The return of humans to the Moon will have to wait a while after NASA leadership announced that the Artemis II lunar orbital mission will now slide to September 2025 and the Artemis III landing flight will be September 2026.
NASA gave the updates to its Artemis campaign this week as it established the foundation for long-term scientific exploration at the Moon, land the first woman and first person of colour on the lunar surface, and prepare for human expeditions to Mars for the benefit of all.
To safely carry out these missions, agency leaders said they were adjusting the schedules for Artemis II and Artemis III to allow teams to work through challenges associated with first-time developments, operations and integration.
NASA will now target September 2025 for Artemis II, the first crewed Artemis mission around the Moon, and September 2026 for Artemis III, which is planned to land the first astronauts near the lunar South Pole. Artemis IV, the first mission to the Gateway lunar space station, remains on track for 2028.
"We are returning to the Moon in a way we never have before, and the safety of our astronauts is NASA's top priority as we prepare for future Artemis missions," said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.
"We've learned a lot since Artemis I, and the success of these early missions relies on our commercial and international partnerships to further our reach and understanding of humanity's place in our solar system. Artemis represents what we can accomplish as a nation - and as a global coalition. When we set our sights on what is hard, together, we can achieve what is great."
Ensuring crew safety is the primary driver for the Artemis II schedule changes. As the first Artemis flight test with crew aboard the Orion spacecraft, the mission will test critical environmental control and life support systems required to support astronauts.
NASA's testing to qualify components to keep the crew safe and ensure mission success has uncovered issues that require additional time to resolve. Teams are troubleshooting a battery issue and addressing challenges with a circuitry component responsible for air ventilation and temperature control.
NASA's investigation into unexpected loss of char layer pieces from the spacecraft's heat shield during Artemis I is expected to conclude this spring. Teams have taken a methodical approach to understand the issue, including extensive sampling of the heat shield, testing and review of data from sensors and imagery.
Orion’s crew capsule uses a ‘skip’ manoeuvre to help deal with the nearly 5,000 degree Fahrenheit temperature that builds up as the capsule returns through the Earth’s atmosphere at a blistering 25,000 miles per hour. Some pieces of the heat shield came off during the first phase of the skip reentry for Artemis I.
The new timeline for Artemis III aligns with the updated schedule for Artemis II, ensures the agency can incorporate lessons learned from Artemis II into the next mission, and acknowledges development challenges experienced by NASA's industry partners. As each crewed Artemis mission increases complexity and adds flight tests for new systems, the adjusted schedule will give the providers developing new capabilities - SpaceX for the human landing system and Axiom Space for the next-generation spacesuits - additional time for testing and any refinements ahead of the mission.
"We are letting the hardware talk to us so that crew safety drives our decision-making. We will use the Artemis II flight test, and each flight that follows, to reduce risk for future Moon missions," said Catherine Koerner, associate administrator, Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
"We are resolving challenges associated with first-time capabilities and operations, and we are closer than ever to establishing sustained exploration of Earth's nearest neighbor under Artemis."
In addition to the schedule updates for Artemis II and III, NASA is reviewing the schedule for launching the first integrated elements of Gateway, previously planned for October 2025, to provide additional development time and better align that launch with the Artemis IV mission in 2028.
NASA also shared that it has asked both Artemis human landing system providers - SpaceX and Blue Origin - to begin applying knowledge gained in developing their systems as part of their existing contracts toward future variations to potentially deliver large cargo on later missions.
"Artemis is a long-term exploration campaign to conduct science at the Moon with astronauts and prepare for future human missions to Mars. That means we must get it right as we develop and fly our foundational systems so that we can safely carry out these missions," said Amit Kshatriya, deputy associate administrator of Exploration Systems Development, and manager of NASA's Moon to Mars Program Office at headquarters. "Crew safety is and will remain our number one priority."
NASA leaders emphasised the importance of all partners delivering on time so the agency can maximize the flight objectives with available hardware on a given mission. NASA regularly assesses progress and timelines and as a part of integrated programmatic planning to ensure the agency and its partners can successfully accomplish its Moon to Mars exploration goals.
With Artemis, NASA will explore more of the Moon than ever before, learn how to live and work away from home, and prepare for future human exploration of the Red Planet. NASA's SLS (Space Launch System) rocket, exploration ground systems, and Orion spacecraft, along with the human landing system, next-generation spacesuits, Gateway lunar space station, and future rovers are NASA's foundation for deep space exploration.
Photo: Artemis II crew members (from left): CSA (Canadian Space Agency) astronaut Jeremy Hansen, with NASA astronauts Christina Koch, Victor Glover and Reid Wiseman.