Friday, October 27, 2023

Intuitive Machines Delays their Lunar Lander Mission

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 were to launch, I think they'd get more like 110 launches.

 ULA announced this week that the first Vulcan Centaur launch has been set for Christmas Eve.  

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. 


  1. Other than fixing the date of "NET Jan 16" to "NET Nov 16" it was overall a great post.

    Part of the delay at the Cape is the licensing system to fly. Part of it is lack of open launch pads. Both can be fixed. Sad that it will probably take less time to build new launch pads than fix the licensing process.

    As to Vulcan flying, I can't believe they're not launching with just a test article in the payload bay. Nope, they're using an experimental rocket that's never flown before with engines that have only been fired in test stands to launch a very important mission.

    Can anyone else see a serious failure of the test process here?

    1. D'oh!! The most common error in proof reading: reading what you intended to say not what's really there. Yeah, there are tricks to help get around that.

    2. There would have to be a good reason for that type of gamble.

    3. All I'm saying is that Intuitive Machines better have an ironclad big huge enormous insurance policy on their pet, as it's gonna die like a dog when Vulcan blows up.

    4. Astrobotic are not the only ones with a lot riding on this launch. ULA is little more than a startup aside from ancient history. Tory Bruno's reputation is also on the line. United States launch capacity is on the line if the Vulcan Centaur explodes on the pad.

  2. I never in my wildest dreams could have imagined a shortage of pads and facilities! I've seen launch vehicles go wanting for lack of a payload, and payloads go wanting for lack of a launch vehicle, but no pads available? Geesh....wonder what Heinlein would have said about that....

    1. He would have said something like "About damn time!"

    2. He would have regaled the tales of backyard launches, built from junkyard parts and hardware store plumbing.

    3. To be fair, the stories that dealt with 'home-made' launch vehicles usually had the people buying from the local military scrap yard and such, not your normal old time junkyard and old time hardware store.

    4. Yes, but I always got the impression that spaceship scrap yards were as common as today's car junkyards.