First Commercial Moon Landing Returns U.S. to Lunar Surface


For the first time since 1972 a spacecraft launched from the U.S. has landed softly on the surface of the moon. And, for the first time ever, this successful extraterrestrial landing was achieved by a spacecraft built and operated by private industry rather than by a government space program.

At 6:23 P.M. EST a 14.1-foot-tall lander resembling a police booth on stilts descended to the moon’s surface on a ballooning blue flame of rocket exhaust. Seconds later, the lander’s six feet crunched into the dark soil of Malapert A, a crater nestled deep in the moon’s southern latitudes.

This robotic voyager, aptly nicknamed Odysseus, carries six scientific payloads on behalf of NASA. But crucially, the U.S. space agency isn’t running the mission: Odysseus is the first commercial spacecraft ever to land safely on another celestial body.

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Odysseus was built and operated by Intuitive Machines, a private spaceflight company based in Houston, as part of the company’s IM-1 mission. In addition to NASA equipment, Odysseus carries payloads from private clients that range from a group of sculptures by artist Jeff Koons to a robotic “selfie” camera built by students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

And like its namesake from the ancient Greek epics, Odysseus faced trials as it sailed toward the lunar surface. Mere hours before landing, two onboard ranging lasers that Odysseus had planned to use to detect the moon’s surface broke. In response, Intuitive Machines improvised a software patch that let Odysseus commandeer two lasers onboard an experimental navigation payload built by NASA. 

For more than 15 minutes after touchdown, Intuitive Machines’ mission control in Houston, Texas, waited in tense silence, as flight controllers attempted to establish contact with Odysseus. “Signs of life—we have a return signal we’re tracking,” quipped Tim Crain, Intuitive Machines’ chief technology officer IM-1 mission director. “We’re also not dead yet.”

Minutes later, Crain confirmed that Odysseus was transmitting from the moon’s surface, albeit weakly. At press, the reason for the signal’s weakness remains unclear.

IM-1 is the first U.S. mission to touch down softly on the lunar surface since Apollo 17 in 1972. And unlike IM-1, Apollo 17 was crewed. The nation’s last robotic soft landing on the moon took place in January 1968, with the touchdown of the NASA lander Surveyor 7.

“Odysseus has taken the moon,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson said in a pre-recorded congratulatory message. “This feat is a giant leap forward for all of humanity.”

The mission also achieves some technical firsts. The spacecraft’s main engine—which burns liquid methane and liquid oxygen—is the first of its kind to be used in a moon landing. IM-1 also marks the southernmost moon landing ever completed. The lunar lander of India’s Chandrayaan-3 mission, the first in this general region, touched down at 69 degrees south latitude, which on Earth would be like landing on the Antarctic Peninsula. IM-1, however, is sitting at more than 80 degrees south latitude—the lunar equivalent of the deep Antarctic interior. 

IM-1’s onboard NASA instruments will provide the first in situ measurements of this forbidding environment, where the sun’s extreme angle on the horizon can create huge swings in surface temperatures, as well as in exposure to the “solar wind” of charged particles that are continuously belched out by our star. These data will include crucial radio measurements that will capture some of the solar wind’s interactions with the moon’s surface.

NASA is targeting the lunar south pole because some shadow-cloaked regions there contain water ice—a key resource for long-term human sojourns on the moon. For the agency’s Artemis III mission, which will launch no sooner than 2026, NASA has contracted with SpaceX to land a two-person crew near the lunar south pole.

“[IM-1] is a tech demo, if you like, but it will get our first data about the environment of the south pole of the moon. That’s going to be critical for designing systems to allow humans to survive and thrive there,” says University of Notre Dame lunar scientist Clive Neal.

Perhaps IM-1’s biggest contribution is the precedent it sets for the future of space exploration. For decades, space had been considered the purview of only a handful of government agencies. But thanks to plummeting launch costs and the steady march of technological progress, it’s now cheaper than ever for countries and private companies to build and operate spacecraft—and even send them to interplanetary destinations. 

“[IM-1 is] a watershed in commercial development within the United States,” Neal says.

High Risk, High Reward

At 1:05 A.M. EST on February 15 IM-1 launched atop one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Over the next several days, Odysseus traveled a total of more than one million kilometers (621,000 miles) to insert itself into lunar orbit, which it successfully did on February 21. The spacecraft is expected to operate on the moon’s surface for up to seven days before it succumbs to the darkness and brutal cold of lunar night.

The mission is flying under the banner of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative, which has encouraged private investment in lunar missions since its founding in 2018. Under CLPS, the agency awards private companies contracts to deliver NASA equipment and science instruments to the moon’s surface. So far 14 companies have joined the program, which promises to pay up to $2.6 billion for delivery services through 2028.

Unlike traditional NASA programs, the space agency doesn’t own and operate CLPS spacecraft—the companies do. In return, NASA hopes to achieve lower costs and a higher cadence of missions. To date, NASA has paid Intuitive Machines $118 million under the contract that created IM-1—far less than the agency has spent on robotic landers in the past. And IM-1 is the second of up to five CLPS missions that may end up launching this year.

That said, CLPS companies have been given a steep hill to climb. Historically, only five out of every nine moon missions have succeeded, even among those of well-funded government space agencies. In August 2023 the Russian moon mission Luna-25 crashed into the lunar surface after an engine misfire. In January a Japanese lunar lander known as SLIM (Smart Lander for Investigating Moon) touched down safely but at an unexpected angle, which limited its ability to collect solar power.

And in exchange for lower costs and more missions, NASA took on a higher risk that any one CLPS mission would fail. From CLPS’s inception, NASA officials cautioned that even a 50 percent mission success rate was acceptable for the program. 

So far that prediction is panning out. Back in January the Pittsburgh-based company Astrobotic attempted the first mission under CLPS, Peregrine Mission 1. Soon after launch, however, Astrobotic’s Peregrine spacecraft sprang a propellant leak. The company managed to keep the lander alive in space for a week and a half, but the mission ended with Peregrine burning up in Earth’s atmosphere.

“[NASA] expected an approximately 50 percent failure rate, and one for two is that rate,” says Laura Forczyk, executive director of the space industry consulting firm Astralytical. “[IM-1 proves] that there is a capability for commercial landers to safely land on the surface of the moon at a lower cost.”

Peregrine and IM-1 are just the first in an upcoming wave of commercial moon missions with increasingly ambitious goals. As soon as later this year, Astrobotic is on tap to deliver VIPER (Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover), a water-hunting rover built by NASA, to the lunar south pole. Intuitive Machines’ upcoming IM-2 mission, also slated for later this year, will deliver PRIME-1 (Polar Resources Ice Mining Experiment 1), a NASA drill designed to dig into the moon’s subsurface. 

“These initial missions are more test missions,” Forczyk says. “We want to make sure that the technology is proven and mature before we put higher-stakes payloads onboard.”

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