Watch the video of Intuitive Machines and NASA landing on the moon and hitting a snag, with $118 million on the line

NASA returned to the moon for the first time in more than 50 years on Thursday, with help from Houston-based company Intuitive Machines.

The uncrewed Odysseus lunar lander, built and operated by Intuitive Machines, became the first commercial spacecraft ever to land on the moon on Thursday, when it touched down on the lunar surface at about 6:23 p.m. EST.

But in that very moment, it suddenly stopped communicating with mission controllers. The control room on NASA's livestream looked tense.

You can watch this historic and nail-biting moment in the video below.

Though the lander sent pings to Earth that indicated it was still alive and intact, relieving some of the suspense, mission controllers were still unable to receive data from the lander about its status.

"We're not dead yet," mission director Tim Crain said on NASA's livestream of the landing. "It's faint, but it's there."

Still, Intuitive Machines and NASA declared success, and Crain said all signs pointed to a communications outage — but a live lander.

"What an outstanding effort. I know this was a nail-biter, but we are on the surface and we are transmitting. Welcome to the moon," Stephen Altemus, Intuitive Machines CEO, told the control room.

Earth photographed by the Intuitive Machines' Odysseus moon lander.
Intuitive Machines' Odysseus moon lander beamed back its first images from space earlier this month.Intuitive Machines

The landing helps catapult the US into the 21st-century space race.

The US had fallen behind

Despite being the first to land on the moon in 1969, until now NASA hadn't returned anything to the lunar surface in the 21st century.

the moon bright round blotchy cratered disc in the blackness of space
The moon, as pictured by NASA's Galileo spacecraft.NASA/JPL/USGS

Unlike China, India, and Japan, the US had not put anything on the moon in more than 50 years.

NASA made an attempt in January, collaborating with the company Astrobotic to launch the Peregrine mission to the moon.

But the lander never made it because a faulty valve caused a fuel leak that forced them to call off the mission mid-flight.

Luckily, NASA already had its next attempt lined up.

Through a $118 million contract, the agency sponsored Intuitive Machines to launch its first mission, called IM-1, toward the moon early Thursday.

falcon 9 white and black rocket climbing in the blue sky with bright flame extending below its engines
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches from Cape Canaveral, Florida.Joe Skipper/Reuters

The Nova-C, dubbed Odysseus, is a hexagonal cylinder about 14 feet tall and 5 feet wide. If it is still functional and restores communications, NASA will get a chance to study the lunar surface with the six science instruments it has aboard, including a mini radio telescope test.

The IM-1 mission spacecraft floating in space with Earth in the background.
Intuitive Machines captured this image of the Odysseus moon lander as it flew away from Earth.Intuitive Machines

With a few exceptions, this is NASA's model for future deep-space exploration: contract commercial entities to do the hard engineering, and then hitch a ride with its science.

But this strategy had not yet put anything on the lunar surface for NASA — until Thursday. Still, a lot could have gone wrong and it's not clear what exactly happened.

The moon's graveyard of failed spacecraft is growing

New crater in the moon thought to be site of Luna-25 lander crash.
A new crater on the moon, spotted by a NASA spacecraft, which was likely created by Russia's lunar lander crashing there.NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Arizona State University

Nailing a moon landing is extremely difficult. India only achieved the feat a few years after crashing on its first attempt, and a few days after Russia attempted and crashed.

Japan joined India in the ranks of 21st-century moon-goers in January, but its spacecraft landed upside-down.

moon surface grey rocky slope with yellow space probe balanced on its nose
Imagery from one of its rovers shows the SLIM probe landed at a peculiar angle.JAXA/TAKARA TOMY/Sony Group/Doshisha University/Reuters

Even that was a sort of redemption from a previous failure. Less than a year ago, the Japanese private company ispace tried and failed its own moon landing.

So many spacecraft have crashed on the moon that ispace wasn't even the first non-government enterprise to do it. In 2019, Israeli nonprofit SpaceIL also crashed a spacecraft it was trying to gently lower to the lunar surface.

"Spaceflight is hard. A million things have to go right, and if one thing goes wrong, you can still have a failure," Trent Martin, vice president of space systems at Intuitive Machines, said in a NASA press briefing last month.

"I can't say that we've solved every problem," he added, "but we certainly have looked at, as much as we can, the lessons that we've learned over the last four or five years as various missions have attempted to land on the moon."

Odysseus landed in the moon's coveted south pole region

What's more, NASA and Intuitive Machines aimed closer to the moon's south pole than anyone's ever gotten. The area is coveted real estate as space-faring nations race to establish permanent bases on the moon.

moon astronauts artemis
An artist's illustration depicts NASA astronauts on the moon.NASA via AP

That's because astronauts could launch toward Mars from the surface of the moon — if they can mine the water frozen in permanently shadowed craters around the lunar south pole.

In theory, with that water NASA (or China or Russia) could produce fresh rocket fuel on-site. But lunar territory is first-come first-serve.

Until now, only India had landed in the lunar south pole region.

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