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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

SpaceX launches what could become 1st successful commercial lunar lander

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from launch pad LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center with the Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C moon lander mission, in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Thursday. The IM-1 mission is part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program to understand more about the moon’s surface ahead of the coming Artemis missions. Intuitive Machines’ Odysseus lander would be the first U.S. spacecraft to land on the moon in over 50 years. It is expected to land near the south pole of the moon on Thursday.  (Gregg Newton/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS)
By Richard Tribou Orlando Sentinel

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. – SpaceX had to wait a day, but it ended up knocking out a pristine launch in the wee hours Thursday for Intuitive Machines, aiming to be the first commercial company to successfully make a soft landing on the moon.

A Falcon 9 rocket lifted off at 1:05 a.m. from KSC’s Launch Pad 39-A on the IM-1 mission carrying the Houston-based company’s Nova-C lunar lander named Odysseus headed for a quick trip to the moon aiming for a Thursday arrival.

SpaceX had called off an attempt early Wednesday because of issues loading cryogenic methane into the lunar lander at the launch pad, but fueling went off without a hitch a day later.

The first-stage booster for the mission made its 18th flight with a recovery touchdown at nearby Cape Canaveral Space Force Station’s Landing Zone 1 bringing an overnight sonic boom to the Space Coast just hours after a Wednesday evening launch and landing of another SpaceX Falcon 9 flying a mission for the Space Force.

The pair of launches marked the ninth and 10th orbital flights from the Space Coast for 2024, with all but one by SpaceX.

The lander drifted away safely from the second stage at about 140 miles altitude traveling about 22,400 mph about 48 minutes after launch, after which it was able to power up and successfully establish communications just after 2 a.m. preparing for its translunar injection.

The IM-1 mission is the first of three contracted launches for Intuitive Machines so far under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. All three will use the company’s Nova-C lander, which stands about 14 feet tall and 5 feet wide with a capacity to haul 220 pounds of cargo.

The IM-1 mission is carrying six of its 12 payloads for NASA headed for the south pole of the moon. The company hopes to get at least seven days of daylight for its payloads to perform their scientific tasks.

The CLPS program was first announced in 2019 but companies fell victim to pandemic-related delays leading to a five-year gap. It seeks to pay private companies a fixed amount of money so that they can go out and build a lunar lander, find themselves a ride to space and take care of the logistics such as communications after launch all while carrying whatever NASA science payloads have been assigned.

The endeavor is part of an effort by NASA to stoke the fires of what it hopes will be a robust lunar economy under which NASA can simply become a customer for science and cargo missions to the moon allowing it to focus on its human missions under the Artemis program.

“We’re glad to get to this point, it’s been a while getting here,” said NASA’s CLPS program manager Chris Culbert. “We’ve got our fingers crossed. We hope that they’re successful, but we know it’s very, very hard to land on the moon.”

It’s the second of what is still scheduled to be five CLPS launches in 2024. The first in January saw Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology’s Peregrine lander launched on the first ever flight of United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur. While it made it to space and flew nearly half a million miles, a propellant leak took any chance of a soft moon landing off the board and the company eventually steered it back to Earth to burn up on re-entry.

Efforts by Russia and a private Japanese company ispace also met with failure in 2023.

“Knock on wood, we won’t have to see one of those types of situations again,” Culbert said.

That leaves the door open for Intuitive Machines to try and achieve what no private company, or nation for that matter, has ever done, which is make a successful moon landing on its first try.

Culbert said success “demonstrates that commercial entities with relatively little direct help from NASA can do this without having to follow the government process, without NASA watching over their shoulder every step of the way.”

He added that even at five years since the program was announced, that’s “still pretty fast by NASA mission standards, and the prices are ludicrously cheap by NASA standards.”

NASA paid Intuitive Machines $118 million for this mission, which was originally targeting a landing in the moon’s mid-latitudes, but was shifted to the lunar impact crater Malapert A about 10 degrees from the south pole, and near to one of the potential landing sites planned for the Artemis III mission that aims to return humans to the moon for the first time since Apollo 17 in 1972.

For IM-1, NASA’s payloads include tools to measure the moondust plume created by the landing, how space weather affects the lunar surface, precision landing technology, measure cryogenic fuel use on landing and a GPS-like beacon to assist future lunar spacecraft missions. Their value is just under $12 million.

“We know there’s a lot of risk in the early missions, so we were building payloads that if we lost it, it wasn’t a big deal,” Culbert said. “We could recreate them fairly quickly and cheaply if we needed to.”

As a commercial endeavor, Intuitive Machines is also bringing six more payloads to help offset the cost. One of those, though, is getting a free ride – a 360-degree camera built by Daytona Beach, Florida’s Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University students that will be ejected just before touchdown to try and get a photo of the lander on its final descent, and also measure the dust plume.

“Understanding how when you land, you’re blasting the surface with a rocket engine, right? So understanding where that dust goes and what it does is important,” Culbert said pointing out that nobody knows, for instance, just how close you might be able to have human habitation nearby. “Are you sandblasting them? … Those are important pieces of things to know about future missions.”

Intuitive Machines also partnered with Columbia Sportswear to use its insulation technology to protect the lander’s avionics. Other payloads include an art project from sculptor Jeff Koons, a data repository from Lonestar Data Holdings and a camera for the International Lunar Observatory Association that aims to take images of the center of the Milky Way from the moon for the first time.

“We’ve done so much with the few federal dollars that have funded our first mission,” Intuitive Machines CEO Steve Altemus said. “We built an entire lunar program, and we’ve had to innovate and invent technologies to get there. At that price point those technologies didn’t exist before. We had to take this on and figure out a way to do things differently to lower the cost of access to the moon.”

To date NASA has awarded 10 CLPS contracts worth $750 million out of a $2.6 billion budget, although one of those was to a company that has since declared bankruptcy. Intuitive Machines, though, has won three of those – all using the Nova-C lander – and has bid out for a fourth that could be announced as early as March.

“They built three of essentially the same lander,” Culbert said. “I’m not sure how much that helps on the first one, but it will definitely help them on our second and third try.”

Astrobotic still has another launch scheduled for late this year with its larger Griffin lander launching on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy along with Intuitive Machines’ second mission flying again on a Falcon 9 and potentially the first from Texas-based Firefly Aerospace flying its Blue Ghost lander on a yet-to-be-announced launch service provider.

“They can do some things that allow us to get more bang for our buck, if you will, particularly in the science alone – the uncrewed portion of the missions,” Culbert said. “The demonstration that commercial companies can do this without a lot of NASA help, that can be worth a lot.”