Nova-C lander
SpaceX will launch Intuitive Machines' Nova-C lander in 2021, seeking to become the first commercial spacecraft to land on the moon. Credit: Intuitive Machines

Updated Oct. 8 with information about the status of OrbitBeyond.

WASHINGTON — Intuitive Machines, a company with a NASA contract to fly payloads to the moon in 2021, announced Oct. 2 it has signed a contract with SpaceX for the launch of its lunar lander.

The company said that SpaceX will launch its Nova-C lander on a Falcon 9 in 2021. The company said it chose SpaceX after receiving proposals from “multiple launch providers,” although at a May 31 NASA event Steve Altemus, president and chief executive of the company, said it had already selected and was “finalizing arrangements” with SpaceX for a Falcon 9 launch.

“SpaceX’s ability to make low-cost quality lunar transport is paramount to completing NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) contract and Intuitive Machines becoming the first commercial company to land on the moon,” Altemus said in a statement about the launch contract.

The companies did not disclose the terms of the contract. Josh Marshall, an Intuitive Machines spokesman, said Oct. 3 the contract was for a rideshare mission but that SpaceX didn’t classify Nova-C as a primary or a secondary payload. Altemus said in May that the company was negotiating a contract as a primary payload, but would also fly “a host of backlogged payloads” destined for sun-synchronous orbit on the mission.

Nova-C will carry at least 100 kilograms of payload to the lunar surface, including five payloads under a NASA CLPS task order awarded May 31. The company said it is in the process of signing up additional customers with payloads to fly on the lander.

Intuitive Machines is one of nine companies that are part of the CLPS program, where NASA will buy services to transport payloads to the moon. In addition to Intuitive Machines, Astrobotic received a task order for payloads May 31 that will go on its Peregrine lander, which will launch in 2021 on the first flight of United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket.

A third company that received a task order in May, OrbitBeyond, surrendered its award in July because of what NASA called “internal corporate challenges.” Bob Babcock, a business development and marketing executive with OrbitBeyond, said Oct. 8 that the company terminated the contact because its relationship with TeamIndus, the Indian entity that designed the lander, had changed in a way that prevented it from carrying out the mission as originally planned. The company does have a lander design, Babcock said, but declined to identify who is providing it.

The launch contract announcement came a day after a federal appeals court affirmed a lower court’s verdict in a suit between Intuitive Machines and Moon Express. That verdict, in a U.S. District Court in Delaware in January 2018, awarded Intuitive Machines $4.1 million in cash and Moon Express equity in a dispute regarding work it was doing on software and a return vehicle for Moon Express.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, in a nine-page ruling Oct. 1, upheld the verdict and award. The judges said that even if Intuitive Machines breached its contract with Moon Express, none of the breaches was “so fundamental” that it invalidated it. The judges also dismissed claims that “prejudicial emails and text messages” involving a potential settlement were improperly allowed as evidence, as Moon Express did not object to other communications involving the same potential settlement.

“In our system, jury verdicts are entitled to substantial deference,” the judges concluded. “A careful review of the record shows that the District Court afforded the parties a fair trial free of evidentiary or legal error.”

Bob Richards, chief executive of Moon Express, said in an Oct. 3 statement to SpaceNews that the company was now focusing on its own lunar lander efforts, including as part of the CLPS program. “Although we are disappointed that this four-year-old case didn’t ultimately result in restitution, Moon Express remains focused on the future and the delivery of lunar mission services to NASA under our Commercial Lunar Payload Services contract,” he said.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...