Two private U.S. companies are set to conduct moon landings in 2024, the country’s first since the end of the Apollo mission more than five decades ago.
The NASA-supported effort will be launched Monday by Pittsburgh’s Astrobotic Technology with a new rocket, the United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan, according to the Associated Press. Houston’s Intuitive Machines aims to launch another rocket with Elon Musk’s SpaceX in mid-February. The launches could mark the first controlled landers by private companies on the moon.
The launch on December 8 will mark the first American attempt to land on the moon since Apollo 17 in December 1972, transporting the last two of the dozen moonwalkers in the series of missions. These 12 Americans remain the only people to have walked on the moon.
The Intuitive Machines launch is expected to land first despite its later start due to a more direct and speedy route, anticipating a controlled landing within a week of liftoff. Astrobotic is estimated to take two weeks to reach the moon, followed by a month in lunar orbit, with a controlled landing expected on February 23.
“We sure would like to be first,” said Steve Altemus of Intuitive Machines, adding that the competition is “more about the geopolitics, where China is going, where the rest of the world’s going.”
“It’s going to be a wild, wild ride,” said John Thornton, Astrobotic’s chief executive.
The Japanese Space Agency launched two toy-size rovers in September that are set to land in two weeks. A successful landing would make Japan the fifth country to do so, along with the U.S., Russia, China, and India.
Japanese company Ispace crashed a landing on the moon in April. Russia crashed in August, which was followed days later by India’s successful landing. India’s first attempt at the moon resulted in a crash landing in 2019. An Israeli nonprofit also crashed in 2019.
China successfully landed on the moon three times in the past decade. This included a trip to the moon’s backside, where the country aims to return this year for lunar samples.
Astrobotic’s lander is 6-foot-tall with four legs. It will carry 20 research packages for seven countries, including five for NASA. The lander will aim for the mid-latitude of the moon at Sinus Viscositatis, also known as the Bay of Stickiness.
Intuitive Machines’ lander is 14-foot-tall with six legs. It will conduct five experiments for NASA over an estimated two weeks. The lander will aim for 80 degrees south latitude, which the company said would be 10 degrees lower than India’s landing next year. This would be approximate to Antarctica on Earth, the AP noted.