Standing on a runway in southeast Houston, Tim Crain had to raise his voice to be heard over the roar of a supersonic jet taking off in the distance.
The present and future have come together at the Houston Spaceport. On an almost daily basis, current NASA astronauts take T-38s out for flights to hone their flying skills,or to jet across the country for mission training. A few hundred meters away from the main runway, Intuitive Machines is testing rocket engines to support lunar landings.
Crain is the chief technology officer for Houston-based Intuitive Machines, which is building landers to take cargo to the lunar surface. Intuitive Machines has a mixture of NASA and commercial contracts and has emerged as one of a new generation of mostly small companies seeking to extend the sphere of economic activity to the lunar surface.
To do this, Intuitive Machines has built a rocket engine for its Nova-C lunar lander in house. This VR900 engine—which has, you guessed it, 900 pounds of thrust—burns liquid oxygen and methane and could become the first methane-based engine used in space. The company is working toward an early 2022 launch date for its first lunar mission, and the engine is just one of many components that must come together to make the mission a success.
“Every day there’s nice weather, we’re pretty much out here testing,” Crain says, walking around the company’s mobile test stand.
The Moon, faster and cheaper
Intuitive Machines is part of an innovative program developed by NASA to harness the potential of US space companies to get cargo to the Moon at a lower price point. Under terms of this Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, or CLPS, NASA pays a fixed price for a delivery service. After a company bids for and then wins a contract, it provides the lander and finds a rocket to launch upon. In May 2019, Intuitive Machines won its first CLPS contract, worth $77 million, to carry five NASA payloads to a location near the Sea of Tranquility.
With this program NASA will pay far less for these services than it would have in the past, and in return it has accepted the possibility that some missions will fail. It has also relinquished control of the spacecraft design and given the companies more freedom to innovate. “It’s absolutely a different way of conducting missions to the lunar surface,” said NASA’s acting administrator, Steve Jurczyk.
For Intuitive Machines, this has meant building its own engine in house. By 3D printing the thrust chamber for the engine, Intuitive Machines cut the price from $350,000 for a supplier-built component to about $15,000. The company also selected an unproven liquid oxygen-methane engine, because it had the performance needed to allow its 1,900 kg lander to bring about 100 kg of payload to the lunar surface. This engine also scales up, allowing the company to plan a Nova-D lander capable of carrying 500 kg to the Moon, and a Nova-M lander that could one day carry up to 5 metric tons of cargo to the Moon.
To further control costs, the Nova-C lander uses off-the-shelf cameras and flight computers, as well as cryogenic valves and other components. The only major part of the lander that Intuitive Machines had to buy from aerospace suppliers is the composite structural materials, said Steve Altemus, president and CEO of Intuitive Machines.
Altemus, who served as director of engineering at NASA’s Johnson Space Center for nearly a decade before co-founding Intuitive Machines, fully understands that this “commercial” path to space is leaner and therefore riskier than NASA’s traditional spaceflight methods. But he believes the potential payoffs—faster service and much-lower overhead costs—are worth it.
“You can’t go to the Moon on a fixed price for under $100 million in 30 months doing it the way anybody else did,” he explained.
NASA is doing its best to facilitate this era of commercial exploration. Instituted by NASA science chief Thomas Zurbuchen, this CLPS payload program has stimulated the commercial space industry to think about new ways to deliver science and supplies to the lunar surface. And while change does not always come easy to NASA, nearby Johnson Space Center, under the leadership of director Mark Geyer, has sought to be supportive.
Last year Johnson Space Center began building 3D terrain maps for a sensor lab. This simulated the surface of the Moon to aid the development of terrain navigation for landing systems. Construction of this lab was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, however, and the large gray panels that modeled the Moon terrain were temporarily unused. When Intuitive Machines asked if the panels were available to help with its own terrain navigation system, officials at Johnson Space Center quickly moved to help.
This is an example of the change in thinking at NASA, which really started to accelerate during the tenure of administrator Jim Bridenstine, who led the space agency from 2018 through early 2021. Bridenstine pushed NASA to buy services from the commercial sector where available. He believed NASA should be supporting industry, not trying to own and operate all of the exploration systems itself. The work Johnson Space Center is doing with Intuitive Machines suggests the NASA field centers have taken this message to heart.
“There has been a culture shift over time, and I think it’s really been a positive one,” said Carlos Westhelle, chief technologist at Johnson Space Center, or JSC. “I see certainly JSC—and other centers as well—really embracing this new model, recognizing that industry is now able to bring some critical skills and capabilities. For us, it’s about finding the areas where we can compliment them, and helping buy down that risk.”
Learning to accept risk
There are plenty of risks, beginning with schedule. Intuitive Machines had been working toward a November 2021 launch date on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, but recently said the mission would slip into 2022. Among the factors was COVID-19, which really disrupted the work being done at its California-based supplier of composite materials.
Nevertheless, the Nova-C mission will happen, and it could soon be followed by another. Of the six CLPS contracts awarded by NASA to date, Intuitive Machines has won two. (Another company, Astrobotic, has also one two contracts, whereas Masten Space and Firefly Aerospace have each won one contract).
As early as the end of 2022, Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander will carry a drill and a mass spectrometer to the South Pole of the Moon, enabling NASA scientists to test the harvesting of ice from below the lunar surface. This will also provide NASA with key insights into this polar environment ahead of a human landing nearby, which could occur as early as 2024. It’s not lost on Crain and the other engineers testing the VR900 engine that those very same astronauts could be flying by their test site on any given day.
Listing image by Intuitive Machines