NASA has announced that its planned return of astronauts to the moon will face further delays, with the next crewed lunar landing now scheduled for no earlier than 2026. The space agency cited ongoing issues with development of new spacesuits and human landing systems as key factors behind schedule slips for the ambitious Artemis program.
Spacesuit Challenges Push Back Artemis II Flight
The first mission that will carry astronauts around the moon, Artemis II, has been pushed back from 2024 to September 2025 due to setbacks with development of the next-generation spacesuits astronauts will wear on the flight.
NASA is working with contract partners Collins Aerospace and ILC Dover to deliver the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Units (xEMUs) that crew members will use to exit the Orion spacecraft while in space. However, issues with the suit design have caused significant delays:
“There are challenges with the development and testing of the exploration extravehicular activity (spacesuit) systems. In parallel, based on data, NASA will evaluate the agency baseline schedule working with the European Service Module provider for the Orion spacecraft”
-NASA blog update
Without functioning spacesuits, the Artemis II mission cannot move forward as planned. Engineers need time to complete spacesuit qualification testing and resolve any hardware issues before the four Artemis II astronauts can safely depart for the moon.
The Artemis II flight around the moon is a critical step toward a crewed lunar landing, as it will test out many of the deep space systems in a close lunar environment. Pushing this mission back by over a year throws much of the follow-on Artemis timeline into question.
Lunar Lander Schedule Delays Artemis III Moon Landing Until 2026
Following the Artemis II delays, NASA has decided to push back its Artemis III moon landing mission from 2025 to 2026 at the earliest.
Artemis III will represent humanity’s first return to the lunar surface since Apollo 17 in 1972. NASA’s powerful new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket is intended to launch four astronauts aboard an Orion spacecraft, which will then rendezvous with a human landing system (HLS) module in orbit. The HLS will ferry two of the astronauts down to the surface near the lunar South Pole.
However, the ongoing development work on HLS spaceships is taking more time than expected, eliminating the possibility of a 2025 landing:
“While work on the space launch system and Orion continues, this timeline adjustment for the human landing systems allows space system development teams adequate time to design, build, test and evaluate hardware and software.”
-NASA leadership memo
NASA originally awarded HLS development contracts to SpaceX and a “National Team” consisting of Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and industry giants like Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin. After funding shortfalls forced NASA to trim down to just SpaceX, the Government Accountability Office sided with Blue Origin to reinstate a two lander competition.
This change in direction has introduced further uncertainty in schedules as both teams work to construct and test their lunar landers over the next two years.
With Artemis II flying later as well, NASA deemed a crewed 2025 lunar landing impossible. Pushing Artemis III to September 2026 adds breathing room in hopes the HLS craft will be ready by the 70th anniversary of NASA’s founding.
What Comes Next for Artemis and NASA?
Artemis was originally conceived as a program to get “the first woman and the next man” down to the lunar surface by 2024. With these latest delays, even a 2026 landing remains ambitious for NASA and its partners. Meeting safety and design milestones for cutting-edge human spacecraft in deep space is proving extremely difficult.
As NASA leadership meets with the White House this week, the administration will have to weigh additional funding boosts for Artemis against other priorities. Even with continued support, target dates seem likely to slip further.
|Key Artemis Milestone Dates
|Artemis I test flight
|NET Spring 2023
|Artemis II crewed flight test
|Artemis III first crewed moon landing
|Artemis IV+ extended moon missions
With timelines stretching out past the current presidential term, the sustainability of the Artemis program could depend heavily on outcomes of the 2024 and 2028 elections. NASA will have to demonstrate solid progress this decade despite these latest hurdles.
The U.S. space agency also finds itself challenged geopolitically in the race back to the moon. While NASA deals with funding and technical obstacles, China is pressing forward with its own crewed lunar lander development on an aggressive timeline. Russia has announced intentions to build a lunar base in the 2030s as well.
Global space leadership therefore hangs in the balance. Though American boots made the first prints on lunar soil, it remains to be seen what flags and footprints will arrive in this still-distant future era of renewed moon missions.
For NASA personnel, engineers, and contractors, the single-minded goal will be delivering on the incredible promise that is, however delayed, Artemis.
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