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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Intuitive Machines’ moon mission to end early after spacecraft tumbled

By Christian Davenport Washington Post

Odysseus, the first privately developed spacecraft to touch down on the lunar surface, has only hours left to live, the company that operates it said Tuesday, bringing an end to a historic mission, marked by a daring, last-minute engineering change and a stumbling landing that no Olympic judge would score a 10.

Attempting to dodge rocks and craters on the moon’s surface, the spacecraft was traveling at just 6 mph when it touched down Thursday evening – a mere jogger’s pace but still too fast. And instead of coming straight down, the six-legged lunar lander was moving sideways – slowly, but enough that one of its legs might have caught, causing it to stumble and fall.

Now, Odysseus, as the 14-foot-tall Nova-C spacecraft is called, is on its side, perhaps perched against a rock or a steep slope. As a result, some of its antennas are pointed in the wrong direction, making communication difficult, although the company has since said it was able to work around the problem. Instead of generating power through at least Thursday, Intuitive Machines, the company that designed and operates Odysseus, said it is likely to lose battery life sometime on Tuesday or early Wednesday.

That would mark an end to a much-heralded mission, one the company and NASA had proclaimed as a resounding success, despite its truncated duration and the limited data it has transmitted.

No American spacecraft had touched down softly on the moon in more than 50 years – since the last of the Apollo missions in December 1972.

And no privately operated spacecraft had reached the lunar surface – making last week’s landing a coup for Intuitive Machines, based in Houston and run by NASA veterans, as well as the broader commercial space sector that NASA is increasingly relying on for its exploration ambitions.

Last month, a Japanese spacecraft also landed on its side in a mission that was also declared a success because of its ability to communicate with the ground afterward.

On Tuesday, Intuitive Machines said in a post on X that Odysseus “sent payload science data and imagery in furtherance of the company’s mission objectives. Flight controllers are working on final determination of battery life on the lander, which may continue up to an additional 10-20 hours.”

On Monday, the company had said that “flight controllers intend to collect data until the lander’s solar panels are no longer exposed to light.”

It did not say how much data the vehicle is able to transmit. One of the instruments onboard, a camera system, called EagleCam, designed by students and faculty at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, did not deploy as expected during the landing to take photos of the descent. It was unclear when it would deploy, if ever.

“As far as we know, we’re healthy. We’re ready,” Troy Henderson, the faculty member in charge of EagleCam, said in a statement to The Washington Post. “We’re just waiting on opportunity. We’re waiting on signal acquisition to deploy and get data.”

It was also unclear whether one of NASA’s main instruments, designed to study how the spacecraft’s engines kicked up lunar dust on landing, worked. A NASA spokesman said in a statement to The Post on Tuesday that the agency was “hoping to have more info on the other payloads to share soon.”

Some of the spacecraft’s antennas “are pointed at the surface and those antennas are unusable for transmission back to Earth,” Steve Altemus, Intuitive Machines’ CEO, told reporters on Friday. “And so that really is a limiter to our ability to communicate and get the right data down so that we get everything we need from the mission.”

Odysseus did, however, snap a photo of itself, which the company released Tuesday, as it descended toward the lunar surface from an altitude of about 100 feet. After traveling more than 600,000 miles, the spacecraft had landed within 1 mile of its intended landing site, near the moon’s south pole, the company said.

NASA paid Intuitive Machines $118 million to carry six of its science and technological instruments to the moon’s surface. For a moon mission, it was a relatively small sum, part of a broader $2.6 billion effort called the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program intended to send a fleet of robotic landers developed by an array of private companies to the moon.

The goal is not only to deliver instruments to the lunar surface but to develop the technologies that would allow the space agency – and its industry partners – to visit the moon more frequently and at a lower cost. If successful, the program would help pave the way for landing astronauts there as part of NASA’s Artemis program.

But NASA had also said from the beginning that it expected several of the attempts to fail – an acceptable outcome, the space agency said, as long as it “continued to take shots on goal.”

Last month, the agency’s first CLPS mission, carried out by a Pittsburgh company known as Astrobotic, suffered a propulsion problem, lost fuel and did not reach the moon. So when Intuitive Machines touched down Thursday, NASA was thrilled, even if since then not everything has gone according to plan. Its landing site, the south pole region of the moon, where there is water in the form of ice, was also a significant feat since that relatively unexplored region is where the United States wants to eventually establish a base.

One of NASA’s payloads saved the day. Shortly before the descent, Intuitive Machines’ controller realized that the spacecraft’s sensors were not working because a switch to enable them had not been flipped before the flight. The company’s engineers scrambled to write and transmit a software patch that would direct the spacecraft to instead use a NASA instrument of lasers and telescopes, called the Navigation Doppler lidar (NDL) affixed to the outside of Odysseus to guide the landing.

It worked. But for some reason, the spacecraft was still traveling down at about 6 mph, or three times the intended speed. It was also traveling sideways at about 2 mph. As a result, Altemus said, “you catch a foot. We might have fractured that landing gear and tipped over gently.”

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Daniel Wu contributed to this report.