Intuitive Machines Sets Lunar Landing Date as Moon Plans Progress

Intuitive Machines Sets Lunar Landing Date as Moon Plans Progress

Houston-based Intuitive Machines revealed plans today for its first lunar landing in support of NASA’s Artemis program.  The company is one of three that now have contracts to deliver NASA payloads to the lunar surface.  At the same time, NASA is soliciting more ideas for payloads that can fly on these small robotic missions as well as awarding a logistics contract to deliver cargo to the Gateway space station that it plans for lunar orbit.

NASA created the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program in 2018 where it pays companies like Intuitive Machines (IM) to take small NASA payloads to the lunar surface as the first steps towards returning astronauts to the Moon.  NASA provides science and technology experiments and money. The company provides the spacecraft and the launch.  The goal is for this to be a commercial enterprise where NASA is just one of many customers.

Fourteen companies now are eligible to compete for CLPS task orders, nine were chosen in November 2018 and another five in November 2019.  IM and Astrobotic were the first to win task orders (a third, Orbit Beyond, withdrew shortly after being selected) and plan to launch next year.  Masten Space Systems, which will launch in 2022, just won another.

IM will launch the Nova-C lander in October 2021 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.  The target landing site is Vallis Schröteri (Schröter’s Valley) in the Moon’s Oceanus Procellarum (Ocean of Storms). The company said the site is “flat, free of craters and rocks, and has abundant sunlight” throughout the 14-day mission.

The planned landing site for the Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C spacecraft is indicated by the red dot. Source: Intuitive Machines press kit.

Five NASA payloads and others from commercial customers will be aboard, but IM did not specify what they are. Nova-C can take 100 kilograms to the lunar surface and provide 200 watts of power. Nova-C is based on NASA’s Project M lunar lander and Project Morpheus, which were designed, developed and tested by Johnson Space Center to demonstrate planetary landing technologies.  The core team that developed Morpheus left government and founded IM.

NASA has issued several calls for proposals for payloads that can be accommodated on these small spacecraft.  Last Friday it released another Request for Information (RFI) through a new Payloads and Research Investigations on the Surface of the Moon (PRISM) process.  Steve Clarke, who heads the CLPS program, said the goal was to “build a more robust portfolio” of payloads that will be available for future CLPS missions that he anticipates flying at a rate of at least two a year beginning in 2021.

CLPS received $170 million in FY2020.  Each of the three task orders so far are in the $75-80 million range.

Lunar surface operations are not the only part of the Artemis program getting attention right now. Although there is some ambiguity about when it will be built, NASA plans to put a small space station, Gateway, in orbit around the Moon to accommodate astronauts periodically as they transfer between Earth and the Moon.

NASA awarded the first Gateway Logistics Services (GLS) contract to SpaceX on March 27 to deliver cargo including science experiments and supplies using a “Dragon XL” spacecraft launched by Falcon Heavy.

Illustration of the SpaceX Dragon XL as it is deployed from the Falcon Heavy’s second stage in high Earth orbit on its way to the Gateway in lunar orbit. Credit: SpaceX

NASA plans to award firm fixed-price, Indefinite Delivery-Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) service contracts to other companies in the future, with each guaranteed at least two flights.  The total value of all the contracts will be $7 billion.  The GLS contract allows NASA to order missions for as long as 12 years with a 15-year performance period. The cost of this particular contract and when the flights will take place were not revealed.

SpaceX, Northrop Grumman, and Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) have similar contracts with NASA now to deliver cargo to the International Space Station (ISS).  All three, plus Boeing, bid on the GLS contract.  Ken Bowersox, Deputy Associate Administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, said in the Source Selection Statement that he could have chosen more than one company, but that was not in the best interest of the government at this time and the others could submit proposals in the future.

The Source Evaluation Board ranked Boeing last, which has attracted some attention because of the company’s current troubles, including the need to refly its Orbital Flight Test for the commercial crew program.  Bowersox noted that Boeing received the “lowest adjectival rating and score under the Mission Suitability factor … while also submitting the highest price,” “took several exceptions” to the Request for Proposals, “and predicated its fixed price on several key assumptions/exceptions” that made it “impossible” to determine if the price was reasonable. Boeing “did very well” from a past performance standpoint, but that was not enough to overcome the mission suitability and price factors.

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