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MASTERS of SCALE PODCAST: RAPID RESPONSE Landing on the moon w/ Intuitive Machines’ Steve Altemus, President and CEO & Bob Safian of MASTERS of SCALE (transcript)

In tackling our own moonshots, few businesses can offer inspiration like Intuitive Machines. When the company’s Odysseus lander touched down on the Moon on February 22, Intuitive Machines became the first private enterprise ever to reach the Moon — and the first U.S. presence on the surface in 52 years. CEO Steve Altemus joins Rapid Response host Bob Safian to share how his team navigated multiple last-minute challenges, with lessons about both meticulous planning and swift adaptability. From autonomous vehicles and 3D printed engines to leveraging software and AI, Altemus explains how commercial space exploration is leaving the realm of science fiction to become a real industry.

MISSION DIRECTOR: All stations, this is mission director on IM-1. We’re evaluating how we can refine that signal and dial in the pointing for our dishes. But we can confirm without a doubt, our equipment is on the surface of the Moon, and we are transmitting. So, congratulations, IM team. We’ll see how much more we can get from that.

Excellent call from our mission director, and over to our CEO Steve Altemus. 

STEVE ALTEMUS: Yeah, If I could just pass on a few words to the entire team at Intuitive Machines and Superbad and here in the mission control: what an outstanding effort. I know this was a nail biter, but we are on the surface, and we are transmitting and welcome to the Moon. Houston Odysseus has found its new home.

BOB SAFIAN: Hey everyone, Bob Safian here. That was Steve Altemus, the CEO of Intuitive Machines, which recently became the first company ever to land on the Moon — and the first U.S. presence there in more than 50 years. But so many things didn’t go as planned, requiring multiple rapid responses, always with imperfect information, and under intense time pressure. The fact that the Odysseus lander made it to the Moon’s surface at all, even if it was on its side, is kinda miraculous. Back in the day Steve worked on Space Shuttle launches at NASA, some 40 of them. Now he’s trying to start a whole new industry in space, and Odie, as he calls the Odysseus lander, is the first step in that process.

SAFIAN: You spend all this time planning. I know you, you 3D print your own rockets. You pulled together a communications network to stay in touch. You developed autonomous landing process. Odysseus becomes an autonomous vehicle as it approaches the surface, which we'll get to… so much prep. But you said in advance that there is only a 75 percent chance of success. Do you expect things not to go as planned as you’re going into something as difficult and dramatic as, as you know, trying to land on the Moon?

ALTEMUS: So many things have to go right, have to go absolutely perfectly. Only 40 percent of all missions to the Moon in the history of mankind were successful. That means a 60 percent failure rate, and that includes all the Apollo missions that were successful, right?

SAFIAN: It’s hard to know which dramatic moment to ask you to walk us through first. You have the February 15th launch. And then as you get closer to landing, all kinds of trouble breaks out, which you resolve and are able to land on the Moon, but then things are not quite operating as you hoped once you’re on the Moon. 

ALTEMUS: We launched off of a Falcon 9, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, and we had our problems with loading the liquid oxygen/liquid methane onto our lander. You know, that has not been done in over 30 years, that was very hazardous. We went through two wet dress rehearsals and then finally a launch. Getting to launch vehicle separation and acquisition of signal was another major piece where we flew separately from the rocket. On our own, on our way to the Moon we have to orient ourselves in space. That was a major, major, milestone. This liquid oxygen/liquid methane engine, that we 3D print in-house, and we’ve built the whole thing and invented the whole thing ourselves, had never been fired in space, or never been fired in a vacuum. So was that going to work?

SAFIAN: So take me to the first sort of mission critical moment when you’re approaching landing. It’s the night of the 21st, it’s around 10 o’clock and you get a call to come in. 

ALTEMUS: Boy, it was one of those calls like you don’t want to get at night when it says you ought to get in here right now. Turns out that our Lunar Orbit Insertion maneuver, that puts us into a roughly 100 kilometer by 100 kilometer circular orbit around the orbit around the Moon, was misshapen. We were very low on what they call parallel in the bottom the orbit near the South Pole. And we know that mountains in the area at the South Pole that we were flying by were 6 kilometers high. And you know, folks were worried about “Oh, we’re gonna hit the Moon. We’re to hit the South Pole of the Moon, we’re too low.” I say, “Wait a minute. Let’s just calm down. Everybody just stay focused. Take our time, let’s get this maneuver right.” And we actually burn the engine again and raise that parallel up to the right altitude to set us up for power descent. And so that was a matter of just keeping our heads together, dealing with the problem that was right in front of us, solve that one, to go live another day to solve the next problem that was coming.

SAFIAN: One of the hardest challenges for leaders in all situations is knowing sort of when to delegate and when to roll up your sleeves and do it yourself. 

ALTEMUS: In times of crisis or critical moments, how you carry yourself is really important and a calming influence. In this case it was necessary. The operations team knew what to do. They had a plan. But the criticality or the consequence of doing that wrong was so severe, we were going to lose the mission to the Moon, that we needed to take a deep breath. We have three operations teams, red, white and blue team. And then on the outside of the control room. There’s a team four and I was one of the two leaders of team four. So we’re there to troubleshoot to make sure to get the experts together and make a decision and then give that to the mission director to go implement. And that’s what we did here in this case with that critical lunar correction maneuver to raise that orbit. And it worked. It worked.

 

Adjusting the Odyssues’s lasers for landing

SAFIAN: So my understanding is that Odysseus, as it approaches landing, becomes an autonomous vehicle. In other words, it’s got to find its own spot to land, right? And you’ve got a hazard detection avoidance, HDA, which are sort of cameras and lasers that help the computer on the vehicle find the right place to land. Am I explaining that the right way? 

ALTEMUS: Yeah, the vehicle had to be prepared to autonomously start the engine. The Odie burned the engine himself and cruised along and took pictures or images of the craters and then could tell how fast he was going over surface by how fast the craters moved underneath him. We look ahead at the landing site and scan, with hazard relative navigation cameras we use the HRN, and we found nine different points within our landing ellipse that were clear to land in and that had slopes less than 10 degrees and rocks smaller than bowling balls.

SAFIAN: My understanding is that there were lasers that you were planning to use for this landing, but that for some reason they weren’t operating. And so you sort of borrowed lasers from a project that you were carrying on on Odysseus on the vehicle for NASA.

ALTEMUS: Tim Crane, who is my partner in the company, he’s also the mission director, and when I told him, “Hey, uh, we’re going to have to land without a laser range finder.” He turned white as a ghost. It was like a punch in the stomach. He’s like, “We can’t, we can’t land without range finders.” So we’re walking down the hall trying to figure out, do we put a script in there and just pretend we understand the surface of the Moon and go for it and, you know, a simulated script? No, no, no, that won’t work. And then all of a sudden the light bulb goes on in his head. He’s like, “I know! We’ve got three lasers on board that aren’t being used. Those are the NASA Doppler LiDAR lasers.” Brilliant, brilliant, idea of how to use the spacecraft and how to use other other assets on the spacecraft. And so, uh, we made a phone call as team four to NASA and said: “Hey, you have this NASA doppler LiDAR, and we’re watching it, and it’s shadowing our landing. We want to have the actual navigation application read those laser measurements,” So we made makeshift laser rangefinders out of the NASA doppler LiDAR by reprogramming our navigation application to trick the software to have those laser beams think they were the laser range finders. We took about a month’s work of navigation software development and did it in about 45 minutes.

SAFIAN: You mentioned earlier this sort of the adjustment you were making on the orbit. Was this adjustment around the lasers happening at the same time? 

ALTEMUS: The fact that we had a low orbit coming in after lunar orbit insertion. We turned on one of the lasers and attempted to fire it to see what our altitude was, and we didn’t get the laser, the fire. So all of a sudden we realized we have to do something.

SAFIAN: So if you hadn’t had that orbital problem, when you discovered the laser problem, it might have been too late to make the adjustment that you ended up making that allowed you to land the way you did.

ALTEMUS: Oh, yeah, absolutely, we would not have been able to make it. As it turns out though, as we worked all day to write that software, to solve the problem with the NASA Doppler LiDAR, as we went into power descent, we did not receive those NDL measurements. And so we landed without the laser altimeters in the end. But we had done some work, you know, to get us there. And we looked at NASA’s Doppler LiDAR telemetry, and boy, did it track perfectly so it would have really put us down softly if we could have read those measurements.

SAFIAN: I see. So you went through this effort to pull that together, but in the end it didn’t impact the way the vehicle actually operated.

ALTEMUS: Right, we failed to ingest those measurements. And so we didn’t get the benefit of using them. But that’s okay. We did the work, and we showed it could be done. And then in the end, it proved out just how accurate our navigation application is. So while some people say you landed short of your landing site, or you landed hard, probably three meters a second versus one meter per second, the fact is it’s like flying a fighter jet blindfolded with a dead stick onto an aircraft carrier. That’s what we did on the Moon, basically. And, it just showed that these algorithms that we have for navigation were so accurate that we were able to salvage the landing, without all the necessary equipment. 

 

Losing communication in the control room

SAFIAN: So I was watching the video of the landing and sort of the lander gets to the surface. I’m watching your control room there, which I guess for you is just the office, but it looks, it looks like a control room.

ALTEMUS: A control room, yeah.

SAFIAN: And it gets this surface and silence, like there’s like one minute and two minutes and you’re sort of waiting like what is going through your head while you’re waiting to find out because you don’t know whether it’s at that point, whether it’s landed successfully or not, because you’re not getting any data back. Right?

ALTEMUS: Yeah, I’m looking over my shoulder. And there’s a prop console, which is watching the engine firing. And there’s the flight dynamics officer who’s watching how we’re tracking the spacecraft. Everything looks perfect. And then all the screens go purple, and that’s an indication that we don’t have communications. So it’s funny because all of the NASA VIPs that were here were in the conference room that looks over the control center through big glass windows. And we’re okay, I better go say something to them. So I went in there and I said, “Look, we had good propulsion. We had good flight dynamics and control, but we don’t have communications yet.” And boy, their faces were kind of stern. And then I go back into the control room, and we’re sitting there for minutes and then all of a sudden, bing, we get a ping from the spacecraft. So that’s when you saw a little bit of cheering in the control room, just modest. And then I went back into the conference room with the NASA officials and said, “We have communications,” and they just were ecstatic at that point. And from that point on, just more and more communications and more and more understanding as we got data back on what the vehicle orientation was and that we were going to be able to do science on the surface. And we were going to be able to receive all the data back from how our system performed on the surface. And so it just got better and better.

SAFIAN: One of your colleagues said to me that there were 11 different things that went wrong, that each had like a 70 percent chance of being able to fix them, which in aggregate means that the odds of success were like, 2 percent when you put all that together. When you look at all that, do you feel like, “Oh, we were lucky?”, like, how do you gauge your success in light of those parameters,

ALTEMUS: Odysseus or Odie wouldn’t let us sit back and watch. We had a lot of work to do all the way to, to the last moment. There is something, um, spiritual about it. I think there were a whole lot of people around the world pulling for us, and there is a certain reverence and respect we have for the mission to return the United States to the Moon for the first time in 52 years. But how do you take those odds of potential failure? And it was the team who showed agility and resilience and stick-to-itiveness or perseverance. No one gave up until the last moments or the last breath of Odie, when the sun was, was, was leaving the solar arrays and the battery was discharging. We blasted down the last image. And I think that’s how you raise the odds; you have that attitude like we’re not going to give up. We’re going to find a way. We’re going to be innovative to the end. And that’s what we did.

SAFIAN:There is something spiritual, as Steve puts it, about navigating through all those last-minute travails, especially when you’re up in the heavens. But there were also challenges once Odie was on the surface of the Moon, and then of course all the business challenges back here on Earth. We’ll talk about those when we come back. Stay with us.  

 

[AD BREAK]

 

Why Steve Altemus left NASA

SAFIAN: Before the break, we heard CEO Steve Altemus of Intuitive Machines talk about being in the control room as the first U.S. Moon lander in 50 years encountered difficulties on its way to the surface. Now we dig into the touchdown, whether it was a success, and how his background at NASA paved the way for his business. Plus, planning for the next moon buggy and other adventures in the emerging space exploration industry. Which, thanks to the Odie mission, is now operational. You started your career, spent a lot of your career at NASA. And you left and I’m curious, like why? Obviously you’re working very closely with NASA.

ALTEMUS: Yes, absolutely working closely. I worked at Kennedy Space center for about 16 years. Was involved in 40 launches of the space shuttles, half of which were off of Launch Complex Pad A, which is where we launched our own spacecraft on the SpaceX rocket, and then went and ran engineering at the Johnson Space Center for Human Spaceflight programs for another decade or so. And that was my career. And we had no political will at the time I left to return the United States to the Moon. I think that period of time inside of NASA, working in engineering with no destination was very frustrating. And I went through the cancellation of the Constellation Program, which was the Moon program. And came up with this idea to fly a walking robot to the Moon in a thousand days and do it within engineering like an entrepreneur. And so I started that, and that was successful. We flew that Earth-based test bed of that lander 37 times. And we built a walking robot and flew that on the International Space Station. We never got to go to the Moon, but we did that for pennies on the dollar and showed that you can be innovative, you can be agile within a bureaucracy. You can be lean and affordable. So that was the premise going into starting Intuitive Machines, that culture. And that’s why we’re able to be successful, I think. And I think we’ll continue to be successful as a result of that.

 

“There has never been a perfect space exploration mission, period.”

SAFIAN: And so when Odie’s there but it’s on its side. It’s not exactly where you want it to be. And there’s a challenge about how to maximize communications and data exchange and stuff. How do you think about the relative success of a mission? Cause you’re still scrounging at that point, right? 

ALTEMUS: I think let me just say, unqualified success. And that’s: land softly on the Moon, do your science on the Moon, and return that data back to your customer. And in the end, we used our model, our business model, and proved it right, which is this lean, affordable, fixed price way of contracting to go to the Moon. And I think we’ve established a new economic limit and are ready to open up the cislunar economy as a result of it, and be the first ones pioneering through. So from that perspective, this is a wild success. Would I have liked the gear to stand up to that heavier load or touchdown? Sure. And, you know, there’s a lot of detractors on social media who say you broke a landing gear. Well, you know what? Our spacecraft got the opportunity to use their landing gear. Not many have, right in, in the past.

SAFIAN: Because of all the drama around this landing, in some ways you got more attention maybe than you might have gotten otherwise. Do you think about that at all?

ALTEMUS: Um, well, I guess there’s no bad press. All press is good press. I would like to be perfect going to the Moon. But I’ll tell you, I’ve been associated with a lot of spacecraft missions, a lot of space exploration missions. There has not ever been a perfect space exploration mission, period. 40 shuttle launches, there’s always flight anomalies. I think there’s a little naivety in the community outside of the space community that thinks that it can be perfect. It’s just physics and hardware and software, and sometimes they’re in harsh environments, and sometimes they’re in conflict, and you have failures that you have to deal with. 

SAFIAN: I’m thinking back to 2003, after the shuttle Columbia fell apart on reentry and killed everyone aboard, you were part of the team, the reconstruction team. During the last few weeks, did you find yourself reflecting on that, and going back to those experiences or do you try not to think about that? Like, I don’t want to think about what the worst that could happen is.

ALTEMUS: I led a team of about 400 people in the reconstruction of Columbia back in 2003. Very intense time, but what we were doing was solving a problem to return the United States back to flight of the space shuttle. You know, we had gone through the mourning period, and now this part of rebuilding the orbiter and finding a solution was cathartic for us. 

SAFIAN: I’m sure you’ve gleaned a bunch of technical lessons from the experience. Are there process and leadership lessons as well that the last two weeks have either anchored for you or introduced for you?

ALTEMUS: Oh my goodness, yes. There’s so many technical and operational things, but I think one, it’s the culture of this company, right? The people, you build a company that is mission-focused, with a purpose, a national strategic purpose. And they’re going to give you every bit. You know, Odie didn’t leave anything on the table. There was no methane left, was no helium left. There’s no power left. And I think this team did the same. This team gave everything to this mission. And that’s why we’re successful and now, we have not only the ability to build incredible spacecraft, we have a team that knows how to do that and can fly them in space. So we’re leaps and bounds ahead of others in the world that are trying to do this.

 

What’s at stake for Intuitive Machines?

SAFIAN: Yeah. So, what’s at stake now for Intuitive Machines? 

ALTEMUS: I think what we’ve done is shown that there’s a different model in aerospace in space exploration. One, we’re a publicly traded company. LUNR is our call sign, L U N R.

SAFIAN: Amazing call sign by the way.

ALTEMUS: It’s the coolest ever. And then we have two more missions to go. Probably later this and then one early next year. We’ve designed and offered to the government their next human moon buggy, the lunar terrain vehicle, and we would deliver that to the surface. It’s about the size of an F-150 pickup truck and sell that as a service the government and sell it to commercial interest also. And so providing that space infrastructure as a service is kind of, we’re on our way landing softly, communicating, navigating and bringing equipment, cargo and mobility to the surface. I think we’re a category defining business at this point, publicly traded space exploration company. Somebody said that back in Apollo days, it was a great time to be alive as an aerospace engineer. Everybody would say that and look back at Apollo and say, boy, that was the best time. And now we say, this is the best time to be alive as an aerospace engineer because you can dream this big and succeed. And have a business that does that a living. So, I think it’s a really special time in history and I love to be a pioneer and breaking this new frontier for the United States.

SAFIAN: Well, Steve, this has been great. Thank you. Thanks for sharing all this even though I know you are still recovering.

ALTEMUS: Just a little bit. I’m going to take a vacation. My wife’s going to steal me away for a week and hide me away in the world someplace.

SAFIAN: To be honest, I’ve never been much of a space buff. When I was running Fast Company, editors would pitch space-related stories, and I was always lukewarm. It just seemed more like science fiction than business. But what Intuitive Machines and Odie have done kinda turns me around. Operating in space seems fantastical, but it’s becoming real. There are so many lessons in this journey – about planning and about adaptability, about taking ideas from everywhere, about software and autonomous vehicles and the potential of AI. But most of all for me, it’s about dreaming, about creating the future we want, through active, deliberate, considered effort – and yes, a little bit of luck too. m. There are a lot of intractable problems on Earth right now. But if we can manage to handle difficulties all the way on the Moon, maybe, just maybe, we can be inspired to handle things here at home too. I’m Bob Safian. Thanks for listening.

Ref: https://mastersofscale.com/landing-on-the-moon/

March 7, 2024 | Permalink

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