Highlights from the successful landing of the space shuttle Odysseus on the moon

For the first time in half a century, an American-made spacecraft has landed on the moon.

The robotic lander was the first American vehicle on the moon since Apollo 17 in 1972, the final chapter in mankind's astonishing feat. This is a feat that has never been repeated or attempted.

The lander, named Odysseus, is slightly larger than a telephone booth and arrived at the moon's south pole at 6:23 p.m. ET Thursday.

Landing time came and went quietly as air traffic controllers waited to hear confirmation of success. A short communication pause was expected, but minutes passed.

Tim Crain, chief technology officer of Intuitive Machines, the Houston-based company that built Odysseus, announced that a faint signal had been detected from the spacecraft.

“It's faint, but it's there,” he said. “So stay, people. Let's see what happens here.”

After a while, he announced, “Without a doubt, we can confirm that our equipment is on the surface of the Moon and that we are transmitting. So congratulations. “

Later, he added, “Houston, Odysseus has found its new home.”

But the spacecraft's exact communications capabilities were still unclear, muffled by the clapping and high-five celebration at the mission control center.

Later in the evening, the company announced more promising news.

“After fixing communications, flight controllers confirmed that Odysseus was upright and began transmitting data,” Intuitive Engines said in a statement. “Right now, we are working to downlink the first images from the lunar surface.”

Although the effort is much simpler than the Apollo missions that led to astronauts walking on the moon, NASA hopes it will help usher in a revolutionary era: economical transit around the solar system in terms of space travel.

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“I think it's a smart thing for NASA to try to do, which is to create a competitive environment for providers to meet its needs,” said Carissa Christensen, chief executive of space consulting firm Pricetech.

Intuitive Engines is one of several small companies that NASA has hired to carry reconnaissance instruments to the lunar surface ahead of the planned return of NASA astronauts there later this decade.

For the mission, NASA paid Intuitive Engines $118 million under a program called Commercial Lunar Payload Services, or CLPS, to deliver six instruments to the moon, intended to image the dust kicked up by Odysseus. Surface and radio receiver to measure the effects of charged particles on radio signals.

There were also merchandise from other clients, such as a camera created by students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., and an art project by Jeff Koons. Parts of the shuttlecock were covered in reflective material manufactured by Columbia Sportswear.

Odysseus left Earth on February 15 aboard a SpaceX rocket. It entered lunar orbit on Wednesday.

The lead up to the landing included a last minute change.

Intuitive engines said the spacecraft would land on the moon at 5:30 pm Thursday after entering lunar orbit. On Thursday morning, the agency said the spacecraft had moved to a higher altitude and would touch down at 4:24 p.m.

Later Thursday afternoon, the landing time changed again, requiring an extra lap around the moon before a landing attempt at 6:24 p.m., the agency said. A company spokesperson said the laser instrument on the spacecraft that provides data on its altitude and speed was not working.

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The extra orbit provided two hours for changes to the spacecraft's software to replace a different, experimental laser instrument provided by NASA.

At 6:11 p.m., Odysseus fired its engines and began descending to the surface with its power. The laser instrument seemed to act as a suitable complement, and everything seemed to work until the spacecraft remained silent for several minutes.

Odysseus' landing site is a flat area near the crater Malabert A, about 185 miles north of the moon's south pole. The polar regions of the Moon have attracted much interest in recent years because frozen water hides in the shadows of the craters there.

Getting to the moon has proven to be a tricky feat. Apart from the United States, only the government space programs of the Soviet Union, China, India, and Japan have successfully deployed robotic landers on the lunar surface. Two companies like the Israeli nonprofit SpaceIL — Japan's ISpace and Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh — have tried before and failed.

In an interview before the launch, Intuitive Machines chief executive Steve Altemus said he hoped NASA would stick with the moon-on-budget mentality even if Odysseus were to crash.

“That's really the only way forward,” he said. “That's what this experiment was supposed to do.”

In the past, NASA would have built its own spacecraft.

Before Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon, NASA sent a succession of robotic spacecraft Surveyor 1 through Surveyor 7 to test landing techniques and study the properties of the lunar soil. Those robotic landings allayed concerns that astronauts and spacecraft would sink into a thick layer of fine dust on the moon's surface.

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But when NASA designs and operates a spacecraft, it usually tries to maximize its chances of success, and its designs tend to be expensive.

The Apollo moon landings of 1969 to 1972 became a precedent for a grandiose project that tackled an insurmountable problem with an almost unlimited budget—the proverbial moonshot—while CLPS sought to harness the enthusiasm and ingenuity of start-up entrepreneurs.

Former top NASA science officer Thomas Zurbuchen, who launched the CLPS program in 2018, estimated that a robotic lunar lander designed, built and operated in the traditional NASA manner would cost $500 million to $1 billion, or at least five times as much space. Agency money is intuitive machines.

NASA believes that capitalism and competition — companies propose different approaches — will spur innovation and lead to new capabilities at lower cost.

But even if they succeed, these companies face uncertain business prospects that attract many customers beyond NASA and other space agencies.

“It's not clear who those other customers are,” Ms Christensen said.

Intuitive Engines has contracts for two more CLPS missions, and other companies are expected to take their sights on the moon. Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology has launched a second mission to take a robotic NASA rover to one of the shadowy regions where ice might be present. Firefly Aerospace, near Austin, Texas, has its Blue Coast lander mostly ready, but has yet to announce a launch date.

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