Astrobotic’s Lunar Lander Embarks on Historic Mission, Igniting a New Space Race

Featured & Cover Astrobotic's Lunar Lander Embarks on Historic Mission Igniting a New Space Race

In a significant leap forward for space exploration, the first U.S. lunar lander in over 50 years soared towards the moon on Monday, marking the commencement of a space race among private companies vying to fulfill delivery missions for NASA and other clients.

Astrobotic Technology’s lunar lander hitched a ride on United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan, a state-of-the-art rocket that blazed through the predawn sky in Florida, charting a circuitous path towards the moon with an anticipated landing date of February 23.

Astrobotic’s CEO, John Thornton, expressed his exhilaration, stating, “So, so, so excited. We are on our way to the moon!”

The Pittsburgh-based company aspires to be the first private entity to successfully touch down on the lunar surface, a feat achieved only by four countries to date. However, a Houston-based company is also ready to launch its own lander, potentially reaching the moon first through a more direct route.

“First to launch. First to land is TBD,” remarked Thornton, emphasizing the competitive nature of the race.

Both companies received funding from NASA, amounting to millions, to construct and launch their lunar landers. NASA aims to leverage these private landers to conduct reconnaissance missions before astronauts set foot on the moon, facilitating the delivery of NASA technology, scientific experiments, and various payloads for other customers. Astrobotic’s contract for the Peregrine lander is valued at $108 million.

The last U.S. moon-landing mission occurred in December 1972 when Apollo 17’s Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt became the 11th and 12th individuals to walk on the moon, concluding NASA’s golden era.

NASA’s upcoming Artemis program, named after Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology, is designed to return astronauts to the lunar surface in the coming years, starting with a lunar fly-around featuring four astronauts, possibly before the end of the year.

Monday’s moonshot also marked the long-awaited maiden test flight of the Vulcan rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. The 202-foot (61-meter) rocket, an upgraded version of ULA’s Atlas V, incorporates main engines from Jeff Bezos’ rocket company, Blue Origin.

While the U.S. and the Soviet Union achieved successful moon landings in the 1960s and 70s, followed by China in 2013 and India in 2023, recent years have seen additional landers from Russia and a private Japanese company, as well as an unsuccessful attempt by an Israeli nonprofit in 2019.

Next month, SpaceX is set to lift off with a lander from Intuitive Machines, and the Nova-C lander’s more direct route could result in both spacecraft attempting to land within days or even hours of each other.

Astrobotic CEO John Thornton acknowledged the challenges of the hour-long descent to the lunar surface, describing it as “exciting, nail-biting, terrifying all at once.”

Aside from delivering experiments for NASA, Astrobotic has ventured into its own freight business. The Peregrine lander, standing at 6 feet tall (1.9 meters), is packed with diverse cargo, including a chip of rock from Mount Everest, toy-size cars from Mexico set to catapult onto the lunar surface and roam around, as well as the ashes and DNA of deceased space enthusiasts, such as “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke.

The launch faced objections from the Navajo Nation, seeking a delay due to concerns about the human remains on board, deeming it a “profound desecration” of a celestial body revered by Native Americans. Thornton noted that the objections came too late but pledged to work towards a mutually agreeable solution with the Navajo for future missions.

Celestis, one of the companies that purchased space on the lander for a spaceflight memorial, asserted that no single culture or religion should have the authority to veto a mission, emphasizing that the moon belongs to no specific group. Additional remains are situated on the rocket’s upper stage, which will orbit the sun indefinitely, reaching as far as Mars.

Cargo fares for the Peregrine lander ranged from a few hundred dollars to $1.2 million per kilogram (2.2 pounds), falling short of covering Astrobotic’s costs. Thornton emphasized that breaking even was not the primary goal for this inaugural flight, stating, “A lot of people’s dreams and hopes are riding on this.”

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