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Leftover Apollo flag landed on moon with Intuitive Machines' lander

February 28, 2024

— Newly-released images from the moment that a privately-built and operated spacecraft landed on the moon show the 52-year legacy that it carried to the lunar surface.

Intuitive Machines on Wednesday (Feb. 28) shared the dramatic photos of its Nova-C lander "Odysseus" touching down on the moon on Feb. 22. Due to a failed laser altimeter, the spacecraft made its final decent without knowing how high off (or close) to the lunar surface it was, resulting in it hitting the ground hard and breaking off at least one of its six landing legs, all while its engine continued to fire.

"We sat there upright with the engine firing for a period of time. And then as it wound down, the vehicle just gently tipped over," said Steve Altemus, chief executive officer and co-founder of Intuitive Machines, during a press conference at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. "We showed that it took about two seconds [to tip over] and we landed on a 12 degree slope, and then that 12 degree slope compounded with a helium tank or a radio shelf underneath put us at an angle that is approximately 30 degrees off the surface."

"We now have a photo to confirm that's the orientation," said Altemus.

In one of the other photos released on Wednesday, the lander is seen on the surface, its engine firing and kicking up dust, with a broken leg clearly visible.

"There's a little image in the center of the white patch on this [photo]. That is an American flag," said Altemus. "I want to highlight that that American flag was a donation by NASA and it's from 1970 and the Apollo program. It was a certified piece of flight hardware."

Before Odysseus (or "Odie" for short) touched down, the United States last landed on the moon during the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972. The agency had planned additional flights to send astronauts to the lunar surface, but budget cuts resulted in those missions being canceled,

The small American flag now attached to Odysseus was originally prepared to fly on either Apollo 18, Apollo 19 or Apollo 20. As those missions never launched, the U.S. flag remained on Earth for the last half a century.

"We took that American flag and we proudly put it on Odysseus and carried it to the moon — like it should have been done 52 years ago," said Altemus.

Despite the flag now "flying" at a 30 degree angle as a result of the lander tipping over, it still stands as a testament to the IM-1 mission. All of the instruments flown on Odysseus, whether commercially-booked or delivered for NASA as part of the agency's Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) effort have communicated and sent back data to Earth.

"Our very high level mission objectives were to touchdown on the surface of the moon softly and safely and return scientific data to our customers. Both of those objectives were met so in our mind, this is an unqualified success," said Altemus.

Wednesday's image release and media briefing came about five hours before Odysseus was expected to run out of battery power and cease operating. Laying on its side, the lander was not in an ideal orientation to use all of its solar panels, but even if it was, it would only extend the IM-1 mission a few more days. When the Sun sets on the moon, Odysseus' batteries face being damaged by the cold.

"We will see if we can wake it up here when we get the solar noon in about three weeks," said Altemus, noting it is a slim chance.

Whether or not it awakes again, Odysseus has made history at its landing site near the moon's south pole. Asked by collectSPACE if the team at Intuitive Machines had chosen a name for the company's first lunar landing site, Altemus said no, but that it was a "good idea."

"I think we we need to think about that," he said. "I want to start a competition for that. Anybody have any suggestions?"


New images released by Intuitive Machines show the point when its Odysseus lander touched down on the moon carrying in part a U.S. flag left over from Apollo (inset). (Intuitive Machines/collectSPACE)

Photo showing Intuitive Machines' IM-1 Nova-C "Odysseus" lander at a 30 degree tilt on the surface of the moon. (Intuitive Machines)

A United States flag mounted to a sign on Intuitive Machines' Nova-C "Odysseus" lander is now on the moon after having originally been prepared to fly on a canceled Apollo mission more than 50 years ago. (collectSPACE)

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