NASA, private companies land on the moon for the first time in 50 years

In late 2022, NASA will begin its Artemis campaign to fly the Orion spacecraft on an unmanned, test flight around the Moon. Now, it aims for the surface.

Early Monday morning, a commercial-owned-and-operated spacecraft with no one aboard is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral, resulting in a Feb. 23 landing, marking the first U.S. soft landing on the moon. Surface for over 50 years. If successful, NASA could also partner with the private sector to help launch robotic missions to the moon in the coming years and return astronauts.

The next launch to the moon could come in mid-February, when another company, Intuition Engines, plans to send a lander to the moon aboard SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket. On Friday, a company spokeswoman said it was aiming for a landing on or before February 22, which, if successful, would make Intuition Machines the first commercial company to land on the moon, beating Astrobotic by a day.

Monday's launch of the Astrobotic spacecraft, the first flight of a long-awaited new rocket designed by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, will mark another important milestone. The Pentagon is eager to launch the rocket, known as Vulcan, into national security missions, but ULA must first successfully complete two certification missions to launch defense satellites.

Monday's launch, scheduled for 2:18 a.m. Eastern, is a big moment for Blue Origin, the space venture founded by Jeff Bezos. Two BE-4 engines manufactured by Blue Origin will propel the first stage of ULA's Vulcan rocket on their maiden flight. Bezos and ULA's CEO, Tory Bruno, first announced the engine deal in 2014, after ULA, which had been using Russian engines, was forced by Congress to find a domestic supplier. But the engines took longer than initially expected, delaying the Vulcan's debut. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Blue Origin is set to fly its new Glenn rocket for the first time this year. It is powered by seven BE-4 engines.

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As NASA moves toward Orion's second flight around the moon, the missions are accompanied by four people: NASA astronauts Christina Koch, Victor Glover and Reed Wiseman, and Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen. Currently, a 10-day mission around the moon called Artemis II is planned for later this year. But that could slip by 2025, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in an interview, as engineers continue to study how the capsule's heat shield performed during its first flight to the moon. Although there was still plenty of margin, NASA officials said more heat shields burned off during re-entry than expected.

“At some point all these technical geniuses are going to get together and make a decision,” Nelson said. “I'm very confident they'll get the heat shield with the integrity they want. But obviously, we're not going to fly until we fly and we'll have an answer on that soon.”

Meanwhile, SpaceX continues to test its Starship rocket and spacecraft, NASA's chosen vehicle to land astronauts on the moon for the first two manned landings under Artemis. Its previous two launch attempts failed to reach orbit, but Elon Musk's company showed significant progress between them. Recently, it tested the next booster and the ship's engines. It appears to be getting closer to another attempt, but still needs a sign-off from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Astrobotic's Peregrine spacecraft will take a more direct route to the Moon, Astrobotic CEO John Thornton said at the November conference. But as it orbits the Moon, its landing is Feb. Delay till 23rd.

“Most of the time between launch and landing is actually waiting for the local lights to be right,” he said. “So basically we're trying to land at a specific location on the moon at a specific time, which is this location in the morning.”

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On Friday, he told reporters that the company faced “a lot of challenges that we had to overcome,” including “a lot of doubts.”

“When we started in Pittsburgh,” he said of the company's headquarters, “the idea of ​​building a space agency, much less going to the moon, was completely alien and foreign. Everyone certainly and literally laughed at the idea.

He said he was well aware of the difficulty of landing on the moon and the failure of many attempts in the past. “It's exciting, nail-biting and terrifying all at the same time — a whole range of emotions,” he said. “If you look back over the course of history, only about half of those missions have been successful. Most of these have been funded by superpowers, with much bigger budgets than the mission provided. So it's a big challenge.

Still, he said, “Getting America back on the surface of the Moon for the first time since Apollo is a major honor and we're lucky to be a part of it.”

NASA said Friday that the astrobotic contract is worth $108 million.

A spokeswoman for Intuitive Machines said the company expects its spacecraft to touch down “seven days after liftoff.” But it's only said that its launch date will come in mid-February, so it's unclear which company will land first.

There are many more significant space events to come in 2024.

On January 19, the Japanese space agency plans to land a robotic vehicle on the moon, making Japan the fifth country to do so. But landing on the moon is risky — and many have tried and failed in the past. Last year, Japanese company ISpace lost a spacecraft trying to land on the moon. Russia also lost a spacecraft that tried to land on the moon last year.

Houston-based Axiom plans to launch its third private spaceflight to the space station on January 17. And in February, SpaceX is set to launch its eighth crewed mission to the International Space Station.

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In April, billionaire entrepreneur Jared Isaacman, who commissioned a private astronaut mission aboard SpaceX's Dragon capsule, plans to fly another all-civilian mission. During this time, the crew stepped outside the Dragon to spacewalk using pressure suits designed by SpaceX.

In April, Boeing is expected to send a pair of NASA astronauts to the space station on the first crew test flight of its Starliner shuttle. If successful, it would finally give NASA a way besides SpaceX to transport its astronauts into space. Boeing, which was awarded the contract to carry astronauts to the space station in 2014 at the same time as SpaceX, has faced setbacks and delays over the years and has yet to fly a crew, something SpaceX has done several times.

SpaceX is set to launch a record 98 rockets by 2023, and is set to launch 144 rockets this year as it continues to build its Starlink Internet satellite constellation.

Space missions are planned for 2024

January 8 – ULA plans to send an astrobotic spacecraft to the Moon on a Vulcan rocket powered by engines manufactured by Blue Origin.

January 17 — Axiom plans to send a crew of private citizens to the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX rocket, Axiom's third charter mission to the space station.

January 19 – The Japanese space agency plans to land a robotic vehicle on the moon.

February – SpaceX is about to launch its eighth crewed mission to the International Space Station.

Mid February — Intuitive Machines plans to send its spacecraft to the moon on a SpaceX booster.

April – SpaceX, chartered by entrepreneur and philanthropist Jared Isaacman, plans to launch a team of private astronauts on a mission to orbit the Earth, which is expected to include a spacewalk.

April – Boeing is expected to send a crew to the International Space Station in its long-delayed Starliner capsule.

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