SpaceX launches 'Odysseus' lunar lander, aiming for historic US moon mission

The U.S. has not returned to the moon’s surface since the Apollo program ended more than 50 years ago, and if all goes well, NASA and SpaceX are hoping for a successful moon landing next week.

SpaceX’s Falcon rocket on Thursday blasted off in the middle of the night from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The "Odysseus" lunar lander, developed by Houston-based company Intuitive Machines, was dispatched with it to the moon, some 230,000 miles away. 

If all goes well, a touchdown attempt would occur Feb. 22, after a day in lunar orbit. 

NASA, the main sponsor with experiments on board, is hoping for a successful moon landing as it seeks to jumpstart the lunar economy ahead of astronaut missions.

Only five countries — the U.S., Russia, China, India and Japan — have completed a lunar landing and no private business has yet done so. 

RELATED: Japan's SLIM moon lander hit its target, but it appears to be upside-down

"There have been a lot of sleepless nights getting ready for this," Intuitive Machines’ co-founder and chief executive Steve Altemus said before the flight.

Where ‘Odysseus’ will touch down and what’s on board

Intuitive Machines aims to put its 14-foot tall, six-legged lander down just 186 miles shy of the moon’s south pole, equivalent to landing within Antarctica on Earth. 

This region is full of treacherous craters and cliffs, yet potentially rich with frozen water. It’s also where NASA plans to land astronauts later this decade. The space agency said its six navigation and tech experiments on the lander can help smooth the way.

Intuitive Machines nicknamed its lander after Homer's hero in "The Odyssey."

"Godspeed, Odysseus. Now let’s go make history," said Trent Martin, vice president of space systems.

NASA is paying Intuitive Machines $118 million to get its latest set of experiments to the moon. The company also drummed up its own customers, including Columbia Sportswear, which is testing a metallic jacket fabric as a thermal insulator on the lander, and sculptor Jeff Koons, who is sending up 125 inch-sized moon figurines in a see-through cube.

The lander also is carrying Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Eaglecam, which will snap pictures of the lander as they both descend.

The spacecraft will cease operations after a week on the surface.

Previous lunar lander attempts

NASA’s first entry in its commercial lunar delivery service stumbled shortly after liftoff in early January. A ruptured fuel tank and massive leak caused the spacecraft to bypass the moon and come tearing back through the atmosphere 10 days after launching, breaking apart and burning up over the Pacific.

Others made it to the moon before wrecking.

An Israeli nonprofit’s lander crashed in 2019. Last year, a Tokyo company saw its lander smash into the moon followed by Russia's crash landing.

Only the U.S. has sent astronauts to the moon with Apollo 17’s Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt closing out the program in December 1972. That was it for U.S. moon landings until Astrobotic's short-lived try last month.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. It was reported from Cincinnati.