After half a century, America will try to return to the moon

Neil Armstrong, the first cosmonaut to set foot on the moon / July 20, 1969 / Photo: Profimedia

A Houston-based company will attempt to land the first U.S. spacecraft in 50 years on the moon today, as part of NASA's effort to pave the way for commercial spacecraft to return astronauts to Earth by the end of the decade. If all goes according to plan, the company Intuitive Machines will slowly land its hexagonal robot Odyssey near the south pole of the moon, at 23:30 Croatian time.

Flight controllers should confirm the landing about 15 seconds after it happens, and the event will be streamed live on the company's website. Before landing, Odysseus will deploy an external camera that will "capture" the final seconds of its descent.

The attempt of another American company to do so last month ended in failure, making it difficult for private companies to prove they can repeat what NASA did with the last moon mission, Apollo 17, in 1972.

Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, told Agence France-Presse that the United States is re-invigorating its lunar exploration capabilities after a half-century hiatus.

"People often ask -- 'if we did it in the past, why can't we do it now?'" said Pace, a former member of the National Space Council. "Every generation has to learn it anew," he added. “You have an edge, you understand the technology, the issues and more. But that's all in the books. It's not a flying experience that you have in your little finger.”

Odyssey was launched on February 15 on SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket. Its destination is the crater Malapert A, which is located about 300 kilometers from the south pole of the Moon.

NASA hopes to eventually establish a long-term satellite presence on Earth and collect water from the ice for drinking as well as rocket fuel. NASA is doing this as part of the Artemis program, which aims to establish a base on the moon, a prerequisite for future human missions to Mars.

Odyssey's instruments include cameras to study changes in the lunar surface beneath the exhaust gases of the spacecraft's engines and a device to analyze clouds filled with dust particles that float above the surface at dusk due to solar radiation.

NASA paid the company $118 million to transport its new hardware to the moon, part of the US space agency's initiative to delegate the transportation of cargo to the moon to the private sector in order to save money and boost the lunar economy.

The first private company to try was Pittsburgh-based Astrorobotics, but its Peregrine spacecraft began to run out of fuel, eventually having to send it back to burn up in Earth's atmosphere.

Spacecraft landing on the Moon must negotiate dangerous rocks and craters and, in the absence of an atmosphere to support parachutes, rely on thrusters to control their descent. About half of the more than 50 attempts so far have failed.

So far, only the space agencies of the Soviet Union, the United States, China, India and Japan have managed to land on the moon.

Why is landing on the moon more difficult today than 50 years ago?

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