Have modern space engineers forgotten the importance of keeping things simple? – Behind The Black – Robert Zimmerman

In the past four years a number of different companies and nations have attempted eight times to soft land an unmanned lander on the Moon. Sadly, the track record of this new wave of lunar exploration, the first since the 1960s space race, has not been good, and might possibly suggest some basic fundamental design errors, based not so much on engineering but on our modern culture and management. To review:

  • April 11, 2019: Beresheet, built by an Israeli non-profit, failed just before touchdown when a command from the Earth caused its engines to shut down prematurely.
  • November 21, 2019: India’s government-built Vikram lander failed just before touchdown when it began to tumble and ground controllers could not regain control.
  • April 25, 2023: Hakuto-R1, built by the commercial Japanese company Ispace, failed just before touchdown when its attitude sensors mistakenly thought it had reached the surface when it was still three miles high and shut down the engines, causing it to crash.
  • August 20, 2023: Luna-25, built by Russia, crashed on the lunar surface when its engines fired for longer than planned when it began its descent, due to quality control errors during construction.
  • August 23, 2023: India’s succeeded on its second landing attempt, its Vikram lander touching down several hundred miles from the Moon’s south pole and successfully releasing its Pragyan rover. Both operated for about two weeks, until the onset of the harsh lunar night.
  • January 8, 2024: Peregrine, built by the private company Astrobotic, experienced a major fuel leak shortly after launch, making a landing attempt on the Moon impossible. It managed to operate in space for several days, reaching the distance of lunar orbit before coming back to Earth and burning up in the atmosphere.
  • January 25, 2024: SLIM, built by Japan’s space agency JAXA, successfully touched down, though it landed on its side because the nozzle on one of its engines fell off during descent, causing an unbalanced thrust. The spacecraft still functioned, and has now even survived one lunar night, something no one expected.
  • February 23, 2024: Odysseus, built by the private company Intuitive Machines, touched down somewhat softly on the Moon near the south pole, but upon landing then fell over on its side, blocking some antennas so that full communications has so far not been possible (though the spacecraft is functionable and in touch with Earth). This issue has meant that no significant data or images from the lander have so far been transmitted to Earth.

Of these eight attempts, only one mission has been entirely successful, India’s second. Of the seven others, five crashed or failed before even reaching the Moon, while two managed to soft land but with significant problems.

Some might attribute this poor track record to the inexperience of the people flying the missions. Israel, India, and Japan had never done this before. Neither had the private U.S. and Japanese companies. Yet this seems an insufficent explanation, because every one one of these entities had access to the earlier technology from the 1960s. Moreover, both the U.S. and Russia have done this before, and the engineers in both countries had ready access to that earlier engineering…..

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