NASA says it won't make goal of putting astronauts on the moon by 2024

NASA says it won't make goal of putting astronauts on the moon by 2024

NASA made official Tuesday something many in the space industry assumed for years: astronauts will not land on the lunar surface by 2024.

During an update on the agency’s moon-focused Artemis program, Administrator Bill Nelson told reporters the agency will be able to launch astronauts on an orbital mission around the moon, known as Artemis II, by 2024. But the long-mentioned goal of putting two astronauts on the lunar surface (Artemis III) will push to 2025 due to budgets, technical issues, a recently dismissed Blue Origin lawsuit, and the coronavirus pandemic.

“The Trump administration’s target of a 2024 human landing was not grounded in technical feasibility,” Nelson said. “We’ve lost nearly seven months in litigation and that likely has pushed the first human landing to no earlier than 2025.”

On the latter point, Nelson was referring to Jeff Bezos-founded Blue Origin and its recent protest of a $2.9 billion lunar lander contract awarded to rival SpaceX. NASA selected the company’s Starship vehicle to only deliver Artemis astronauts from lunar orbit down to the surface – the agency’s Space Launch System rocket and Orion capsule are responsible for the trip from Florida to lunar orbit.

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Last week, a federal judge dismissed Blue’s lawsuit and said work between NASA and SpaceX could proceed. Nelson confirmed development has resumed and plans on visiting the company’s Starship production site in South Texas, along with other high-ranking officials, early next year.

“Our teams need time to speak with SpaceX about the Human Landing System,” Nelson said, adding SpaceX’s Starship is expected to first conduct an uncrewed lunar landing sometime in 2023 as a test.

Nelson also said Congress carries some of the blame as budgets have not been capable of keeping up with development. Though the Artemis program was officially named in 2017, SLS and Orion have been in development for more than a decade.

“Prior to Fiscal Year 22, previous congresses did not appropriate enough dollars for development of the Human Landing System,” Nelson said. “Going forward, Congress has made clear that there must be competition for the 10-plus moon landings in the future. There will be the need for a significant increase in funding for competition and that’s going to start with the 2023 budget.”

But the rumblings of an Artemis III delay beyond 2024 have been discussed for months. The agency’s own inspector general warned the program was at significant risk of slipping well before any lawsuits were filed by Blue Origin and offered several ways to reduce costs and increase transparency. NASA usually concurred with the inspector general’s recommendations.

During the teleconference with reporters, Nelson said increasing competition from other countries like China and its newly launched space station should make U.S. officials feel a sense of urgency.

“After all, the Chinese space program is increasingly capable of landing Chinese taikonauts much earlier than originally expected. We are going to be as aggressive as we can be in a safe and technically feasible way to beat our competitors with boots on the moon,” he said.

Follow Emre Kelly on Twitter: @EmreKelly

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