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NASA expected to push back Moon missions

A uncrewed test flight to the Moon and back called Artemis 1 took place in 2022 after several postponements
A uncrewed test flight to the Moon and back called Artemis 1 took place in 2022 after several postponements - Copyright AFP/File Jim WATSON
A uncrewed test flight to the Moon and back called Artemis 1 took place in 2022 after several postponements - Copyright AFP/File Jim WATSON

NASA is holding a briefing Tuesday in which it is widely expected to push back the timeline for the Artemis missions to return astronauts to the Moon, amid delays to the delivery of key components by contractors.

Artemis, named after the sister of Apollo in Greek mythology, was officially announced in 2017 as part of the US space agency’s plans to establish a sustained presence on Earth’s nearest space neighbor, and apply lessons learned there for a future mission to Mars.

Its first mission, an uncrewed test flight to the Moon and back called Artemis 1, took place in 2022, after several postponements.

According to the current plan the Artemis 2 launch, involving a crew that doesn’t land on the surface, is set for late this year. 

Artemis 3, in which the first woman and first person of color are to set foot on lunar soil, should take place in 2025 at the Moon’s south pole, where NASA hopes to exploit the ice to produce rocket fuel.

NASA is also looking to build a lunar space station called Gateway where spacecraft will dock during later missions.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has won the contract for a landing system for Artemis 3 based on a version of its prototype Starship rocket, which remains far from ready. Both of its orbital tests have so far ended in explosions.

Delays to Starship have knock-on effects because the spacesuit contractor needs to know how the suits will interface with the spacecraft, and simulators need to be built for astronauts to learn its systems.

What’s more, “SpaceX must conduct multiple Starship flight tests and launches before using its lander variant with astronauts for Artemis 3,” an official watchdog report published in November 2023 said — and SpaceX needs to send an uncrewed Starship to the lunar surface and back before the NASA mission.

And the Artemis 1 mission itself revealed technical issues, such as the heat shield on the Orion crew capsule eroded in an unexpected way, and the ground structure used to launch the giant SLS rocket sustained more damage than expected.

As of March 2023, NASA has agreed to pay approximately $40 billion to hundreds of contractors in support of Artemis, the same watchdog found.

A key difference between the 20th-century Apollo missions and the Artemis era is the increasing role of commercial partnerships, part of a broader strategy to involve the private companies in space exploration to reduce costs and to make space more accessible.

For example, the space agency paid the company Astrobotic more than $100 million to carry important scientific probes to a mid-latitude region of the Moon. 

That mission, which blasted off this weekend, looks set to fail after suffering a critical loss of fuel due to a problem with its propulsion system.

AFP
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With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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