This image provided by Intuitive Machines shows its Odysseus lunar...

This image provided by Intuitive Machines shows its Odysseus lunar lander over the near side of the moon following lunar orbit insertion, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024.  Credit: AP

Even admitting all the difficulty we humans have recognizing when something is having a moment, and acknowledging all the times we get it wrong, it sure does seem like space exploration is having a moment.

With rovers and landers on the moon and Mars, the James Webb telescope a million miles away broadcasting surreal images of deep space, and all sorts of plans from a variety of nations and companies in the offing, it certainly appears that a new space age is upon us.

The latest evidence, of course, is the landing on the moon of the American-built spacecraft known as Odysseus, even if Thursday’s touchdown of the robotic lander came more than 50 years after the end of the still-astonishing chapter of humans walking on the moon. Odysseus is special because of its what’s-next signification.

Technology has advanced far beyond those Apollo days, making this seemingly modest mission anything but that. The expectation is that Odysseus will lead to humans living on the moon and using its resources to jump-start transportation all around the solar system — first Mars, and then beyond, to borrow from one intrepid animated astronaut.

Boosting the chances of this becoming real is the involvement of private business. Space is no longer the sole domain of government.

Odysseus was designed, built and operated by a private company, Houston-based Intuitive Machines, under a contract from NASA, and launched by a Falcon 9 rocket built by another private company, SpaceX. A bevy of other companies are also making rockets, landers and plans. You can see a competitive ecosystem developing around space exploration and cheer it for its possibilities — while also being wary of its potential for commercial exploitation.

Even as we can be inspired about what Odysseus tells us about the future, there also is much to learn by taking a took at what led up to this moment.

Billions of dollars, for starters. Space exploration is expensive. But it also has brought big payoffs as much as tantalizing promises. Most obvious is how much more we know about our solar system and Earth’s place in it. But there is also a near-endless list of cool and indispensable things invented because of space program research — like scratch-resistant lenses and CT scans, water purification systems and dust busters, home insulation and wireless headsets and the computer mouse.

This won’t be the end of technology’s evolution, either, which makes it exciting to think about what advances will follow as we push into our final frontier given everything that’s happened to date.

But there is another lesson in the buildup to this latest mission that we need to learn. Achievement can be expensive but it also takes time. Overnight successes are rare and there seldom is an easy button in life.

It’s no accident that this new lander was named Odysseus. Its namesake, the mythological Greek king, was part of the great victory in the Trojan War. But then he had to overcome a daunting series of obstacles and ordeals in his attempt to return home to Ithaca, a journey of about 550 nautical miles that took Odysseus 10 years to complete.

The result, we are meant to understand, is worth the effort.

We see it all the time. The writing of a book, the carving of a sculpture, the execution of a painting, the composition of a symphony, the filming of a movie, the education of a child, the building of a company, the forming of a family, the development of a leader, the living of a good life.

Greatness in whatever form is never dashed off. It is cultivated, and nurtured, and pursued, and if we keep going and if we’re lucky, achieved.

And so we’re back to the moon, and perhaps someday beyond.

Let’s enjoy the moment, and the ride.

COLUMNIST MICHAEL DOBIE’S opinions are his own.

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