Intuitive Machines is targeting February 14th for the launch of IM-1, the first flight of its NOVA-C robotic moon lander as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative. The spacecraft, christened Odysseus, aims to carry six NASA payloads to Malapert A, a crater near the lunar South Pole. The initial window lasts for three days this month, with all opportunities resulting in a landing on February 22nd; should the launch delay, the next window opens in March. The mission comes soon after the inaugural flight of the CLPS program, Astrobotic’s Peregrine Mission One, which failed to reach the lunar surface following a propellant leak shortly after launch. During a media briefing on Wednesday, January 31st, NASA and Intuitive Machines expressed optimism for the upcoming flight, amidst many questions surrounding the policy of the CLPS initiative as a whole.
Beginning in 2018, NASA selected a pool of fourteen commercial vendors to provide landing services under the CLPS initiative for a variety of government payloads. Each provider may bid on particular task orders to deliver payloads to a specific destination on the lunar surface. Many companies, including Intuitive Machines, have opted to develop one or more common lander platforms to provide consistent service to the Moon. NASA also encourages providers to offer landing services to commercial payloads, as part of its broader effort to stimulate a lunar economy. Notably, NASA leadership has established a relaxed attitude towards risk under CLPS, maintaining that failures are an acceptable part of the development of the commercial lunar environment.
The six NASA payloads aboard Odysseus on the IM-1 mission consist of both scientific experiments, including a radio astronomy instrument and a laser retroreflector, as well as technology demonstrations in support of future Moon landings. These include tests of novel communication and navigation systems, sensors for landing plume characterization, and new methods for monitoring cryogenic propellants, such as the liquid methane and oxygen employed by the NOVA-C lander. A full list of these NASA payloads and their principal investigators can be found in the mission’s press kit.
During the pre-flight mission briefing, Trent Martin, Vice President for Space Systems at Intuitive Machines, offered insight into the commercial side of this early CLPS mission. Martin noted that, while NASA remained the clear “anchor customer” for near-term flights such as IM-1, commercial payloads already provide a “reasonable” portion of the overall mission revenue. Speaking on the economic value of these payloads, Martin highlighted Intuitive Machines’ partnership with Columbia Sportswear, involving an exchange of information about the company’s proprietary insulation material. Normally used in outdoor clothing, swaths of Columbia’s “Omni-Heat Infinity” material provide insulation for the Odysseus spacecraft. Columbia has since leveraged this experience to reduce weight in its own products, which Martin cited as an example of innovation extending beyond the traditional aerospace industry. Further information about the commercial payloads aboard IM-1 are provided by the Intuitive Machines website.
The nature of these commercial payloads, which fall beyond the purview of NASA regulation, has already raised scrutiny. Astrobotic’s Peregrine Mission One carried a commercial payload from Celestis which intended to land cremated human remains on the Moon. This plan drew controversy from the Navajo Nation, which considered it a desecration of a sacred celestial body. NASA had previously agreed not to conduct such acts without first consulting the Navajo people; Celestis’ first payload carried ashes to the Moon aboard the Lunar Prospector spacecraft in 1999, sparking a similar incident.
Though the remains aboard Peregrine never made it to the surface, Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren expressed disappointment and frustration at NASA’s apparent failure to honor their agreement. In a statement leading up to the launch, President Nygren lamented the “disconnection between the agency and the commercial entities it works with,” and opined that “NASA does not bear responsibility for the actions of these entities.”
Several members of the press echoed these concerns during the IM-1 briefing, probing whether NASA could veto a similarly upsetting payload. Joel Kearns, Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, maintained that CLPS flights are commercial missions, not NASA missions, and that NASA has yet to establish guidance regulating commercial lunar payloads. However, Kearns acknowledged the grievances of the Navajo Nation, and stated that the incident had prompted a larger discussion between US government agencies regarding future policy. The conversation highlights a potential conflict of interest for NASA, which seeks to encourage a free market in space while upholding values reflective of its people. This tension manifests itself in commercialization efforts across multiple NASA programs, and finding a palatable resolution may prove crucial to the agency’s future ambitions.
NASA also fielded questions from the media regarding its outlook towards mission success. Several questions during the briefing called attention to the recent failure of Astrobotic’s Peregrine Mission One, the first flight under the CLPS initiative, as well as the challenges faced by JAXA’s SLIM spacecraft, which performed a successful soft landing on the moon but ended up stranded on its nose. Kearns expressed gratitude for the transparency offered by Astrobotic and JAXA, which provided an opportunity for Intuitive Machines and other providers to learn from these difficulties. Kearns reiterated NASA’s acceptance of risks early in the CLPS program, but maintained that the agency was proud of the innovation and ownership displayed by its commercial providers to date.
Chris Culbert, Program Manager for CLPS, also reinforced NASA’s risk posture regarding these missions, stating that even an unsuccessful mission would further the agency’s goals. Culbert stressed that the development of CLPS has already influenced supply chains, component availability, test infrastructure, and logistics operations, benefiting the prospective lunar economy even before any payloads have made it to the lunar surface. He posited that it would be “quite an accomplishment when the vendor even gets to the launch pad,” a sentiment echoed by Martin as the company recently completed integration of Odysseus with its Falcon 9 launch vehicle.
NASA’s attitude towards failure in the CLPS initiative has been met with mixed reception. While some have praised the perceived freedom for companies to innovate and “fail fast,” the approach raises questions about mission assurance, particularly as CLPS aims to deliver increasingly more sophisticated and important payloads to the Moon in direct support of the Artemis program. In particular, the VIPER rover, slated for delivery aboard Astrobotic’s larger Griffin lander later this year, aims to characterize the presence of volatiles like water ice near the lunar South Pole, which may serve as key resources for future crews. The results of this and other missions could substantially inform the future of human exploration on the Moon, including notional plans for a permanent Artemis Base Camp. Kearns stated that, despite NASA’s acceptance of early failures, they do not plan for backup opportunities or flight spares for most payloads, addressing this only on a case-by-case basis. With the first CLPS flight ending in reentry over the South Pacific, IM-1 now seeks to achieve the first commercial soft landing on the Moon, and the outcome of this attempt may set the tone for the program at large.
IM-1 is also the first CLPS mission to target the lunar South Pole, which has received a wealth of attention in recent years. The Artemis program, led by NASA alongside 33 international partners, has targeted the lunar South Pole as a key site for accessing lunar resources, solar power, and scientific opportunities. Several CLPS missions, including the aforementioned VIPER rover, will target this region, as will Artemis III, the first crewed landing of the Artemis program. Other parties have expressed interest in the area as well: ISRO’s Chandrayaan 3 landed at 69°S latitude in July of 2023, and the joint ISRO-JAXA LUPEX mission plans to explore permanently shadowed craters near the pole no earlier than 2026. Furthermore, Roscosmos and China’s CNSA are developing their own International Lunar Research Station, with a coalition of 8 nations participating as of writing, and which similarly favors the lunar South Pole. CNSA’s robotic Chang’e 7 mission plans to land along the rim of Shackleton Crater, one of several candidate sites for the Artemis III landing.
Intriguingly, when asked about the crowded environment at the lunar South Pole, Kearns invoked the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, to which both the United States and China are parties. The treaty, written at the height of cold war tensions between the US and the Soviet Union, has long been regarded as a basic framework for international cooperation in space. The language of the treaty is vague and generally without meaningful implementation; however, several articles suggest that the US and China would be obligated to work together to prevent conflict on the lunar surface, as might be caused by vehicles operating in close proximity to one another. While Kearns’ comments on the 31st do not constitute legal action, they foreshadow conversations which may yet arise in the near future, as parties from around the world begin to converge at the South Pole of the Moon.
Intuitive Machines’ Odysseus, though only the second flight of NASA’s CLPS initiative, is set to debut in a formative era for the future of lunar exploration. When it departs for the moon later this month, the humble spacecraft will carry more than a handful of experimental payloads. The next generation of economic opportunity, national policy, and international relations may well be along for the ride.