A new era of commercial missions to the moon launched today as NASA gambles on a ride on an untested private lunar lander – alongside human remains and a marketing stunt by a sports drink manufacturer.
Peregrine Mission-1 is the first US spacecraft with the aim of landing on the moon since Apollo 17 in 1972.
But the robotic lander, which is the size of a garden shed, is under the control of the American company Astrobotic.
NASA has paid the start-up just $108m for five scientific instruments to be carried to the moon, a fraction of the cost of launching its own mission.
Chris Culbert, who heads NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) programme, said the first flight will kickstart more frequent and cost-effective private trips to the moon’s surface.
“Landing on the moon is extremely difficult and success cannot be assured,” he said. “But these companies are technically rigorous and very business savvy. They are resourceful and driven.”
John Thornton, the head of Astrobotic, thanked NASA for “rolling the dice for commercial”.
The mission is on a tight budget.
To cut costs Peregrine blasted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida on the first test flight of the Vulcan Centaur rocket, built by United Launch Alliance.