Intuitive Machines' IM-1 lunar lander mission has slipped from NET (No
Earlier Than) November 16 until NET January 12. A mission slipping out a couple of months is hardly news, especially
a first mission from a startup. The reason, though, is a bit
unusual. But let me start at the beginning, at an announcement from this
past Tuesday, Oct 24.
In a statement issued after the markets closed, the company said its IM-1 mission is now scheduled to launch on a Falcon 9 in a “multi-day” window that opens Jan. 12 from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A. The mission had been scheduled to launch in a six-day window that opened Nov. 16. [Note: more detailed description of the mission at that link, or the article here based on it. - SiG]
The issue has nothing to do with the lander itself. It's due to how busy the launch facilities are. The mission is flying on a Falcon 9, and they're almost as frequent and dependable as the municipal bus lines around here.
The company did not elaborate on the reasons for the delay. However, executives warned at a media event Oct. 3 that “pad congestion” at LC-39A could delay their launch. The mission has to launch from that pad, rather than nearby Space Launch Complex 40, because only LC-39A is equipped to fuel the lander with methane and liquid oxygen propellants on the pad shortly before liftoff.
That pad is used for Falcon 9 crew and cargo missions to the International Space Station as well as Falcon Heavy launches. The pad is scheduled to host the Falcon 9 launch of the CRS-29 cargo mission Nov. 5 followed by a Falcon Heavy mission for the Space Force in late November. Converting the pad between Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches can take up to three weeks.
Most of you are aware that SpaceX has been duplicating facilities from LC-39A that are necessary for Dragon launches (both crew and cargo variants) at SLC-40. While they seem to work faster than anyone else in the business, they're also interrupted more than anyone else in the business with their aggressive launch schedules and that project isn't done just yet. To be complete, I'm not certain the ability to load propellants like they need is going to be available at SLC-40 either.
There has been an undercurrent showing up in various news sources that the
pace of launches all across the US is stretching launch capabilities
everywhere: Cape Canaveral, Vandenberg, Virginia, all of it. Last
Saturday, Oct. 21, a SpaceX launch broke last year's all time record number of
launches in one calendar year from the Cape, with 10 Saturdays left in the
year (1/1/24 is on a Monday).
The Nova-C lander built by Intuitive Machines seen during a media day Oct. 3 for the upcoming IM-1 mission. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust
ULA Announces Christmas Eve target for Vulcan Centaur first launch
While SpaceX has targeted approximately 20 more launches just from Cape Canaveral for calendar '23, dates aren't sure enough for us to say that's it for the year and we're looking at well over 90 launches for the year. If everything listed at NextSpaceflight.com were to launch, I think they'd get more like 110 launches.
In an interview with CNBC used to announce the launch date, Tory Bruno, chief executive of ULA, said the date is driven by the requirements of Peregrine. “We’re going to a part of the moon where they need very carefully controlled lighting conditions and they also have to stay in radio communication with the Deep Space Network,” he said. “When you put the two together, we get just a few days every month.”
It "just so happens" the first days they feel they can try for are December
24, 25 & 26. There are more days in January, and
judging by the phase of the moon
probably around January 22, 23 & 24. (The last day of both three
day sets is the day before the full moon.) The "Peregrine" that Bruno refers to is that this first Vulcan mission will be carrying Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander to the moon. There has been a race to be the first NASA CLPS (Commercial Lunar Payload Services) mission to land on the moon and Intuitive Machines moving from November to January appears to hand that opportunity back to Astrobotic's Peregrine.
EDIT 2202 EDT 10/27: Thanks to first comment from Beans pointing out that I opened with a nonsense sentence that moved it from January 16 to January 12, not November 16 to Jan. 12. That was a couple of sentences later.