The first American spacecraft to attempt to land on the moon in more than half a century blasted off early Monday — but this time, private industry is leading the charge. A brand new rocket, United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur, lifted off at 2:18 am (0718 GMT) from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on its maiden voyage. It carried Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic’s Peregrine Lunar Lander. The spacecraft, which carries no people, is expected to make the first soft landing on the moon since Apollo’s final flight in 1972.
It’s the first of two NASA-commissioned lunar missions to spur a commercial lunar industry that could eventually provide delivery services for astronauts to and from the lunar surface. NASA paid the companies nearly $80 million each in 2019 under the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program. It awards contracts to commercial companies demonstrating they can carry heavy payloads to low Earth orbit and the moon.
Both companies have rockets that can fly much heavier payloads than the small lander on Monday. Astrobotic’s Peregrine, for example, carries 20 science instruments that will study the thermal properties of the lunar surface and a range of other phenomena. It’s also carrying DNA samples and cremated remains in a partnership with Houston-based Celestis, which will leave them on the moon as a permanent tribute to “intrepid souls who never stopped reaching for the stars,” the company said.
The other company, Houston-based Intuitive Machines, plans to launch a lunar lander on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket next month. Its Nova-C lander is carrying five experiments for NASA, targeting the moon’s south pole region. It’s a much more direct route, and Intuitive Machines’ CEO John Thornton warned that the hourlong landing attempt will be “exciting, nail-biting and terrifying all at once.”
“Today marks an important milestone for the future of our nation,” SpaceX founder Elon Musk tweeted shortly after the launch. “Our goal is to return to the moon and send humans there.”