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The New Race to the Moon and Beyond in Private Space Exploration


Image from Wix. A photo of a satellite orbiting Earth

In the Apple-TV series “For All Mankind,” a revisionist history of space travel has unfolded over four seasons of the show (with a fifth season planned). By the mid 1980’s, both the U.S. and Russia had successfully landed humans on the moon and set up permanent bases. Launches to and from Earth the Lunar surface were commonplace, and the Cold War between the countries was continuing.


Of course in reality, space exploration has slowed considerably. The U.S. hasn’t had a manned spacecraft land on the moon in over 50 years. Russia never has. But the fascination with Earth’s orbiting moon and the universe beyond continues–driven largely by private companies.


In February, Intuitive Machines’ Odysseus lander made a soft landing on the moon, though it stopped transmitting data on February 27, several days earlier than intended. Indications the spacecraft also fell onto its side

It’s believed the 14-foot-tall lander snagged on the surface and tipped over, thus tilting its antennas and solar arrays in the wrong direction. It was able to send some photos during its decent, but NASA doesn’t know the status of other equipment onboard.


This is just one of a series of NASA-funded commercial lunar projects that private companies are conducting to prepare for the Artemis mission to return humans to the moon. ETA for that–unknown. The space agency is funding the $2.6 billion Commercial Lunar Payloads Services initiative, known as CLPS. It has used competitive bidding from companies to build and land spacecraft on the moon. Here is the current timetable for some of these efforts:


2024

Intuitive Machines IM-2 will deliver the PRIME-1 drill to the lunar south pole.

Astrobotic will deliver NASA's VIPER mission to the lunar south pole.

Firefly will deliver its Blue Ghost lander to Mare Crisium, a dark patch located at the Moon's upper-right as seen from Earth. The mission also includes Lunar PlanetVac, a technology funded in part by Planetary Society members and donors.

Intuitive Machines will deliver a mission to Reiner Gamma, a magnetic anomaly located on the lunar near side.


2025

Draper will deliver its SERIES-2 lander to Schrödinger Basin on the Moon's far side


2026

Firefly will deliver two payloads to the lunar far side, along with a relay satellite built in collaboration with the European Space Agency.



SpaceX

Founded in 2002 by billionaire Elon Musk (owner of Tesla and X–formerly called Twitter), SpaceX is an American spacecraft manufacturer, launch service provider, defense contractor and satellite communications company based in Hawthorne, California. In addition to reducing transportation costs into space, Musk has a goal of developing a sustainable company on Mars. It has launched the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, with the Falcon 9 having been launched over 200 times. The first launch with a human crew was last year. No timetable on what Musk plans next.


Blue Origin

Amazon founder and billionaire Jeff Bezo was founded in 2000, and like SpaceX, is an American aerospace manufacturer, defense contractor, launch service provider and space technologies company headquartered in Kent, Washington.. The company makes rocket engines for United Launch Alliance (ULA)'s Vulcan rocket and manufactures their own rockets, spacecraft, satellites, and heavy-lift launch vehicles. The company is the second provider of lunar lander services for NASA's Artemis program and was awarded a $3.4 billion contract.The company has four rocket engines in production. It’s next mission is also yet to be announced. 


Virgin Galactic

British billionaire Richard Branson is also in the game with a spaceflight company based in California and flights originating in New Mexico. The company has developed commercial spacecraft aimed at providing suborbital flights for space tourists, launched from beneath a huge carrier airplane known as White Knight Two. Last June, the company launched its first commercial space flight, for paying passengers, successfully. More to come.



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