NASA moves moon landing deadline back to 2025

An image provided by NASA shows the Orion spacecraft, part of NASA’s Artemis mission which aims to fly to the moon, in the vehicle assembly building at Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral, Fla, on Oct 20, 2021. The New York Times
NASA is pushing back its deadline for returning American astronauts to the moon’s surface by as much as one year, officials announced Tuesday. It is the first official acknowledgment that 2024, the target set when Donald Trump was president, cannot be met.

Instead it will occur sometime in 2025, said Bill Nelson, the former Florida senator who was selected to lead NASA by President Joe Biden earlier this year. He blamed the shifting timeline on a lawsuit over the agency’s moon lander, to be built by SpaceX, and delays with NASA’s Orion capsule, which is to fly astronauts to lunar orbit.

“We’ve lost nearly seven months in litigation, and that likely has pushed the first human landing likely to no earlier than 2025,” Nelson said, adding that NASA will need to have more detailed discussions with SpaceX to set a more specific timeline.

“After having taken a good look under the hood these past six months,” he added, “it’s clear to me that the agency will need to make serious changes for the long-term success of the program.”

December 2022 will be the 50th anniversary of the last astronauts on the moon. Since the Apollo 17 mission returned in 1972, the US space programme focused on other objectives. But the moon has come back into vogue at times, including under Trump.

The 2024 deadline to land the first American astronauts on the moon in more than a half-century was first unveiled by then-Vice President Mike Pence during a 2019 meeting of the White House’s space council. The new mission, which caught many at NASA and in the space industry by surprise, was an urgent one: loft the first woman and next American man to the lunar surface “by any means necessary,” he said at the time. The motivating force was that Americans are “in a space race today, just as we were in the 1960s,” a reference in part to China, which has set a goal of landing astronauts on the moon in the 2030s.

Sizable budget requests, new moon technology contracts, international pacts and a brand — the Artemis programme — have followed since Pence’s speech. The Biden administration threw its support behind Artemis, and NASA upheld the 2024 goal, even though Biden’s presidential transition team had deemed it unrealistic. Nelson has up until now stuck to the previous administration’s timeline.

“The Trump administration’s target of 2024 human landing was not grounded in technical feasibility,” Nelson added Tuesday during a news conference.

In April, NASA picked Elon Musk’s space company, SpaceX, to build a moon lander. The first two rides to the lunar surface are to rely on Starship, the massive, reusable rocket system the company has been quickly developing in Texas. The second trip will carry humans.

The obstacles to meeting the 2024 goal have been political and technical, from ambivalence among lawmakers in Congress to engineering challenges and delays with other systems and spacecraft that NASA may also need to get astronauts on the moon. The COVID pandemic also played a role. The agency’s centerpiece moon rocket, the Space Launch System, is a multibillion-dollar undertaking that has experienced years of delays.

But last week, NASA overcame a significant obstacle. The agency emerged victorious from a bitter and protracted legal fight with Jeff Bezos’ space company, Blue Origin, which had lodged two protests against NASA’s decision to pick SpaceX. The dispute paralysed the moon lander programme for nearly six months, precluding NASA from working with SpaceX on Starship development.

Yet Starship is only one among a wide variety of rockets and technologies that NASA says it needs for its moonshot.

In February, the Space Launch System is scheduled to carry out its first uncrewed launch of a capsule called Orion that is meant to transport astronauts to the vicinity of the moon, but not land. A subsequent mission that will carry astronauts around the moon and back could then happen in May 2024, pushed back from April 2023.

“There’s multiple factors” underpinning Orion’s delay, said Jim Free, the NASA official who oversees development of space exploration systems. That includes the COVID-19 pandemic, “both in the workforce and in the supply chain,” hurricane damage to Orion’s development facilities in Louisiana and engineering challenges related to upgrading hardware to make it possible for astronauts to fly on the capsule.

The delays, as well as several new engineering requirements, came with a $2.6 billion increase to the price of developing Orion, for total cost of $9.7 billion over a dozen years.

While moving the moonshot to 2025 affords NASA more time, it is still an extremely optimistic schedule. The Space Launch System would send an Orion capsule bearing astronauts to the vicinity of the moon. In a manner that has not yet been fully explained, it would dock with SpaceX’s Starship lander, which would then carry the astronauts to the surface.

“All these ambitious plans are contingent on funding” from Congress, Nelson said.

NASA plans to pick additional companies to build lunar landers for routine missions to the moon’s surface after SpaceX’s first two Starship flights. The agency wants $5.7 billion over the next six years to help fund those trips to and from the moon, but Congress hasn’t indicated its support.

“I’m going to continue to fight for sustained funding,” he said.

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