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  • Writer's pictureGuillermo Sohnlein

Historic Shift: IM-1 Lunar Landing

Intuitive Machines - IM-1 Lunar Landing
(GV Wire Composite/David Rodriguez)

[This post originally appeared as a LinkedIn article on 23 February 2024.]


Yesterday an American commercial business, Intuitive Machines (NASDAQ:LUNR), successfully landed a spacecraft on the lunar surface. There is a nuance in this story that is worth exploring further.


PUBLIC PERCEPTIONS


The bulk of the media hype (at least in the US) surrounding this event has focused primarily on two storylines: “US Returns to the Moon After 50 Years” and “First Commercial Company to Land on the Moon”. The second storyline bothers me.


The general public sentiment fueled by the media stories is that Intuitive Machines has succeeded where previously only national governments have dared to venture. In this way, yesterday’s landing is being heralded as a significant milestone in transitioning space away from governments and into the private sector. 


While I agree that this is a necessary (and very long overdue!) next step for humanity’s expansion into the cosmos, I believe that the headlines are misleading to the general public for two reasons: 


  1. they imply that national governments used to go into space without participation from the private sector; and 

  2. they imply that now private companies are going into space without participation from national governments. 


Both are completely false.


PUBLIC-PRIVATE, THEN AND NOW


The last time the US landed on the Moon was NASA’s Apollo 17 mission in 1972. Yes, this was a mission that was funded and controlled by a national government agency. However, the reality is that a vast ecosystem of private companies (employing thousands of civilians) provided almost all of the hardware, software, and cargo required to make the mission a success. 


In other words, NASA could not have pulled off that mission without the private sector.


Likewise, yesterday’s mission was made possible by funding and support provided to Intuitive Machines by NASA through its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. In this way, NASA subsidized the company’s technology development and acted as their “anchor customer” for the IM-1 mission. 


As with Apollo 17, Intuitive Machines could not have pulled off this week’s mission without its national government.


What has been happening over the past 20 years is not a matter of transitioning from space being “government only” to space being “private sector only”. The truth is that 

space has always been, is today, and will continue to be a geographic location that is so difficult to access and operate in that it requires close partnerships and collaboration between national governments and the private sector.

HISTORIC TRANSITION


So … if I believe that nothing much has changed, then why do I agree that yesterday marked a significant milestone? It’s because THE NATURE of the government-commercial relationship is changing.


In the US, this transition started with the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program in 2006 and continues through today, exemplified by yesterday’s landing. 

Whereas NASA used to fully fund, build, own, and operate its own equipment, it is now leaning more and more toward subsidizing technology development and paying for services, allowing private companies to fully fund, build, own, and operate their own equipment. 

From my two examples above: in 1972, NASA owned and operated the Challenger lunar module that landed two astronauts on the Moon as part of Apollo 17; yesterday, Intuitive Machines owned and operated the Odysseus spacecraft that landed six science payloads on the Moon as part of IM-1.


While both missions required NASA and the private sector to work closely together, what is changing drastically is the role that NASA plays in this relationship. 


To the general public looking at the space sector from the outside, this may seem like a “distinction without difference”. After all, both missions involved similar players, namely, NASA and private companies. However, for those of us who have been working tirelessly from inside the global space ecosystem, this is an incredibly critical–nay, historic–paradigm shift.


CELEBRATING PROGRESS


Despite the immense progress on this front made by NASA and other national governments in the 21st century, there is still a lot of work to be done. 


However, 

the way that NASA is continuing to embrace its new role in the grander scheme of space exploration is a HUGE step forward. THAT is what humanity has been waiting for, and THAT is what should be celebrated. 

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