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Vulcan launch: Why is NASA going back to the moon?


A Vulcan rocket launches from Cape Canaveral on 8 January carrying a lander bound for the moon

GREGG NEWTON/AFP via Getty Images

NASA’s first mission to the moon’s surface since the Apollo missions in the 1970s has begun with the launch of a new Vulcan rocket carrying a robotic lander with seven scientific instruments.

The mission, which launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 7:18am GMT (2:18am EST) on 8 January, forms the first part of NASA’s ambitious Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) programme, with six more launches planned for this year.

Unlike previous NASA missions, which were carried out almost entirely in-house, these efforts will be public-private partnerships, aided by space companies. The Vulcan rocket was built by both Lockheed Martin and Boeing as part of the United Launch Alliance (ULA), and the Peregrine lander was built by space robotics company Astrobotic.

The lander will take 46 days to reach the moon, before attempting to land on 23 February. If successful, it will mark the first time a commercial company has landed on the moon.

There are several reasons why NASA has taken decades to return to the moon’s surface, but a lack of government funding is the most significant. After a Cold War spending spree in the 1960s, with NASA receiving a peak of 4 per cent of the total federal budget in 1965, the US government cut back, leaving too little money for further moon missions.

However, private space companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX have now driven down the costs of space launches, which makes it feasible for NASA to plan new lunar missions on a tighter budget.

The successful launch could also increase competition between private space companies. Before SpaceX cornered the launch market, performing a majority of US launches, ULA was the leading force in the US space launch business. Vulcan might help ULA regain its lost market share.

This is particularly important for ULA because it is currently for sale, with potential buyers including Jeff Bezos’s space flight company Blue Origin.

The Peregrine lander’s scientific instruments include water and radiation sensors for the moon’s surface, which will be essential for NASA’s future manned missions in the coming years, as part of the CLPS programme. It is also carrying a 2-kilogram rover designed by students at Carnegie Mellon University and five small robots made by the Mexican Space Agency.

Vulcan is also carrying two payloads that have attracted controversy. A company called Celestis is performing what it calls “memorial spaceflights” with the cremated ashes of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and actors James Doohan and Nichelle Nichols, which are set to be put in orbit around the sun, while another capsule has ashes bound for the moon.

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