To the moon – or the stock market?

Now this is quite upsetting. I learn from Jatan Mehta’s Moon Monday #166 that Intuitive Machines – the maker of the Odysseus spacecraft that landed on the moon on February 22 – may have lied about the circumstances of the landing attempt in order to protect its market value, before ‘correcting’ itself later. Excerpt:

Previously, the publicly traded company prematurely stated post-landing that Odysseus is “upright”, only to correct it in a media briefing timed to the closing of the stock market an entire day later. Now it turns out even the NASA LiDAR onboard … actually did not assist Odysseus’ landing in the last 15 kilometers of descent due to a delay in processing its data.…Are we supposed to believe that descent telemetry on Mission Control screens … never made it clear to the company and NASA that the LiDAR readings weren’t coming through to the lander’s navigation system? Or that it wasn’t clear in the following few days either?…A [NASA] payload called SCLPSS was flown on Odysseus to specifically study the lander’s engine plume effects on lunar soil during the final descent phase. NASA says the payload did not do said imaging. And yet the agency states in the same release that “the bottom line is every NASA instrument has met some level of their objectives.” A subsequent report by Eric Berger [of Ars Technica] reads: “As of Wednesday [February 28], NASA had been able to download about 50MB of data. The baseline for success was a single bit of data.” Was this criteria for success made clear and public pre-launch?

NASA has rightly defined the ideal standard for communications over the years by placing what data its probes collect as soon as possible in the public domain. (This responsibility even led to some tension in the book and the film The Martian.) So it’s really disappointing, and frankly a little infuriating, to see this bad-faith effort from Intuitive Machines.

Its Odysseus mission was funded by NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) programme and it carried six NASA instruments (including SCLPSS) to the moon. Even if Intuitive Machines isn’t implicitly required to follow NASA’s communications policies, NASA needs to ensure the companies it contracts to fly its payloads – to ease its own path to the moon in future – do. As Jatan also pointed out, the onus to communicate lies with NASA: CLPS is publicly funded and without it missions like Odysseus wouldn’t happen. We need explicit policies to streamline these companies’ communications expectations to follow NASA’s rather than their share prices.

It’s also a poor look for NASA to celebrate Odysseus’s success the way it did (was it to protect Intuitive Machines again?). CLPS is a billion-dollar programme to ferry NASA payloads to the moon. How do you call the mission a “success” if the payloads aren’t collecting data?

We don’t want tax money to disappear into black holes like this that release no or, worse, misleading information.