On Tuesday, November 9, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson announced that the agency delayed the first crewed flight to the Moon under the Artemis program that aims to build a sustainable presence on the lunar surface. No human has set foot on the Moon since the final Apollo mission in December 1972 - almost 50 years ago. NASA hoped to launch the first crewed mission in less than three years from now by 2024, however, Nelson said that "was not a goal that was really technically feasible," during a press conference today. The 2024 timeline was put in place by the Trump Administration that laid out ambitious goals to make America become the first country to return NASA astronauts to the Moon and set-up the first lunar base.
However, the unexpected coronavirus pandemic affected many industries across the world, including NASA and other space agencies. Besides the COVID-19 outbreak and NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) technical delays, part of the delay is due to a lawsuit that Blue Origin filed against the agency. "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.
NASA selected SpaceX as the sole $2.9 billion award winner to develop a lunar-optimized Starship Human Landing System (HLS) to land the first crew on the Moon. Blue Origin lost and fought over the HLS contract in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. The whole ordeal delayed SpaceX and NASA's work by around seven months because the agency had to pause work (as well as discussions about HLS with SpaceX teams) until the dispute was resolved. A federal judge ultimately ruled against Blue Origin and NASA is now able to resume its work with SpaceX. “We’re pleased with the U.S. Court of Federal Claims’ thorough evaluation of NASA’s source selection process for the human landing system (HLS), and we have already resumed conversations with SpaceX. It’s clear we’re both eager to get back to work together and establish a new timeline for our initial lunar demonstration missions,” Nelson said. “Returning to the Moon as quickly and safely as possible is an agency priority. However, with the recent lawsuit and other factors, the first human landing under Artemis is likely no earlier than 2025.”
"I spoke last Friday with Gwynne Shotwell, the CEO [President] of SpaceX, which is the first contact we've been able to have about the HLS program" since the Blue Origin lawsuit, Nelson shared during the press conference. "We both underscored the importance of returning to the moon as quickly and safely as possible, and the decision by the court on Friday means progress for the Artemis program. But our teams still need more time to work through the specifics before we can give a look at the readiness timeframe."
SpaceX HLS Starship lander is under development in South Texas, the company targets to have a space-ready vehicle before the year 2023. During the first crewed Artemis flight, NASA plans to use two launch vehicles, the SLS, under development by Boeing, and Starship.
SLS will launch four astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft to lunar orbit, where two crew members will transfer to the SpaceX HLS Starship that will land them on the surface of the Moon. The pair will spend a week exploring the lunar terrain then Starship will propel them back to the Orion spacecraft in orbit to return to Earth.
Boeing's SLS and Orion are around three years behind schedule due to multiple development delays because of technical challenges since the launch system initiated its development. It could be one of the reasons why NASA seeked to contract more aerospace companies to develop spacecraft to return to the Moon. SpaceX's Starship is designed to be capable of launching crewed missions to and from the Moon without help from other spacecraft but NASA decided to work with multiple space vehicles to build a robust space program.
“It’s the position of NASA, and I believe the United States government, that we want to be there first, back on the moon after over half a century,” Nelson said during a conversation with reporters that alluded that China could beat America. "We’ve got a lot of stuff to do on the moon, including building habitats and learning how we’re going to exist for long periods of time in that environment, in order to prepare us to take astronauts to Mars,” Nelson added.
SpaceX is preparing to launch the first orbital Starship test flight. It could take place before this year ends or early 2022, the company is pending regulatory approval. Nelson said that SLS and Orion will conduct the first uncrewed flight test to the moon in February next year, but the first crewed Orion voyage around the Moon, Artemis 2, was delayed until May 2024, it previously was planned for 2023. And the first SLS/Orion mission to land astronauts on the Moon in partnership with SpaceX is scheduled until 2025. The agency released a video announcement about the Artemis 1 mission, linked below.
For every generation, the Moon has been a beacon.— NASA (@NASA) November 9, 2021
For many across NASA and around the world, it has been calling to us.
Our uncrewed @NASAArtemis I mission will pave the way for future missions with crew, launch is targeted for February 2022 🚀 pic.twitter.com/9KlmDrfPHI
Featured Image Source: NASA Space Launch System (SLS) & SpaceX Starship Lunar Lander