We’re coming up on fifty years since a human being has walked on the moon, and it’s going to be a little longer yet. NASA recently pushed the proposed 2024 Artemis moon landing to 2025, but a report from the agency’s inspector general says that won’t be the last delay. As things currently stand, the IG expects Artemis will end up being pushed back to 2026 at the earliest.
The Artemis Program is a modern equivalent of Apollo, but whereas Apollo was about short-term lunar exploration, Artemis could help support a long-term human presence on and around the moon. The first step, however, is to develop a vehicle that can take astronauts to the moon and safely return them to Earth. That’s the Space Launch System (SLS), which has been the primary driver of past delays.
The SLS is a non-reusable rocket, but it will be extremely powerful, expending all of its fuel to hoist the bulky Orion capsule into space. The rocket was nixed from the planning of the Europa Clipper mission, but it should still be ready for Artemis…eventually. NASA is shooting for a test launch in February 2022, but the IG says that is more likely to take place in summer 2022. There are, however, parts of the mission that could lag behind even more.
According to the IG, the slow pace of work and insufficient funding for NASA’s new spacesuit program will delay Artemis. The best-case laid out by the report is that NASA gets the first suits ready for use in May 2025. That alone would make NASA’s new launch window unlikely, but there’s a whole separate development process to slow things down even more. For that, the IG turns to SpaceX.
NASA has chosen SpaceX to develop the human landing system (HLS) for Artemis using its Starship vessel. Despite Blue Origin’s protests, SpaceX has reportedly already manufactured 20 prototype Starships and 100 Raptor engines that will eventually help people get from Orion down to the lunar surface. The Office of the Inspector General praises SpaceX’s rapid pace of development but notes that the HLS will almost certainly cause additional delays as NASA and SpaceX work to test and certify the vessel.
At the end of the day, the OIG report estimates the crewed Artemis mission to the lunar surface could launch in 2026. By the end of 2025, the program could cost roughly $93 billion, much higher than the proposed $35 billion budget. Each of the first four launches will cost $4.1 billion. The report urges NASA to find ways to lower mission costs, but space isn’t cheap.