CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Agencies) — After a hiatus of more than five decades since the end of the Apollo program, the United States is preparing to return to the moon. Two private companies, Astrobotic Technology and Intuitive Machines, are leading the charge, aiming to make the first US moon landing since the Apollo missions.

This initiative is part of a NASA-supported effort to stimulate commercial moon deliveries, as the space agency shifts its focus towards returning astronauts to the moon. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson referred to these missions as “scouts going to the moon ahead of us.”

Astrobotic Technology, based in Pittsburgh, is set to launch a lander aboard United Launch Alliance’s brand new rocket, Vulcan. Meanwhile, Houston’s Intuitive Machines plans to launch a lander in mid-February, using SpaceX for the flight.

The race to the moon is not limited to the US. Japan is also planning a moon landing in two weeks. The Japanese Space Agency’s lander, equipped with two toy-sized rovers, had a head start, sharing a September launch with an X-ray telescope that remained in Earth’s orbit.

If successful, Japan will join Russia, the US, China, and India in achieving a lunar landing. The US remains the only country to have sent astronauts to the moon.

Landing on the moon is a challenging feat, requiring a lander to descend using thrusters while navigating past hazardous cliffs and craters. Several attempts by different countries have ended in crashes.

The US has not attempted a moon landing since December 1972, when Apollo 17’s Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt became the last of 12 moonwalkers to explore the lunar surface. Since then, the US has launched a number of lunar satellites but no controlled landers.

Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines are not only aiming to break America’s moon-landing drought but are also competing to be the first private entity to land on the moon. Despite a later start, Intuitive Machines has a faster, more direct route and should land within a week of liftoff. Astrobotic, on the other hand, will take two weeks just to reach the moon and another month in lunar orbit before attempting a landing on February 23.

Astrobotic’s CEO, John Thornton, anticipates a “wild, wild ride,” while his counterpart at Intuitive Machines, Steve Altemus, acknowledges the geopolitical implications of the space race, stating, “We sure would like to be first.”

Both companies received nearly $80 million each in 2019 under a NASA program to develop lunar delivery services, and are among the 14 companies currently contracted by NASA. Astrobotic’s lander, Peregrine, will carry 20 research packages to the moon for seven countries, including five for NASA and a shoebox-sized rover for Carnegie Mellon University. Intuitive Machines’ lander, Nova-C, will also target the moon.

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