Senior NASA officials on Tuesday provided an updated timeline for returning humans to the Moon under the agency’s Artemis Program, and they discussed costs and other issues related to it. The biggest news came in the form of NASA’s formal acknowledgement that a human landing on the Moon in 2024 is not possible, but there were plenty of other noteworthy tidbits.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson led the briefing with space reporters, which came five days after the US Court of Federal Claims ruled against Blue Origin’s lawsuit against NASA for its selection of SpaceX to build a lunar lander for the Artemis Program. Previously, Nelson had promised to provide an update on the Artemis Program following the lawsuit, and on Tuesday he made good on that.
He came out guns blazing at Blue Origin. “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, pinning the delay in NASA’s return to the Moon firmly on Blue Origin and its lawyers. During the legal process, NASA was forbidden from working or even talking with SpaceX regarding the Human Landing System (HLS) program. The agency was also unable to provide milestone payments.
“I spoke last Friday with Gwynne Shotwell,” Nelson said, referring to the president and chief operating officer of SpaceX. “This is the first contact we’ve been able to have about the HLS program, and we both underscored the importance of returning to the Moon as quickly and safely as possible.”
Later, he added, “I want to give a shoutout to our legal team.”
Artemis II and III plans
When the Trump administration created the Artemis Program in spring 2019, Vice President Mike Pence set an aggressive goal of landing humans on the Moon by 2024. Technically, this never seemed like it was really possible, but NASA has never formally acknowledged this and always set 2024 as an aspirational goal.
But Nelson did acknowledge the delay, citing the Blue Origin litigation, lower-than-requested appropriations from Congress for lander development, and the infeasibility of the 2024 date at the time it was proposed as reasons for a push until at least 2025.
Before this Artemis III mission, which will take at least two astronauts to the lunar surface, NASA will now require not one but two test flights. One of those flights will be an uncrewed landing by SpaceX’s Starship vehicle to prove that the large vehicle can safely land on the Moon and return to orbit. Nelson did not put a time frame on this flight.
The second of these test flights is the long-planned Artemis II mission. It will fly a crew of four astronauts to lunar orbit and back—a mission with a similar flight profile to the Apollo 8 lunar flight in 1968 that preceded the first Apollo Moon landing. Nelson said NASA will now seek to fly this mission no later than May 2024.
For the Artemis II mission, astronauts will launch inside an Orion spacecraft atop the Space Launch System rocket. This will be the first human flight aboard the Orion spacecraft, a program NASA formally started in 2005. Moving the flight to 2024 represents a significant delay. At one time, NASA had planned to fly this mission—under the name “Exploration Mission-2″—in 2019.
With ongoing delays, the price of Orion keeps going up. On Tuesday, Nelson announced a significant increase in the cost of Orion’s development since 2012, when the spacecraft design was modified to its current configuration as a deep-space capsule. Previously, NASA expected to spend $6.7 billion on Orion development from 2012 through Artemis II. Now, officials said, the cost will be $9.3 billion—a nearly 40 percent increase.