For NASA and its astronauts, the moon is not far away in terms of distance, but it is slipping further into the future.
Artemis II, the first U.S. mission to send astronauts near the Moon in more than 50 years, will not take off later this year as planned, space agency officials announced Tuesday.
They have set a target date of September 2025 for this mission to orbit the moon without landing.
The delay of Artemis II is also pushing back a subsequent mission, Artemis III, to land two astronauts on the moon near its south pole. That now won't happen before September 2026.
Artemis II is the first mission to send astronauts into space using NASA's massive Space Launch System rocket and Orion capsule, and NASA officials want to fix potential problems that could endanger the crew.
“We won't fly until it's ready,” Bill Nelson, NASA administrator, said during a news conference Tuesday afternoon. “Safety is paramount.”
Officials cited a number of technical issues for the mission's delay, including concerns about the electronics in the life support system that keeps the astronauts alive inside Orion, and the inspection and repair of wear and tear of the capsule's heat shield during a previous mission. Launch tower.
Unlike the Apollo missions, Artemis II will not enter orbit around the Moon; The Orion capsule will orbit the Moon and return to Earth in the Pacific Ocean using lunar gravity. The entire trip should take about 10 days.
The team will include three NASA astronauts — Reed Wiseman, Victor Glover and Christina Koch — and a Canadian astronaut, Jeremy Hansen.
Amit Kshatriya, NASA's deputy associate administrator for Mars for the Moon, said the main reason for the Artemis II delay was the discovery of problems with valves in the Orion capsule's life support system.
The valves destined for the Orion capsule for Artemis III failed in tests. “It gave us pause and a more detailed look at that circuit,” Mr. Kshatriya said.
The valve components for Artemis II passed tests and were installed, but “it became very clear to us that the acceptance of that hardware was unacceptable and we had to replace it to guarantee the safety of the crew,” Mr. said the Kshatriya.
He said NASA also found flaws in Orion's batteries if the spacecraft needed to quickly separate from the rocket in an emergency.
Despite the change of destination, key parts of NASA's human spaceflight programs — the SLS rocket and the Orion capsule — had already been in development for years and remained unchanged.
Initially, the pace of lunar returns was slow, with astronauts not scheduled to land until at least 2028. Then in 2019, Vice President Mike Pence, who heads the National Space Council, announced a sudden acceleration and said American astronauts would walk. A return to the moon by the end of 2024 is “by any means necessary.”
Mr. Pence and other critics said NASA was not moving with urgency, and in 1961 President John F. They pointed out that only eight years had passed between Kennedy's famous announcement and the plan to reach the moon and the Apollo 11 landing.
Mr Pence also raised the threat of China, which aims to put a robotic lander on the far side of the moon and land astronauts on the moon by 2030.
The moon project was given a name: Artemis, the twin sister of Apollo in Greek mythology.
In 2021, NASA hired Elon Musk's SpaceX to build a lander for Artemis III. The agency is modifying a giant Starship rocket to carry two NASA astronauts from lunar orbit to the lunar surface.
NASA's accelerated schedule began to slip. A test launch of Artemis I, an SLS rocket that sent an uncrewed Orion capsule on a week-long test mission around the Moon, was scheduled for late 2020, but did not launch until November 2022.
Artemis I was a huge success, and NASA officials were confident that Artemis II could follow two years later.
Although NASA's budget has received large increases in recent years, it is still a much smaller portion of the federal budget than it was at the height of the Apollo program in the 1960s.
In December, the Government Accountability Office said the December 2025 target was for an Artemis III moon landing. impossible, It points to more optimistic schedules for the development of the Starship Lunar Lander and the spacesuits astronauts will need to walk on the moon.
Two test launches of Starship last year failed to reach orbit, though SpaceX said both provided data to make improvements. If Starship is NASA's average major project, it won't be ready until 2027, the agency said.
The delay allows SpaceX more time to tackle the challenges of building Starship, including the vehicle's full-scale uncrewed lunar landing, now scheduled for 2025.
James Free, NASA's associate administrator, said the revised Artemis schedule was not overly optimistic, although he acknowledged that additional delays could still occur.
“We tried to address the unknowns and set a realistic plan,” said Mr. Free said.
Other parts of NASA's lunar program also did not go as planned.
On Monday, Peregrine, a commercial robotic lunar lander carrying five NASA experiments, was successfully sent on a trajectory toward the moon after a launch, but its propulsion system soon malfunctioned. Although this is a setback for NASA's lunar probes, it is unlikely to add to the Artemis delays.
In Its latest update By Tuesday afternoon, the spacecraft's builder, Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh, said it would run out of propellant for its maneuvering thrusters in about 40 hours.
“Given the propellant leak, unfortunately, there is no possibility of a slow landing on the moon,” the company said. Engineers are constantly looking for ways to extend the life of the spacecraft and collect data that will aid future missions.
NASA has already booked additional tests on other commercial landers, part of an effort to conduct scientific research on the moon at a lower cost. NASA officials have said they expect some of these commercial missions to fail.
However, NASA may be interested in pursuing Astrobotic's second mission, to take a $433.5 million rover called VIPER to the South Pole, where it will explore water ice and other resources. The aircraft will use a large lander called the Griffin.
The rover is the most complex and expensive payload NASA has planned for commercial lunar missions.