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Intuitive Machines’ first lunar lander mission slips to 2022

Intuitive Machines lander

WASHINGTON — The first lunar lander mission by Intuitive Machines, which had been scheduled for launch late this year, has been delayed to early 2022 by its launch provider, SpaceX.

Intuitive Machines had planned to launch its Nova-C lander on the IM-1 mission in the fourth quarter of this year on a SpaceX Falcon 9, carrying a combination of commercial and NASA payloads. A March 24 news release about an agreement to use the Parkes radio telescope in Australia as a ground station for the mission mentioned a launch “towards the end of 2021.”

However, in an April 23 application filed with the Federal Communications Commission to obtain S-band spectrum for the mission, Intuitive Machines said that the lander was now scheduled for launch in early 2022. The company didn’t provide a more specific launch date or a reason for the delay in its FCC filing.

Intuitive Machines spokesman Josh Marshall said April 26 that the slip was caused by its launch provider. “SpaceX informed Intuitive Machines that due to unique mission requirements the earliest available flight opportunity is in the first quarter of 2022,” he told SpaceNews.

Marshall referred questions about the “unique mission requirements” that caused the delay to SpaceX. That company did not respond to questions from SpaceNews on the topic.

The 1,908-kilogram Nova-C spacecraft will launch into a supersynchronous transfer orbit of 185 by 60,000 kilometers. Nineteen hours after launch it will carry out a translunar injection maneuver to go to the moon, performing another maneuver to enter a 100-kilometer lunar orbit. Nova-C will then attempt a landing at Mare Serenatis for a surface mission landing 14 days. Intuitive Machines said in the filing it will attempt to contact the solar-powered lander again after the 14-day lunar night, but acknowledged “is highly likely that the NOVA-C will not survive the lunar night.”

Intuitive Machines’ application with the FCC seeks to use the agency’s new streamlined processing for small satellites, even though the spacecraft weighs nearly four times the limit of 500 kilograms established by the FCC for using that process. A waiver of that mass limit, the company argues, “is appropriate and necessary in this case given extremely short-term use of the NOVA-C and the fact that it is non-Earth orbiting commercial lunar mission.” It added that it believed that it was in the public interest to waive the mass limit given the role of IM-1 in NASA’s overall Artemis lunar exploration program.

The company also seeks FCC permission to use S-band frequencies even though there is no commercial allocation for them. “Intuitive Machines is providing services on behalf of a government agency and is supported through Federal funding,” it noted in the filing, adding that it would coordinate with government users of that band to avoid interference.

The lander is carrying several payloads for NASA through the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. Intuitive Machines received one of the first CLPS awards in May 2019, valued at $77 million for a mission then scheduled for launch in July 2021. Those payloads are a laser retroreflector, a lidar for navigation during landing, stereo camera system, an autonomous navigation experiment and low-frequency radio experiment.

IM-1 will also have several commercial payloads on the lander. They include a small rover from British company Spacebit, a camera that will be deployed to provide an external view of the landing, an astronomical telescope for the International Lunar Observatory Association, a radiation measurement sensor, a “passive data cache” in the form of etched metal disks and a sensor to measure propellant tank levels.

IM-1 was to be the first CLPS mission to launch, and one of two scheduled to fly this year. The other is Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander, which received a $79.5 million award from NASA at the same time Intuitive Machines won its first CLPS contract.

Astrobotic announced its latest customer for that mission April 22. The German space agency DLR will fly a radiation sensor on that spacecraft similar to those that will fly on the Artemis 1 Orion test flight. That release stated that the launch was still scheduled for 2021, although a DLR release said the mission would go to the moon “at the end of the year.”

Peregrine will be the payload for the first launch of United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan Centaur rocket. ULA is targeting a first Vulcan launch late this year, but has not provided a more specific launch date.

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Astrobotic selects Falcon Heavy to launch NASA’s VIPER lunar rover

SpaceX Falcon Heavy

WASHINGTON — Astrobotic has signed a contract with SpaceX for the launch of its Griffin lunar lander, carrying a NASA lunar rover, on a Falcon Heavy in 2023.

Astrobotic announced April 13 that it selected SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy for its Griffin Mission 1 lunar lander mission, which will deliver the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) spacecraft to the south pole of the moon in late 2023. Astrobotic won a NASA competition through the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program last year to transport VIPER on its Griffin lunar lander.

“Getting to the moon isn’t just about building a spacecraft, but having a complete mission solution. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy completes our Griffin Mission 1 solution by providing a proven launch vehicle to carry us on our trajectory to the moon,” Daniel Gillies, director of Griffin Mission 1 at Astrobotic, said in a statement.

Astrobotic declined to disclose the terms of the deal. SpaceX publishes a list price of $90 million on its website for Falcon Heavy, although some government contracts for Falcon Heavy missions have been significantly more expensive. Astrobotic also declined to identify what other launch options it considered for the mission.

VIPER is a NASA mission to investigate permanently shadowed regions of craters at the lunar south pole that may contain deposits of water ice that could serve as resources for future crewed missions. It is designed to operate for 100 days after landing.

NASA originally planned to launch VIPER in 2022, with a mission cost of $250 million. However, NASA postponed the launch to late 2023 to provde more time for work to increase VIPER’s mission life from 14 to 100 days. That, in turn, drove up the cost of VIPER to $433.5 million, NASA disclosed in March.

VIPER is the biggest mission that is part of CLPS, a NASA initiative to purchase payload accommodations on commercial lunar landers. Astrobotic won a $199.5 million task order in June 2020 to deliver VIPER to the lunar surface on its Griffin lander.

Most of the landers flying CLPS missions selected to date will launch on SpaceX. Intuitive Machines, which won CLPS task orders for two lander missions, will launch each on Falcon 9 vehicles late this year and in 2022. Masten Space Systems selected SpaceX to provide launch services for its XL-1 lander mission, which won a CLPS award for a late 2022 mission.

Astrobotic will launch its first CLPS mission, a smaller lunar lander called Peregrine, on the inaugural launch of United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur currently scheduled for late this year. Firefly Aerospace, which won the most recent CLPS award in January, has not selected a launch provider yet for its Blue Ghost lander, but noted the lander is too large to launch on the company’s own Alpha rocket.

The Astrobotic contract adds to a growing backlog for the Falcon Heavy, which has not flown since the Space Test Program (STP) 2 mission in June 2019. The next Falcon Heavy launch is expected no earlier than July, carrying a classified payload for the U.S. Space Force. Another Falcon Heavy launch for the Space Force is scheduled for late this year.

SpaceX has won NASA contracts for Falcon Heavy, including the launch of the Psyche mission the metallic asteroid of the same name in 2022 and, in February, the first two elements of the lunar Gateway in 2024. Falcon Heavy is also the front-runner for the ongoing competition to launch the Europa Clipper mission after NASA concluded that mission could not launch on the Space Launch System as originally planned.

Gillies, the Astrobotic manager for Griffin Mission 1, previously worked at SpaceX, where he was a mission integrator for the STP-2 Falcon Heavy launch. “Having previously sat on the other side of the table as a former SpaceX mission manager, I am fully aware of SpaceX’s capabilities and processes and am excited to be working with SpaceX on a mission once again,” he said.

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SpaceX to launch Masten lunar lander

Masten XL-1 lander

WASHINGTON — Masten Space Systems announced Aug. 26 that it signed a contract with SpaceX for the launch of its first lunar lander mission carrying a suite of payloads for NASA.

Masten said SpaceX will launch its Masten Mission One, or MM1, lunar lander mission in late 2022. The companies did not disclose the value of the contract.

In an Aug. 27 interview, Sean Mahoney, chief executive of Masten, said the contract does not cover a specific launch vehicle, but rather a service to get the spacecraft to the moon on the company’s desired schedule. “We’re buying the performance that we need,” he said. SpaceX will have the ability to place other spacecraft on the launch on a noninterference basis.

The mission will carry payloads for NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program under a $75.9 million contract awarded by the agency in April. The XL-1 lander will deliver nine science and technology demonstration payloads to the south polar region of the moon.

The lander has passed a preliminary design review, Mahoney said, and the company is starting to purchase long-lead items needed to build the spacecraft. Masten is also holding biweekly meetings with teams representing the nine CLPS payloads.

NASA will be an anchor customer for the mission but Masten intends to sign up others. “There is a tremendous amount of interest,” he said, including from both the public and private sector, although he didn’t mention any specific potential customers.

Mahoney said the level of customer interest soared after Masten won the CLPS award and had a firm schedule for the mission. “Once the CLPS award was made and we crossed from speculative to having a schedule, the tenor and tone of our conversations have changed dramatically.”

The limiting factor for the lander mission has not been the amount of mass available for payloads, he said, but instead positions on the lander that have views of the surface desired by payloads. “There’s a game of positioning among the various instruments so that they can get the view angles that they need and not interfere,” he said.

However, he said the company isn’t considering major changes in the lander’s design to accommodate payloads. “The design principle is the ‘pickup truck’ that can haul a bunch of different things,” he said. “We’re trying to escape the completely unique, bespoke system that does one job and one mission really well.”

Masten joins a growing list of companies and organizations using SpaceX to launch lunar lander missions. Intuitive Machines, which won one of the first NASA CLPS awards last year, selected SpaceX to launch its IM-1 lunar lander mission on a Falcon 9 in 2021. Intuitive Machines said at the time that it would be part of a rideshare mission, but didn’t state if its lander would be considered the primary payload or not.

Japanese company ispace selected SpaceX in 2018 to launch its first two lunar missions, which at the time were to be an orbiter and lander launching in 2020 and 2021 respectively on Falcon 9 rockets. The company now says both will be lander missions, launching in 2022 and 2023.

SpaceX has already launched one lunar lander mission. Beresheet, the lunar lander built by Israel Aerospace Industries for Israeli organization SpaceIL, flew as a secondary payload on the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch of an Indonesian communications satellite in February 2019. Beresheet used its onboard propulsion to move from a geostationary transfer orbit to lunar orbit, but crashed attempting a landing in April 2019.

Astrobotic, which won a CLPS award last year for its Peregrine lunar lander, selected United Launch Alliance to launch that mission on the first flight of ULA’s Vulcan Centaur rocket in 2021. Astrobotic had previously contracted with ULA to launch Peregrine as a secondary payload on an Atlas 5 before winning the CLPS award.

Astrobotic won a second CLPS award June 11 when NASA selected the company to deliver its Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) mission to the lunar south pole in late 2023. Astrobotic said at the time it would select a launch vehicle for the VIPER mission later this year.

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NASA evaluation sees SpaceX lunar lander as innovative but risky

Starship lunar lander

WASHINGTON — A NASA evaluation suggests that the agency selected SpaceX for one of the three human lunar lander awards as a high-risk, high-reward option that could provide significant capability but may not be ready in time for a 2024 landing.

According to a NASA source selection statement for the Human Landing Services (HLS) program, dated April 28, SpaceX had the weakest adjectival rating of the three companies selected, with technical and managerial ratings of “Acceptable.” Blue Origin received a technical rating of Acceptable and a managerial rating of “Very Good,” while Dynetics received technical and managerial ratings of Very Good.

SpaceX received several strengths based on the proposed capabilities of the Starship vehicle it bid, a spacecraft much larger than the other winning proposals. The system “meets or exceeds all of NASA’s threshold values” for functional and performance requirements, the document states.

The design also supports NASA’s long-term lunar exploration plans, where the agency has emphasized sustainability and longer stays on the lunar surface. “By immediately incorporating these capabilities into its proposed design, SpaceX’s proposal provides substantial mission design flexibility and dramatically reduces the time and cost associated with transitioning into sustainable phase mission operations,” the document states.

That approach, though, carries with it risks. NASA cited as a strength a development plan that “prioritizes early and numerous ground and flight system demonstrations to reduce schedule and technical risk.” That test program ranges from a flight of Starship in low Earth orbit to an uncrewed lunar landing in 2022.

However, NASA noted lengthy delays in other SpaceX programs, such as commercial crew and development of the Falcon Heavy rocket, which were years behind original schedules. “These delays decreased the [Source Evaluation Panel’s] confidence in SpaceX’s ability to successfully execute on its proposed HLS development schedule,” the document stated.

Steve Jurczyk, NASA associate administrator and the source selection authority for the program, downplayed that weakness. “I find that SpaceX’s extensive relevant experience, combined with the lessons learned from these efforts, somewhat mitigate the risk associated with the potential for schedule delays,” he wrote.

Evaluators also considered as a weakness SpaceX’s concept of operations, which involves using other Starship vehicles as tankers and a propellant depot to fuel the Starship that will serve as the lander. That approach “requires numerous, highly complex launch, rendezvous, and fueling operations which all must succeed in quick succession in order to successfully execute on its approach,” which evaluators argued posed a risk to a 2024 landing.

A third weakness in the SpaceX proposal involved development of its propulsion system, which is “notably complex and comprised of likewise complex individual subsystems that have yet to be developed, tested and certified with very little schedule margin to accommodate delays.” SpaceX’s development plan, evaluators concluded, “does not adequately address the risk of potential delay in development, as well as concomitant delay to SpaceX’s demonstration mission.”

NASA also cited weaknesses in the propulsion systems of the other two awardees. NASA said that Blue Origin’s power and propulsion system is relatively complex and immature, posing development risks. “Technically, the design appears to be sound, but this design can only come to fruition as a result of a very significant amount of development work that must proceed precisely according to Blue Origin’s plan, including occurring on what appears to be an aggressive timeline,” the document stated.

The agency had a similar criticism of the propulsion system in the Dynetics lander. “This system is complex and relies upon technologies that are at relatively low maturity levels or that have yet to be developed for Dynetics’ proposed application, but would need to be developed at an unprecedented pace,” it said.

Jurczyk, though, balanced that risk with the innovative approach that combines the ascent and descent modules into a single element, ringed by a set of fuel tanks. “Thus, while I agree that Dynetics’ power and propulsion system overall presents substantial technical and schedule risk, it is also the case that its approach is exactly the kind of innovative solution that NASA sought through the HLS solicitation,” he concluded.

Both Blue Origin and Dynetics, which had no significant weaknesses beyond their propulsion systems, won praise for their partnership approaches. Blue Origin’s “national team,” which features Draper, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, is “a team with a successful record of relevant past performance across numerous efforts that have direct implications for their performance of this effort, and greatly increases NASA’s confidence” in successfully developing the lander.

The Dynetics team includes about 25 companies, including Maxar, Sierra Nevada Corp. and Thales Alenia Space. NASA cites Dynetics’ small business subcontracting plan as a significant strength, saying it “appreciably exceeds the solicitation requirements in a way that will be advantageous to the Government during contract performance and beyond.”

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NASA selects three companies for human landing system awards

Starship lunar lander

WASHINGTON — NASA announced April 30 it has selected three companies to begin work on designs for human lunar landers, one of which the agency still hopes will be ready to land humans on the moon by the end of 2024.

NASA selected teams led by Blue Origin, Dynetics and SpaceX for 10-month study contracts for the Human Landing System (HLS) program. The combined value of the awards is $967 million.

“Let’s make no mistake about it: We are now on our way,” Doug Loverro, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said in a media teleconference to announce the awards, saying it completed NASA plans under the Artemis program to return humans to the moon. “There are no more puzzle pieces to add. We’ve got all the pieces we need.”

The largest award went to the team led by Blue Origin, which received $579 million. That so-called “national team,” announced in October, includes Draper, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. Blue Origin will develop the descent module, based on its Blue Moon lander design, while Lockheed provides the ascent module, Northrop builds the transfer stage, and Draper develops avionics and related systems.

A team led by Dynetics with more than 25 subcontractors received $253 million. Dynetics announced in January it had bid on the HLS program, with Sierra Nevada Corporation as one of its partners. The Dynetics design features a single module capable of both descending to the surface and ascending back to orbit.

SpaceX received the third HLS award, valued at $135 million. SpaceX is offering its Starship vehicle for lunar landings, which would be launched on its Super Heavy booster and fueled in Earth orbit by other Starship vehicles before departing for the moon. SpaceX had not announced its intent to bid on the program, declining to answer questions about it in the past, although the company was widely rumored to have submitted a bid.

Dynetics lunar lander Blue Origin human lunar lander

The three winning bidders will begin work with NASA to refine their concepts, including defining requirements for each lander. “We’re going to spend the first three months understanding the awardees’ designs,” said Lisa Watson-Morgan, NASA’s HLS program manager. “This is far more than just studies. It’s going to encompass deep design, development, long-lead procurements for each of the awardees.”

That work will lead to a level of maturity for each design equivalent to a preliminary design review. NASA plans to conduct a “continuation review” by the end of the 10-month studies, she said, “so we know, quickly, who we think has the best shot of making 2024.”

The lander most likely to be ready for a 2024 landing will go forward, but NASA suggested one or both of the other companies could be retained to develop landers better suited for later missions where NASA has emphasized sustainability.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said the lander selected for the 2024 mission likely will not make use of the lunar Gateway. “We believe that getting to the moon by 2024 does not require the Gateway,” he said when asked about previous comments by agency officials, like Loverro, that suggested the Gateway was not on the critical path. “The Gateway is not required for that 2024 mission, and, in fact, I would go as far to say that it’s not likely that we will use the Gateway for the 2024 mission.”

Bridenstine added that NASA was not formally taking the Gateway “off the table” for that initial 2024 mission, and that the Gateway is “critically important” for later phases of lunar exploration.

None of the three companies proposed using the Space Launch System for their lunar landers. Blue Origin said their lander can launch either on its own New Glenn vehicle or United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan, while Dynetics has baselined Vulcan and SpaceX its own Super Heavy booster for Starship. Bridenstine said SLS will still be used for launching the crewed Orion spacecraft to lunar orbit, where it will dock with the Gateway or directly with the selected lander.

NASA said its budget proposal released in February was sufficient to fund development of the HLS lander systems, along with the rest of the Artemis architecture needed for a 2024 landing. Bridenstine said he met with members of Congress of both parties in recent days about the upcoming HLS awards and found broad support for the effort.

“They have all been very supportive of the effort to get to the moon,” he said. “We have a budget request that reflects that budget priority and I have not heard anybody suggest that, because of the coronavirus pandemic, we’re going to have to cut NASA.”

It’s unclear, though, when and how Congress will act on that budget request, or if NASA will spend much or all of the 2021 fiscal year on a continuing resolution that would fund the agency at 2020 levels and deprive it of the additional funding needed for Artemis. Bridenstine did note that, if Congress does take up a new stimulus spending package focused on infrastructure as part of its response to the pandemic, he hopes that NASA will be a part of that bill.

Notably absent from the winners was Boeing, which announced in November it had proposed a lunar lander system that could be launched in one piece on the SLS. NASA officials on the call declined to state why Boeing was not selected, or if it had received other proposals, saying that would be included a source selection statement.

That source selection statement, posted on a procurement site April 30, confirmed Boeing submitted a proposal — along with another, previously unknown company, Vivace — but offered no explanation of why it was not selected.

“While Boeing is disappointed not to have been selected for HLS, we remain focused on delivering our elements of NASA’s Space Launch System, the rocket that will take Americans to the Moon and Mars,” Boeing spokesman Jerry Drelling said in a statement to SpaceNews.

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