Why Landing on the Moon is Still Incredibly Difficult in 2024

On February 22nd, a spacecraft named Odysseus built by Houston-based company Intuitive Machines made history by landing at the moon’s south pole at 6:23 p.m. ET. Odysseus became the first U.S. lander to touch down on the moon in over 50 years and the first private lander to ever reach the lunar surface. This success was a break from a string of lunar failures that happened in recent times where five of the previous nine attempted moon landings ended poorly for various nations and private companies.

Earlier on January 19th, Japan’s Smart Lander for Investigating the Moon (SLIM) spacecraft completed the country’s first moon landing, but unfortunately, it ended up upside down on the lunar surface due to an engine malfunction during descent. The lopsided lander’s solar cells faced the wrong direction and failed to power its instruments and communications, forcing engineers to shut it down in fear of battery discharge. Even though engineers briefly restored power to the lander 10 days later, the impending lunar night shortened SLIM’s science observations to just a few hours before it went offline again.

Just 10 days before SLIM’s landing, a private U.S. moon lander named Peregrine encountered many anomalies after launch, including a propellant leak that prevented the spacecraft from landing on the moon. It was ultimately rerouted to crash into Earth’s atmosphere. Other lunar landing attempts made by Japan and Russia in 2023 similarly ended in catastrophic crashes, this time on the moon itself.

Government-funded space agencies from five countries have successfully touched down on the moon, including the United States, the former Soviet Union, China, India, and Japan. Only one private company, Intuitive Machines, has succeeded so far, and several high-profile missions have failed due to technical glitches that led to fatal judgments of speed, altitude, and orientation. This is a stark reminder that even after half a century since the Apollo astronauts walked on the moon, our closest celestial neighbor remains a challenging and dangerous destination.

Read More News: A recent study suggests that the moonquakes and faults near the lunar south pole are the result of the moon shrinking

So, what gives? Has humanity gotten worse at lunar landings? Or are we simply grappling with a new era of technological advancements, just like the teams behind the Apollo missions did?

“We did not get ‘dumber’ since the Apollo landings,” Csaba Palotai, a professor of physics and space sciences at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, told Live Science. Technology is significantly better today; your cellphone has more computational power than computers had in the 1970s. “But since the ’70s there have been no astronauts and pilots on the landers to correct what the computers can’t or won’t,” Palotai added.

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Landing on the moon is a difficult task, whether or not there are human pilots involved. One of the biggest challenges is the moon’s extremely thin atmosphere, which makes it impossible to use parachutes to slow spacecrafts down. As a result, engineers have to rely on fuel-powered propulsion systems to descend onto the moon’s surface, which makes it challenging to decrease the speed of the spacecraft from a few kilometers per second to a complete stop.

However, these and other obstacles related to lunar exploration are not new. Although the Apollo program succeeded in landing humans on the moon, it was the result of a massive program that faced several failures before achieving success. The initial efforts by the United States and the Soviet Union to fly a spacecraft to the moon were plagued with problems such as post-launch explosions, issues with guidance systems, and fatal mistakes with solar panel deployment. Even the legendary Apollo 11 mission, which made history by landing astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon, was dangerously low on fuel and faced numerous unexpected alarms just before touching down on the moon’s surface.

“People tend to forget about those mission failures as being part of the learning process,” said Jack Burns, director of the NASA-funded Network for Exploration and Space Science at the University of Colorado Boulder. This experiential learning perch is where moon missions, especially a growing number of privately funded ones, currently are. “It’s still hard to land on the moon, but far from impossible,” he said.

According to Burns and other experts, everything has changed since the Apollo program, including the outdated technology that was used to take humans to the moon and back in the ’60s and ’70s. During the Apollo program, the engineers built the first computers of their time, but now the sensors have become more powerful and smaller. Most of the software and architecture that was customized for the Apollo program is no longer useful for space missions today.

Moreover, “that whole generation is out of the industry at this point, and a lot of that knowledge has been lost,” said John Thornton, CEO of Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology, which built and operated Peregrine. “We are relearning how to do this, but we’re also learning it with technology that is new and different.”

Organizations smaller than NASA, powered by a new generation of engineers, have taken on the same challenge of landing humans on the moon after half a century since the last mission. Palotai, Thornton, and Burns see the recent moon mission failures as a natural progression of a new industry.

“Personally, I’m not worried,” Burns said. “It’s just part of the growing pains.”

Paving the way for affordable moon missions is a challenging task. The success of a mission depends on not only technological issues but also on the amount of funding allocated to the software and hardware testing before launch to minimize risks.

Astrobotic CEO John Thornton believes that they need a billion dollars to increase their chances of success. However, they are trying to accomplish this mission at a much lower cost, which means they have to try many more times before they can achieve breakthrough moments. Once they reach that point, they can continue to do it repeatedly at that cost.

NASA’s Apollo program was the centerpiece of the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the 60s and 70s. During this time, NASA had 10 times its current budget to do the same thing. The Apollo program cost $25.8 billion between 1960 and 1973, which is equivalent to $257 billion today. It was backed by nearly 5% of the total U.S. federal budget.

In comparison, NASA’s current budget is less than 0.5% of the nation’s overall federal spending, which includes funding for missions beyond the moon.

“That changes everything,” Thornton said. Back then, NASA was fine with developing something that cost tens of billions of dollars. In comparison, today the industry is trying to build spacecraft for about $100 million, an affordable price that’s key to routine flights. This problem is fundamentally different from those of the Apollo era. “It’s going to take time to learn how to do it at that price point,” Thornton said.

Lowering mission costs also increases the risk of failure, at least to start, Martin Barstow, a professor of astrophysics and space science at the University of Leicester in the U.K., told Live Science. So “we shouldn’t be too surprised if some of these things don’t work,” Barstow added.

The Odysseus spacecraft’s successful landing on February 22 was a significant accomplishment for the commercial spaceflight industry.

The lander, affectionately called “Odie,” transported 12 payloads to the moon, including six NASA science instruments. Intuitive Machines received $118 million from NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program (CLPS) to transport these payloads to the moon. The CLPS program was designed to outsource the responsibility of sending experiments to the moon to private companies, rather than NASA doing it themselves.

This news is a creative derivative product from articles published in famous peer-reviewed journals and Govt reports:

1. Sabale, A., & Miller, E. E. (2024). Artemis Lunar Surface Navigation: Old Challenges, New Potential Solutions. In AIAA SCITECH 2024 Forum (p. 0620).
2. Bellafiore, R. (2024). Accelerating to Where?. The New Atlantis, (75), 75-85.
3. Sheehan, W., & Brasch, K. R. (Eds.). (2024). The Space Age Generation: Lives and Lessons from the Golden Age of Solar System Exploration. University of Arizona Press.
4. Capolupo, F., & Rinalducci, A. (2024). Descent & Landing Trajectory and Guidance Algorithms with Divert Capabilities for Moon Landing. In AIAA SCITECH 2024 Forum (p. 0086).

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