April 17, 2024

Another month, another try at the moon.

A robotic lunar lander launched into space early Thursday morning. If all goes well, in nine days, it will become the first American spacecraft to gently set down on the moon’s surface since the Apollo 17 moon landing in 1972.

It would also become the first private effort to reach the surface of the moon in one piece. Three earlier attempts, by an American company, a Japanese company and an Israeli nonprofit, failed.

The company in charge of this mission, Intuitive Machines of Houston, is optimistic.

“I feel fairly confident that we’re going to be successful softly touching down on the moon,” Stephen Altemus, the president and chief executive of Intuitive Machines, said in an interview. “We’ve done the tests. We tested and tested and tested. As much testing as we could do.”

If private companies can pull off this feat, at a cost much lower than a traditional NASA mission, that will open the door to wider exploration of the moon by NASA and commercial endeavors.

“We’re trying to create a marketplace in a place where it didn’t exist,” Joel Kearns, an official in NASA’s science mission directorate, said during a news conference on Tuesday. “But to do that, we have to do it in a costconscious manner.”

NASA is the primary customer for this mission, paying Intuitive Machines $118 million to take its payloads, which include a stereo camera to observe the plume of dust kicked up during landing and a radio receiver to measure the effects of charged particles on radio signals, to the moon’s surface. There is also cargo from customers other than NASA, like a camera built by students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., and an art project by Jeff Koons.

But if these private efforts continue to crash, then NASA will not be getting its money’s worth.

The mission got off to a smooth, auspicious start.

At 1:05 a.m. Eastern time, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the lander lifted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, sending the lander on a direct trajectory toward the moon. Intuitive Machines reported less than hour later that the spacecraft separated from the rocket’s second stage and successfully turned itself on with its systems operating as expected.

Intuitive Machines calls its spacecraft design Nova-C. It is a hexagonal cylinder with six landing legs, about 14 feet tall and 5 feet wide. Intuitive Machines notes that the body of the lander is roughly the size of an old British phone booth — that is, like the Tardis in the “Doctor Who” science fiction television show.

At launch, with a full load of propellant, the lander weighed about 4,200 pounds.

This particular spacecraft was named Odysseus after a contest among Intuitive Machines employees. Mario Romero, the engineer who proposed the name, said the travels of the hero of the “Odyssey,” the ancient Greek epic poem, provided an apt analogy for the lunar mission.

“This journey takes much longer due to the many challenges, setbacks and delays,” Mr. Romero said in Intuitive Machine’s press kit for the mission. “Traveling the daunting, wine-dark sea repeatedly tests his mettle, yet ultimately, Odysseus proves worthy and sticks the landing back home after 10 years.”

After a week traveling away from Earth, Odysseus is to enter orbit around the moon about 62 miles above the surface. Then, 24 hours later, it will fire its engine to begin its final descent. An hour later, it is set down near a crater named Malapert A, about 185 miles from the south pole. The landing site is relatively flat, a location that is easier for a spacecraft to land.

The south polar region, especially craters that remain in perpetual shadow, has become an area of interest because of the presence of water ice there. Previous American moon missions have landed in the equatorial regions.

After landing, Odysseus is to operate for seven days until the sun sets. The solar-powered lander is not designed to survive the frigid cold of lunar night.

The launch of the Intuitive Machines mission comes just one month after another American company, Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh, attempted to send Peregrine, its lander, to the moon. But a malfunction with its propulsion system shortly after launch prevented any possibility of landing. Ten days later, as Peregrine swung back toward Earth, it burned up in the atmosphere above the Pacific Ocean.

Both Odysseus and Peregrine are part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, or CLPS. The object of the program is to use commercial companies to send experiments to the moon rather than NASA building and operating its own moon landers.

The space agency hopes this approach will be much cheaper, allowing it to send more missions more frequently as it prepares to send astronauts back to the moon as part of its Artemis program.

Thomas Zurbuchen, the former associate administrator for science at NASA who started the CLPS program in 2018, said the space agency expected half of the CLPS missions to fail and that he repeatedly told Congress, scientists and the companies to expect that. “That is how it was sold,” he said in an interview.

But even if half of these commercial missions fail, NASA would still come out ahead because a traditional mission costs $500 million to $1 billion, Dr. Zurbuchen said, while on a CLPS mission, NASA is paying a company about $100 million to fly its payloads.

Even a 50 percent success rate might be too optimistic. “Even if you’re an advocate for that, you have to see if that strategy is working,” Dr. Zurbuchen said.

Mr. Altemus, who worked six years as the director of engineering at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, said the drive to reduce costs has spurred a much quicker pace of innovation than was possible at NASA.

“Innovation that would not have occurred if we had more money and more time,” he said. “If you look at all the milestones leading up to landing on the moon, for all the technical accomplishments that we’ve been able to do for that little bit of money, it’s just amazing.”

The most difficult portion of the mission — landing — still lies ahead.

Mr. Altemus conceded that they needed to make decisions that reduced costs but raised risks.

“Now, have we gone too cheap?” Mr. Altemus said. “Possibly.”

If so, the CLPS companies may need to raise the prices for future missions, though they would still be cheaper than what NASA traditionally undertook. Mr. Altemus said that if Intuitive Machines fails this time, NASA and Congress should not give up on the moon-on-a-budget idea.

“It’s the only way to really go forward,” Mr. Altemus said.