The United States made its long-awaited return to the lunar surface after over 50 years. The private spacecraft Odysseus, operated by Texas-based company Intuitive Machines, completed a 73-minute descent and landed near the moon’s south pole on Thursday.

NASA celebrated the accomplishment as a giant leap forward in space exploration. Although there was no immediate confirmation of the lander’s status, the craft reached its planned landing site at crater Malapert A. Later, Intuitive Machines confirmed that Odysseus was upright and transmitting data.

Mission managers are currently working on downlinking the first images from the lunar surface. Thursday’s soft landing had an 80% chance of success, according to the founder of Intuitive Machines, Steve Altemus.

This marks the first time a US-built spacecraft has landed on the moon since NASA’s last crewed visit with the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972. It also stands as the inaugural visit by a commercial vehicle following the recent failure of Peregrine One, another NASA-private company partnership with Astrobotic.

NASA administrator Bill Nelson emphasised the historical significance, noting that the US has returned to the moon for the first time in over half a century, and it’s the first time a commercial American company led the lunar voyage in the history of humanity.

The 14ft hexagonal, six-legged Nova-C lander, affectionately nicknamed Odie, is part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative to support the Artemis program. NASA contributed $118m, and Intuitive Machines funded an additional $130m.

The landing site, near the moon’s south pole, is believed to be rich in frozen water, essential for sustaining a permanent lunar base and future human missions to Mars. Despite being a hazardous area with many craters, it was chosen for its potential abundance of frozen water. Scientists believe that tiny glass beads on the moon’s surface may contain “billions of tonnes of water” to be extracted and used in future missions.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson justified the efforts, stating that finding water is crucial because it can be converted into rocket fuel, envisioning the possibility of a gas station on the moon’s south pole.

The solar-powered Odysseus lander has a planned operational life of seven days. During this time, NASA aims to analyse how the lunar soil reacts to the impact of the landing. Other scientific instruments on Odysseus will study space weather effects on the lunar surface, and a network of markers for communication and navigation will be deployed.

NASA’s Artemis programme, focused on returning to the moon, is part of a broader vision that includes crewed missions to Mars within the next two decades. The programme aims to keep the US ahead of Russia and China, both planning their human lunar landings.

Other countries, including Russia, China, India, and Japan (with its Smart Lander for Investigating the Moon – Slim), have successfully placed uncrewed spacecraft on the moon. Intuitive Machines has two more launches scheduled for later in the year, involving an ice drill to extract ingredients for rocket fuel and another Nova-C lander containing a small NASA rover and four small robots for surface exploration.