“Welcome to the Moon”

Feb 23, 2024 | Hot Topics

Yesterday was SUCH a strange day. It started normally enough for a Thursday during earnings season: try to catch up on the earnings released the evening before — while answering emails about them and other recent doings. Oh, and all of the non-earning stuff, too.

I was working away when I saw that the Massachusetts State Police were asking people to stop calling 911 (US emergency services) to test whether their phones were working. What?! It turns out many thousands of AT&T subscribers couldn’t use their cell phones or the Internet for much of Thursday. Technology fail.

Fast forward through a hectic day.

At 5 PM, I was supposed to listen to Altair’s earnings announcement (decent, software revenue was a tiny bit below expectations but the company sees growth of around 10% for 2024) but decided to tune into another try at a US moon landing. Read that again: a MOON LANDING. If successful, it would be the first US landing in 50 years.

On a commercial launch rocket with a commercial lunar lander. An autonomous robot lander. Using the commercial model of try, fail or succeed, figure out what worked/didn’t, and do it again if needed until we get it right.

As a kid, I became aware of space during the Apollo program. Regularly scheduled school work stopped, and the teacher wheeled a big TV set into the classroom so we could watch the news coverage of whatever was happening. If it took place outside of school hours, it was must-see TV or radio; no one did anything else, at least in my part of New York City. It was a huge, communal happening.

Given that backstory, this landing is both incredibly cool (LANDING. ON. THE. MOON) and so scary (autonomous, may fail, CNN’s headline at one point was “Failure is an option” = no. it. is. not. to anyone who grew up during Apollo).

I probably should have listened to Jim Scapa and Altair for work. Instead, I was glued to the NASA Youtube feed (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IarunZ9Ykas), learning about the SpaceX rocket’s launch, Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lunar lander — “Odysseus” or “Odie” to its friends, how it slows to drop to a safe coasting altitude, and then how the on-board guidance will (we all hope) safely land it where it’s intended to go. Odie was supposed to land at 6:24 PM US Eastern time, with the broadcast hosts explaining what was happening. Until everything went quiet, with no new info at 6:25, 6:26, 6:27 …

It was a nailbiter until around 6:30 when an administrator said that Odie had landed and that data was being transmitted to Earth. Phew. There’s still a lot to learn about why Odie wasn’t communicating fully upon landing; was it a flaw on Earth or on the lander. As of 9 AM ET on Friday, we still have no images from Odie, but it looks like the lander will be able to carry out its science missions.

Why does this matter? Because humans are meant to do great and daring things. We explore. We discover — not any one of us, necessarily, but our species. It doesn’t matter if we’re American, European, Indian, Japanese, Korean, Russian, from the UAE, or any place else; it represents all of us. And when so much other news is overwhelmingly bad, that’s worth celebrating.

Three more comments: The humans shown on the NASA feed all appeared to be male. Nothing against men, but how will we grow a generation of female aeronautical, robotics, mechanical, and other engineers, and the physicists, chemists, and material scientists who are integral to these missions — if they can’t see themselves represented in a NASA telecast? We need to do better.

Next, this whole “fail fast” thing. Too many entrepreneurs pitch me half-baked ideas; “well, we’ll put it out there and fail fast, fix it, and try again.” That means your customers bear the brunt of your testing and that whatever they’re trying to do with your invention has a decent chance of not working out for them. Why would you do that to a potential customer? Your super new concept should still be 95% (made that up) likely to work before you put it into the world — anything less, to me, means you’re not trying hard enough. Of course you can’t anticipate every use case, but you should have tried and ensured success with the vast majority of what your customers are likely to try to do with yor invention. Fundamental science, like space exploration, is gets a pass on that (if no living creatures are involved) since there’s so much we don’t know about space, combustion in a vacuum and all of the other firsts Odie represents; the odds are, your app doesn’t rise to that level of unexplored.

Last, the Intuitive Machines team did a software update to fix a critical problem before the landing that changed how the planned approach — and uploaded the fix to the lander. A software update BEAMED INTO SPACE!!! And it worked! I may swoon. The Apollo kid remembers the binders the astronauts carried into space and as an adult I was privileged to see some of the original guidance code. No way could that have been tweaked on the fly. True progress.

As I understand it, Odie’s mission is to assess the environment of the moon’s south pole as part of the eventual return of a crewed mission in 2026. On a day with a massive technology fail here on Earth, it seems we had a serious win, too. What a day.

Go, Odie, Go. Make us proud.

“Welcome to the Moon” is what Steve Altemus, the founder of Intuitive Machines, said to confirm that the landing was successful.

The title image is of Odie on top of the SpaceX rocket that blasted it into space, before launch. Image from Intuitive Machines, here: https://investors.intuitivemachines.com/news-releases/news-release-details/intuitive-machines-and-spacex-complete-successful-im-1-test