Credit: SpaceNews illustration by Robin McDowall

Moments after Vikram, the lander for India’s Chandrayaan-3 mission, touched down on the surface of the moon, it disappeared.

The lander, physically, was still on the surface of the moon. In the moments leading up to the landing it was the center of attention, as the Indian space agency ISRO offered a live broadcast of its final descent. The lander returned a steady stream of images on its approach to the cratered surface as commentators updated the spacecraft’s altitude and velocity.

On Aug. 30, a week after the Chandrayaan-3 landing, ISRO released a photo of the Vikram lander taken by the Pragyan rover it delivered to the lunar surface.

Those who expected an immediate post-landing image, though, were disappointed. After a moment of celebration in mission control, ISRO leaders took the podium. They immediately handed the ceremony over to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who watched the landing while in South Africa for a summit meeting.

“From today onwards, the myths associated with the moon will change, narratives will change, and even proverbs for the new generation will change,” Modi said in his remarks. The live broadcast soon ended with no other information about the status of the lander, all but forgotten in the celebration of the landing.

ISRO offered few updates about the progress of the Vikram lander and Pragyan, a six-wheel rover. In the days after landing, the agency released only a handful of images and other information about the spacecraft through social media, confirming they were working well but little else. By one week after landing, halfway into a mission limited by the two-week lunar day, ISRO published some initial scientific results, like the composition of the surface.

The limited scientific output did little to distract from the celebration of the success of the landing, nearly four years after Chandrayaan-2 crashed on India’s first lunar lander mission. Modi, in a visit to ISRO headquarters three days after landing, declared that Aug. 23 would henceforth be celebrated as National Space Day in India and named the landing site Shiv Shakti, from Hindu mythology.

The success of Chandrayaan-3 may help not just India’s future lunar exploration plans — it is working with Japan for a lunar rover mission called LUPEX slated for the mid-2020s — but also its other space efforts, like the Gaganyaan human spaceflight program.

“The celebration and support that India’s general population offered for India’s moon mission landing means a mission like Gaganyaan, where India will build its indigenous capacity to send humans to LEO, will have societal support,” said Namrata Goswami, a professor at Arizona State University’s Thunderbird School of Global Management who studies India’s space program.

It also offers soft power advantages for India. “Modi can now showcase India as a space power that can offer its space capabilities and know-how, built on a frugal budget, as a model to nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America,” she said. “Other nations would see India as a partner of choice as they aim to build their own space ecosystem on a limited budget.”

Luna-25 readied for shipping to launch site.

Luna-25 “ceased to exist”

The success of Chandrayaan-3 was celebrated just days after the failure of another mission. Russia launched Luna-25 on Aug. 10 on a Soyuz rocket toward the moon. The Russian space agency Roscosmos reported no problems with the mission as it entered orbit five days after launch, in preparation for a landing in the south polar region of the moon on Aug. 21.

However, when the spacecraft performed a final “pre-landing” maneuver Aug. 19, something went wrong. A statement by Roscosmos said only that “an emergency situation” occurred on the spacecraft during the maneuver, intended to lower its orbit to prepare for the landing.

Early Aug. 20, Roscosmos provided an update. There was a malfunction during the maneuver, Roscosmos concluded, and the spacecraft “ceased to exist as a result of a collision with the lunar surface.”

Yuri Borisov, director general of Roscosmos, told a state-run TV network Aug. 21 that Luna-25 was supposed to fire its engine during that maneuver for 84 seconds. Instead, it fired for 127 seconds, putting it on a trajectory to hit the moon. He didn’t explain why the thruster fired longer than planned.

Luna-25 was supposed to mark the beginning of a new era of Russian lunar exploration after a hiatus of nearly half a century: Luna-24, a sample return mission, went to the moon in 1976. The failure, though, raised new questions about Russia’s overall space program and whether it has the resources and expertise to carry out any future lunar missions.

The line between failure and success

Luna-25 is hardly the first lunar lander mission to fail. Spaceflight expert Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics has identified 53 missions that have attempted to land on the moon, from Chandrayaan-3 all the way back to NASA’s Ranger 3 in 1962, a spacecraft that carried a small instrument capsule designed to survive impact. Instead, it missed the moon entirely.

In fact, the first 14 lunar lander missions failed, sometimes crashing on the moon and other times lost in a launch accident. Overall, 23 of those 53 missions made it to the surface intact, a success rate of just 43%.

Those missions took place in two distinct eras. The first, from 1962 to 1976, featured missions by the United States and former Soviet Union, including six Apollo crewed landings. A second, more diverse, era started with China’s first landing, Chang’e-3, in 2013, and has included missions by India, Israel, Japan and Russia. Remarkably, both eras have nearly identical success rates: 19 of 44 (43%) in the first and 4 of 9 (44%) in the second.

One of the five recent missions that failed was HAKUTO-R M1, the first lander mission from Japanese company ispace. That lander crashed while on its final approach to the lunar surface April 25 when its software was confused by changing readings from a laser altimeter as it passed over a crater rim. The software concluded it was on the surface when it was still five kilometers above it, going into freefall and crashing.

Ryo Ujiie, chief technology officer of ispace, said the company may not have fully tested the effect of a change in landing sites on the lander’s software. He defended the change, though, because it met the needs of ispace’s customers. “This is a payload transportation business, and we need to maximize the payload service.”

HAKUTO-R M1 nonetheless marked an important transition for lunar lander missions. Before it, nearly every lander mission was built and operated by government agencies (Beresheet, the spacecraft by Israeli organization SpaceIL that crashed trying to land in April 2019, was privately developed, but relied on a philanthropic, not commercial, funding model.) Over the next several years, though, many of the lander missions will be commercial, with varying degrees of government support.

Most of those private landers will be part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, where NASA purchases payload space on landers owned and operated by companies. The first CLPS missions, selected by NASA in 2019, are now finally ready for launch. Intuitive Machines announced Aug. 14 that its IM-1 mission was scheduled for launch Nov. 15 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 from the Kennedy Space Center at the start of a six-day launch window.

The IM-1 Nova-C assembly in March.

“Our IM-1 lander is complete and will be prepared for delivery in September,” said Steve Altemus, chief executive of Intuitive Machines. The company has a backup window in December.

Astrobotic Technologies is also ready for its first lander mission. Its Peregrine lander is complete and waiting on its launch vehicle, United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur, whose first flight has been delayed by issues with its upper stage.

“We’re just waiting for them to give us the green light to ship,” said John Thornton, chief executive of Astrobotic. Astrobotic expects to be notified to ship the lander to Cape Canaveral for pre-launch processing about six to eight weeks before the launch.

At an Aug. 29 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s science committee, Sandra Connelly, deputy associate administrator for science at the agency, said Peregrine was currently slated for launch in mid-December, with backup windows in January and February.

From the start of CLPS more than five years ago, NASA emphasized the risk associated with them, a strategy dubbed “shots on goal” by agency leadership at the time. Just as not every soccer ball makes it into the back of the net, neither would every lunar lander make it safely to the surface.

Recent lander failures have highlighted those risks. “We do expect roughly a 50% success rate,” Connelly said of CLPS missions. “If we have a failure, it’s not the end of the world.”

Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander in May

Connelly suggested NASA was not taking a binary approach to measuring the success of a CLPS mission. “Just being able to successfully launch and get to the moon is probably one achievement,” she said. “Being able to start the descent, whether successful or not, demonstrates capabilities and technological advances.” Still, the biggest metric of success would be a soft landing and successful operation of its payloads, she added.

Among those who reject a binary approach to lunar landing success is Takeshi Hakamada, chief executive of ispace. “People say this is a landing or not, zero or one,” he said after the HAKUTO-R M1 crash, an assessment he disagreed with.

He argued that the lander achieved 8 of 10 milestones, from pre-launch preparations through maneuvers in lunar orbit, achievements the company plans to build upon for future missions. “We are very proud of what we have accomplished so far,” he said. “We are prepared to face challenges and make every effort to improve.”

The second ispace lander mission, HAKUTO-R M2, is scheduled for launch in 2024. “I believe we can be successful in the next challenge,” said Ujiie.

This article first appeared in the September 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...