The first American spacecraft set to reach the Moon in over half a century is ready for launch on Monday morning, this time spearheaded by a private industry artifact.
The new rocket, United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur (ULA), is scheduled to take off from the US Space Force Station at Cape Canaveral at 02:18 (07:18 GMT) for its inaugural journey, carrying Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander module. The weather conditions seem favorable for the launch.
If all goes according to plan, Peregrine will touch down in a mid-latitude region of the Moon known as Sinus Viscositatis, or the Bay of Viscosity, on February 23.
“Returning the United States to the lunar surface for the first time since the Apollo mission is a momentous honor,” said John Thornton, CEO of Astrobotic, based in Pittsburgh.
So far, only a handful of national space agencies have achieved a successful soft landing on Earth’s natural satellite: the Soviet Union was the first in 1966, followed by the United States, the only country to have sent humans to the Moon.
China successfully landed on the Moon three times in the last decade, while India accomplished the feat on its second attempt last year.
The United States is turning to the private sector to stimulate a broader lunar economy and send its own cost-effective spacecraft under the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program.
NASA has paid Astrobotic over $100 million for the mission, and another contracted company, Houston-based Intuitive Machines, aims to launch its rocket in February, landing near the Moon’s south pole.
The Peregrine lunar landing module, installed inside the Vulcan rocket, will conduct scientific studies on lunar radiation and surface composition, paving the way for astronaut return. It will also carry a shoebox-sized vehicle built by Carnegie Mellon University, a physical Bitcoin, and, controversially, cremated remains and DNA, including those of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, legendary science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, and a dog.
The Navajo Nation, the largest indigenous tribe in the United States, argues that the lunar mission desecrates a sacred body in their culture and has advocated for the removal of the payload. Despite a final meeting with White House representatives, NASA, and other officials, their objections were disregarded.