Less than a month after a previous mission ended in failure, American enterprises are gearing up to embark on a lunar expedition on February 14. This upcoming endeavor involves a lander crafted by Intuitive Machines, headquartered in Houston, securely attached to the summit of a SpaceX rocket. In contrast, the previous attempt utilized a United Launch Alliance rocket paired with an Astrobotics lander. Despite the change in players, the stakes remain just as high: achieving America’s first gentle landing on the lunar surface since the Apollo era ended five decades ago and marking a historic milestone for private industry.
Intuitive Machines was founded 11 years ago by Steve Altemus, president and CEO; Tim Crain, chief technology officer; and prolific space industry entrepreneur Kam Ghaffarian. The company was an early entrant into the nascent commercial moon race, and NASA awarded it a contract for this mission in 2019 as part of its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, created in 2018 to encourage private companies to develop new, cheaper ways to land cargo on the Moon for NASA and other customers.
The lander, nicknamed Peregrine, is carrying 20 packages from seven countries to the Moon, five NASA science instruments, and a shoebox-sized rover built by Carnegie Mellon University. Peregrine is also expected to capture images of the Moon’s mysterious, dark polar region and seek evidence of a swirling polar crater that may have been formed by silica magma from an ancient volcanic eruption.
In addition to the scientific payloads, the lander carries a small collection of human “cremains” purchased by companies offering memorial flights into space. “This mission is not just a technical achievement, it’s an emotional one as well,” Astrobotic CEO John Thornton said. “Many people’s hopes and dreams are riding on this.”
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson called the upcoming lunar mission a significant step toward the agency’s ultimate goal of returning humans to the Moon as part of its Artemis program. It will also help NASA assess the Moon’s potential for hosting sustainable human occupation.
This will be Intuitive Machines’ first lunar mission, though it is the first spacecraft in a series it has been developing for the CLPS contract. The company’s lander will fly atop an upgraded version of the Vulcan rocket, which made its maiden flight on Monday. The Vulcan will replace the current stable of United Launch Alliance rockets used to put US national security missions and NASA astronauts into orbit.
The last spaceship launched in the CLPS program, built by the Philadelphia-based Orbit Beyond company, was a satellite for the Japanese government. It reached the Moon, but it crashed into the far side of the Moon and was never recovered. Orbit Beyond and its partners have been given substantial monetary rewards if they can complete their contracted work.