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Why it took the US 51 years to get back on the moon

Loren Grush, Bloomberg News on

Published in Science & Technology News

For the first time since 1972, the United States is back on the moon.

At 6:23 p.m. Eastern time Thursday, Intuitive Machines Inc. landed a robotic spacecraft on the moon, becoming the first private firm to place a vehicle intact on the lunar surface.

NASA, which paid nearly $118 million for this mission, posted congratulations on the X social media platform: “Your order was delivered ... to the Moon!” Intuitive Machines will eventually send two additional landers to the moon in partnership with NASA.

As national space ambitions grow and the business of space expands, firms have raced to claim the title of landing the first private craft in one piece on the moon. None was successful until now. An Israeli nonprofit, SpaceIL, tried in 2019, but its craft came in too fast and crashed on the surface. Last year, Tokyo-based Ispace Inc. lost contact with its lander. And in January, Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic’s lander suffered engine failure just after reaching space.

Since the U.S. successfully put people on the moon half a century ago, why did it prove so difficult for companies — even countries — to do it again?

The moon is a harsh environment. It’s difficult to design spacecraft that can navigate its surface and it’s almost impossible to recreate those situations on Earth for testing. And private companies’ resources pale in comparison to what NASA had in the 1960s: a war chest that once ballooned to roughly 4% of the overall U.S. federal budget.

 

The biggest hurdle may have been the 21st-century engineers and companies with little or no moonshot experience. It has been more than 50 years since people have designed and sent landers to the moon, so firms were starting from almost scratch and working with novel technologies.

“We say we've been there before, but these companies haven’t been there before,” Phillip Metzger, a planetary physicist at the University of Central Florida, said in an interview. “It is really new technology that’s being perfected and matured right now.”

Back to the Moon

NASA had turned its attention away from the moon after the last Apollo mission in 1972 to focus on the space shuttle, the International Space Station and other goals. Various administrations proposed returning to the moon, but those programs didn’t survive political headwinds. But in 2017, President Donald Trump spurred NASA to launch the Artemis initiative to send humans back.

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