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Have modern space engineers forgotten the importance of keeping things simple?

SLIM on its side
The Japanese lander SLIM, on its side.
Click for original image.

In the past four years a number of different companies and nations have attempted eight times to soft land an unmanned lander on the Moon. Sadly, the track record of this new wave of lunar exploration, the first since the 1960s space race, has not been good, and might possibly suggest some basic fundamental design errors, based not so much on engineering but on our modern culture and management. To review:

  • April 11, 2019: Beresheet, built by an Israeli non-profit, failed just before touchdown when a command from the Earth caused its engines to shut down prematurely.
  • November 21, 2019: India’s government-built Vikram lander failed just before touchdown when it began to tumble and ground controllers could not regain control.
  • April 25, 2023: Hakuto-R1, built by the commercial Japanese company Ispace, failed just before touchdown when its attitude sensors mistakenly thought it had reached the surface when it was still three miles high and shut down the engines, causing it to crash.
  • August 20, 2023: Luna-25, built by Russia, crashed on the lunar surface when its engines fired for longer than planned when it began its descent, due to quality control errors during construction.
  • August 23, 2023: India’s succeeded on its second landing attempt, its Vikram lander touching down several hundred miles from the Moon’s south pole and successfully releasing its Pragyan rover. Both operated for about two weeks, until the onset of the harsh lunar night.
  • January 8, 2024: Peregrine, built by the private company Astrobotic, experienced a major fuel leak shortly after launch, making a landing attempt on the Moon impossible. It managed to operate in space for several days, reaching the distance of lunar orbit before coming back to Earth and burning up in the atmosphere.
  • January 25, 2024: SLIM, built by Japan’s space agency JAXA, successfully touched down, though it landed on its side because the nozzle on one of its engines fell off during descent, causing an unbalanced thrust. The spacecraft still functioned, and has now even survived one lunar night, something no one expected.
  • February 23, 2024: Odysseus, built by the private company Intuitive Machines, touched down somewhat softly on the Moon near the south pole, but upon landing then fell over on its side, blocking some antennas so that full communications has so far not been possible (though the spacecraft is functionable and in touch with Earth). This issue has meant that no significant data or images from the lander have so far been transmitted to Earth.

Of these eight attempts, only one mission has been entirely successful, India’s second. Of the seven others, five crashed or failed before even reaching the Moon, while two managed to soft land but with significant problems.

Some might attribute this poor track record to the inexperience of the people flying the missions. Israel, India, and Japan had never done this before. Neither had the private U.S. and Japanese companies. Yet this seems an insufficent explanation, because every one of these entities had access to the earlier technology from the 1960s. Moreover, both the U.S. and Russia have done this before, and the engineers in both countries had ready access to that earlier engineering.

Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean standing next to Suveyor 3
Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean standing next to Suveyor 3

And that earlier engineering was remarkably successful. In the 1960s no one had ever done this. Computers were primitive. Digital imaging did not exist. And yet, both the United States and the Soviet Union were amazingly successful in putting unmanned landers softly down on the Moon, over a very short period of time.

The Soviets were first in placing a working spacecraft on the Moon’s surface, though they didn’t soft land to do it, and they did it after five failures. On January 31, 1966 Luna 9 hit the Moon inside giant airbags, bouncing a bunch of times until it settled to the surface. The airbags then deflated, allowing the spacecraft inside to transmitt the first pictures from the lunar surface. It functioned for three days.

Four months later the U.S. followed with a much more sophisticated soft landing. Surveyor 1 touched down vertically on June 2, 1966, using retro rocket engines. Designed mostly as an engineering test of that landing, it worked so well that it was able to transmit its first low resolution image only an hour or so after touchdown, and then successfully survived several lunar nights to take more than 11,000 high resolution pictures.

The Soviets than matched Surveyor 1, its Luna 13 spacecraft touching down softly rather than bouncing in December 1966. Though it only operated for a few days until running out of battery power, it operated in a much more sophisicated manner than either of the previous landers, with one instrument designed to hammer the lunar surface to better characterize its density.

The next American missions followed fast and furious, After Surveyor 2 failed during a mid-course correction on its way to the Moon in September 1966, the U.S. followed with Surveyors 3, 5, 6, and 7, the missions taking place within a span of only nine months. (Contact was lost with Surveyor 4 only a few minutes before landing, caused possibly by an explosion of its landing engines.) Each mission was more sophisticated, with Surveyor 3 having a extendable arm with a scoop at its end, Surveyor 5 lasting through two lunar nights, Surveyor 6 refiring its engines to fly eight feet laterally, the first spacecraft to actually travel on the Moon’s surface, and Surveyor 7 landing in rougher terrain near the crater Tycho in order to do more detailed geological research.

All told, that is seven successes out of fourteen attempts. The U.S. track record then was even more impressive, five successes out of seven missions. Every one of these successful missions did their landings autonomously. None had today’s sophisticated computers or laser range-finding equipment. Yet each succeeded in touching down softly and then functioning as planned. And the only failures after Luna 9’s success occurred prior to that landing attempt.

Note also that the American Surveyors were privately built, just like the private landers today, even though this fact is often obscured or forgotten. The private aerospace company Hughes designed and built it for NASA and JPL, which managed the project once each spacecraft was delivered.

Why then has this new generation of lunar landers so far fared so poorly? In reviewing all the missions, I can pinpoint two major issues that appear repeatedly.

First, there does seem to be a quality control problem that spans many nations and companies, sometimes resulting of poor construction and sometimes resulting in some surprising examples of human error. Japan’s SLIM has a nozzle fall off during landing. Peregrine has a major fuel leak shortly after launch. Odsseus’s laser guidance system was unavailable because its engineering team forgot to switch it back on after the payload was installed on the rocket. Beresheet crashed because someone in mission control sent up the wrong command. Hakuto-R1 crashed because its software got confused as to where it was, even though that software had been written and planned for that specific landing site. Luna-25 crashed because of bad design in construction.

Second, the designs and missions appear to be more complicated then a first engineering attempt should be. The availability of sophisticated computers and new laser guidance systems encouraged many of these companies and nations to attempt pinpoint landings, in rough terrain. While we must applaud their daring, that daring made success far more difficult on a first mission.

The addition of this new technology also made each spacecraft more complex and thus more prone to failure. The Surveyors and Russian Luna craft did not have fancy software or precise laser range finders, and yet they landed as planned. It appears that depending on this new technology, as sophisticated and precise as it is, adds an extra layer of complexity that is difficult to get exactly right and can also easily fail.

We are becoming stupid because we depend
on technology so much: “But Brawndo’s got
what plants crave. It’s got electrolytes!”

What’s the answer? I have only one suggestion, that I fully expect everyone in the space business (and everywhere else) to ignore. It begins with that old adage: “Keep it simple, stupid!” Society today seems fixated with worshiping at the altar of new technology, as if it is guaranteed to always make things better. Use AI to do your thinking! Use Smart phones for all your communications! Let software correct your grammar! This tendency has even had people buy light bulbs that need to be connected to the internet to work.

The truth is that all of this new technology carries problems, many of which actually make it more difficult to get things done. For example, if stores lose their internet connection most can no longer sell anything. No one knows how to collect cash, figure out the change, and track the sales by pen and paper. What was once a relatively simple thing is now very complicated, and easily impossible should just one thing fail.

Moreover, this added complexity and dependence on technology could also be contributing to the quality control problems that appear to be systemic across all of these missions. Too much focus on the technology might mean you pay less attention to the people that have to do the work. Their training is less rigorous, and they themselves appear to get more sloppy, because everyone now seems to think software and sophisticated computers can overcome every problem. They can’t however.

It might be wise for these companies and nations to remember Elon Musk’s motto: “The best part is no part.” If you can do something in a simpler manner, maybe you should try this first, before attempting something far more difficult. You might find the more challenging task easier to achieve, in the long run.

Genesis cover

On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

The ebook is available everywhere for $5.99 (before discount) at amazon, or direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit. If you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and the author gets a bigger cut much sooner.

The audiobook is also available at all these vendors, and is also free with a 30-day trial membership to Audible.

"Not simply about one mission, [Genesis] is also the history of America's quest for the moon... Zimmerman has done a masterful job of tying disparate events together into a solid account of one of America's greatest human triumphs."--San Antonio Express-News


  • F

    Put another way, people seem to be forgetting that it’s not always necessary to get out the vacuum when a simple broom will do the job.

    FYI, suggested correction: Replace “systematic” with “systemic” in the second to last paragraph..

  • Andi

    Minor edit in first picture caption: “on its side”

  • wayne

    great little aphorism!


    Dr. Jordan Peterson
    “Why Do You Curse When Your Computer Crashes?”
    or.. “The correct functioning of your computer depends on the stability of the Sun…”

  • F: Change to “systemic.” I had to do some research to realize the word I chose was incorrect. Thank you.

  • MDN

    I think the antithesis of this is reflected by SpaceX. Elon’s montra that the best part is no part eliminates a lot of failure points. His investment in putting complexity into stage 0 so you don’t unnecessarily lard up and complicate the flight hardware does too, and allows problematic elements to be updated and fixed far more easily. And his drive to develop through a planned cycle of prototype, test, fix, repeat to expose unanticipated problems quickly while grooving both the flight hardware.and software AND the operational team AND supporting infrastructure ensures that the entire SYSTEM matures during development, not just the vehicle.

    IMHO NASA and today’s engineers depend far too much on simulations and modeling and are paranoid of failure. I got a degree in Manufacturing Engineering from Cal Poly where the motto was “Learn by Doing” and my favorite professor taught us the important lesson that “The person who never makes a mistake is someone who never does anything”. Both are words to live by.

  • Surly

    OCD corrections:
    ” Yet this seems an insufficent explanation, because every one one of these entities had access to the earlier technology from the 1960s. ” to
    ” Yet this seems an insufficient explanation, because every one of these entities had access to the earlier technology from the 1960s.”

    “No one knows had to collect cash, figure out the change, and track the sales by pen and paper.” to
    “No one knows how to collect cash, figure out the change, and track the sales by pen and paper.”

    This is just nitpicking on an excellent piece!

  • GeorgeC

    There were vastly more opportunities for kids growing up to take apart things as part of play and getting hands on experience.

  • pawn

    I was watching a bunch of NASA engineers playing basketball. All they ever did was pass the ball around to each other. No one would shoot because they might miss.

  • gbaikie

    “Have modern space engineers forgotten the importance of keeping things simple?”

    If was simpler, it might have launched months sooner [and I hope IM-2 isn’t, now, delayed].
    And failing to removed the safety from lasers changed things, and a big thing is, it caused a lot stress to these guys trying to do it in live broadcast and lack of sleep for the teams was an issue.
    And that they had entertain us, live, is not making it, simple.

  • J Fincannon

    The Surveyors were amazing spacecraft. You said Surveyor 1 survived one lunar night, but it really operated (returned data) for SEVEN lunar days. (See NASA SP-184, Table 1-3). It was not in their requirements to survive this long.

    Surveyor 5 operated 115 hrs into the first lunar night and operated for 215 hrs into the second lunar night. And then a third night. It operated a short time during the fourth lunar day.

    Surveyor 6 and 7 also survived their first 15 Earth day long night to come back to life the next lunar day.

  • Surly. Fixed. Thank you. And it isn’t OCD (or cut and paste). It is my fingers no longer consistently doing what my brain commands. :)

  • wayne

    My Conspiracy Theory on all this:
    We keep paying for and reinventing the wheel, over and over again.

    J Fincannon-
    Good stuff!

    You are on to some thing. I was just talking with a friend about Erector sets, Chemistry sets, Lincoln logs, Trains, etc. Now, everyone is addicted to their tracking device, and they have no idea how it actually works, like’ zero Idea.
    Personally, I highly enjoyed taking things apart as a kid (late 60’s) to see how the Magic happened, although it wasn’t until 1998-ish that I dismantled my 1st computer. (under the theory it was assembled by a 16 year old girl in Asia.) Just be careful dismantling old TV sets with capacitors.

    Putting stuff back together however, you need a skilled craftsman., and that wasn’t me….

  • J Fincannon: I have corrected the Surveyor 1 reference. Thank you. And thanks for the additional info on the other Surveyors.

  • Raoul Ortega

    It was back in the 1970s when I encountered the phrase “To err is human, to really [foul] up requires a computer.” It’s too bad most software developers* these days take that as a challenge.

    * I started programming 50 years ago. I refuse to call myself or my fellow programmers “engineers” as there are still no formal guidelines or requirements on how to do it right the first time. If it passes QA, then ship it!

  • Mad Celt

    Current day engineers may not know which end of a broom to use but they do know how to match their purses to their shoes.

  • J Fincannon

    I think a detailed examination of how they did Surveyor 1 would be helpful in understanding how it did so well and help others design these vehicles. Is it that they were so worried or careful that they made it better than it normally would be? Got the best quality component or hardware for the first one? No sure.

  • Mitch S.

    Hmm… I did some quick googling and find the cost listed for the Beresheet, Odysseus, ISRO and JAXA lander programs is roughly $100 million each. The listed cost for the Surveyor program is $469 million – but that’s mid 1960’s dollars.
    The internet tells me that’s about $4.1 billion in today’s dollars.
    While this is a quick/rough comparison the difference is still quite notable.
    The recent efforts were done on a much tighter budget. They also had a goal beyond putting a Surveyor clone on the moon.
    They want to show they can leverage modern tech to do it less expensively and use the program to educate a new gen of scientists/engineers.

    Look how SpaceX blows things up that aren’t fully sorted out. Sometimes it’s better to take a chance and launch it instead of spending another 10 years raising money and doing testing to be sure it works first time. And SpaceX doesn’t shy away from modern tech and complexity when it suits their purpose. The booster recovery is a complex ballet that didn’t work immediately.

    PS Even with the huge budget it’s still amazing what NASA and partners accomplished in the ’60s. In 1966 they launched Surveyor to figure out how to do a soft landing. Three years later they were putting people in a lander and bringing them back!

  • Mitch S: I agree with you, the budget differences certainly have been a factor. Nonetheless, the number of quality control problems across all these missions is disturbing, as such problems are irrelevant to budget. They instead point to a human sloppiness. They also suggest an over-dependence on software and modern technology that is blinding people to disciplined and careful work.

  • markedup2

    I see your point, but also watch out for the “kids, get off my lawn!” syndrome. People have been complaining about the younger generation since forever.

    Not saying you’re wrong, but kids these days really do not need to know how to use a slide rule.

  • pawn


    The Surveyor program totaled seven spacecraft.

    Launch costs are much lower now too.

    It’s not the budget, it’s the management. IMHO

  • Edward

    MDN noted philosophies of “Learn by Doing” and “The person who never makes a mistake is someone who never does anything.”

    Mitch S. noted: “Look how SpaceX blows things up that aren’t fully sorted out. Sometimes it’s better to take a chance and launch it instead of spending another 10 years raising money and doing testing to be sure it works first time. And SpaceX doesn’t shy away from modern tech and complexity when it suits their purpose. The booster recovery is a complex ballet that didn’t work immediately.

    Robert responded: “Nonetheless, the number of quality control problems across all these missions is disturbing, as such problems are irrelevant to budget. They instead point to a human sloppiness. They also suggest an over-dependence on software and modern technology that is blinding people to disciplined and careful work.

    We should allow our companies and national space programs the same latitude that we gave the U.S. and Soviet space programs, learning by doing, taking a chance because we think we already know what we are doing. Mitch S. also noted that these modern attempts did not cost as much as the early U.S. and Soviet attempts, which means that many of the previous lessons were learned and incorporated.

    We should not be landing the same equipment on the Moon and Mars as had been previously sent, but we should be modernizing our hardware, software, methods, and processes. This means that we can expect a certain amount of early failure, as we had expected with Starship and the reusable boosters from SpaceX and Blue Origin. Both of these companies thought that their tests could succeed, but allowed for the possibility that they missed something in their new designs. New launch vehicles have a long history of failure on their first flights. I really don’t see why we should be less tolerant with other new companies, with their lack of experience and their new designs.

    Quality control is a difficult area. The main function of a quality control department is to ensure that something is built per the design, but it has only slight influence in how correct the design is in the first place. I used to have a quality engineer sign off on my designs, which could help make sure I didn’t miss something simple (and I would get questioned whenever we deviated from design standards, so he was paying attention), but he was not an expert in all the areas of our designs, so he depended upon our knowledge and expertise to assure him that we were doing things right.

    — Beresheet failed due to a bad command from the Earth. Human sloppiness?

    — Vikram failed just before touchdown when it began to tumble, when it is already too late to regain control and rescue the landing. Not human sloppiness? Insufficient testing?

    — Hakuto-R1 failed because a change in landing location was not accompanied by software updates to handle the different terrain features, thus the software became confused and ignored the reality of the terrain. Management sloppiness? Insufficient testing?

    — Luna-25 crashed due to quality control errors during construction. Human sloppiness? “Deficiencies in the development or testing“?

    — Vikram succeeded on its second landing attempt. Similar to U.S. and Soviet attempts to land on the Moon. Huzzah!

    — Peregrine failed due to a valve that failed to properly close. Design issue? Insufficient testing?

    — SLIM lost an engine bell just before landing, complicating the landing at a critical time. It landed soft enough, but ended up orientated wrong. Design issue? Oxidizer ratio issue?

    — Odysseus landed too fast, survived, but ended up sitting on its side. Design (software) issue? Insufficient testing?

    If all we do is Keep It Simple, Stupid, then how are we meant to advance the technology? Can we advance the technology while keeping things simple? Can the new technology help keep it simple? If the tests worked during ground testing, then perhaps we don’t yet understand the extent of testing that we really need for these landings.

    NASA requested its commercial landers to set down in specific areas. It had sent its own landers to safer but less interesting areas. The differences are not just financial, and may not be over dependence on technology, they may be that we are landing in areas that are not as smooth and friendly as our earlier landers but in places that frightened the teams that were sending those earlier landers. I recall a scene from the series “From The Earth To The Moon” in which a team was arguing whether to land an Apollo mission in the safe place or the interesting place. The final argument was to explore the grandeur of the Moon, not just the safe places.

    So, we have a combination of factors working against these landers. They are new and untried, made by inexperienced teams, testing new technologies, and sent to explore the riskier locations. I’m willing to cut some slack on most of these first attempts. Now we will find out if they learn their lessons, like Blue Origin and SpaceX did.

  • Patrick Underwood

    Not complicated. It’s budgets (minuscule fractions of Cold War numbers) and death (of Cold War engineers). There is little continuity between the 1960s slide-rule masters and today’s code warriors. SpaceX had to (somewhat) reinvent the wheel, and modern spacecraft designers do too.

  • Joe

    What drives me crazy with all this is the lack of basic engineering concepts. Low gravity means keeping that center of mass as low as possible. SLIM had the three landing feet directly under the craft. IM-1 had a larger footprint but still nothing close to what it should have to stay upright. Squat, wide landers work well. I guess we trust the computers just little bit too much these days.

  • Joe: SLIM at least had a low wide orientation above those three landing feet. Odysseus seems to be very tall for this purpose, with a relatively high center of gravity. I didn’t notice it before but after this landing it became obvious immediately.

  • Mitch S.

    BTW as Bob Z noted in the original post, two of the seven Surveyors failed. And I read that Surveyor 3 had a malfunction that caused it’s engine not to shut down on time resulting in damage to the lander that was documented by Apollo 12.
    Once Surveyor 1 landed it proved the design was OK, so why did 2 and 4 fail and 3 almost fail? Poor quality control? Sloppiness?

    A prime goal of the Surveyor program was to help NASA and partners design and build a lander to safely put astronauts on the moon.
    Yet if the Apollo 11 LM had been landed autonomously it would have crashed! It succeeded because Armstrong was there to take over and land it by hand.

    Edward said it better than I. My interest in Bob Z’s theory peaked because I’d just been amazed thinking about the end of Ingenuity’s flights and impressed by how it succeeded beyond expectation even though it was developed by a small team with a limited budget. A team that grew up with computers.

  • Edward

    I wrote: “— Odysseus landed too fast, survived, but ended up sitting on its side. Design (software) issue? Insufficient testing?

    Since it probably tipped over due to insufficient altitude data ( ), most likely due to forgetting to remove a cover, I am going to update my questions to: Human sloppiness? Improper closeout procedure?

  • wayne

    here we go… great factoids:

    The Surveyor Program 1966-1968
    Scott Manley (March 6, 2024)

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