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The Space Game.
by Joanna Thompson.
This post was written by our science editor, Joanna Thompson. She’s written for many of the top science and technology publications, including Quanta Magazine, Scientific American and MIT Technology Review. As long-time subscribers know, News Items has long been interested in space and space travel. Joanna’s piece is about landing on the moon.
On April 25, 2023, a jacuzzi-sized spacecraft began its final descent towards the surface of the moon. Across the globe, thousands of spectators watched with bated breath as the Hakuto-R lander made its way out of orbit and decelerated toward a region called Lacus Somniorum, or the “Lake of Dreams.” If successful, it would become the first commercial spacecraft to land on the lunar surface.
But an hour before the craft’s scheduled landing, something went wrong. Ground control unexpectedly lost contact with the probe; a horrible silence descended over the live feed. After a few tense minutes, it became clear that the mission had crashed — a result that the space industry euphemistically calls a “hard landing”.
Hakuto-R wasn’t the first moon lander to meet this fate in recent years. In 2019, a probe launched by a private Israeli company crash landed on the moon, potentially spilling a bunch of microscopic organisms called tardigrades on the lunar surface. And later that same year, an Indian craft plowed into the moon’s south polar region after suffering a software glitch.
For many outside the space industry, these failures might seem odd. After all, NASA put people on the moon in the 60s; shouldn’t we have this figured out by now?
Launching an un-crewed probe from Earth and landing it on the moon is mindbogglingly difficult. First, the craft has to have the right aerodynamics and enough thrust to punch through our planet’s atmosphere without blowing up. It must traverse roughly 384,000 miles of vacuum just to reach lunar orbit. Finally, it has to perform a series of complicated remote-control maneuvers as it descends, all without losing power or running out of fuel. And since the moon has virtually no atmosphere, there is no natural friction to slow the probe down.
“It’s not a trivial maneuver,” says Jack Singal, a physicist at the University of Richmond who has collaborated with NASA. So how were agencies like NASA and the Soviet Space Program able to pull off such a complex feat using 1960s technology? They started with absurd amounts of money.
Even billionaire-backed companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin can’t compete with the raw amount of funding that space race-era government agencies wielded. “At one point in the 60s, NASA was 9% of the federal budget,” Singal says. Between 1964-1969, the agency spent $25 billion on the Apollo program alone, equivalent to over $230 billion in today’s money. “That’s just orders of magnitude more in terms of resources than these companies are able to bring to the problem.”
Bigger budgets meant that NASA and the Soviet Space Program were able to hire personnel to double, triple, and quadruple-check every calculation. They didn’t have to worry about cost-saving measures when it came to equipment; they could afford to splurge on top-of-the-line everything. And they were hyper-aware of public perception — high-profile failures would make the public question how much money their government was willing to funnel into the vacuum of space (an issue that still comes up today, despite the fact that NASA’s share of the federal budget is a fraction of what it once was).
Many young, upstart space startups, on the other hand, were founded on the “fail fast, fail often” ethos that has become ubiquitous in tech hubs like Silicon Valley. These companies know how to scrap and budget with just a few billion dollars, as opposed to virtually limitless government funds. Their primary strength is their agility, flexibility, and lack of red tape, which allows for iterative innovation on a fraction of NASA’s timeline. But it also means that they’re more likely to see hard landings.
Another factor, according to Singal, is that modern moon missions tend to have more complex objectives than those carried out in the 1960s and 70s. During the space race, the US and Soviet Union’s primary objective was just to put something on the moon. The Soviet Luna 9 capsule, the first craft to successfully “soft land” on the moon in 1966, was essentially a glorified geiger counter. NASA’s answer to Luna, Surveyor 1, which landed a few months later, lacked scientific instruments completely.
But that’s not enough for today’s space companies. The Hakuto-R mission, for example, had multiple delicate cameras and two lunar rovers — including the United Arab Emirates’ first rover — aboard. It spent a full month in orbit around the moon, taking photos and collecting scientific data, before beginning its fateful descent. That extra time and equipment made for a slimmer margin of error when it came to calculating fuel and maneuvering to the surface.
Hakuto-R is unlikely to be the last moon mission this decade that ends in sudden radio silence. There are a staggering number of moon missions currently scheduled for launch in the next ten years, including a second moon landing attempt by ispace, the company behind Hakuto-R. Some are purely private ventures; a few are government-backed, and several, like NASA's Artemis program, which aims to return humans to the moon by 2024, are a hybrid. But how successful these endeavors will be is anyone’s guess.
Statistically, some number of those endeavors will fail. But others will almost certainly succeed, ushering in a new age of commercial space exploration. “It’s definitely an interesting time to be in the space game,” says Singal.