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There's already trouble for the Peregrine moon mission


Early this morning, NASA launched America's first robotic mission to the moon's surface since the Apollo era.



UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We have ignition and liftoff.

SHAPIRO: But a few hours after launch, the mission appeared to be in trouble. NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel is here to talk about what happened. Hey, Geoff.


SHAPIRO: First, what's the latest word on how the mission is going?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. It doesn't appear to be going well, unfortunately. This was a small probe called Peregrine One from a company called Astrobotic out of Pittsburgh. It launched just after 2 a.m. local time from Florida. The spacecraft went up. Its power turned on and made contact with Earth. Everything looked good. Sometime after that, though, something went wrong with the propulsion system. It's not quite clear what it was, but the spacecraft has been losing propellant. According to updates from the company, it's also struggled with power issues, though those might be fixed for the moment. Anyway, power and fuel are the two things you need to fly in space, so this looks like a pretty big problem.

SHAPIRO: Oh, well, what was Peregrine One supposed to have been doing?

BRUMFIEL: Well, I mean, had it worked, this would have been the first American spacecraft to make a soft landing on the moon since the Apollo missions. It was carrying several small NASA experiments and instruments, as well as payloads from the Mexican Space Agency and some private companies. Now, the bigger picture here is NASA wants to send astronauts back to the moon, but it's trying to do it as cheaply as possible. Part of that is subcontracting the smaller jobs to the private sector. Astrobotic is one of several companies that might one day be used by NASA to send supplies and equipment to its astronauts. So basically, think of this as like a trial of lunar FedEx or something.

SHAPIRO: Only less reliable, it sounds like. And this is not the only mission to the moon that's gone poorly lately. Why is it so hard to do something that the U.S. first did decades ago?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah, that's right. A Russian mission crashed on the moon last year. So did a commercial mission from Japan. You know, before all this happened, I spoke to John Thornton, the CEO of Astrobotic, and he told me, when you're dealing with a satellite, that just goes around the Earth. If something goes wrong, you can fix it the next time it goes by. But a lunar mission has to travel from Earth to the moon and then land. These kinds of missions are constantly adjusting and have far less room for error.

JOHN THORNTON: Going down to the surface of the moon, you have minutes or seconds, which is not really a practical time window to solve anything. So it's got to work.

SHAPIRO: And this mission did not work. So what does that say more broadly about NASA's plan to rely on commercial companies to get it to the moon? Is that strategy going to get it into trouble?

BRUMFIEL: You know, this isn't the only mission. In fact, this was a relatively small mission. You might even call it one small step. There's other ones coming from a company called Intuitive Machines next month and more. But you're right. The bottom line is the commercial strategy is cheap, but it carries more risk. And, you know, that could make NASA's lunar ambitions very difficult, especially on a tight budget. We'll just have to see.

SHAPIRO: One small step, one small stumble, perhaps. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. Thank you.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.