KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — Intuitive Machines says its first lunar lander is ready for launch this week after completing a final series of tests on the launch pad.
In a statement late Feb. 12, the company confirmed that its Nova-C lander, named Odysseus, is ready to launch on the IM-1 mission. The spacecraft will launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 scheduled to lift off at 12:57 a.m. Eastern Feb. 14 from Launch Complex 39A here, with backup launch opportunities Feb. 15 and 16.
That confirmation came after the company performed two fueling tests, called wet dress rehearsals, of the lander while encapsulated atop the Falcon 9 on the launch pad. Those tests, on Feb. 8 and 10, were designed to confirm that the lander can be loaded with liquid oxygen (LOX) and methane propellants in the hours before liftoff.
“Everything is great. Everything is good to go,” Trent Martin, vice president of space systems at Intuitive Machines, said in a Feb. 12 interview.
He said the company tweaked the parameters for loading the 1,200 kilograms of propellant onto the lander after the first test, but added that both tests went well. “On both days we did the wet dress, we would have been go for launch.”
The IM-1 mission is carrying six NASA payloads through the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program as well as six commercial payloads. A launch this week would set up a landing attempt Feb. 22 near the Malapert A crater in the south polar region of the moon.
If successful, IM-1 would be the first non-government mission to land on the moon after failed attempts by Israel’s Beresheet lander in 2019, the HAKUTO-R M1 lander by Japan’s ispace in April 2023 and Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander in January. Success rates for robotic lander missions overall, both government and private, have been below 50%.
“Space is a hard business. Landing on the moon is even harder business as we’ve learned over the last four or five years,” Martin said. “We try to learn from all of those failures along the way.”
For example, the company confirmed that its propulsion system is not susceptible to the valve problem experienced by the Peregrine mission hours after its Jan. 8 launch that caused a severe loss of propellant, preventing it from attempting a landing. “Our LOX/methane system is so completely different than the propulsion systems on all of the other landers that have gone recently,” he said. “We’re pretty confident in our LOX/methane system.”
A key milestone for the mission will come about 18 hours after launch when the engine is fired in space for the first time in a commissioning test. “That will be a little nerve-wracking,” he said. “However, once we get through that and we know how the engine performs in space, I think our confidence actually goes up that we will have a successful landing on the moon.”
Steve Altemus, chief executive of Intuitive Machines, also emphasized the importance of that engine commissioning test in a separate interview. “That’s a critical maneuver and, if we make that maneuver go well, we’re on our way to the moon. I think our confidence level goes from 75 to 80% to about 90% once that commissioning maneuver is done.”
He said a key issue for IM-1 is managing expectations for a first-of-its-kind mission. “It’s a daunting challenge to land on the moon,” he said. “It doesn’t come easy, especially when you’re trying to break the barrier of a price point” of about $100 million. He emphasized the achievements the company has already made in developing key technologies for the lander. Every milestone in the mission after launch, he added, “is a success that we ought to really celebrate.”
For Intuitive Machines, that desire to manage expectations is accentuated by the fact that it is a publicly traded company, having gone public a year ago in a merger with a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC.
“I’m trying to build a company that’s robust to failures — antifragile, if you will — and regularize operations,” he said. “We’ve diversified revenue streams beyond just landing on the moon on purpose to make sure that we maintain a viable business model.”
The company has two more lunar lander missions in development, with IM-2 tentatively planned for the fourth quarter and IM-3 in early 2025. Altemus said assembly of the Nova-C lander for IM-2 is continuing, but that the company was ready to incorporate any lessons learned from IM-1 into the new lander. “Right now we’re not at a point where we can’t back out of anything that we’ve done” on the second lander, he said. “We certainly can rewrite software, we can change components.”
“I feel relaxed, confident and laser-focused on this particular mission,” he said of IM-1. “Everybody’s got their head in the right spot, and we’re ready to give it a shot and launch on February 14.”
Dr. Thomas Hughes is a UK-based scientist and science communicator who makes complex topics accessible to readers. His articles explore breakthroughs in various scientific disciplines, from space exploration to cutting-edge research.