A new era of commercial missions to the moon launched today as NASA gambles on a ride on an untested private lunar lander – alongside human remains and a marketing stunt by a sports drink manufacturer.
Peregrine Mission-1 – which took off at 7.18am UK time – is the first US spacecraft due to land on the moon’s surface since Apollo 17 in 1972 and appeared to lift off into space as planned.
But the robotic lander, which is the size of a garden shed, is under the control of the American company Astrobotic.
NASA has paid the start-up just $108m (£85m) for five scientific instruments to be carried to the moon, a fraction of the cost of launching its own mission.
The lander is also carrying DNA of Star Trek icons and famous former US presidents, including John F Kennedy.
Part of the reason for the renewal of interest in lunar missions is the discovery of water on the moon, which could hydrate astronauts and be the source of oxygen and fuel – saving future trips from having to store their own supplies.
It’s hoped the moon could provide a staging post for missions to Mars or even beyond.
“This is the moment we’ve been waiting for for 16 years,” Astrobotic chief executive John Thornton said, as applause roared in the launch control room.
The chief executive of rocket manufacturer United Launch Alliance, Tony Bruno, was heard saying “yee haw, I am so thrilled”.
He added it has so far been “an absolutely beautiful mission” as the second stage booster reached orbit 15 minutes after launching, carrying the craft deeper into space.
Chris Culbert, who heads NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) programme, said the first flight will kickstart more frequent and cost-effective private trips to the moon’s surface.
“Landing on the moon is extremely difficult and success cannot be assured,” he said. “But these companies are technically rigorous and very business savvy. They are resourceful and driven.”
Mr Thornton thanked NASA for “rolling the dice for commercial”.
The mission is on a tight budget; to cut costs, Peregrine blasted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida on the first test flight of the Vulcan Centaur rocket.
Instrument designed in UK will study moon’s atmosphere
The launch window opened on time, with good weather conditions as expected.
A landing is scheduled for 23 February. Mr Thornton has previously said that the craft will spend 12 days in transit between the Earth and lunar orbit but the bulk of the time will be waiting, circling the moon, for the “local lighting conditions” of the team’s landing site to be correct.
One of the NASA science instruments on board has been designed at the UK’s Open University. It will be used to study the moon’s incredibly thin atmosphere and the movement of water molecules.
Dr Simeon Barber, who led the design team, said it was very different working on a private mission, compared to previous endeavours with space agencies in charge.
“We have had to develop an instrument in a little over a year during a pandemic,” he told Sky News. “That would not have happened under the old way of doing space instrument development.
“But that does allow you to take a bit more risk and make bigger steps forward.”
Dr Barber hailed the team as the launch appeared to make a successful start to its mission.
“What a way to start a Monday morning,” he said.
“I can’t wait to turn on our instrument for an in-flight checkout, and then for the landing itself on 23 February and the beginning of our scientific measurements soon after.”
Controversy over human remains
The Peregrine mission has attracted controversy because of some of its commercial payloads.
Among the remains on board are those of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenbury – along with his wife and son – as well as icons from the show Nichelle Nichols, James Doohan and DeForest Kelley, who played Nyota Uhura, Montgomery Scott and Dr Leonard McCoy.
The DNA of former US presidents George Washington, Dwight Eisenhower and John F Kennedy are also being transported.
The Navajo Nation of Native Americans had written to NASA demanding the launch should be delayed because there will be capsules on board containing human remains.
The nation’s president, Buu Nygren, said sending cremated remains to the moon “is tantamount to the desecration of this sacred space”.
Joel Kearns, who heads NASA’s exploration science strategy, said the space agency had no control over commercial payloads on board.
But he added: “We take the concerns of the Navajo Nation very seriously and we will be continuing this conversation.”
Mr Thornton, the head of Astrobotic, said he was disappointed the objection had only been made recently, despite the intention of carrying human remains being announced in 2015.
“We have tried to do the right thing at every turn,” he said. “I would have liked to have had this conversation a long time ago. We hope we can find a good way forward.”
Mission will take mementoes to the moon
Eyebrows have also been raised over other commercial payloads.
The delivery company DHL is launching its MoonBox programme, taking mementoes such as photos, novels and even a sample of Mount Everest to the lunar surface.
A can of the energy drink Pocari Sweat will also be on board, containing messages from 80,000 children and a powdered formulation of the product that future astronauts will be able to mix with lunar water.
Astrobotic has shrugged off criticism of the mission’s commercial cargo.
“To be leading America back to the surface of the moon is a momentous honour,” said Mr Thornton.
Since Apollo 17 touched down in December 1972, the US has sent 25 craft towards the moon but all bar one have either flown past or entered orbit and gone no further. One, the robotic LCROSS mission, was deliberately crashed into the lunar surface in a bid to detect water molecules in the resulting debris cloud that was thrust into space.