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  • Writer's pictureAlex Martin

On February 22nd, the United States landed its first spacecraft on the Moon in 52 years

It marks the first in a series of missions to aid the Artemis program and other science missions for uncrewed exploration and crewed settlement of the Moon in the next 5 years.

by Alex Martin

Executive Director

Published February 25, 2024

Spacecraft landed on the Moon
First image returned from the Odysseus lander shows the lunar surface. The Sun can be seen at the bottom left of the photo. Image credit: Intuitive Machines.

In a first for commercial spaceflight, a private launch company, SpaceX, launched a spacecraft for another private company, Intuitive Machines, and landed on the Moon. While a number of other countries have landed or made landing attempts of robotic craft over the years, most recently Israel, India, and Japan, this marks the first time since 1972, after Apollo 17, that the United States has set a spacecraft on the surface of our celestial neighbor.

It marks an important step for a number of programs and missions, including the Artemis Program by NASA. Odysseus, the lander built by Intuitive Machines and stands 14-feet tall in its upright position. It landed only one or two miles from its originally intended location, due to a system error that disabled the spacecraft's primary laser rangefinders responsible for detecting a safe area for the craft to set down.

After a series of delays from the original landing time, technicians at Intuitive Machines' mission control managed to reroute the rangefinding operation to an experimental system onboard the spacecraft, called Navigation Doppler Lidar for Precise Velocity and Range Sensing (NDL), an instrument that will be used during future crewed missions to the Lunar South Pole in 2026 and beyond.

After rerouting the landing operations through the NDL, Intuitive Machines gave the go-ahead for landing, and successfully brought the spacecraft down 190 miles north of the lunar south pole, near a crater named Malapert A.

Mission control briefly lost contact with Odysseus, but reestablished communications with the boom antenna and confirmed the spacecraft was healthy. The issue they discovered, based on gyroscopic and accelerometer telemetry readings, was that Odysseus had landed sideways, and on some sort of slope, rather than standing up on a flat surface.

This was likely a result of the spacecraft's lateral velocity as it touched down. It supposed to have a vertical velocity of 2 mph, and horizontal velocity of 0 mph. However, data transmitted later indicated Odysseus had a vertical velocity of 6 mph, and a horizontal velocity of 2 mph in the moments before landing.

Coincidentally, Odysseus is the second spacecraft in a row to land on its side. On January 25th, Japan's Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) spacecraft landed on the Moon and tipped over. This resulted in a loss of power due to the spacecraft's solar panels pointing away from the Sun on landing. Fortunately, when the spacecraft saw lunar dawn, its panels received enough energy to power SLIM and returned the lander's ability to transmit data during its exploration mission.

Learn more about Odysseus and the IM-1 mission here.


Alex Martin is the Executive Director of Sidewalk Science Center. He founded Sidewalk Science Center back in July 2018. Learn more about him here. 


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