CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — China and India achieved lunar landings, while Russia, Japan and Israel ended up in the lunar garbage dump.
Now, two private companies are striving to get the United States back in the game, more than five decades after the Apollo program ended.
It’s part of a NASA-supported effort to boost commercial deliveries to the moon, as the space agency focuses on returning astronauts there.
“They are explorers going to the moon before us,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.
Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh is in first place with a planned liftoff of a lander Monday aboard a new rocket, United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan. Intuitive Machines of Houston aims to launch a lander in mid-February and conduct a flight with SpaceX.
Then there is Japan, which will try to land in two weeks. The Japanese Space Agency’s lander with two toy-sized rovers had a big advantage, sharing a September launch with an X-ray telescope that remained in orbit around Earth.
If successful, Japan will become the fifth country to land on the moon. Russia and the United States did it repeatedly in the 1960s and 1970s. China has landed on the moon three times in the last decade, including on the far side of the Moon, and will return to the far side later this year to bring back lunar samples. And just last summer, India did it. Only the United States has sent astronauts to the Moon.
Landing without crashing is not an easy task. There is barely any atmosphere to slow down spacecraft and parachutes obviously won’t work. That means a lander must descend using thrusters, while navigating through treacherous cliffs and craters.
A Japanese millionaire’s company, ispace, saw its lander crash into the moon last April, followed by Russia’s crash landing in August. India triumphed a few days later near the south polar region; It was the country’s second attempt after crashing in 2019. An Israeli nonprofit also crashed on the moon in 2019.
The United States has not attempted a moon landing since Apollo 17’s Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt, the last of 12 lunar walkers, explored the gray, dusty surface in December 1972. Mars beckoned and the moon receded in NASA’s rearview mirror. , while the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union came to an end. The United States followed with one or two lunar satellites, but no controlled lander…until now.
Astrobotic and intuitive machines are not only seeking to end America’s moon landing drought, they are also competing for bragging rights as the first private entity to land, softly, on the moon.
Despite its late start, Intuitive Machines has a faster, more direct shot and should land a week after takeoff. Astrobotic will take two weeks to reach the moon and another month in lunar orbit, before attempting a landing on February 23.
If there are delays to the rockets, which have already stalled both missions, either company could end up there first.
“It’s going to be a very, very crazy ride,” Astrobotic CEO John Thornton promised.
His counterpart at Intuitive Machines, Steve Altemus, said the space race is “more about geopolitics, where China is going, where the rest of the world is going.” He said this, “we sure would like to be first.”
The two companies have been eye to eye since receiving nearly $80 million each in 2019 under a NASA program to develop lunar delivery services. Fourteen companies currently have contracts with NASA.
Astrobotic’s four-legged, 6-foot-tall (1.9-meter) lander, named Peregrine after the fastest bird, the falcon, will carry 20 research packages to the moon for seven countries, including five for NASA and a Rover-sized shoebox from Carnegie Mellon University. Peregrine will target the mid-latitude Sinus Viscositatis, or Bay of Stickiness, named for the silica magma that long ago formed the nearby Gruithuisen Domes.
Intuitive Machines’ six-legged, 14-foot-tall (4-meter) lander, Nova-C, will target the moon’s south polar region and will also conduct five experiments for NASA lasting about two weeks. The company is targeting 80 degrees south latitude for the landing. That would be inside Antarctica on Earth, Altemus noted, and 10 degrees closer to the pole than where India landed last summer.
Scientists believe the permanently shadowed craters at the South Pole contain billions of pounds (kilograms) of frozen water that could be used for drinking and producing rocket fuel. That’s why the first moonwalkers from NASA’s Artemis program (named after Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology) will land there. NASA is still targeting 2025 for that launch, but the General Accountability Office suspects it will be closer to 2027.
Astrobotic will head to the South Pole on its second flight, carrying NASA’s Viper rover in search of water. And Intuitive Machines will return there on its second mission, delivering an ice drill for NASA.
Landing near the Moon’s south pole is particularly risky.
“It’s so rocky and steep and cratered at the south pole and mountainous, that it’s very difficult to find an illuminated region to land safely,” Altemus said. “So you have to be able to refine it and just put it in the right place.”
While Houston has long been associated with space, Pittsburgh is a newcomer. To commemorate the Steel City, Astrobotic’s lander will carry a token from Kennywood Amusement Park, the winner of a public vote that beat out the Steelers’ Terrible Towel they waved at football games, the land of the Moon Park from Moon Township and a pickle pin from Heinz.
The lander also carries the ashes or DNA of 70 people, including “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. Another 265 people will be represented in the upper stage of the rocket, which will circle the sun once separated from the lander. They include three members of the original “Star Trek” cast, as well as locks of hair from three U.S. presidents: George Washington, Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.
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