So far, recent attempts to land on the moon have had mixed results.
The Chinese Chang’e 3, Chang’e 4 and Chang’e 5 and the Indian Chandrayaan 3 missions achieved successful landings on the lunar surface. However, the Israeli Beresheet 1, the Indian Chandrayaan 2, the Russian Luna 25 and private Japanese company ispace’s Hakuto-R M1 missions have all made craters on the moon’s surface.
2024 will usher in America’s turn to once again land on the moon.
First, the Astrobotic Peregrine lander will launch on a United Launch Alliance Vulcan-Centure rocket, currently scheduled for Jan. 8. The Peregrine will take a leisurely, fuel-saving voyage to the moon before attempting to land on Feb. 23.
Next, the Intuitive Machines Nova-C lander will launch sometime in mid-February on board a SpaceX Falcon 9 and will take a quicker path to the moon. The launch date will set up a lunar landing attempt sometime in late February, within days of the Peregrine landing attempt.
Both the Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines missions constitute the first test of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program first begun when Jim Bridenstine was NASA administrator under President Donald Trump. The Commercial Lunar Payload Services approach is a departure from the usual NASA method of robotic space missions. Instead of the mission being conducted by the space agency, the lunar landing missions will be managed by commercial companies such as Astrobotic, based in Pittsburgh, and Intuitive Machines, based in Houston.
The new approach means that NASA buys space on each commercial lunar landing mission for instruments and other payloads. However, each company conducting such a mission is free to sell space to commercial and other customers as well.
For example, the Astrobotic Peregrine will carry five miniature rovers for the Mexican Space Agency and a radiation detector for the German Aerospace Center. The Eaglecam for Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and the ILO-X imager for the International Lunar Observatory Association are among the commercial payloads the Intuitive Machines Nova-C will carry.
Some of the payloads being carried to the moon have nothing to do with science. The Peregrine will carry portions of the ashes of cremated humans for Celestis and Elysium Space to provide a symbolic burial on the lunar surface. The Intuitive Machines Nova-C will carry the Lunarprise, a digital time capsule, for Galactic Legacy Labs Space.
The recent history of lunar landing attempts suggests that success is not guaranteed for either the Astrobotic or the Intuitive Machines missions. Space Policy Online noted in 2018 when NASA selected nine companies for the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, Bridenstine and Thomas Zurbuchen, then associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, suggested that the success rate for the program’s missions may be as little as 50 percent.
Bridenstine made a sports metaphor when he described the Commercial Lunar Payload Services approach as “taking shots on goal.” The approach is to sacrifice the certainty of success for speed. But enough missions will succeed, hopefully, to not only return good science but also to incentivize a commercial industry capable of delivering cargo to the moon’s surface for a profit.
The Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines missions will not be the only attempted moon landings to be undertaken in 2024.
Intuitive Machines intends to attempt as many as three lunar landings in 2024. Astrobotic plans to send its Griffin lander, along with NASA’s VIPER rover, to the moon in November. Firefly Aerospace is working to land its Blue Ghost on the lunar surface in the third quarter of 2024.
Not every attempted lunar landing in the new year will be American. The Japanese SLIM probe, which recently entered lunar orbit, will try to land on the moon on Jan. 19. The Chinese Chang’e 6 will launch in 2024 as well, with a goal of taking and returning samples from the far side of the moon.
Of course, planned launch dates tend to be aspirational. Delays of future scheduled missions are certainly possible because of weather or technical glitches.
The United States has not undertaken a moon landing since the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972, over 51 years ago. America’s decades-long abandonment of the moon is a sad commentary for the only country that has landed human beings on the moon.
If all goes well, 2024 will mark America’s return to the moon and prove that human beings are still capable of accomplishing great things.
Mark R. Whittington, who writes frequently about space policy, has published a political study of space exploration entitled “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and, most recently, “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.
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