WASHINGTON, Jan 8 (Reuters) – A robotic lander built by a private company was bound for the moon on Monday in an attempt to make the first U.S. lunar soft landing in more than half a century, after launching into space aboard a new Vulcan rocket debuted by a joint venture of Boeing (BA.N) and Lockheed Martin (LMT.N).
Space robotics firm Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander launched 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 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 task.”
If all goes well, Peregrine would mark the first U.S. 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 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 trip 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 support long-term astronaut missions.
The launch of Vulcan, a 200-foot (60-m) tall rocket with engines made by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, was an important 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 needed by the U.S. 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 20 payloads aboard, most of which will seek to gather data about the lunar surface ahead of planned future human trips. It marks the first trek to the moon’s surface as part of NASA’s Artemis moon program.
That multibillion dollar program, involving different countries and relying heavily on private companies such as SpaceX, envisions astronaut missions to the moon later this decade. Small landers such as Peregrine will get there first.
A second private U.S. company under the same NASA program aims to launch a lander of its own in February. Carrying similar NASA payloads and flying to space aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, Houston-based Intuitive Machines’ said its spacecraft could make a moon landing on Feb. 22, a day before Peregrine.
India last year became the fourth country to make a soft lunar landing after Russia failed in an attempt the same month. The U.S., China and the former Soviet Union are the only other countries that have carried out successful soft moon landings.
Private companies with dreams of spurring a lunar marketplace have had harder times, with Japan’s ispace and an Israeli company crash-landing on their first attempts.