More than fifty years after the Apollo program ended, two private companies are trying to reassert American involvement in moon landings


China and India landed on the moon, leaving Russia, Japan, and Israel behind on Earth’s lunar surface.

Over fifty years after the Apollo program ended, two private companies are now again vying to restore American supremacy.

The primary goal of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is to return people to the moon, but this is only one aspect of their broader initiative to initiate commercial lunar deliveries.

“They’re scouts going to the moon ahead of us,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said.

On Monday, the Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology will use the Vulcan rocket—a member of the United Launch Alliance’s new rocket fleet—to launch a lander. Joining up with SpaceX, Houston-based Intuitive Machines will launch a lander around the middle of February.

Japan will have two weeks to attempt landing after that. Two small rovers and a lander were launched by the Japanese Space Agency in September, ahead of schedule; one X-ray telescope remained in Earth orbit.

It is Japan’s goal to land a man on the moon and become the fifth country to do it. Repeatedly during the ’60s and ’70s, our two countries did it. One of China’s three landings in the last decade occurred on the moon’s far side. They want to go back to the moon’s far side later this year to collect more samples. And India only managed to pull it off last summer. No one other than Americans has ever set foot on the moon.

Making sure everyone lands safely isn’t an easy feat. Because there is so little atmosphere, parachutes are obviously not going to slow spaceships down. Ascents and descents across dangerous craters and cliffs pushed by thrusters provide a formidable challenge to landers.

A Japanese millionaire’s company, ispace, had a lunar lander fall onto the moon in April. Another Russian lander also went down in August. Just a few days after the 2019 mishap, India managed to succeed on their second try, near the south pole zone. Also killed in the lunar crash of 2019 was an Israeli non-governmental organization.

The United States decided against trying to land astronauts on the moon after Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt, the final two Apollo 17 moonwalkers, examined the lunar surface in December 1972 and found it to be dark and dusty. The space competition between the US and the USSR was coming to a close, and NASA was looking back and saw the moon waning and Mars beckoning. In the years that followed, the US sent a handful of lunar satellites into orbit, but no one had ever landed on the moon before.

Not only are Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines vying to break America’s moon-landing drought, but they are also vying to be the first commercial firm to land gently on the moon.

Due to its faster and more direct flight, Intuitive Machines is expected to reach within a week of departure, despite its delayed launch. Astrobotic has a two-week lunar journey window and a month in lunar orbit before attempting a landing on February 23.

Due to the fact that both missions have been delayed due to rocket issues, it is feasible that one company may arrive at their target before the other.

A statement from Astrobotic CEO John Thornton reads: “It’s going to be a wild, wild ride.” Without a doubt.

Fellow Intuitive Machines employee Steve Altemus believes that “more about the geopolitics, where China is going, where the rest of the world’s going” is the true driving force behind the space race. They expressed their desire to be the first.

Both companies have been in a cutthroat race ever since a NASA program awarded them around $80 million in 2019 to develop lunar delivery services. Currently, fourteen separate companies have contracts with NASA.

A shoebox-sized rover from Carnegie Mellon University and five research packages from NASA will be delivered to the moon by Astrobotic. Peregrine is the name of the four-legged lander that is six feet (1.9 meters) tall. The falcon, the swiftest bird in the sky, is the inspiration for the name. The middle latitude Sinus Viscositatis, often nicknamed the Bay of Stickiness, got its name from the silica magma that formed the adjacent Gruithuisen Domes eons ago. This region will be the target of Peregrine’s attack.

During its approximately two weeks on the moon, the six-legged lander Nova-C—which stands at fourteen feet (four meters) tall—will investigate the region near the moon’s south pole while also carrying five experiments for NASA. The company’s target landing location is 80 degrees south latitude. According to Altemus, this would bring it inside the Antarctic continent on Earth, 10 degrees closer to the Antarctic than India’s landing spot last summer.

According to experts, the permanently shadowed craters close to the south pole might hold billions of pounds of water and rocket fuel. This is the reason why NASA’s Artemis mission will be sending its first moonwalkers to land there. The twin sister of Apollo, Artemis, is a figure in Greek mythology. Although NASA is now preparing for 2025, the General Accountability Office has grounds to assume that the launch will occur in 2027.

As part of its second mission, Astrobotic will carry NASA’s water-seeking Viper rover to the Antarctic Peninsula. Also, Intuitive Machines will be delivering an ice drill to NASA from that same spot on its second voyage.

Landing near the moon’s southern pole is very perilous

Because of the south pole’s crater-filled, rocky, and rough surface, “it’s very difficult to find lighted region to touch down safely,” says Altemus. “You must possess the ability to delicately place that in the ideal location.”

In contrast to Houston’s long history in the space sector, Pittsburgh is relatively new to the scene. Among the Pittsburgh-related artifacts that will be aboard Astrobotic’s lander are soil from Moon Park in Moon Township, a Heinz pickle button, a token from the amusement park Kennywood (chosen by a public vote), and the Terrible Towel, which is waved by the Steelers during football games.

Among the seventy people whose remains or genes are carried by the lander are “Star Trek” authors Arthur C. Clarke and Gene Roddenberry. Once separated from the lander, the upper stage of the rocket will enter solar orbit with an additional 265 people on board. Three original members of the “Star Trek” crew, as well as hair samples from three presidents of the United States—John F. Kennedy, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and George Washington—are among them.

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