Intuitive Machines’ Odysseus lunar lander on display at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center
(Credit: NASA/ Public Domain)

A week after launching aboard a SpaceX rocket, the uncrewed Odysseus spacecraft gently landed near the Moon's south pole at 6:32 pm ET on February 22, 2024. The 14-foot-tall (4.3 meters) lander was developed and flown by Texas-based Intuitive Machines. It is the first privately-built spacecraft to make a moon landing. More significantly, Odysseus is the first American lander to successfully touch down on the lunar surface since Apollo 17 in December 1972.

"Today, for the first time in half a century, the US has returned to the Moon," said NASA administrator Bill Nelson.

Odysseus began transmitting images of the lunar surface shortly after landing (Credit: Intuitive Machines/ CC-BY-SA-2.0)

The landing was preceded by some nail-biting minutes. During the final descent, the mission control team suddenly lost contact with Odysseus, leading to fears that it had been damaged. After a tense 15 minutes, the scientists finally received a weak signal confirming that the space vehicle had landed on the Moon.

"What we can confirm without a doubt is, our equipment is on the surface of the moon, and we are transmitting," announced mission director Tim Crain. "Odysseus has found his new home."

Two hours after the landing, Intuitive Machines reported that Odysseus had landed in an upright position and was already starting to send data.

The company's CEO uses a model of the Odysseus Moon lander to illustrate how the spacecraft likely tipped over during touchdown (Credit: Intuitive Machines/ CC-BY-SA-2.0)

However, 24 hours later, the company said the spacecraft had fallen during the landing and was resting on its side. But it remained optimistic that Odysseus would complete its seven-day-long mission.

"[Odysseus] caught a foot in the surface, and the lander has tipped," said company CEO Steve Altemus. "So far, we have quite a bit of operational capability even though we're tipped over."

But on February 26, 2024, the company issued another update stating that Odysseus would only be able to collect data while the Sun was still shining on the solar panels. Based on the position of Earth and the Moon, they anticipate the lander to cease operations by the morning of February 27, 2024.

That is a few days short of what NASA officials had been hoping for. However, they still consider the mission a resounding success. It validates the agency's approach to contracting commercial companies to design, build, and operate lunar lander missions.