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Private companies race to land uncrewed mission on the moon

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

And finally today, the race to be the first private company to land an uncrewed mission on the moon. On Monday, Astrobotic Technology's Peregrine Mission One will launch from Cape Canaveral. If all goes according to plan - and that's a big if - the rocket carrying the company's lunar lander will launch into the sky, it'll take a quick lap around the Earth, enter the moon's orbit and attempt to touch down on the moon in February. The lander isn't carrying any astronauts, but it still represents a giant leap for space exploration. That's because it could pave the way for a new era of getting people and materials to the lunar surface.

For more, we've called Christian Davenport. He covers NASA and space exploration for The Washington Post and joins me now. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

CHRISTIAN DAVENPORT: Hey. Thanks for having me.

DETROW: So let's just put the context here. In the coming weeks, two different private companies are attempting to land uncrewed spacecraft on the moon. If either of them pull it off, they'd be the first private company to land on the moon. This would also be the first successful American landing on the moon since the end of the Apollo program. How big of a deal is this?

DAVENPORT: That's right. Yeah, this is a huge deal. This really marks the return of NASA and America's quest to go back to the moon. And what's so interesting this time, as you mentioned, it's not like the Apollo era, where it's a big government program. These are being driven in large part by the commercial space industry. You know, and what's interesting also about it, when you talk about the commercial space industry, I think you tend to think about the billionaires and Elon Musk and SpaceX and Blue Origin. But I think these missions show how that industry is growing. And these companies - Astrobotic. Intuitive Machines - may not be companies that are household names and that people know, but they could, you know, lead the sort of vanguard back to the lunar surface and be the first spacecraft to land there since the last of the Apollo missions in 1972, so a huge deal.

DETROW: That's a good point. We're thinking about Elon Musk and his satellites. We're thinking about rich people hitching rides into space. But there's a lot of activity going on. Tell us what specifically this lander is going to do if it does successfully touch down on the moon safely, this first one.

DAVENPORT: Right. So here's what's interesting. Astrobotic could launch as early as Monday. Intuitive Machines wouldn't launch until late February. But we've got a little bit of breaking news. Late on Friday, Intuitive Machines announced that their lander now is scheduled to go and land on February 22, which would be a day before Astrobotic.

DETROW: So it's a race. It's a space race.

DAVENPORT: We've got a real space race on our hands here that pits, you know, not countries against each other. This isn't the U.S. against the Soviet Union, as it was in the Apollo era, but these companies vying to get there first. But if they get down to the lunar surface, they'll both have a suite of science experiments, and these, in large, part are funded by NASA. Now, these are private missions, but it's part of a bigger NASA program called the Commercial Lunar Payload Services Program that's designed to get these uncrewed spacecraft to the surface of the moon.

So the Astrobotic spacecraft is going to, for example, test the exosphere of the moon and how water molecules behave. Intuitive Machines wants to look at communication and navigation because they're going to the south pole of the moon. But really, first and foremost, they want to be able to show and to demonstrate that with NASA support, private industry can touch down on the lunar surface and then be able to do it again and again and again. And really, ultimately, what NASA and the commercial industry wants is to be sending a regular fleet of these spacecraft to the lunar surface.

DETROW: There is so much activity on the moon right now. Last year, India successfully landed a spacecraft. What is the immediate draw here? What is the rush? Is it just that private space industry is at a point that these things that people have wanted to do for a long time are more feasible or are there more commercial interests or scientific interests suddenly peaking up?

DAVENPORT: Yeah. And you see it not just at NASA in the United States but certainly with China. And there is something of a space race going on between the United States and China. They were the first country to land on the far side of the moon. They've also done a lunar sample return. They have plans to send their astronauts, known as Taikonauts, to the moon as well. India has done it. Israel tried with a private company to land a spacecraft on the moon, so did Japan. And recently, Russia tried and failed. So there is this moon rush.

I think people are realizing that, you know, the moon is our closest celestial neighbor, and we know very little about it. And one of the things that we do actually know now that we did not know during the Apollo era is that there's water on the moon. There's water in the form of ice in the permanently shadowed craters at the poles of the moon. And this is significant not just because, of course, water is vital to sustain human life, but its component parts, hydrogen and oxygen, could be used for rocket fuel. So if you're able to mine it and then separate those parts, you could see the moon as a sort of gas station in space that allows you then to get to other destinations in the solar system like, for example, Mars.

DETROW: So you're talking about this space race in the coming weeks between these two companies rushing to try and get there and land first. What's the best way to keep track of all that as it happens?

DAVENPORT: NASA is going to be providing coverage of the launches, as will the social media feeds of the companies, Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines.

DETROW: That's Christian Davenport of The Washington Post. Thanks so much.

DAVENPORT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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