An American Spacecraft Successfully Lands on the Moon for the First Time Since 1972

After a tense touchdown process with last-minute changes, U.S.-based company Intuitive Machines received a signal from its uncrewed Odysseus lunar lander on Thursday evening

The side of a spacecraft with the surface of the moon in the background
Odysseus passes over the near side of the moon after entering into lunar orbit on Wednesday. The spacecraft successfully landed on the moon Thursday evening Eastern time. Intuitive Machines

For the first time since 1972, a U.S. spacecraft has landed on the moon.

Odysseus, an uncrewed lander from the company Intuitive Machines, touched down near the lunar south pole at 6:23 p.m. Eastern time on Thursday. It’s the first time a private American company has landed on the moon, and the achievement marks the first U.S. landing since the Apollo 17 mission.

“Odysseus is alive and well,” Intuitive Machines said in an update on its website Friday morning. “Flight controllers are communicating and commanding the vehicle to download science data.”

The company “aced the landing of a lifetime,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson says in a video posted on X, formerly Twitter.

Odysseus is carrying six NASA science investigations and technology demonstrations. The mission is part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative, through which the agency is paying private companies to send science and technology to the moon.

The aim of the program is for the space agency to “increase the frequency of deliveries and reduce the cost to NASA of doing science,” Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division, tells the Washington Post’s Christian Davenport and Philip Kennicott. “This is a really a significant shift in how we do business.” For this mission, NASA paid Intuitive Machines $118 million.

Odysseus launched to space on February 15 at 1:05 a.m. Eastern time from Cape Canaveral, Florida, aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The spacecraft had a smooth trip to the moon, but the landing didn’t go exactly as planned: On Thursday afternoon, Intuitive Machines pushed the landing back by two hours and sent the spacecraft on an extra orbit around the moon after realizing a laser instrument to measure Odysseus’ altitude and velocity wasn’t working, according to the New York Times’ Kenneth Chang.

Fortunately, an experimental NASA instrument was able to step in. The team used two lasers from the Navigation Doppler Lidar payload aboard the spacecraft to measure velocity and distance from the ground, per CNN’s Jackie Wattles.

Using the substitute laser instrument, Odysseus descended toward the lunar surface. The planned moment of landing passed by, and flight controllers on Earth waited to receive communication from the spacecraft that would confirm it hadn’t crashed. After a tense 15 minutes, the team picked up a weak signal from Odysseus, according to Marcia Dunn of the Associated Press (AP).

After receiving the signal, Tim Crain, Intuitive Machines’ chief technology officer, announced during a livestream that “what we can confirm, without a doubt, is our equipment is on the surface of the moon and we are transmitting,” per the New York Times. “So, congratulations.”

At 8:25 p.m. on Thursday, the company said in a post on X that “after troubleshooting communications, flight controllers have confirmed Odysseus is upright and starting to send data.”

Odysseus was aiming for a landing site about 186 miles from the moon’s south pole. The south pole gets near-continuous sunlight to power the spacecraft’s solar panels and is thought to have water ice. From this frozen resource, future astronauts could produce rocket fuel or extract oxygen to breathe, Brett Denevi, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, tells NPR’s Geoff Brumfiel and Emma Bowman.

NASA’s six payloads delivered to the moon include a system for measuring the electron plasma environment on the lunar surface, reflectors that use lasers to track the lander’s location on the moon and a radio navigation beacon.

Odysseus is also carrying 125 miniature moon phase sculptures from American artist Jeff Koons, a camera for imaging the center of the Milky Way galaxy and a digital system for storing and sending data from the moon, among other commercial payloads.

The spacecraft will carry out its mission for seven days before it becomes nighttime at the south pole, when the lander will become inoperable due to the cold.

The mission sets the stage for NASA’s Artemis program, which is slated to send astronauts around the moon no earlier than September 2025 and land astronauts at the south pole no earlier than September 2026. NASA delayed both missions earlier this year.

Intuitive Machines’ successful touchdown comes only weeks after a commercial lander from the company Astrobotic failed to land on the moon following a propellant leak after launch. Japan’s space agency put an uncrewed spacecraft on the moon in January, though it landed upside-down with its solar panels facing away from the sun.

NASA has signed contracts with Intuitive Machines for two more CLPS missions, according to the New York Times.

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