Private industry leads America’s first moon landing since Apollo

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA – The first American spacecraft to attempt to land on the Moon in more than half a century is poised to blast off early on Jan 8 – but this time, private industry is leading the charge.

A brand new rocket, United Launch Alliance (ULA)’s Vulcan Centaur, should lift off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 2:18 am (3.18pm Singapore time) for its maiden voyage, carrying Astrobotic’s Peregrine Lunar Lander. Weather so far appears favourable.

If all goes to plan, Peregrine will touch down on a mid-latitude region of the Moon called Sinus Viscositatis, or Bay of Stickiness, on Feb 23.

“Leading America back to the surface of the Moon for the first time since Apollo is a momentous honour,” Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic’s CEO John Thornton said ahead of the launch.

Until now, a soft landing on Earth’s nearest celestial neighbour has only been accomplished by a handful of national space agencies. The Soviet Union was first, in 1966, followed by the United States, which is still the only country to put people on the Moon.

China has successfully landed three times over the past decade, while India was the most recent to achieve the feat on its second attempt in 2023.

Now, the United States is turning to the commercial sector in an effort to stimulate a broader lunar economy and ship its own hardware at a fraction of the cost, under the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) programme.

A challenging task

The space agency has paid Astrobotic more than $100 million (S$133 million) for the task, while another contracted company, Houston-based Intuitive Machines, is looking to launch in February and land near the south pole.

“We think that it’s going to allow…more cost-effective and more rapidly accomplished trips to the lunar surface to prepare for Artemis,” said National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)’s Joel Kearns, deputy associate administrator for exploration.

Artemis is the NASA-led program to return astronauts to the Moon later this decade, in preparation for future missions to Mars.

Controlled touchdown on the Moon is a challenging undertaking, with roughly half of all attempts ending in failure.

Absent an atmosphere that would allow the use of parachutes, a spacecraft must navigate through treacherous terrain using only its thrusters to slow descent.

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