NASA has delayed the first Artemis crewed mission to the Moon until 2025, rather than the previously planned 2024.
The goal date of 2024 was originally set by the Trump administration in 2017. The failure of that timetable is not uniquely Trumpy. George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush had done similar, with Jr stating the US must do so by 2020 and Daddy Bush giving much more vague directives.
“The Trump administration’s target of 2024 human landing was not grounded in technical feasibility,” NASA’s head honcho Bill Nelson said on a conference call during which he delivered the first major Artemis update under the Biden-Harris Administration.
He also gave some dollar amounts, announcing the development of the Orion spacecraft used in the Artemis mission has reached US$9.3bn since 2012 through the first crewed flight test to take place no later than May 2024.
The Artemis mission includes a series of missions that use NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) - the most powerful rocket the agency has ever built. Artemis I (planned 2022) is an uncrewed test of the SLS and its accompanying spacecraft Orion. Artemis II (2024) will be the first crewed test flight of the series and should sail 40,000 miles past the Moon, further in space than any human have travelled before. Only after those are completed will the Artemis III lunar landing occur. An Artemis IV is also planned for 2026, and Artemises V through VIII at this point are “proposed.”
As if the timeline for the Artemis Moon landing wasn’t aggressive enough in engineering terms, NASA has been battling legal issues since Blue Origin sued the space agency claiming it unfairly awarded rival SpaceX a US$2.94B contract to develop the lunar lander slated for use in Artemis III.
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“We’re pleased with the US Court of Federal Claims’ thorough evaluation of NASA’s source selection process for the human landing system (HLS), and we have already resumed conversations with SpaceX. It’s clear we’re both eager to get back to work together and establish a new timeline for our initial lunar demonstration missions,” said Nelson, who then reassured his audience that returning to the Moon as quickly and safely as possible is an agency priority.
In addition to the technical infeasibility on a tight schedule and the lawsuit, the NASA administrator cited COVID-19, Congress not appropriating sufficient funds for the SLS competition, and general first-time development challenges as adding to the delay.
Nelson did say that NASA plans to issue a formal solicitation next spring for recurring human landing systems services, so maybe that will be Jeff Bezos' shot at a fat government contract.
SpaceX, meanwhile, is pressing ahead with development of its own "Starship", a rocket with greater payload capacity than SLS and also better re-usability. NASA has pondered using Starship as part of the Artemis program, including for crewed lunar missions. ®