118 million, NASA officials said recently. It included the transportation of six experiments and technology demonstrations from Intuitive Machines during Intuitive Machines’ first lunar mission, which the company is calling IM-1. That mission involves a Nova-C vehicle named Odysseus, after the famous traveling hero of Greek mythology.

The NASA instruments, which cost the agency another $11 million to develop, are designed to conduct a variety of studies. For example, one of them, called NDL (“Navigation Doppler Lidar for Precise Velocity and Range Sensing”), used LIDAR (light detection and range) technology to collect data during descent and landing. NDL proved critical to today’s touchdown, as you’ll see below.

Another instrument is designed to study how the spacecraft’s engine exhaust interacts with lunar dirt and rock. Yet another will demonstrate autonomous positioning technology, which could eventually become part of a broad, GPS-like navigation system on and around the moon.

Intuitive Machines also placed six commercial payloads on Odysseus for IM-1. One of these comes from Columbia Sportswear, which wanted to test its ‘Omni-Heat Infinity’ insulation material in space. Another is a series of sculptures by artist Jeff Koons, and there’s even a “lunar safe depository” that aims to help preserve humanity’s repository of collected knowledge.

EagleCam, a camera system built by students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, also flew on Odysseus. EagleCam is designed to deploy from Odysseus about 100 feet above the moon’s surface and capture images of the lander’s epic landing from below. You can learn more about all twelve IM-1 payloads here.

Making history

These twelve payloads launched on February 15, when a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket sent Odysseus to the moon. The lander’s journey through space was short and relatively smooth, although things got a bit sporty towards the end.

Odysseus arrived in lunar orbit yesterday (February 21) as planned. However, during the final part of his landing attempt today, the lander’s handlers discovered that Odysseus’ laser rangefinders, which allowed him to determine altitude and horizontal speed, were malfunctioning. So the team turned to NASA’s experimental NDL payload for this crucial function, delaying the landing attempt by two hours to put the new plan into action.

This last-minute solution, which required the team to design a software patch on the spot and send it to Odysseus, was sufficient. Today at 6:11 PM EST (2311 GMT), Odysseus started the main engine for a crucial 11-minute burn that slowed the spacecraft’s descent to the lunar surface. Then, at 6:23 PM EST (2353 GMT), Odysseus touched down gently near the rim of the Malapert A crater, about 190 miles (300 kilometers) from the moon’s south pole.

However, success was not immediately apparent. It took about fifteen tense minutes for the IM-1 team to pick up Odysseus’ signal.

“What we can confirm without a doubt is that our equipment is on the surface of the moon and we are transmitting,” mission director Tim Crain said after that milestone moment. “Odysseus has found his new home.”

If all goes according to plan, the lander and its payload will now operate on the lunar surface for about seven Earth days. IM-1 will end when the sun sets on Malapert A, as Odysseus was not designed to survive the bitter cold of the long moon night. (It takes the moon more than 27 Earth days to rotate once on its axis, so each lunar night lasts about two weeks.)

a crowd of people in a packed room celebrating, waving their arms and high fivesa crowd of people in a packed room celebrating, waving their arms and high fives

a crowd of people in a packed room celebrating, waving their arms and high fives

RELATED STORIES:

– Why is it so difficult to land on the moon?

— What are Intuitive Machines and how do they aim for the moon?

– NASA’s Artemis Program: Everything You Need to Know

IM-1 is part of a newly sanctioned march to the moon. For example, Pittsburgh company Astrobotic launched its Peregrine lunar lander last month on the maiden flight of United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur rocket.

But Peregrine, which also carried NASA payloads through the CLPS program, suffered a crippling fuel leak shortly after deploying from the rocket’s upper stage. The problem prevented Peregrine from reaching the moon, and Astrobotic eventually guided it to a controlled demise in Earth’s atmosphere on January 18.

Two other private lunar landers recently entered lunar orbit: Israel’s Beresheet probe and Hakuto-R, built by Tokyo-based company ispace. Yet neither could take the big next step; Beresheet crashed during its landing attempt in April 2019, and Hakuto-R suffered the same fate in April 2023.

National governments are also increasingly shooting for the moon.

Last August, for example, India placed its robotic mission Chandrayaan-3 near the moon’s south pole. And last month, Japan landed its own lunar probe, called SLIM. It was the first success for any country; they have now joined the Moon Party, which also included the Soviet Union, the US and China.

And some of these countries have even bigger lunar ambitions.

There is of course the US with their Artemis program. But China also aims to put astronauts on the moon by 2030 and is working (along with Russia and several other countries) to develop a lunar outpost later that decade. India, meanwhile, has said it wants to start up Earth’s natural satellite by around 2040.

Some politicians have characterized this planned activity as a new moon race, a battle between the US and China for the right to set precedents and standards of behavior in the high frontier. However, research advocates tend to see the bright side, highlighting the coming exploitation of lunar resources that could help humanity expand its footprint into the solar system for the first time.

Either way, the moon is coming into sharper focus for countries and companies around the world. It will get busier up there.

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