Intuitive Machines Sets November for Launch of IM-1 Lunar Lander

Intuitive Machines Sets November for Launch of IM-1 Lunar Lander

Intuitive Machines announced today that its first lunar landing mission is set for launch between November 15-20, 2023. IM-1 will land at the Moon’s South Pole as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program.

NASA hopes to send two CLPS missions to the Moon every year through Public-Private Partnerships with companies like IM providing landers of varying sizes that deliver payloads for NASA and other customers as part of long-term lunar exploration and utilization.

IM and Astrobotic were two of the first three companies to win CLPS task orders from NASA in 2019. The third, Orbit Beyond, withdrew almost immediately.

Both IM and Astrobotic originally were supposed to launch in July 2021, but the dates have slipped by two years for both of them. Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander was ready for launch on May 4, but technical difficulties with the United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan rocket delayed the launch until sometime in the 4th quarter of this year according to ULA’s current schedule.

The first launch of IM’s Nova-C lander also slipped, but because of delays with the spacecraft, not the rocket, a SpaceX Falcon 9.

Illustration of Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander. Credit: Intuitive Machines.

During a second quarter 2023 financial results telecon today, IM President and CEO Steve Altemus said the spacecraft is now ready and will be shipped to the launch site next month. Launch is scheduled for November 15, the opening of a 6-day window. Missions to the Moon can only launch at certain times of the month when the Earth and Moon are properly aligned for landing at the chosen location during lunar daytime.

Altemus added, however, that the launch could slip to December due to unfavorable weather or other SpaceX missions that have higher priority for use of Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex-39A.

“Right now we are manifested on a Falcon 9 launch scheduled in November. With the congestion for launches using Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center we recognize that higher priority missions are always possible. However, our attention remains firmly fixed on the aspects we can control. Our IM-1 Nova-C is completely built and we continue to execute the rest of our business with the same intensity that will deliver [to the launch site] a lunar lander ready to go to the Moon in September.”

IM-1 is headed to the Malapert A crater at the Moon’s South Pole carrying five NASA payloads and four for commercial customers. The NASA payloads include cameras, a laser retro-reflector array, two navigation demonstrators, and a Radio wave Observation at the Lunar Surface of the photoElectron Sheath (ROLSES) instrument.

As of today, NASA has a second IM mission on the books for 2023. IM-2 will deliver NASA’s TRIDENT (The Regolith and Ice Drill for Exploring New Terrain) drill as part of the Polar Resources Ice Mining Experiment-1 (PRIME-1) project. TRIDENT will drill down to 1-meter below the surface looking for water in liquid or ice form and retrieve samples.

Steve Altemus, co-founder, President and CEO of Intuitive Machines. Photo credit: Intuitive Machines.

Altemus did not offer a launch date for IM-2, but it’s pretty clear it will not be this year. He said they are building the primary structure and integrating payloads and mechanisms, but everything will be completed in the company’s new lunar production and operations facility at the Houston Spaceport which officially opens on September 29.

When it originated the CLPS program, NASA said the goal was to launch two missions per year with the understanding these low-cost missions would have higher risks and failures should be expected. Thomas Zurbuchen, then NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, which manages CLPS, described the effort as taking “shots on goal.”

NASA picked nine companies in 2018 and another five in 2019 that are eligible for CLPS task orders. In addition to Orbit Beyond, which withdrew, another CLPS contractor, Masten Space Systems, no longer is part of the program after declaring bankruptcy. Masten had won one of the CLPS task orders. NASA will reassign those payloads to someone else.

At the moment, IM has a total of three task orders — the third is on NASA’s list for launch in 2024; Astrobotic has a second in 2024; Firefly Aerospace has missions in 2024 and 2026; and Draper has one in 2025.

Altemus said today he expects another task order to be awarded in November.

Lunar landers are only part of the company’s business and he is optimistic about the future. The Government Accountability Office just upheld NASA’s award of the OMES-III engineering support services contract to an IM-KBR joint venture, and NASA recently awarded IM a “tipping point” space technology contract for a lunar radioisotope power system. The company is bidding for a contract to build a Lunar Terrain Vehicle for NASA, too.

But with uncertainty about when contract awards will be made and NASA’s budget, with Congress intent on cutting funding across the government, IM is withdrawing previously issued financial guidance for full year 2023.

In a statement, Altemus said:

“While we continue to work toward our milestones, the Company is taking steps to positively mitigate the effects of outside-controlled program delays and higher-priority launch pad congestion while retaining the integrity of our long-term growth plan. Concurrently, we are also pursuing opportunities to diversify the Company’s revenue streams. We have submitted more than $3 billion in proposals spread across the aerospace and defense sectors, including human spaceflight.”

IM had a second quarter 2023 operating loss of $13.2 million and ends the quarter with a cash balance of $39.1 million.

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