Houston Matters

Spacecraft built in Houston gets ready for a historic mission to the moon

The Nova-C lander, built by the Houston company Intuitive Machines, will be the first commercial craft to land on the moon and the first time a U.S. spacecraft has done a soft landing on the lunar surface since Apollo 17 in 1972.

The Nova-C lunar lander inside the new headquarters for the Houston commercial space company Intuitive Machines.
Michael Hagerty/Houston Public Media
The Nova-C lunar lander inside the new headquarters for the Houston commercial space company Intuitive Machines.

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As NASA prepares to send astronauts back to the moon and farther into space, a Houston company is preparing to help lay the groundwork for those missions by putting an unmanned lander on the moon's surface as soon as next month.

The company is called Intuitive Machines, and its Nova-C lander will be the first commercial craft to land on the moon and the first time a U.S. spacecraft has done a soft landing on the lunar surface since Apollo 17 back in 1972.

The spacecraft, which is just over 14 feet tall and weighs close to 1,500 pounds, has a tentative window to launch aboard a SpaceX rocket in November. Six days later it will land on the lunar surface to conduct two weeks of research there.

This week, before it's shipped to Florida, Intuitive Machines gave members of the media a chance to view the lander up close at the company’s new, unfinished facility at Houston Spaceport at Ellington Field in Clear Lake.

Intuitive Machines CEO Steve Altemus talks with Houston Matters producer Michael Hagerty in front of the Nova-C lunar lander.
Janett Avalos/Houston Public Media
Intuitive Machines CEO Steve Altemus talks with Houston Matters producer Michael Hagerty in front of the Nova-C lunar lander.

The mission, dubbed IM-1, is the first of three for which NASA awarded Intuitive Machines a contract under its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative. That program’s goal is to utilize the commercial sector to find new, cheaper ways of landing cargo on the lunar surface in support of the agency’s Artemis missions, which will return people to the moon.

Steve Altemus, the CEO of Intuitive Machines, is a former deputy director for the Johnson Space Center. So, he can appreciate this unique moment in space exploration from more than one perspective.

“It’s a great time to be alive as an aerospace engineer with the commercial sector of the aerospace industry being able to build the infrastructure to take the United States back to the moon and NASA being willing to buy that as a service,” he said.

A rendering of the Nova-C lander on the moon. Houston will serve as mission control.

Taking a Celestial “Selfie”

Among the many things Nova-C will study while it’s on the moon are the plumes of debris spacecraft create when landing softly on its surface. Information gained from that research will help protect future astronauts stationed there and their equipment.

One of the ways the lander will do that is by essentially taking a selfie as it’s landing. When it’s about ten meters from touching down, Nova-C will eject a small box with cameras on all sides that will look back at the lander and capture images of it in its final descent.

Former astronaut Jack Fischer, the vice president of production and operations at Intuitive Machines, says that will create a memorable moment for the mission in the public consciousness.

“We’re really excited about that,” he said. “I think that’ll be a fantastic way to give a completely different view of landing on another celestial body.”

A New Mission Control

Most people know that when the Apollo missions landed on the moon, Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center was in charge. That’s why some of the first words ever spoken on the surface of the moon included “Houston.”

Now, fast forward more than 50 years, and people on the ground in Houston will once again be in control of the next mission there too. However, since this is a commercial flight, IM-1 will be controlled from a nerve center about a mile away from JSC in a Clear Lake office building where Intuitive Machines has set up its own version of Mission Control, called Nova Control.

Inside Nova Control, the mission control facility at the Houston company Intuitive Machines, which is putting the Nova-C Lunar Lander on the moon.