US returns to lunar surface for first time in over 50 years: ‘Welcome to the moon’

The United States has returned to the lunar surface for the first time in more than 50 years after a privately-built spacecraft named Odysseus capped a nail-biting 73-minute descent from orbit with a touchdown near the moon’s south pole.

Amid celebrations of what Nasa hailed “a giant leap forward”, there was no immediate confirmation of the status or condition of the lander, other than it had reached its planned landing site at crater Malapert A.

But later Intuitive Machines, the Texas-based company that built the first commercial craft to land on the moon, said the craft was “upright and starting to send data”.

The statement on X said mission managers were “working to downlink the first images from the lunar surface”.

The so-called “soft landing” on Thursday, which Steve Altemus, the company’s founder, had given only an 80% chance of succeeding, was designed to open a new era of lunar exploration as Nasa works towards a scheduled late-2026 mission to send humans back there.

“Welcome to the moon,” Altemus said when touchdown when the 5.23pm touchdown was eventually confirmed, after about 10 minutes in which Odysseus was out of contact.

It was the first time any US-built spacecraft had landed on the moon since Nasa’s most recent crewed visit, the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972, and the first visit by commercial vehicle following last month’s failure of Peregrine One, another partnership between the space agency and a private company, Astrobotic.

“Today, for the first time in more than a half century, the US has returned to the moon. Today, for the first time in the history of humanity, a commercial company, an American company, launched and led the voyage up there,” Bill Nelson, the Nasa administrator, said.

“What a triumph. Odysseus has taken the moon. This feat is a giant leap forward for all of humanity.”

There was no video of Odysseus’s fully autonomous descent, which slowed to about 2.2mph at 33ft above the surface. But a camera built by students at Florida’s Embry-Riddle aeronautical university was designed to fall and take pictures immediately before touchdown, and Nasa cameras were set to photograph the ground from the spacecraft.

The 14ft (4.3 metres) hexagonal, six-legged Nova-C lander, affectionately nicknamed Odie by Intuitive Machines employees, is part of Nasa’s commercial lunar payload services (CLPS) initiative, in which the agency awards contracts to private partners, largely to support the Artemis program.

Nasa contributed $118m to get it off the ground, with Intuitive Machines funding a further $130m ahead of its 15 February launch from Florida’s Kennedy space center on a Falcon 9 rocket from Elon Musk’s SpaceX company.

The IM-1 mission, like the doomed Peregrine effort, is carrying a payload of scientific equipment designed to gather data about the lunar environment, specifically in the rocky region chosen as the landing site for Nasa’s crewed Artemis III mission planned for two years’ time.

It is a hazardous area – “pockmarked with all of these craters”, according to Nelson – but chosen because it is believed to be rich in frozen water that could help sustain a permanent lunar base crucial to future human missions to Mars.

Scientists announced last year that they believed tiny glass beads strewn across the moon’s surface contained potentially “billions of tonnes of water” that could be extracted and used on future missions.

The risks are worth it, Nelson told CNN on Thursday, “to see if there is water in abundance. Because if there’s water, there’s rocket fuel: hydrogen, and oxygen. And we could have a gas station on the south pole of the moon.”

The planned operational life of the solar powered lander is only seven days, before the landing site about 186 miles from the moon’s south pole moves into Earth’s shadow. But Nasa hopes that will be long enough for analysis of how soil there reacted to the impact of the landing.

Other instruments will focus on space weather effects on the lunar surface, while a network of markers for communication and navigation will be deployed.

“Odysseus, powered by a company called Intuitive Machines, launched upon a SpaceX rocket, carrying a bounty of Nasa scientific instruments, is bearing the dream of a new adventure in science, innovation, and American leadership in space,” Nelson said.

Through Artemis, Nasa’s return-to-the-moon program that also has longer-term visions of crewed missions to Mars within the next two decades, the US seeks to stay ahead of Russia and China, both of which are planning their own human lunar landings.

Only the US has previously landed astronauts, in six Apollo missions between 1969 and 1972, while five countries have placed uncrewed spacecraft there. Japan joined the US, Russia, China and India last month when its Smart Lander for Investigating the Moon (Slim) made a successful, if awkward touchdown after a three-month flight.

Two further Intuitive Machines launches are scheduled for later this year, including an ice drill to extract ingredients for rocket fuel, and another Nova-C lander containing a small Nasa rover and four small robots that will explore surface conditions.

  • This article was amended on 22 February 2024. An earlier version wrongly attributed the ‘Welcome to the moon’ quotation to Intuitive Machines mission director Tim Crain.