Few literary characters rise to a level of timelessness in which their stories survive millennia. Still, fewer characters see their names become eponyms folded into multiple languages. One such gargantuan of the page is Homer’s Odysseus. If you’re into the Romans or the Irish, you might know him better as Ulysses.

Though the champion and advisor features prominently in The Iliad, he is best known for his journey home from the Trojan War during the sequel that bears his name. The tale is so epic – literally; it’s epic poetry by definition – that we now use the word to describe any outrageous, large-scale excursion: Odyssey. The story is so grandiose that Homer couldn’t complete the trilogy, dropping the mikrófono. Not until the Latin age did another author attempt to continue the trifecta. Though the Aeneid packs adventure, even it cannot replicate the Homeric heights of the Odyssey.

Odysseus needs a decade to travel approximately 550 miles from Troy to his home in Ithaca. While this pace might seem glacial, he encounters a few snags along the way, including a host of monsters, a shipwreck, and a love affair with a witch-goddess. The guy is so gnarly after 10 years of tribulation that only his dog and a nurse recognize him when he gets home. Bill and Ted would certainly deem his voyage excellent.

Ever since, we’ve tagged far-flung treks with his name. This naming convention even moved from Earth to space. The Command Module for the doomed Apollo 13 mission bore the moniker Odyssey. In 2001, NASA dubbed a craft orbiting Mars after the champion. And, in 2024, another historic celestial expedition joined the long tradition.

A statue head of Odysseus, looking to the sky in amazement
The face of Odysseus after another hiccup on the sea - photo by Jastrow

Inexplicably, the United States had not been to the moon since Apollo 17’s mission in December 1972. After the incredible achievements of the space race in the 1960s, we spent more than half a century diverting our attention to other goals. While fantastic science and discovery littered the past 50 years, the oversight of the moon is inexcusable. Finally, the United States sent another craft to our satellite, albeit without humans.

To be fair, going to the moon is not easy, especially if the entity leading the charge is not NASA. Only a handful of national programs have successfully sent metal crafts there. A month before February 2024’s triumph by a company called Intuitive Machines, another corporation failed in the attempt to win the 21st century’s version of the space race. Still, if we could send humans to walk on the moon with the technology of the late 60s, we should have the capability to visit today.

As of 22 February 2024, we can once again count ourselves as an active lunar nation.

The logo for the first Intuitive Machines mission to the moon

Intuitive Machines sent a lander named Odysseus. They mixed their metaphors a bit, dispatching the excursion under the motto Adtigo Planitia Lunae. The phrase, translated from Latin, means something akin to “I will reach the plains of the moon” or, perhaps more brazenly, “stick the [moon] landing.” Odysseus would no doubt appreciate such a declaration, but he probably wouldn’t recognize the non-Greek wording.

The exact translation of this motto would become apropos to the rest of this odyssey.

Odysseus launched a week earlier, on 15 February. Despite our visits to the moon during the Apollo program, the main gist of IM-1 was exploratory. First, could a private company deliver a probe sturdy enough to land and survive on the moon? Further, the water (in the form of ice) race is fully on. Enough exists under the surface to fuel future exploration of our satellite and beyond. Odysseus came equipped with scientific payloads from NASA, hoping to garner vital info on the water situation and the geography of the moon’s south pole.

Odysseus before launch - photo by NASA/Intuitive Machines

To many space watchers, the most exciting part about this mission revolved around the potential footage of the landing. As Odysseus “glided” toward the surface, a drone was supposed to detach to film the descent. This third-person viewpoint would be unique in human history.

As the craft orbited the moon and prepared for touchdown, the world waited for successful confirmation. As minutes passed beyond the prepared moment, crews waited for information from Odysseus. For a seeming eternity, all that returned was silence. This lack did not bode well for the mission.

Ultimately, a signal from the lander did indicate a triumphant journey! Odysseus became the first private craft to land on the moon.

All was not well, however. The company, at first, indicated the craft had landed properly. Later signals indicate Odysseus fell over when it touched the moon, ending up on its side. Fortunately, the solar panels and scientific implements seem to be in working order, meaning the mission can continue.

A shot of the surface of the moon with features marked with letters.
The landing site - Malapert A - of Odysseus - photo by NASA

As of the publication date of this article, footage of the landing has not been released to the public. Whether the recording transpired is not currently known. A massive buzzkill.

This mission marks, perhaps, a new era in spacefaring, which is certainly exciting. However, the scope of this particular journey might leave the enterprising fan a bit lacking. Odysseus would scoff at the length of this odyssey. Powered by solar panels, IM-1 was designed to function for approximately one week. After that time, the spot near the South Pole will enter nearly a month of darkness. Instead of hoping to repower with new sunny juice, Odysseus will permanently go to sleep. With Mars missions lasting years or decades, this timeframe certainly isn’t ideal.

What this craft lacks in longevity, it seems to be making up for with the perils its journey brings. The difficulty of a lunar trip would probably seem familiar to Homer’s character. Certainly, Odysseus would not allow a non-upright landing to keep him from continuing the mission. Hopefully, today’s version of his name will manage to persevere. 

And, if we’re lucky, we might get some out-of-this-world video to watch soon.

Intuitive Machines might want to reconsider their slogan, though. The intergalactic judges give poor marks for not sticking the landing.

Intuitive Machines-1 Lunar Landing (Official NASA Broadcast)

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