When the United States returns to the moon for the first time since 1972, a piece of Yelm will take part in the mission as well.
David Johnson, a former Thurston County resident who grew up in Yelm and current ground software lead at Intuitive Machines in Houston, Texas, worked on the Nova-C unmanned lander that will launch for the moon no earlier than Jan. 12, 2024.
The lander, built by Intuitive Machines, will carry five NASA payloads and commercial cargo. Objectives of the mission, dubbed IM-1, include studies of plume-surface interactions, radio astronomy and space weather interactions with the lunar surface. In order to study the plumes of debris that spacecraft create when landing on the lunar surface, the lander will essentially take a selfie as it lands.
The mission is the first of three for which NASA awarded Intuitive Machines a contract under its Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative, which aims to find more inexpensive ways of landing cargo on the moon, as part of its Artemis program. NASA hopes to pave the way for astronauts to land on the lunar surface in 2024.
As the ground software lead of the company, Johnson and his team are responsible for communicating with the “brains” of the 14-foot-tall spacecraft, and he was also involved in the telemetry, commanding and testing for the mission. When the day comes, the lander will launch aboard a SpaceX rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida and will enter an earth orbit, followed by a maneuver to put it in a lunar orbit. The Nova-C spacecraft will then land on the moon at Malapert A crater near the south pole and is capable of operating for about 14 Earth days in sunlight.
“Once it’s in space, we communicate with it and make sure it knows where it is. For the most part, it’s responsible for its own burns,” Johnson said. “The idea is that we give it a little bit of guidance, and it makes it to the moon. Once it’s on the moon, the payloads are allowed to do their thing, and we get that data down to the ground. All of that valuable science data is what we’re after.”
While Johnson only lived in Yelm, as well as Rainier, when he was a child, he credits his hometown for sparking his fascination with space.
“The interest in space came from some of the neighbor kids that did model rockets, which was a lot of fun. They let me launch some of them,” he said. “The local PBS affiliate aired a bunch of space shows when I was really little, and my granddad and I liked watching ‘Star Trek’ reruns.”
Johnson moved to Houston while he was in elementary school and has lived there for nearly 40 years. He received his associate degree from the University of Houston Downtown and his bachelor degree from the University of Houston Clear Lake; both degrees were in computer science. Upon graduation, Johnson worked at NASA for about 10 years, working in internal management and media relations. He joined Intuitive Machines in 2018 and said the IM-1 mission is the first project of its kind that he has worked on in his career. The mission is even more novel than his own career; it will be the first commercial craft to ever land on the moon.
Johnson said, while he has made a home and a life in Houston, he visits Washington often as his grandmother still lives in Yelm.
“My family has always been there for me for emotional support and anything that I’ve needed. They’ve stood behind me all the way,” he said. “I go up to Yelm every four or five years to visit my grandmother. I really think there isn’t any place prettier in the world. It’s a unique place, and I really wish a lot more people could experience it.”
The launch will be broadcast on the Intuitive Machines website, showing the launch site in Cape Canaveral as well as the Intuitive Machines Nova Control room in Houston. To learn more about the mission, visit intuitive machines.com/im-1.