ORLANDO, Fla. — Intuitive Machines and NASA say they are in the final stages of preparations for the launch of that company’s first lunar lander mission, but exactly when the spacecraft will lift off remains unclear.
At a Jan. 31 briefing, officials from the agency and the company said they were working towards a mid-February launch of the IM-1 mission, carrying payloads from NASA through its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program as well as for commercial customers.
“In February, America will be taking another step for science and commerce on the surface of the moon,” said Joel Kearns, deputy associate administrator for exploration in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “Intuitive Machines is ready to launch their first mission.”
Trent Martin, vice president of space systems at Intuitive Machines, said the lunar lander, called Odysseus by the company, has been encapsulated within the payload fairing for its Falcon 9 rocket. However, he declined to give a specific date for the launch, saying only that there was a three-day launch period for the mission in mid-February.
“We work directly with SpaceX before we announce the exact launch date and time, so that will be announced here in the coming days,” he said. Any launch in that three-day period, he added, would set up a landing attempt on the moon Feb. 22. The company previously said IM-1 would take about a week to go from launch to a landing on the moon.
In a social media post Jan. 23, NASA said IM-1 would launch no earlier than Feb. 14, but the agency deleted the post hours later and replaced it one stating the launch would be as soon as mid-February. Other industry sources have also said the launch was planned for Feb. 14.
Adding to the confusion, NASA said in a separate statement Jan. 31, a few hours after the briefing, that the Crew-8 commercial crew mission by SpaceX was scheduled for launch as soon as Feb. 22. Both Crew-8 and IM-1 will launch from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A, the only pad currently approved for Falcon 9 crew missions as well as equipped to load liquid oxygen and methane propellants into the IM-1 lunar lander while on the pad shortly before liftoff.
At a Jan. 25 briefing, Steve Stich, NASA commercial crew program manager, said Crew-8 would likely launch Feb. 29 or March 1 if IM-1 launched in mid-February, but could be moved up to as soon as Feb. 22 if the lander mission slipped. The NASA post suggests that, at a minimum, SpaceX and Intuitive Machines have yet to confirm their readiness for a mid-February launch.
IM-1 is carrying six NASA science and technology demonstration payloads, such as a laser retroreflector, stereo camera for studying dust plumes created by the lander’s engines and a radio science instrument. NASA awarded Intuitive Machines a CLPS task order for the IM-1 mission in 2019 that is worth, after modifications, $118 million. The NASA payloads themselves are valued at $10-11 million, said Chris Culbert, NASA CLPS program manager.
IM-1 will be the second CLPS mission to launch, after Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander Jan. 8. That mission, though, was cut short by a propellant leak hours after launch, and the spacecraft reentered the Earth’s atmosphere Jan. 18.
Another lunar lander, the Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) by the Japanese space agency JAXA, landed on the moon Jan. 19 but in the wrong orientation because of a thruster malfunction. That deprived the spacecraft of solar power for all but the last few days of the two-week lunar day at its landing site.
“We have learned lessons from all of our counterparts that have come before us,” Martin said. “We look at what the failures were that they had, we look at our systems along the way and ensure that we’ve at least thought about those systems” to ensure his company’s lander does suffer a similar problem.
Kearns said it was fortunate that both Astrobotic and JAXA have been “open and transparent” about the problems their missions suffered. “I think that helps other companies,” he said, “understand what happened and try to make sure that, in their approach, they wouldn’t fall to the same issue.”