First U.S. lunar lander in more than 50 years launches toward Moon with commercial deliveries

The first American lunar landing module in more than 50 years launched toward the Moon on Monday, launching private companies into a space race to make deliveries for NASA and other customers.

Astrobotic Technology’s lander traveled on a new rocket, United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan.

The Vulcan streaked across the Florida sky before dawn, setting the spacecraft on an indirect path to the moon that should culminate in a landing attempt on Feb. 23.

The Pittsburgh company aspires to be the first private company to successfully land on the Moon, something only four countries have achieved.

But a Houston company also has a lander ready to fly and could beat it to the lunar surface, taking a more direct path.

“First to throw. The first to land is to be determined,” said Astrobotic CEO John Thornton.

United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Vulcan Centaur lifts off from Space Launch Complex 41d at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on January 8, 2024. AFP via Getty Images

NASA gave the two companies millions to build and fly their own lunar landers.

The space agency wants privately owned landers to explore the site before astronauts arrive while also carrying out NASA science and technology experiments as well as foreign objects for other clients. Astrobotic contract for the Peregrine lander: $108 million.

The last time the United States launched a moon landing mission was in December 1972.

The Boeing-Lockheed United Launch Alliance joint venture’s next-generation Vulcan rocket launches on its debut flight from Cape Canaveral on January 8, 2024. REUTERS

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Apollo 17’s Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt became the 11th and 12th men to walk on the moon, closing an era that remains NASA’s pinnacle.

The space agency’s new Artemis program, named after Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology, seeks to return astronauts to the surface of the moon in the coming years.

The first will be a flight around the Moon with four astronauts, possibly before the end of the year.

This illustration provided by Astrobotic Technology in 2024 shows the Peregrine lunar lander on the surface of the moon. AP

The highlight of Monday’s trip to the moon was the long-delayed initial test flight of the Vulcan rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

The 61-meter (202-foot) rocket is essentially an upgraded version of ULA’s successful Atlas V workhorse, which is being phased out along with the company’s Delta IV. Jeff Bezos’ rocket company, Blue Origin, provided the Vulcan’s two main engines.

The Soviet Union and the United States racked up a series of successful moon landings in the 1960s and 1970s before suspending the landings.

China joined the elite club in 2013 and India in 2023.

But last year landers from Russia and a private Japanese company also crashed onto the moon.

An Israeli nonprofit collapsed in 2019.

People take photos during the launch of the Boeing-Lockheed United Launch Alliance joint venture’s next-generation Vulcan rocket on its debut flight from Cape Canaveral, Florida, January 8, 2024. REUTERS

Next month, SpaceX will provide the elevator for an Intuitive Machines lander. The Nova-C lander’s more direct weeklong route could see both spacecraft attempting to land within days or even hours of each other.

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The hour-long descent to the lunar surface, by far the biggest challenge, will be “thrilling, exhilarating and terrifying all at once,” Thornton said.

In addition to flight experiments for NASA, Astrobotic created its own cargo-hauling business, packing the 1.9-meter-tall Peregrine lander with everything from a rock fragment from Mount Everest to cars the size of a toy from Mexico that will catapult to the lunar surface and sail around, into the ashes and DNA of deceased space enthusiasts, including “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke.

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The Navajo Nation recently attempted to delay the launch due to human remains. saying it would be a “profound desecration” of a celestial body revered by Native Americans.

Thornton said the December objections came too late, but he promised to try to find “a good path forward” with the Navajos for future missions.

One of the spaceflight commemorative companies that bought space on the lander, Celestis, said in a statement that no culture or religion owns the moon and should not be able to veto a mission.

There is more debris in the upper stage of the rocket, which, once freed from the lander, will circle the Sun indefinitely until it reaches Mars.

Peregrine’s upload rates ranged from a few hundred dollars to $1.2 million per kilogram (2.2 pounds), not enough for Astrobotic to break even.

But for this first flight, that’s not the point, according to Thornton.

“The dreams and hopes of many people depend on this,” he said.

United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur rocket, part of Astrobotic’s Peregrine One Mission, lifts off from Space Launch Complex 41 at the Kennedy Space Center in Merritt Island, Florida, U.S., on January 8, 2024. CRISTOBAL HERRERA -ULASHKEVICH/EPA-EFE /Shutterstock

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