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Keeping up with the first possible U.S. soft moon landing in decades

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

All right. For the first time ever, a private company has successfully landed on the surface of the moon. It was tense, with last-minute technical glitches, but after a few long minutes, the team in Houston got a signal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVE ALTEMUS: I know this was a nail-biter. But we are on the surface, and we are transmitting. And welcome to the moon.

CHANG: Welcome to the moon. This is the first time an American spacecraft has touched down on the moon in over 50 years. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has been watching it all unfold and joins us now. Hey, Geoff.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Hello, Ailsa.

CHANG: Hello. So tell us more about what happened today.

BRUMFIEL: OK, so this lander was built by a company called Intuitive Machines. The lander itself was named Odysseus. It was about the size of a phone booth - if anyone remembers what a phone booth is.

CHANG: (Laughter).

BRUMFIEL: Anyway, enough about that. OMG, this landing was crazy. So while they were in orbit, they found a problem with their laser rangefinders on the spacecraft. Now, these laser rangefinders are designed to help the spacecraft find its way safely down to the lunar surface.

CHANG: OK.

BRUMFIEL: So they had to come up with a solution. The time was running out. There was an experimental rangefinding system aboard, and they decided to patch that through...

CHANG: Wow.

BRUMFIEL: ...Even though it had never been used before.

CHANG: Oh, my God.

BRUMFIEL: Here's NASA deputy associate administrator Prasun Desai. Just listen to how nervous he sounded before the landing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRASUN DESAI: We put this as a tech demo - with a tech demonstration as a test, right? We weren't planning to use it in line with the actual mission coming down to the landing. But now we are.

CHANG: Oh, my God (laughter).

BRUMFIEL: But now we are (laughter). So, you know, it was - really felt very touch-and-go. They didn't have communications right away. But, miraculously, it worked. They did touch down on the moon. We're not quite clear on, you know, how successful it's been, but they got a signal. That's all that matters.

CHANG: OK. Well, obviously the people at Intuitive Machines are thrilled, but can you just explain - like, why was this whole thing such a big deal?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah, absolutely. America's last moon landing was way back in 1972. Now, that one was done by humans, and, believe it or not, we haven't had a robot or a person come back gently to the surface since then. Meanwhile, other nations have been landing on the moon - notably China, which has had three successful landings in recent years. So this is a really important moment, not just for Intuitive Machines, but for the United States.

CHANG: Yeah, for the United States, but I can't help but notice we're talking about a private company - not NASA - that's getting all the credit here. Why is there a commercial company making this landing anyway?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. I mean, NASA's money is behind the landing. The space agency paid a little over $100 million for the mission, which sounds like a lot, but that's actually a bargain. This is part of a strategy to use a bunch of different companies to deliver landers to the moon. I spoke to Brett Denevi, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. She says these missions are going to get more ambitious.

BRETT DENEVI: The part that I'm excited about, too, is just that this is scientifically opening up new possibilities.

BRUMFIEL: And ultimately, this is part of NASA's plan to send astronauts to the moon. Private companies are going to have a big role there as well.

CHANG: OK, great. So the lander's on the surface. What is it actually going to do there on the moon?

BRUMFIEL: Well, this lander touched down pretty close to the lunar south pole, and Denevi says that's important.

DENEVI: The moon's south pole has a lot of potential resources.

BRUMFIEL: Most importantly, it has water ice. Now, that water could be used for drinking. It could be used for breathing - the oxygen - or it could be made into rocket fuel. A lot of countries are interested in the south pole - are interested in trying to find that ice, which is in permanent shadow in the craters. So this lander is going to operate for about a week, but it's really symbolic of where lunar exploration is headed - not just for the U.S., but for the whole world.

CHANG: That is so cool. And that is NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. Thank you so much, Geoff.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF T C LONG'S "UNIVERSAL SPIRALS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.
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