NASA’s Artemis program, aiming to return astronauts to the moon within this decade amidst renewed global interest in lunar exploration, faces significant delays.
NASA officials announced on Tuesday that the Artemis III mission, aiming to land humans on the moon for the first time since Apollo, has been delayed until September 2026 to ensure proper preparations and safety measures.
The delay can be attributed to SpaceX’s focus on the development of Starship, a colossal rocket and spacecraft system designed to transport astronauts from lunar orbit to the moon’s south pole. Unfortunately, two test flights of Starship in 2023 resulted in explosions.
SpaceX faces a challenging journey in the development of its lunar lander. Despite Starship’s successful demonstration of safely reaching Earth’s orbit, the company still needs to address the crucial matter of acquiring sufficient propellant for the vehicle to embark on its voyage to the moon. Jessica Jensen, SpaceX’s vice president of customer operations and integration, anticipates that this endeavor will necessitate a minimum of 10 refueling flights.
“We need to approach this situation with a realistic mindset,” stated Jim Free, NASA Associate Administrator, during a press conference on Tuesday. He emphasized the importance of assessing the progress of our Starship and the requirement for propellant transfer, as well as the necessity for multiple landings.
According to Jensen, SpaceX has the potential to be prepared for its third Starship test flight by February, provided they obtain the required regulatory approvals.
NASA officials have also acknowledged the likelihood of encountering setbacks in the development of the spacesuits that astronauts will utilize during their lunar surface missions. The progress of SpaceX’s Starship project and the spacesuit engineering have been identified by government oversight bodies, including NASA’s inspector general, as potential factors that may contribute to delays in the Artemis III mission.
NASA has announced a change in the launch date for the Artemis II mission, which was originally planned for November of this year. Instead, the new target date for the mission is September 2025. The objective of Artemis II is to transport a four-person crew on a journey to fly by the moon.
The delay is partially attributed to problems with the Orion crew capsule, which will serve as the astronauts’ habitat during the mission. NASA has already revealed that the spacecraft’s heat shield, responsible for protecting Orion from burning up upon reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, suffered unexpected charring and erosion during the uncrewed Artemis I mission in 2022. Amit Kshatriya, the deputy associate administrator for NASA’s Moon to Mars Program, provided this information.
Kshatriya mentioned that there is still a significant amount of work remaining on the life support system and valves of the Orion crew capsule, which failed during testing. NASA officials have acknowledged that the preparation of the lift support systems is expected to be the most time-consuming aspect before the flight.