A Promise, COVID-19, and Landing on the Moon
By Steve Altemus
President and CEO of Intuitive Machines
May 7, 2021
June 13th, 2020, my phone lit up and started buzzing at edge of the conference room table. I picked up the phone and an employee told me they had tested positive for COVID-19. Hours later, a second employee took a precautionary test that came back positive. We had taken all the proper precautions in the workplace, but an uneasy concern crept into my mind and I questioned, was the promise I made to myself and you the right choice?
We, Intuitive Machines, are a Houston-based aerospace engineering company in the process of building a complete lunar program including a lunar distance communication network, mission operations center, and lunar lander scheduled for launch early next year. The pandemic has taught us how to change, adjust, and polish our procedures – while protecting each other, our families, and friends. There is no rosy glow to put on the pandemic, a silver lining on its dark cloud. It was and remains a tragedy and a very sobering reminder about the limits of human knowledge, science, and public health policy. But in the same way that previous generations of Americans were hardened and, ultimately, improved by disaster, so are we. In fact, we owe it to ourselves now and to future generations to be improved by this.
“No one will be laid off and everyone will receive a paycheck,” I promised myself and you early into the pandemic. As a company, we are tasked with leading the United States’ return to the lunar surface. As a CEO, my responsibility is balancing the company’s mission and your health and livelihood while we are tackling this monumental task, building a complex lunar program in 27 months. Yes, we could have shut down operations to take 100 percent of the pandemic’s risk out of the workplace but keeping paychecks in your pocket would have been difficult, and we would fold on our commitment to NASA and our commercial moon-bound partners. To deliver the Moon and on my promise, we needed to be creative and dare to color outside the lines.
Opinions, views, and medical advice have varied throughout the pandemic. Initial guidance was conflicting at all levels of government. Still, we came together as a leadership team to find the best initial response. You were open to working from home, accepted our COVID-19 in-person protocol, and you helped create “The Hygienic Hot Fire Protocol,” which has kept our rapid hot fire testing on schedule. The Coronavirus is an equal opportunity pathogen, but with the right counter measures, we continued all in-house operations.
Unfortunately, our lunar program is not 100 percent made-in-house. We kept as close to our build schedule as we could throughout 2020; NASA was extremely cooperative. Still, challenges piled up as vendors and suppliers could not meet their target date, which threw off our lunar program building sequences and payload integration. These outside setbacks guided the development of what I like to call “The Marvel Method.”
Marvel Studios built a superhero cinematic universe over more than a decade. Yes, they could have released each movie in chronological order, to which I still have to Google how to watch them, but they did not. Marvel worked with what they had at the time and wove in different pieces of the puzzle to achieve their ‘Endgame.’ Time and time again, you have relied on The Marvel Method when the pandemic throws an infinity stone our way, if you’ll excuse the bad pun.
The Marvel Method served us well when it came to building a complete lunar program and especially while building our moon lander, Nova-C. The 100kg payload capacity lander was originally drafted as a somewhat linear timeline. Before the pandemic we planned to receive products like valves, tanks, structures, and solar panels in order and then assemble them for testing in that order. When supply vendors suffered Coronavirus setbacks, we learned that our linear timeline was not going to work. We rethought our workflow, made more of the lander in-house, and reordered our timeline to receive the products in a way that will eventually flow together. With respect to The Marvel Method, think of this like releasing Captain Marvel’s origin story after Infinity War. Its release was out of order, but the story comes together because they planned accordingly.
A tangible example of the Marvel Method is our Vertical Test Stand, or VTS, which needed a superhero’s touch, too. The VTS is a truck we use to perform hot fires, the qualifying tests we run on our moon lander’s engine and propellant system. Unfortunately, the propellant tanks that we need to perform some of our qualifying tests have been delayed due to COVID-19 restrictions and work stoppages in California. So, we got creative. First, we installed full-sized test bed tanks as a replacement for the delayed tanks. Next, we created a way to change out the tanks on the VTS without major disruption. When the proper tanks arrive later this year, they can seamlessly drop into the VTS propulsion system for qualification and finally, Nova-C assembly. Your incredible thinking and flexibility on projects like this is what makes us an unstoppable force.
It sounds cumbersome, and it was at first, but with some practice and your hard work we perfected these counter-intuitive sequences. Now I am confident we can build almost anything on a spacecraft, regardless of delays, parts or material shortages, and finish with our ‘Endgame,’ sticking the landing on the Moon.
With respect to our heroic testing and assembly approach, Intuitive Machines recognizes the true heroes of the pandemic, our frontline workers. We are proud to have worked with three hospitals in the nation’s largest medical center, the Texas Medical Center, to send the names of hundreds of our frontline workers to the lunar surface. Our industries are intertwined by science, but the heart shown by Space City’s frontline workers is something our robotic lander will never achieve. It is our distinguished honor to have the names of extraordinary humans bring life to our robotic return to the Moon.
In closing, I was right to question my promise after two employees tested positive for COVID-19. At the time, I was tempted to take more aggressive precautions that could have shut down production and adversely affected your livelihood. What surprised me most is the most important lesson we learned through the pandemic, you all steadfastly care about and support each other. Everyone at Intuitive Machines wants to “stick the landing.” I can make promises, we can train and empower employees, but your genuine care for each other is what helped see us both through the early and late stages of the pandemic and it continues to motivate us today. I am proud to call you, my family.