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After last month’s failed lunar landing mission, NASA is eyeing a second spacecraft – developed by a separate company – for the first trip down to the moon for the United States in more than five decades.
The lunar lander, nicknamed Odysseus, or Odie for short, is scheduled to take off atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 12:57 a.m. ET on Wednesday.
The rocket will propel the spacecraft into an oval orbit that extends out to 380,000 kilometers (236,100 miles) around Earth. It will be “a high-energy fastball pitch toward the moon,” as Stephen Altemus, CEO of Intuitive Machines, put it. His company based in Houston developed Odysseus.
Once in Earth orbit, the lunar lander will separate from the rocket and begin propelling itself, using an onboard engine to propel itself on a straight path toward the lunar surface.
Odysseus is expected to spend a little more than a week flying through space, with an attempt to touch the surface of the moon expected on February 22.
If successful, Odysseus would be the first US spacecraft to make a soft landing on the moon since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.
Why is Odysseus’ mission important
The launch of this lunar landing comes one month after Peregrine, a vehicle developed by Astrobotic Technology with NASA funding, failed its mission. The Pittsburgh-based company revealed a fuel leak that hit targets just hours after Peregrine launched on January 8. The spacecraft burned up in the atmosphere as it careened back toward Earth 10 days later.
But NASA sponsored the creation of a small fleet of privately developed lunar landers as part of a program the space agency calls CLPS, or Commercial Lunar Payload Services.
“In CLPS, American companies used their own engineering and manufacturing practices instead of conforming to formal and traditional NASA procedures and NASA oversight,” explained Joel Kearns, the space agency’s associate deputy administrator for exploration in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. . “CLPS is a test of that philosophy.”
The program aims to develop lunar landers under relatively cheap, fixed-price contracts, with the hope of using the spacecraft to give the US a presence on the moon as a new international space race emerges.
China, India and Japan are the only nations to have soft-landed vehicles on the moon in the 21st century. And while NASA remains confident that the United States will be the first country to return humans to the lunar surface, the global rush to plant robotic spacecraft on the moon is reaching a fever pitch.
What separates NASA’s approach from others is its approach to commercialization—the idea that multiple spacecraft can be developed more cheaply and quickly with private industry competing for contracts than would otherwise be the case. if the space agency were to develop its own.
Intuitive machines ‘Altemus calls this strategy “compulsory innovation.”
“Companies had to think of ways to balance the risk (and) think of ways to solve technical problems in a quick amount of time and spend less dollars,” he told CNN. “So, he really knocked down – from the beginning – the cost of lunar access, so that it can be done … cheaper than it was done historically in the days of Apollo.”
All told, Intuitive Machines could receive up to $118 million from NASA for this mission.
A stable of lunar landers
Not every mission involved in NASA’s CLPS program makes a safe touchdown, but these first landing attempts could set the tone and pace for the space agency’s renewed efforts to robotically explore the moon before it tries to land astronauts. return to the lunar surface later this decade.
Founded in 2013, Intuitive Machines will be the second participant in the CLPS program — after Astrobotic — to attempt to land on the moon. (Two additional CLPS missions are planned for later in 2024.)
Of the four companies slated to deliver lunar landers to the moon under the CLPS program, Intuitive Machines has the most orders from NASA – with three lunar missions on the books.
What’s on board
The Odysseus lander is a model called Nova-C, which Intuitive Machines describes as about the size of a British telephone booth with legs attached.
The company aims to land the spacecraft near the south pole of the moon, an area of high interest in the space race. This region is suspected to be home to water ice that could one day be converted into drinking water for astronauts or even rocket fuel.
The south pole is also the same lunar region where NASA wants to land astronauts later in the decade.
The lander will be equipped with six NASA payloads – a series of scientific instruments designed to test new technology or evaluate the lunar environment, such as studying the behavior of the lunar soil during landing.
Also on board will be commemorative objects – including a sculpture representing the phases of the moon designed in consultation with Jeff Koons – and technology from private sector companies, including Columbia Sportswear, which developed insulating material for the lander.
If all goes as planned, Odysseus will spend seven days working on the moon while the lunar lander sinks into the sun. But as the landing zone moves into Earth’s shadow, experiencing a moonlit night, the spacecraft will be put to sleep.
The odds of success
The past year has seen a few successful lunar missions – pulled off by India and Japan – as well as brutal setbacks, with Russia and the United States losing spacecraft in recent attempts.
Altemus estimates that Intuitive Machines has an 80% chance of landing Odysseus safely on the moon.
“We’ve stood on the shoulders of everyone who’s tried before us,” he said, adding that Intuitive Machines had tried to analyze the propulsion issue affecting the Falcon landings last month and determined that the same problem would not arise during Odysseus’ mission.
“We just have a fundamentally different architecture,” Altemus added.
But a successful effort would only be a starting point, he said.
“It’s not a one-and-done operation at all,” Altemus said. “We built a lunar probe to fly to the moon regularly.”
Establishing programs that can make regular robotic trips to the moon could facilitate a future where lunar travel is common, inexpensive and encourage more ambitious projects, such as a functioning moon base with astronauts living and working there , according to a vision laid out by NASA and its. partners.
CNN’s Kristin Fisher contributed to this report.
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