Artemis: The Good, the Bad and the Well, Yeah

Artist concept of the SpaceX Starship on the surface of the Moon. (Credits: SpaceX)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and top officials provided an update on the Artemis program on Tuesday, delivering the not unexpected news that the space agency will not meet its deadline of landing a man and the first woman of color at the south pole of the moon in 2024. Instead, the landing will be delayed until at least 2025.

The latest Artemis schedule is:

  • February 2022: Artemis I mission. First flight of the Space Launch System (SLS) will send an uncrewed Orion spacecraft to the moon for an extended checkout that will last for weeks. It will be the second flight test for Orion.
  • May 2024: Artemis II mission. Second SLS flight with first crewed Orion mission will travel to the moon, going further out into space than any of the Apollo missions.
  • Date Unknown: Uncrewed demonstration lunar landing of SpaceX’s Starship Human Landing System (HLS) vehicle.
  • No Earlier Than 2025: Artemis III mission. First crewed landing on the surface since the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972.

The media briefing followed the end of a seven-month period of appeals from losing bidders Blue Origin and Dynetics over the Human Landing System (HLS) contract that NASA awarded SpaceX in April. During most of that time, NASA was legally prohibited from working or communicating with Elon Musk’s company on the lander contract.

Blue Origin, which led a consortium of companies known as the National Team, and Dynetics appealed the contract award to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). After the GAO rejected the protests, Blue Origin filed suit in federal court. A judge tossed out that lawsuit on Nov. 4. Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos subsequently tweeted that the company would not appeal the ruling further.

Nelson noted that NASA and SpaceX need more time to develop a firmer schedule for the demonstration and human landing missions due to the delays caused by the legal appeals.

The appeals are not the only reasons Nelson cited for not meeting the 2024 landing goal. Congress appropriated only $850 million of the $3.2 billion the Trump Administration claimed was needed in the fiscal year 2021 budget to keep the landing on schedule. The administrator said he didn’t believe the 2024 deadline was technically feasible anyway. NASA and its contractors have also been slowed by the global coronavirus pandemic.

SpaceX has continued to develop both boosters while the appeals of the HLS contract were pending. Nelson said that he and other top officials plan to visit the SpaceX facility at Boca Chica, Texas after the first of the year to get a first-hand look at the company’s work on Starship and its companion Super Heavy booster.

The administrator cited a busy period of launches between now and the end of the year for not visiting sooner. The missions include the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft later this month and the James Webb Space Telescope aboard Europe’s Ariane 5 booster in December.

Nelson warned that NASA has a lot to do in order to meet the 2025 date. It will require Congress to come through with much more funding than it has to date.

He added that China’s increasingly aggressive and sophisticated space program is capable of landing taikonauts on the moon much earlier than many people anticipated. Reports on China’s plans indicate a landing toward the end of the 2020’s, but the country has not published anything official.

Officials revealed that the cost of the Orion spacecraft increased from $6.7 billion to $9.2 billion through the Artemis II mission. Requirements changes and delays caused by the pandemic were cited as reasons for the cost increase.

The SpaceX contract covers the Artemis program through the first human landing. NASA plans to conduct an open bidding process for future human and cargo missions.