Landsman would know. In April, his own lunar mission smashed into pieces on the surface. Like Vikram, the Beresheet lander, built by the Israeli nonprofit group SpaceIL, stopped calling home just before it was supposed to touch down. The only successful attempt this year was made in January, when China landed a spacecraft, with rover included, on the far side of the moon, the face that never turns toward Earth—a world first.
Chandrayaan, Sanskrit for “moon craft,” launched in July, poised to make India only the fourth country to land something on the moon, after the United States, China, and the former Soviet Union. A decade earlier, the Chandrayaan-1 mission delivered an orbiter carrying a probe that was deliberately crashed into the surface as a test run. This time, the orbiter would deploy a lander and rover for a gentle landing. They were bound for the side of the moon that we can see, to a spot near its south pole, a place other spacefaring nations, including the United States, are eyeing for its potentially numerous reservoirs of frozen water—an indispensable resource for a future moon base.
Landing on the moon is certainly easier now than in the 1960s, for many reasons, some rather obvious, such as the strain of technological achievement in software and hardware that created supercomputers small enough to fit into pockets. During the space race, engineers had to figure out how orbital mechanics worked from scratch. And if an agency wanted something for its spacecraft, it probably had to invent the thing first.
Now many accoutrements of a space mission come off the shelf, and buying them is made easier by something else that didn’t exist during the Apollo era: the internet. Landsman says mission teams can shop online for sensors, computers, solar panels, and propulsion systems. Even the rockets are ready-made. “You can go out and buy a launch,” says John Thornton, the CEO of Astrobotic, an American company developing a lunar lander called Peregrine. Astrobotic is paying the United Launch Alliance, a rocket manufacturer, to launch Peregrine in 2021. Beresheet, the Israeli lander, launched on a SpaceX rocket.
Read: An abrupt end to a historic moon mission
Today we know more about what the moon looks like up close, thanks to orbiting spacecraft with high-resolution cameras that provide mission planners detailed photos that they need to carefully select landing sites. A small NASA mission, sent to lunar orbit in 2011, provided data about the gravitational forces around the moon that, Landsman says, every engineer uses now.
But some mysteries persist (such as the provision of funding and political will—another story). The lunar regolith, as fine as powder, is still poorly understood, says Alicia Dwyer Cianciolo, an aerospace engineer at NASA working on the agency’s new plans to send robotic missions to the moon. “I don’t know if we got lucky on the other missions, but we feel like some of the new engine types and the thrust levels that we will have—we really don’t understand how it will stir up the different kinds of regolith in different locations on the moon,” Cianciolo says. Landers could kick up a cloud of dust that blocks sensors from detecting the craters or boulders that a last-minute engine burn might avoid. And the thrust could displace enough lunar matter that the spacecraft lands tilted, a position that could prevent a rover from rolling out safely.