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Intuitive Machine’s Lunar Odyssey with CEO Steve Altemus 3/1/24 Manifest Space with Morgan Brennan -> Transcript

Intuitive Machines made history, becoming the first company to successfully land a private spacecraft on the Moon. The IM-1 mission carried out as a part of a NASA program was not without drama though. After a successful SpaceX launch on February 15th and stock surge, Odysseus made a nail biting landing a week later. Then came the disclosure, it had tipped on its side. Shares plunged, as on Monday, the warning came that the mission would be cut short. But that didn't happen. On Wednesday, the lander was still active and NASA hailed it a success. Then last night, Odysseus went to sleep as the harsh lunar night set in. The stock is now higher over the past month, but it's down big after tripling halfway through the mission. CEO and co-founder Steve Altemus says he's now fielding calls from prospective new customers for Intuitive Machines, including Japan, Australia and some European and Middle Eastern countries.

There's also been an outpouring of interest in terms of sponsorships and people who want to put their name in the history books on the Moon. So I'm interested in seeing how those take shape also.

Sponsorships? What does that mean? What does that look like?

Well, I know we've had this wonderful sponsorship and relationship with Columbia from Columbia Sportswear and they put a material on the lander, an insulator, and it started as a sponsorship and turned into an engineering demonstration that actually proved out their technology for warm or cold weather gear. And it actually turned out to be a great thermal insulator. So we're gonna move that thermal insulator materials and coatings from Columbia onto the lander to replace some of the materials that we currently use.

After the surprise reawakening of another lunar lander, Japan's SLIM this week, Intuitive Machines now also hopes to have Odysseus, quote unquote, phone home when the Sun rises in the next few weeks. On this episode, a deep dive with Altemus into the mission's twists and turns, what went right, what went wrong, and now what happens next. I'm Morgan Brennan and this is Manifest Space.

Steve Altemus of Intuitive Machines. It's so great to rejoin you now that you have literally made history landing Odysseus on the Moon and carrying out a mission. But there has been, wow, it has been very, as a spectator, it has been quite something to behold over the past week. So maybe we could just start with where we're at right now as Odysseus goes to sleep and you start to assess what's happened in recent days.

Yeah, good to be back, Morgan. Thank you so much. In a whirlwind of 13 days, 14 days now, we launched on February 15 and had a seven-day trip out to the moon. And then 144 hours was our time on the surface of the Moon. We actually got a little more time with Odysseus or Odie on the surface before we put him to bed for the long, cold lunar night. Right now we have all the data back for all the science payloads that we carried, both commercial and NASA payloads. We also now have all the data from our vehicle performance we've got back with pictures. And so we're in the process of doing a reconstruction of the mission where we take all the data, we have it all organized in these data repositories, and then all the systems engineers will come in and start to reconstruct their system performance. And we'll get a good sense of how we did in analyzing our spacecraft performance. The first blush looks like things went extremely well, and the Odie spacecraft really performed above expectations.

Okay. So, and which raises the question, what constitutes success? Because there was a lot of drama earlier this week with the realization that maybe Odie had tipped on its side. Maybe the mission was going to not go for the full amount of time anticipated. That sort of reversed itself, at least in terms of the time. So what does constitute success?

Well, unequivocally unqualified, this is an enormous success. Um, 100%. You know, we gave everything to this mission, both as an engineering team and an operations team and the spacecraft, gave everything to get to the Moon and return all the data that we could get out of the spacecraft. You know, when we do this, there has never been a perfect space mission where there were no anomalies or problems, I think, in the history of space. There's always something to work [on]. And to have a robotic spacecraft that we developed at the price point we developed it, make it to the Moon on our first try, our very first try with a brand new spacecraft as a brand new company and put it on the Moon, is an incredible success. You know, the little bit of tilting that we have in the vehicle due to a broken landing gear was because we hit on a very, a little bit faster than we wanted to and in a very undulating slope. I think it's a 12 degree slope. So that didn't detract at all from the mission. We ended up getting sun, solar power, just like we had planned. We got telemetry and uplink, which is the data flow down and back up to the vehicle to command it. The propulsion system, oh my God, we didn't even talk about that in terms of liquid oxygen/liquid methane brand new propulsion system that we additively manufactured out of high nickel steel, and we tested it on the ground over and over and over for thousands and thousands of seconds. That worked perfectly. The flight control system, perfect. You know, we talked about the little problem we had with the enable switch on the laser reflector or the laser range finders. And that was just a small wire that we failed to put a little circuit in there to disable that switch. And we landed without a laser altimeter. I mean, that's like no altimeter in an airplane. Just think about that. And we landed softly enough to preserve the whole mission. So, just unqualified success, very happy with it.

Which is so fascinating because we're talking about an autonomous robotic lander. And I was reading that you were writing and your team was rewriting algorithms and coding to ensure that that landing was going to happen given the fact that there was that situation with the laser. Is that true?

Oh yeah, absolutely true. We had to rewrite the navigation software application to say, don't read these laser altimeters in the registers. Read these laser beams from the NASA Doppler LIDAR. Rewrite that, and in order to put that up on the spacecraft, we had to shut down the guidance navigation control on the spacecraft completely and then bring it all back up and hope that the control of the spacecraft wasn't lost. And we did that seamlessly on the fly in real time. So that's just a testament to the, just the quality and the dexterity of the operations team and how they could do that in such a short amount of time under incredible pressure. And that agility and resolve and the sense of perseverance to get through this mission is what you need to be successful. And I think, you know, it demonstrates that part of this unqualified success is the learning that we gained in flying a brand new spacecraft in flight all the way to completing the mission. Now that experience is under our belt. We don't have this big missing piece of how things are gonna behave in space. We lived it, we worked it, we solved the problems, and it feels really good to be on the other side of it with a successful mission under our belt.

Now I realize that to your point, you've just gathered all of this data and in many ways the process now of debriefing and kind of dissecting and truly fully deeply assessing everything that's just gone down in the last two weeks will happen now, but given that, I guess, the fact that we're in early stages, what are some of the learnings? What worked better than expected? What works the way it was intended? What didn't? I guess, what would you do differently, especially given the fact that you do have another mission on the books for later this year?

Yes, we have, I've done something in the company to organize us to do this assessment that you're talking about. But we're gonna take the next 30 days. We built the data repository, we put all of the information from the mission in that repository, organized photographs, subsystems, all the files that we've gotten down, all the telemetry. We then take and look at that and reconstruct pieces of the mission by phase, launch vehicle separation, acquisition of signal, commissioning maneuver, trajectory correction maneuvers, lunar orbit insertion, power descent, all of those different phases, and we'll reconstruct them. See what systems performed perfectly or what systems needed some adjustment. And then where are those, the next team will take where those improvements need to be applied to our next mission, our second mission, our third mission and subsequent missions. And where design changes need to be folded into the program. So that is in [the] work[s] and that will take about 30 days. Our initial assessment is that the propulsion system performed perfectly and better than we had anticipated in space. So we were able to auto light the engine and burn the engine up to 13 minutes continuously through over four planned ignitions. And so we did an ignition on the far side of the Moon with no human intervention for power descent. So it was really a testament to that whole system. The flight control, we got that all dialed in and that worked perfectly. The addition of the laser altimeters would have meant we would have touched down even softer in precisely the spot we were looking for. That's the initial reconstruction of the trajectory and the flight control. We did have some components get quite cold. You know, and some of the attitudes that we had to take on the way to the Moon in order to point our antennas back to Earth got some of our reaction control system or attitude control system regulators, which is a valve, cold, that started to see helium. So we'll go look at attitude control and see how we can keep those valves or regulators in the sun a little bit longer. Something else to work out is we had a lunar distance network of ground stations around the world that we went jump to. Every several hours, we'd move around the world with our orbit to move to a different ground station antenna. And we have to make sure that all those ground station antennas have the right configuration, that our technology at the base of those transceivers is all working properly. And we just want to go around and make sure that all of that is in good shape, so make sure that we have seamless communications with the spacecraft throughout the mission. We had a lot of times where the communication was spotty and we would lose it for periods of time. So we'll go back and look at the radios, the antennas, and the ground station communication. I think that's one of the biggest items that we want to make sure works right because if you can't hear the spacecraft and you can't talk to the spacecraft, that means you're probably not going to have a great mission. So that's one thing I'll look at pretty hard. But other than that, spacecraft really performed well and all the systems are up and we're up and working just like intended.


And for our little landing gear that, you know, got a lot of criticism about the spindly landing gear, that exceeded expectations. We landed harder, the neck gear was designed to hold. And so we think we can touch down a lot softer without changing the landing gear, but we'll assess that and make sure that we don't tilt next time.

Okay. I just want to go back to the ground stations for a minute. Are those something that you build in-house and deploy yourself? Or are you working with other companies on it?

We work with other countries and companies that own these large radio astronomy dishes around the world. These are the large parabolic dishes in the UK, in South Africa, in Japan, in Australia, in India and in the United States. And we contract with those and we put our own technology in a baseband unit at the base of the transceiver. And we talk via the transceiver to the baseband unit and back to mission control. All of that string is our commercially provided lunar data network that can communicate out to the moon. And it's the first commercial lunar distance network in the world. And so through our partners in those countries that help us with that, it's just an incredible capability.

So what does all of this mean in terms of I believe what the flight manifests? November for the next mission. Is that correct? Does this change the timeline at all?

Well, I'll tell you something the thing that I realized from this mission, which we flew later than where we had planned in mission one. And if you recall we moved the landing location towards the South Pole region. I think it's more important to land softly than it is to land sooner. And so we're gonna make sure that the vehicle's right and any changes we need to make will then turn around and set a launch date based on reviewing all of the systems data that I just talked about.

Okay. One of the things that I think is most fascinating, it's been such a big week for the Moon because you also had Japan's SLIM lander which sort of reawoke in the sun, much to everybody's surprise, and started communicating back to Earth unexpectedly. The idea that you're gonna quote unquote phone home or attempt to phone home with Odie now that you've put it to sleep when the Sun rises on the Moon again. I guess just walk me through that and the decision to do that and what's at stake if it actually works.

Well, I'll tell you something. The mission, we never planned to wake back up. We've always said when the Sun stops powering the vehicle through the solar panels and it dips below the horizon, the vehicle will freeze over. And that is the planned end of mission. You build the spacecraft, you deploy it. It's supposed to live for a certain amount of hours on the Moon, and it does its job. And then it freezes.Several years from now, we'll have the ability to survive the lunar night, the cold, minus 280 degrees, it gets to 180 degrees Fahrenheit during the cold of night. Maybe we'll survive that. But it's worth trying to see how the batteries, how the electronics, how they will behave if they get frozen down to that temperature and then suddenly get a spark or a power signal from the solar panels and the power control distribution unit to power them back up. Will it wake up? So we set Odie up right before we blasted all the data down to in the last hours of its life. We were gonna send the last bit of data down, the last photographs. We set it up to configure it to wake up. So we put it in a mode that if it gets a signal from the power, from the power control distribution unit, it'll wake up and make sure the antennas are pointed towards Earth, and that it'll take a command from the Earth and be in the right configuration should it get power. So that's the way we left it. We think that's the safest configuration and the most likely if we were to get that charge from the Sun to wake that up and be back in. And if we prove that, boy, we've gone a long way in proving some of the components robustness like lithium ion batteries that can survive a chill to that temperature and then come back up, a flight computer that could be chilled that hard and not break a solder joint or a card inside. That's just a really nice piece of data. So it's gravy on top of a successful mission, is kind of the way I look at it.

You just mentioned the fact that maybe this is not gonna be the dynamic dealing with lunar night in a couple of years. I spoke to Zeno power. I wonder if that's what you're referencing, the fact that this idea that maybe we see RPSs implemented on future vehicles or if it's something else.

We know Zeno, they're a good partner of ours. We work with them to try to develop this survive the night technology. And so the key is gonna be, you know, radio or isotope thermal generators, RTG type units that can produce a little heat. And if we focus that heat on the batteries or the flight computer and distribute it properly, we could survive the night. And so we just have to work on that project. It's always 30 months away or so. So we have to put a little energy into it to get to that point.

Got it. Okay, so we know what's next in the immediate future for Intuitive Machines as you now go through and assess this mission, maybe in two weeks. If things go really unexpectedly well, even see Odie come back to life potentially, what happens then? I guess how to think about the medium term and the longer term.

Yeah, I'll tell you, we have three missions planned, indicating late in 2024, early in 2025, is kind of a thought process now while we do this review. But as we get more interest, as we've landed on the Moon, there's been some companies and governments calling and looking for proposals to fly their equipment to the Moon. We're gonna be thinking hard about building the next category of lander to take more and more payloads and cargo to the moon. We call that Nova-D. It's the next scaled up version of this lander. So we'll fly this lander at least three times, this version, but maybe we're gonna start with taking heavier cargo up to a metric ton to the surface. And that's in our near term future.

Have you been fielding calls from potential customers here in these last couple of weeks amid everything that's been going on in the milestones?

Oh yes, oh yes. There's European countries and the European Space Agency are very excited about our mission, the Japanese, some of the countries in the Middle East and Australia. There's just a lot of interest in what's next and what can we do together. And so we'll continue to talk with them and kind of refine what their needs are and how we can respond. There's also been an outpouring of interest in terms of sponsorships and people who want to put their name in the history books on the Moon. So I'm interested in seeing how those take shape also.

What does that mean? What does that look like?

Well, I know we've had this wonderful sponsorship and relationship with Columbia from Columbia Sportswear and, you know, they put a material on the lander, an insulator, and, you know, we started as a sponsorship and turned into an engineering demonstration that actually proved out their technology for warm or cold weather gear, and it actually turned out to be a great thing, thermal insulator. So we're going to move that thermal insulator materials and coatings from Columbia onto the lander to replace some of the materials that we currently use. So that's kind of an idea. And when people see that there's other walks of life or other industries that can benefit from space, suddenly that crossover becomes attractive and we can talk about how we might help each other as businesses going forward.

Oh, that's so fascinating. OK, so I just have to ask, what has the feedback been regarding the payloads, whether it's NASA, which I know you've been doing some joint press conferences with, or some of these commercial customers, like Columbia, like some of the others. I realize maybe more art related with like Coons, for example. But what is the feedback then?

Oh, the feedback has been wonderful. We were able to, by using some of the NASA payloads in line for operations of the mission, we were able to advance their technology readiness to 9, you know, TRL 9. So their operational grade now, they've worked in the exact environment where they were designed for. So the LN1 payload was a navigation payload that used the RF spectrum. That worked in line to help us with orbit determination, the NDL, the NASA Doppler LIDAR, tracked our trajectory from power descent all the way to the surface precisely. And that data looks really good. So that's now TRL level 9. And the mass gauging to tell what our propellant tank quantity was, it was called the RFMG. That was out of Glenn Research Center. And that worked perfectly from on the launch pad all the way through end of mission. And that now can serve for any future cryogenic missions in space. So those were wonderful examples of successes from Langley Research Center, Marshall Space Flight Center, and Glenn Research Center. The other ones is, you know, I talked about Columbia and how successful that's been. It was wonderful to see they put a commercial on the sphere in Las Vegas, and that was pretty exciting to get everybody excited about our mission. We've seen the ArtCube from Jeff Koons and Pace Galleries be successful. And a Hawaiian nonprofit company called ILOA. We flew a camera and took amazing pictures looking away from the lander at the surface. And we just, you know, when people see what the surface looked like on what we tried to land on, it is just rocky and craggy and full of craters. And it only gets more complex as we move towards the exact precise South Pole in Shackleton Ridge on our second mission. So overall, everybody was happy. The students from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University who built the EagleCam, oh my goodness, they're now seasoned veterans of space flight where they built a small canister that deployed a camera to the surface. While that camera didn't send an image back to the lander and we didn't get it back to Earth, they successfully built and tested their first piece of flight hardware and we ejected the camera on the last day of the mission and it worked. The camera didn't get an image, but that whole system seemed to work. And so I'm very proud of those students and faculty from Embry-Riddle. So it's just been a wonderful mission for everybody involved and we're happy that it was so successful and we could deliver the service. Well, Steve Altemus, CEO of Intuitive Machines, congratulations on making history and on the success of IM-1. Thank you. Thank you, Morgan. I appreciate seeing you again.

That does it for this episode of Manifest Space. Make sure you never miss a launch by following us wherever you get your podcasts and by watching our coverage on Closing Bell Overtime. I'm Morgan Brennan.

Ref: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/manifest-space-with-morgan-brennan/id1680523433?i=1000647715331



March 2, 2024 | Permalink


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