NASA administrators and officials are set to hold a press conference next week to provide an update on the Artemis II mission, the first planned crewed flight of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft around the Moon. According to inside sources, the space agency is preparing to announce lengthy delays to the mission timeline due to ongoing issues with development of the spacecraft.
Launch Delayed to 2026 Amid SLS Production Problems
The Artemis II mission was originally scheduled to launch this year. However, administrators will confirm that technical problems and production delays for components of the SLS rocket have made the 2024 target impossible.
NASA is now working towards a launch date in 2026 for the uncrewed test flight Artemis I, meaning a crewed flight in 2026 for Artemis II is the earliest possibility. Insiders suggest administrators could announce Artemis II has slipped as far back as 2028.
|Artemis I test flight
|Artemis II crewed flyby
|2026 – 2028
These delays stem from continued difficulties constructing and testing components of the SLS rocket by lead contractor Boeing. In particular, sources cite production problems with the rocket’s core stage and upper stage engines as the primary bottlenecks.
NASA Facing Pressure Over Artemis Costs, Schedule
The constant postponement of the Artemis program is heaping political pressure onto NASA, with lawmakers questioning the agency’s ability to deliver on the multi-billion dollar moonshot initiative.
Originally projected to cost $20-30 billion, independent analysis suggests the total Artemis costs could balloon to over $90 billion. As deadlines continue to slip, NASA is having to ask Congress for additional funding annually just to keep the program on life support.
With elections looming in 2024, the timing of another delay announcement could hardly be worse for NASA administrator Bill Nelson. President Biden has vocally supported the Artemis program, but politicians on both sides of the aisle are losing patience with the agency.
Orion Spacecraft Faces Own Development Issues
Separate to the SLS delays, NASA has been working to complete assembly of the Orion spacecraft due to fly around the Moon on Artemis II at Kennedy Space Center. This crew capsule has also faced production issues that threaten the mission timeline.
Most recently, problems with construction and integration of Orion’s heatshield caused significant delays throughout 2023. Engineers have struggled with quality control and fitting issues between the shield’s primary structure and underlying thermal blankets.
These kinds of intricate construction issues highlight the immense complexity of Orion and the Artemis program as a whole. Consisting of over 60,000 unique parts, the spacecraft is pushing technological boundaries NASA hasn’t breached for 50 years.
Moon Landing Targets Could Be Scrapped
With Artemis II potentially delayed to the late 2020s, achieving the program’s ultimate goal of returning humans to the lunar surface this decade now seems highly unlikely.
NASA’s current target under the Artemis III mission is to land astronauts on the Moon by 2028. However, based on the agency’s troubled track record so far and with delays compounding on delays, multiple NASA advisers suggest this date could slip to the 2030s.
Some officials are going as far as to say NASA should scrap the 2028 lunar landing goal entirely when they announce the latest Artemis delays next week. Redirecting resources to focus solely on lower risk objectives like establishing a permanent orbiting lunar station is being floated as an alternative.
The White House are sure to have strong opinions on any attempt to drop the lunar landing target. Ultimately, retaining public confidence in NASA’s ability to execute on Artemis will be a political decision taken far above the space agency alone.
Concerns Crewed Lunar Missions Unsafe
Safety concerns surrounding Orion and the SLS rocket are also emerging, including from recently retired senior NASA engineers.
Dr. Jonathan Lenovitz, formerly Director of Reliability & Safety at Kennedy Space Center before retiring last year, went on record this month with scathing criticism focused on the Artemis program.
“NASA has veered away from prudent design margins and principles emphasizing safety and reliability, instead prioritizing meeting arbitrary deadlines that now look untenable,” Dr. Lenovitz stated in an interview last week. “I have grave concerns about the inherent risk level the agency appears willing to accept in pursuit of beating foreign nations back to the Moon.”
While NASA maintains Artemis meets all stringent internal safety requirements, dissenting voices like Dr. Lenovitz’s are concerning for lawmakers being asked to provide ever more taxpayer funds.
The coming year promises to be one of reckoning for Artemis. Next week’s announcement will be closely watched for signs of how NASA plans to address the ballooning delays and costs jeopardizing the program’s longevity-term ambitions. Administrator Nelson is also facing pressure to publicly address safety criticisms from NASA’s own former top experts.
With just a single uncrewed test flight under its belt so far though, it remains questionable whether the agency is still capable of rising to President Kennedy’s original lunar challenge over 60 years ago within this decade. The reality is that returning boots to the Moon may have to wait for the next giant leaps in space technology before it transitions from fantasy to fact.
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