WASHINGTON — A robotic lander built by a private company was bound for the moon on Monday in an attempt to make the first US lunar soft landing in half a century, after launching to space aboard a new Vulcan rocket debuted by a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
Space robotics firm Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander launched to space at 2:18 a.m. EST from Cape Canaveral, Florida on the first flight of Vulcan, a powerful rocket that had been under development for a decade by the Boeing-Lockheed venture United Launch Alliance (ULA).
“Yee haw, I am so thrilled,” ULA Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Tory Bruno said in the company’s launch control room. “This has been years of hard work. So far this has been an absolutely beautiful mission.”
If all goes well, Peregrine would mark the first US soft landing on the moon since the final Apollo landing in 1972, and the first-ever lunar landing by a private company — a feat that has proved elusive in recent years.
“This is the moment we’ve been waiting for 16 years,” Astrobotic CEO John Thornton said. Applause roared in the launch control room when Peregrine was released from its booster stage, setting the golf cart-sized craft on its 46-day journey to the moon.
The mission is the latest in recent years among countries and private companies sprinting to the moon, a reemergent stage of international competition where scientists hope its water-bearing minerals can be exploited to sustain long-term astronaut missions.
The launch of Vulcan, a 200-foot (60-m) tall rocket with engines made by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, was a crucial first for ULA, which developed the rocket to replace its workhorse Atlas V rocket and rival the reusable Falcon 9 from Elon Musk’s SpaceX in the satellite launch market.
The stakes were high for Vulcan. Boeing and Lockheed, which own ULA in a 50-50 split, have been seeking a sale of the business for roughly a year. And the launch was the first of two certification flights required by the US Space Force before Vulcan can fly lucrative missions for the Pentagon, a key customer.
Peregrine is set to land on the moon on Feb. 23 with scientific payloads aboard that will seek to gather data about the lunar surface ahead of planned future human missions. It marks the first trek to the moon’s surface as part of NASA’s Artemis moon program.
India last year became the fourth country to achieve a soft lunar landing after Russia failed an attempt the same month. Private companies betting on a lunar marketplace have had hard times, with Japan’s ispace and an Israeli company crash-landing on their first attempts. — Reuters