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In latest lunar landing trial, Intuitive Machines hopes to get U.S. back to the moon

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Feb. 15, 2024. The rocket is carrying Intuitive Machines' lunar lander on its way to the moon, with a planned Feb. 22 touchdown.
John Raoux
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AP
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Feb. 15, 2024. The rocket is carrying Intuitive Machines' lunar lander on its way to the moon, with a planned Feb. 22 touchdown.

Another American company is having a go at getting the U.S. back to the moon.

An uncrewed lunar lander that launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., last week is scheduled to land near the moon's south pole on Thursday.

The lander, named Odysseus, comes from the Houston company Intuitive Machines, and was sent on its lunar path by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

If all goes smoothly, Intuitive Machines would be the first private company to reach the moon. It would also be the first American lunar landing in more than 50 years.

It's all part of a new front in the space race, this time between private companies attempting to get to the moon, and toward NASA's bigger goal of expanding the possibilities of otherworldly exploration.

Earlier attempts at a moon landing from the private sector, by companies in Israel, Japan, and the U.S. last month, were a bust.

While the space agency conquered the moon landing during the Apollo era that ended in 1972, it wants to get astronauts back to moon at a lower cost. To do that, NASA has been subcontracting some work to the private sector through its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. The idea is that NASA could one day use companies like Intuitive Machines to deliver supplies and equipment to astronauts.

NASA says it paid Intuitive Machines $118 million for the Odyssey lander mission. By comparison, it typically costs NASA between $500 million to $1 billion to build a lander, according to Thomas Zurbuchen, a former associate administrator for science at NASA who ran a cost estimate while at the agency.

The moon's largely unexplored south pole region draws particular intrigue for its water ice located in craters that could be siphoned for rocket fuel and, of course, sustain humans, potentially extending space missions.

NASA is sending a group of instruments with the lander that, if all goes well, will bring back information about the lunar environment.

But it's a big "if." A month ago, an attempt by Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology to send its lander Peregrine to the moon went awry after a malfunction caused a propellant leak.

We've been to the moon before. Why is this new space frontier so challenging?

The U.S. successfully sent humans to the moon decades ago. So, why have these uncrewed lunar missions been fraught with high risk and failure?

For one, the commercial strategy involves a tight budget.

"When you have unlimited funds like they did during at the Apollo days, yes, you can do incredible things," Intuitive Machines vice president of space systems Trent Martin said at a press conference on Tuesday. "Now, can we find a way to do it for a lower cost, where there is a marketplace that is not driven solely by government funds?"

The private sector efforts are also working with a different blueprint on these missions, using new technology, according to NASA.

"We're not trying to re-do Apollo," said Joel Kearns, the deputy associate administrator for exploration in NASA's science mission directorate. "We're going after scientific and technology studies that weren't even envisioned back in the time of Apollo to answer major scientific questions. And we're going to a region of the moon that people and robots have never been to."

Geoff Brumfiel contributed reporting.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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