U.S. Inches Toward A Lunar Economy

James Hydzik

23 February 2024 - 21:29

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An American lander called Odysseus landed on the Moon on February 22. The landing marks several firsts for the U.S., namely,

  • The first U.S. landing in the 21st century, and the first since 1972;
  • The first commercial craft to land on the Moon; and
  • The first successful landing connected to NASA’s Artemis lunar settlement project.

One giant leap for a company

The robotic lander developed by Intuitive Machines landed safely despite the malfunction of the laser rangefinders that determine Odysseus’ velocity and altitude above the Moon. Intuitive Machines was allowed by NASA to adapt a Doppler radar test system being delivered as part of the payload to provide the functions missing due to the failure.

A first step for private lunar landing

Odysseus carried a mixture of private and government payloads, including artwork, but the craft itself is not a government owned craft. Intuitive Machines won a contract in 2019 from NASA to deliver a set of payloads.

The Intuitive Machines craft is the first private attempt to succeed at landing on the Moon, but not the first attempt. The prior efforts include the Israeli Beresheet lander, launched in 2019, which crashed on its final descent to the lunar surface when the engine (and other systems) shut down prematurely.

Some government-run missions succeeded in landing on the Moon after that. The next commercial attempt, by the Tokyo-based company ispace, in April 2023, failed on descent due to a software glitch. The Americans tried most recently, with Pittsburgh PA based Astrobotics sending a lander, called Peregrine, moonward in January 2024. This machine was damaged during the launch, and after orbiting the Moon, was sent back Earthward to burn up in the atmosphere. The failures bring up the consolatory refrain: "Space is hard."

CLPS Missions

Because space is hard, and landing on the Moon even more difficult, NASA has taken what they’re calling a “shots on goal” approach to returning to the Moon. This approach builds in the realization that attempts, especially the early ones, can and will fail, and it was built into the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program.
CLPS is an example of the continued governmental hand in this stage of lunar exploration and settlement. The six payloads that Intuitive Machines delivered for NASA were the product of a $118 million project. While there are commercial payloads, their value pales in comparison.
The NASA payloads included primarily technology demonstration units, such as:

  • Doppler radar for navigation;
  • Navigation beacon;
  • Fuel tank gauge;
  • Camera;
  • Radioastronomy unit.

Non-NASA payloads came from academia, business, and NGOs. They include:

  • Material for lining spacecraft from Columbia Sportswear;
  • data archives on the lander from two organizations.
  • The International Lunar Observatory Association flew two small astronomical cameras.
  • Artist Jeff Koons provided an artwork called “Moon Phases” installed on the lander.
  • EagleCam, from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University students. The students planned on Odysseus releasing the camera on its descent and having the camera photograph the lander as it lands.

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