SpaceX Introduces Intuitive Engines to Nova-C Moon Lander

Another month, another attempt at the moon.

A robotic lunar lander was launched early Thursday morning. If all goes well, in nine days, it will become the first American spacecraft since the Apollo 17 moon landing in 1972 to make a gentle descent to the lunar surface.

It will also be the first private attempt to reach the lunar surface in one piece. Three failed attempts by an American company, a Japanese company and an Israeli non-profit.

The company responsible for this task, Houston's Intuitive Machines, is optimistic.

“I feel very confident that we're going to be successful in gently touching the moon,” Stephen Altemus, president and chief executive of Intuitive Machines, said in an interview. “We've done tests. We've tested and tested. As many tests as we can.”

If private companies can break the record, at much less cost than traditional NASA missions, it could open the door to broader exploration of the moon by NASA and commercial ventures.

“We're trying to create a market where there isn't one,” Joel Kearns, an official with NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said during a news conference Tuesday. “But to do that, we have to do it at a costconsciously.”

NASA, the primary customer for the mission, is paying $118 million for the rover to pick up its payloads, which include a stereo camera to track the pile of dust kicked up during landing and a radio receiver to measure the effects of charged particles on radio signals. Moon's surface. There are also items from customers other than NASA, such as a camera created by students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., and an art project by Jeff Koons.

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But if these individual efforts continue to falter, NASA will not get what it deserves.

The mission got off to a smooth, auspicious start.

At 1:05 a.m. ET, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the lander from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida sent the lander on a direct course toward the moon. Within an hour, intuitive engines reported that the spacecraft had separated from the rocket's second stage and successfully powered itself up with its systems operating as expected.

Intuitive Engines calls its spacecraft design the Nova-C. It is a hexagonal cylinder with six landing legs, about 14 feet high and 5 feet wide. Intuitive engines indicate that the lander's body is roughly the size of an old British phone booth — like the Tardis in the “Doctor Who” sci-fi TV show.

At launch, with a full load of propellant, the lander weighed about 4,200 pounds.

This particular spaceship was named Odysseus after a rivalry between the Intuitive Engine crew. Engineer Mario Romero, who proposed the name, said the travels of the hero of the ancient Greek epic “Odyssey” provided an apt analogy for a trip to the moon.

“The journey is taking a lot of time due to many challenges, setbacks and delays,” said Mr. Romero said for work on Intuitive Machine's press kit. “Voyages on the tumultuous, wine-dark sea repeatedly test his mettle, but in the end, Odysseus proves himself worthy and returns home after 10 years.”

After a week's journey from Earth, Odysseus must enter orbit 62 miles above the moon. Then, 24 hours later, it fires its engine to begin its final descent. An hour later, it was positioned near the crater Malabert A, 185 miles from the South Pole. The landing pad is relatively flat, an easy place for a spacecraft to land.

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The South Pole has become an area of ​​interest due to the presence of water ice, especially the craters in permanent shadow. Previous US lunar missions have landed in equatorial regions.

After landing, Odysseus must operate for seven days until sunset. A solar-powered lander is not designed to withstand the extreme cold of a lunar night.

The launch of the Intuitive Engines mission comes a month after another US company, Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh, attempted to send its lander, Peregrine, to the moon. But a malfunction in its propulsion system shortly after launch precluded any possibility of landing. Ten days later, when Peregrine headed back toward Earth, it burned up in the atmosphere above the Pacific Ocean.

Both Odysseus and Peregrine are part of NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, or CLPS. The mission of the program is to use commercial companies to send experiments to the Moon rather than NASA building and operating its own lunar landings.

The space agency hopes the approach will be much cheaper, allowing it to send more missions more often as part of its Artemis program prepares to send astronauts back to the moon.

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's former associate administrator for science who launched the CLPS program in 2018, said the space agency expects about half of CLPS missions to fail, a point he has repeatedly told Congress, scientists and agencies. “That's how it was sold,” he said in an interview.

But even if half of these commercial missions fail, NASA will still make progress because a traditional mission costs between $500 million and $1 billion, Dr. Zurbuchen said NASA pays a company about $100 million to fly its payloads while CLPS is in operation. .

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Even a 50 percent success rate may sound too promising. “Even if you're an advocate for it, you have to see if that strategy works,” Dr. Surbusen said.

He spent six years as director of engineering at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. Altemus said the drive to cut costs has spurred much faster innovation than was possible at NASA.

“If we had more money and more time, innovation wouldn't have happened,” he said. “If you look at all the milestones leading up to the moon landing, for all the technological achievements we were able to make for that little money, it's amazing.”

The most difficult part of the mission – the landing – is still ahead.

Mr. Altemus acknowledged that they had to make decisions that reduced costs but raised risks.

“Now, have we gone too cheap?” Mr Altemus said. “Perhaps.”

If so, CLPS companies may have to raise prices for future missions, although they will likely be cheaper than what NASA has traditionally undertaken. NASA and Congress should not give up on the moon-on-a-budget idea if the Intuitive engines fail this time, Mr. Altemus said.

“It's really the only way forward,” said Mr. Altemus said.

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