Astrobotics, Intuitive Machines could be first private companies on moon

A pair of companies are planning to launch uncrewed spacecraft to the moon within weeks of each other early next year in a NASA-funded effort that could mark the first soft landings for the United States on the lunar surface since the last of the Apollo missions in 1972.

But in a sign of how the commercial space industry is transforming exploration, the companies are also vying for another historic first: to become the first private venture to land on the moon.

On Jan. 8, Astrobotic, a company based in Pittsburgh, is scheduled to launch its Peregrine spacecraft on the inaugural launch of the Vulcan rocket, which is operated by the United Launch Alliance, the joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Then, in mid-February, from another pad at Cape Canaveral in Florida, Intuitive Machines is set to launch its lander on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.

The missions are related to NASA’s Artemis program, which intends to return astronauts to the lunar surface. But these missions are part of an effort called the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, which is aimed to send cargo and science experiments to the moon. In announcing the program five years ago, then-NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said he wanted to harness the capabilities of private industry to go quickly and inexpensively. “What we’re going for here is speed,” he said at the time.

Several companies are eligible to compete for $2.6 billion worth of contracts over 10 years. And after years of delays, the first missions are finally happening, with more to come.

“This is an exciting time,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in an interview. “These guys can become scouts for the astronauts that we’re going to land on the moon. And we can learn things about the moon that otherwise we couldn’t have because we couldn’t have these many landings.”

It’s not clear which company would land first. Astrobotic said in a release that if it launches as scheduled on Jan. 8, its spacecraft would touch down on Feb. 23. A spokesperson for Intuitive Machines said the company expects to land “approximately seven days after launch.” Its launch date had been scheduled for Jan. 12, but was moved back to mid-February because “unfavorable weather conditions resulted in shifts in the SpaceX launch manifest.” The company has not yet released an exact launch or landing date.

The missions come as several nations have sent spacecraft to the moon in recent years. And the Japanese space agency is hoping its robotic lander, which launched on Sept. 7, would touch down on Jan. 19. That would make it the fifth country to soft land on the moon and come just months after India successfully landed a craft on the lunar surface in August.

But landing on the moon is risky — and many have tried and failed in the past. Earlier this year, ispace, a Japanese company, lost a spacecraft as it attempted to land on the moon. Russia also lost a spacecraft attempting a lunar landing this year.

In recent years, China has sent a fleet of spacecraft to the moon, starting with orbiters in 2007 and again in 2010. Then, in 2013, it landed the Chang’e 3 spacecraft, becoming the first nation to soft land on the moon since the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s.

In early 2019, China made history by landing the first spacecraft on the moon’s far side. And in 2020 it brought back samples from the lunar surface in another impressive demonstration of its growing ambitions.

Under the Artemis program, NASA intends to land astronauts on the moon in the coming years, perhaps as soon as 2025, but probably later. After successfully sending the Orion spacecraft without anyone on board around the moon last year, it is planning a lunar flyby mission with astronauts. That was initially scheduled for late next year, but Nelson said the timeline might slip into 2025. “They’re going through all kinds of testing,” he said, adding that the space agency intends to provide an update on the schedule “early in the New Year.”

But before then, NASA is hoping to make several robotic landings to help pave the way. In addition to the two scheduled for early in the year, NASA is planning to send its first robotic rover to the moon on an Astrobotic spacecraft. Called VIPER (for Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover), the golf-cart sized vehicle would be outfitted with a drill to search for water in the form of ice near the lunar south pole.

“If this all works out, what an amazing tool to support humans on the surface of the moon but also to do exciting science and commercial activities in ways that otherwise are not achievable,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, the former head of NASA’s science division who oversaw the program.

Still, he said, the approach of partnering with the commercial sector for such missions “needs to be proven,” and landing on the moon is an incredibly difficult task. Chances of a successful landing on any mission, he estimated, are about 50 percent. But having two companies going for it at the same time increases the chances of an American spacecraft on the moon for the first time in more than 50 years.

John Thornton, CEO of Astrobotic, told reporters recently that he was well aware of the risks. “It’s certainly a daunting challenge,” he said. “I mean, I am going to be terrified and thrilled all at once every stage.”

While he said there is a competition to get to the moon first, he said the primary objective is “to create a movement of commercial deliveries to the surface. The most important and top priority of that is the industry’s success. That’s Astrobotic position since day one — we need this industry to succeed. We need this program to succeed.”

Another challenge is that its Peregrine spacecraft is to launch on the first flight of ULA’s Vulcan rocket. While the first launch of any rocket is risky, Thornton said that ULA has “a really stellar track record of success and we are very confident.”

Intuitive Machines is confident as well.

“The vehicle is ready,” Stephen Altemus, CEO of Intuitive Machines, said in an interview in October. “It’s performing wonderfully. … We know the odds of what we’re up against. We’ve done extensive testing beyond development testing, to make sure that the vehicle is performing as designed. And we’re confident coming out of our reviews that we’ve hammered all those issues flat, and that we know how the vehicle behaves.”

Being in the position of returning the United States to the moon “is a heavy load that we take really seriously as a business,” he said. “We picked up all the lessons learned from all the other attempts that have gone before us. In the end, somebody’s going to break that barrier and be the first commercial company to do it. And for the first commercial company to be a United States company, I think, is fantastic.”

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