SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket Will Launch Private Moon Lander in 2021

Artist's illustration of Intuitive Machines' Nova-C lunar lander on the moon.
Artist's illustration of Intuitive Machines' Nova-C lunar lander on the moon. (Image credit: Intuitive Machines)

A private lunar lander now has a rocket ride for its first moon mission.

The robotic Nova-C lander, built by Houston-based Intuitive Machines, will launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on a NASA-sponsored flight in 2021, representatives of both companies announced today (Oct. 2). 

"We're honored that Intuitive Machines selected Falcon 9, SpaceX’s tried-and-true workhorse, for this pioneering mission to the moon," SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said in a statement. "Our partnership with Intuitive Machines is a great example of two private companies working together with NASA to advance space exploration."

Related: NASA's Full Plate of Moon Missions Before Astronauts Can Go

In May of this year, NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program tapped Intuitive Machines and two other companies, Orbit Beyond and Astrobotic, to build landers to take agency payloads to the lunar surface. Intuitive Machines got $77 million, Astrobotic received $79.5 million, and Orbit Beyond netted $97 million.

NASA sees these deals as providing cost-effective ways to learn more about the moon and demonstrate technologies that could help people explore Earth's nearest neighbor. These are key near-term priorities for the space agency, which plans to put two astronauts down near the lunar south pole by 2024 and build up a sustainable human presence on and around the moon by 2028, all as part of an ambitious program known as Artemis.

Nova-C can carry at least 220 lbs. (100 kilograms) of cargo to any spot on the lunar surface, Intuitive Machines representatives said. On the upcoming mission, which is targeted for liftoff in July 2021, the lander will tote five NASA CLPS payloads and will beam data home for 13.5 Earth days. 

The company will add some payloads from other customers to fill out the Nova-C's cargo manifest, Intuitive Machines representatives said.

Astrobotic plans to launch its Peregrine lander at about the same time that Nova-C takes flight for the first time. But Peregrine will fly on a different rocket, United Launch Alliance's Vulcan Centaur, which is still in development. The 2021 Peregrine mission will be the first for both the lander and its launch vehicle.

New Jersey-based Orbit Beyond had been planning to launch its Z-01 lander in September 2020. But in July, NASA announced that the company had backed out of its CLPS deal because it would not be able to meet the ambitious timeline.

Mike Wall's book about the search for alien life, "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), is out now. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.