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Don’t count on NASA to return humans to the Moon in 2025 or 2026, GAO says

A crescent Earth rises over the horizon of the Moon in this view from NASA's Orion spacecraft on the unpiloted Artemis I test flight in December 2022.
Enlarge / A crescent Earth rises over the horizon of the Moon in this view from NASA’s Orion spacecraft on the unpiloted Artemis I test flight in December 2022.

A new report from the Government Accountability Office suggests NASA’s Artemis III mission, which aims to return humans to the Moon’s surface for the first time in more than 50 years, could be delayed from late 2025 until 2027.

The readiness of SpaceX’s human-rated lander and new commercial spacesuits developed by Axiom Space are driving the schedule for Artemis III. Both contractors have a lot of work to do before the Artemis III landing, and the government watchdog’s report said delays with SpaceX’s Starship program and design challenges with Axiom’s spacesuits threaten NASA’s schedule.

“NASA and its contractors have made progress, including completing several important milestones, but they still face multiple challenges with development of the human landing system and the space suits,” the GAO said in a report published Thursday. “As a result, GAO found that the Artemis III crewed lunar landing is unlikely to occur in 2025.”

NASA officials have previously said it would be challenging to meet the target launch date for Artemis III in December 2025. In June, Jim Free, who oversees NASA’s Artemis program, said problems with SpaceX’s Starship rocket—necessary for the Artemis III moon lander—would probably force the Artemis III mission into 2026.

In August, Free suggested NASA “may end up flying a different mission” if the hardware required for the Moon landing wasn’t ready. The critical new hardware needed to enable a Moon landing with astronauts are the Starship-derived lander, new spacesuits for surface exploration, and a docking system for the Orion spacecraft, which will ferry astronauts from Earth to lunar orbit and then back home.

“If we have these big slips out, we’ve looked at if can we do other missions,” Free said. He pointed to lessons learned during the International Space Station program. Several times, NASA and its international partners resequenced the assembly of the space station, based on the readiness of new modules and other elements, and the availability of the Space Shuttle, which was grounded more than two years after the Columbia accident and then retired in 2011.

“A large volume of remaining work”

In its report last week, the GAO said that, if history is any guide, the Artemis III mission is unlikely to launch before 2027. It’s no surprise that the Human Landing System and new lunar spacesuits are the two biggest risks to the schedule. Both pieces of the architecture are required for a crew lunar landing, but not for the Artemis II mission, a flight officially slated for late 2024 but more likely to happen in 2025, which will send four astronauts on a trip around the far side of the Moon in an Orion spacecraft.

For the Artemis III landing mission and subsequent expeditions to the lunar surface, astronauts will depart Earth on NASA’s Space Launch System rocket and fly on Orion to the vicinity of the Moon, where they will link up with commercial landing craft supplied by SpaceX or Blue Origin. SpaceX has the contract for the first two landers.

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