SpaceX’s Starship could end up delaying humanity’s return to the Moon as NASA waits on the company’s lander to be ready to touchdown on the lunar surface, according to a space agency official.
On Wednesday, Jim Free, NASA associate administrator for exploration systems development, said that the Artemis 3 mission, designed to land astronauts on the Moon for the first time in more than 50 years, would likely be pushed back to 2026 instead of 2025, SpaceNews reported.
“With the difficulties that SpaceX has had, I think that’s really concerning,” Free said during a joint meeting of the National Academies’ Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board and Space Studies Board.
SpaceX is under a $2.89 billion contract to use a lunar lander version of its Starship rocket in landing humans on the Moon by late 2025 as part of NASA’s Artemis 3 mission, and then again for Artemis 4 in 2028, under a separate $1.15 billion contract signed last year.
Before it can land humans on the Moon, however, Starship has to carry out an uncrewed mission to the lunar surface first, which also involves launching tanking vehicles to Earth orbit so that they can fuel the vehicle prior to its journey to the Moon. “That’s a lot of launches to get those missions done,” Free is quoted as saying in SpaceNews. “They have a significant number of launches to go, and that, of course, gives me concern about the December of 2025 [Artemis 3 launch] date.”
NASA has a second option for a commercial lunar lander, namely Blue Origin’s Blue Moon, but that’s slated for Artemis 5, which won’t happen until 2029.
SpaceX’s Starship launched for the first time on April 20 for a less-than-perfect test flight. About four minutes after liftoff, Starship exploded in the skies above the Gulf of Mexico. A few of the rocket’s engines failed in flight and the two-stage heavy-lift launch vehicle was forced to self-destruct; that said, it took the rocket 40 seconds to respond to the self-destruct command, in what was yet another troublesome aspect from the debut launch.
Despite its untimely explosion, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk still deemed the test flight a success and anticipated that Starship would be ready to fly again in a “couple of months.” At the time, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson expressed confidence in SpaceX’s ambitious timeline during a hearing before the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.
It may have been that NASA’s sentiment recently changed after SpaceX showed little to no progress on the launch of Starship more than a month after its orbital test flight. SpaceX still needs the green light from the Federal Aviation Administration, which has grounded Starship pending an ongoing investigation into its botched flight. The FAA is also battling a lawsuit related to the botched launch, which prompted a coalition of conservation and Texas-local non-profit groups to sue the administration over its approval of SpaceX’s Starship activities in Boca Chica. SpaceX recently filed to fight alongside the FAA in this lawsuit.
The space agency is on a tight timeline for its Artemis program, fearing that China may take the lead in landing on the Moon. China recently announced that it is targeting 2030 for its own crewed landing on the Moon, aiming to establish its own presence on the lunar surface to compete with NASA.
NASA has been relying more on its commercial partners as of late and that can sometimes lead to delays outside of the space agency’s control. SpaceX has been successful in delivering astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, while Boeing has fallen behind with its CST-100 Starliner program designed for the same missions.
The space agency’s private partnerships are designed to save NASA time and money, although it can come with its own bout of launch vehicle anxiety.
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