NASA announced this week that its planned Artemis II and III missions to return astronauts to the lunar surface have been delayed yet again due to ongoing technical issues, safety concerns, and cost overruns.
Timeline Slips Again
The Artemis II mission, which aims to fly astronauts around the moon without landing, was previously targeting launch in 2024. However, NASA now says the earliest Artemis II could launch is April 2025. Meanwhile, the crewed lunar landing of Artemis III, originally slated for late 2025, is now expected no earlier than 2026 according to NASA leadership.
This marks the third major schedule slip for the program in the last two years. NASA had originally planned to land astronauts on the moon by 2024, but delays with development of new rockets and spacecraft pushed that target to 2025. Now with this latest postponement, the lunar return keeps retreating further into the future.
Technical and Safety Issues Abound
NASA leaders cited outstanding technical issues with the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft as a key driver of the latest delay. The giant SLS rocket intended to power Artemis missions to the moon has faced years of production delays and cost increases. Meanwhile, recent testing uncovered new technical problems with the Orion spacecraft’s software and flight control systems that NASA says are still being corrected.
There are also continued worries about the safety of the new vehicles. A recent audit found that while NASA expects a 98% probability of successfully launching Artemis II, the probability of safely returning the Orion spacecraft and astronauts back to Earth is considerably lower at 85%. NASA is now reevaluating various failure scenarios and implementing design changes which will push back target launch dates.
|Original Target Launch
|Latest Target Launch
|Artemis I (uncrewed)
|Artemis II (crewed lunar flyby)
|Artemis III (crewed lunar landing)
Costs Mounting Rapidly
In tandem with the schedule delays, estimated costs for the Artemis moon program continue swelling rapidly – putting political support at risk. NASA received only about 25% of its originally requested Artemis budget for 2023, as lawmakers grow increasingly skeptical of the agency’s ability to deliver on program goals.
Total development costs for Artemis were originally projected at $28 billion when the program was announced in 2017. However, an October 2022 audit put the estimated cumulative cost at $93 billion through 2025. With the multi-year delays now being projected, the all-in price tag to return astronauts to the lunar surface will likely soar well over $100 billion.
Pressure Building to Catch Up with China
As NASA struggles with its Artemis moon plans, pressure is rising internationally to catch up with China’s accelerating space program. China recently launched the final piece of its Tiangong space station into orbit and is planning a crewed lunar landing this decade – possibly by 2030.
Facing the prospect of China establishing a sustained presence on the moon first, bipartisan members of Congress used recent hearings to emphasize the need to accelerate NASA’s Artemis program. House reps stated that America must “beat China back to the moon and demonstrate strong leadership in space.” However, China’s space agency appears to be executing faster on a lower budget – calling into question whether NASA can overcome its hurdles to mount a lunar return before China puts astronauts on the moon.
In the near-term, NASA must complete ongoing testing and reviews before it can set a definitive launch target for the long-delayed Artemis I test flight. That uncrewed mission around the moon involving the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft is now tracking for liftoff in Fall 2023 at the earliest.
Looking ahead, NASA leadership remains publicly optimistic they can overcome technical setbacks and budget shortfalls to land astronauts back on the moon before 2030. However, with the program now projected to cost over $100 billion, even staunch congressional supporters are warning that another major failure or delay could put political support in jeopardy.
As NASA tries to reignite its moon aspirations, China continues methodically executing its space exploration roadmap. With both nations targeting their own lunar landings this decade, the world is witnessing a resurrected “space race” where stakes are high to establish leadership and influence on Earth’s nearest neighbor.
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