Intuitive Machines is preparing its Nova-C lander for takeoff, hoping that it becomes the first private mission to touchdown on the lunar surface following a a few failed attempts by others. The lander is packed with science and technology instruments for NASA, as well as some commercial payloads that have no place on the Moon. As the business of Moon landings takes off, however, money might be the only deciding factor on what touches down on that dusty surface.
On Wednesday at 12:57 a.m. ET, Intuitive Machines’ much-anticipated IM-1 mission is set to launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. For the Houston-based company, this marks its first attempt to land on the Moon, but Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander, named Odyssey, is following closely in the wake of Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander, which failed to touch down on the lunar surface earlier in January.
The pair mark a new era for the lunar economy, one that’s defined by frequent commercial drop off trips to the Moon with the aim of creating a sustainable presence on and around Earth’s natural satellite. NASA is funding these commercial lunar missions to enable regular cargo delivery services, with plans to be a frequent customer for Moon transportation. That a pretty aspirational goal, so why does it involve launching an NFT to the Moon?
Odyssey is packed with 12 payloads, six of which are designed by NASA to study the way landers affect the lunar surface during descents, and also how space weather interacts with the surface. NASA’s additional items include a radio astronomy tool, precision landing technologies, and a communication and navigation node for upcoming autonomous navigation tests.
The lander is also carrying a camera system designed by students at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University that will attempt to separate itself from the lander before touchdown to capture the moment of descent. Also on board is a 1.3-pound dual-camera system called ILO-X which will attempt to capture wide and narrow field images of the Milky Way from the Moon.
On the more bizarre side of things, other payloads on Odyssey include small discs called “Lunagrams” that contain messages from Earth to act as a time capsule for our planet. The project from Galactic Legacy Labs includes text, images, audio and archives from major databases such as the Arch Mission Foundation and Wikipedia that depict life on Earth. Popular artist Jeff Koons is also getting in on the lunar action, launching his “Moon Phases” art cubes, which is made up of 125 small stainless steel sculptures of the different phases of the Moon encased in a glass sphere. The sculptures are part of Koons’ first NFT project, and the first authorized artwork to be placed on the lunar surface.
Andrew Chanin, co-founder and CEO of ProcureAM and an expert on space investment, highlights the benefit of launching one mission with multiple contributors, both public and private. “Space agencies, governments, and militaries have their their own goals,” Chanin told Gizmodo in an interview. “If companies are able to help them achieve their goals at a reasonable price, they’re willing to partner with those companies.”
On the other hand, there are no guidelines or rule books on what can be launched to space on those missions. “I think there are all types of concerns,” Chanin said. “The company’s goals for utilizing [the missions] might not align with broader society. It’s certainly something that is going to need to be considered.”
The issue was highlighted with the launch of Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander (RIP), which was carrying cremated human remains for an otherworldly burial. The mission faced criticism, namely by Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren who called on NASA and the U.S. Department of Transportation to delay the launch. Nygren noted that the Moon is sacred to numerous Indigenous cultures, therefore leaving human remains on it is “tantamount to desecration,” Arizona Public Radio first reported.
Unfortunately, NASA may be a partner on these missions, but it can’t control what is packed on the commercial lunar landers. “When you’re dealing with private companies, there is certainly a lesser control mechanism than if [NASA] were just doing things themselves,” Chanin said. “With a checkbook, they’ll say, we will work with companies that are just supportive of things that we agree with and it’s certainly one way that they can show displeasure with things that are going on but ultimately, what can NASA do?”
Odysseus is just the first of three Nova-C landers Intuitive Machines plans to send to the Moon this year, and Astrobotic was already looking forward to its next lunar lander the day after its first one failed. With big plans to turn the Moon into a space hub and launchpad for further destinations in space, it is certain that the lunar environment is about to undergo a massive transformation. Hopefully companies and space agencies alike will tread carefully as to not mess with the Moon too much, but it’s clear that we may need some guidelines in place fairly soon.