Private lander makes first US moon landing in more than 50 years

Private lander makes first US moon landing in more than 50 years
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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A private lander made the first U.S. landing on the moon in more than 50 years on Thursday, but managed to return only a weak signal until flight controllers scrambled to establish better contact.

Despite the lack of communication, Intuitive Machines, the company that built and operated the spacecraft, confirmed that it had landed upright. But it did not provide additional details, including whether the lander had reached its intended destination near the moon’s south pole. The company ended its live webcast shortly after noticing a lone, weak signal from the lander.

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“What we can confirm without a doubt is that our equipment is on the surface of the moon,” mission director Tim Crain said as tensions mounted at the company’s control center in Houston.

Steve Altemus, CEO of Intuitive Machines, added: “I know this was a nail-biter, but we are on the surface and we are broadcasting. Welcome to the moon.”

Data finally started pouring in, according to a company announcement two hours after landing.

The landing brought the US back to the surface for the first time since NASA’s famous Apollo moon walkers.

Intuitive Machines also became the first private company to conduct a moon landing, a feat achieved by only five countries. Another American company, Astrobotic Technology, tried last month but never reached the moon, and the lander crashed back to Earth. Both companies are part of a NASA-backed program to boost the lunar economy.

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Astrobotic was one of the first to send congratulations. “An incredible achievement. We can’t wait to join you on the moon’s surface in the near future,” the company said via X, formerly Twitter.

Intuitive machines “had the landing of a lifetime,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson tweeted.

The last few hours before landing became more stressful when the lander’s laser navigation system failed. The company’s flight control team had to deploy an experimental NASA laser system, with the lander making an extra lap around the moon to allow time for the last-minute transfer.

When this change was finally in place, Odysseus descended from a moon-grazing orbit and guided himself to the surface, aiming for a relatively flat spot among all the cliffs and craters near the south pole.

As the designated landing time arrived, controllers in the company’s command center waited anxiously for a signal from the spacecraft some 250,000 miles away. After almost 15 minutes, the company announced that it had received a weak signal from the lander.

The six-metre-long carbon fiber and titanium lander, which launched last week, stood 4.3 meters tall and carried out six experiments for NASA. The space agency gave the company $118 million to build and fly the lander as part of its efforts to commercialize lunar deliveries ahead of the planned return of astronauts in a few years.

Intuitive Machines’ entry is the latest in a series of landing attempts by countries and private outfits looking to explore and, if possible, profit from the moon. Japan scored a moon landing last month, joining previous triumphs by Russia, the US, China and India.

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The US left the moonscape in 1972 after NASA’s Apollo program landed 12 astronauts on the surface. Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic tried it last month, but was derailed by a fuel leak that caused the lander to plummet back through Earth’s atmosphere and burn up.

Intuitive Machines’ target was 200 miles from the South Pole, about 80 degrees north latitude, and closer to the Pole than any other spacecraft has ever gotten. The terrain is relatively flat, but surrounded by boulders, hills, cliffs and craters that can hold frozen water, much of the appeal. The lander was programmed to choose the safest spot near the so-called Malapert A crater in real time.

The solar-powered lander was scheduled to operate for a week, until the long moon night.

In addition to NASA’s technology and navigation experiments, Intuitive Machines sold space on the lander to Columbia Sportswear to fly its latest insulating jacket fabric; sculptor Jeff Koons for 125 mini moon statues; and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University for a set of cameras to take pictures of the descending lander.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Educational Media Group. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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