Delays of SpaceX worry NASA

NASA officials fear that the delays accumulating at SpaceX may affect the scheduled date of Artemis 3 scheduled for 2025

NASA is concerned about SpaceX ‘s delays with the Starship. There is a risk that the spacecraft will not be ready to transport astronauts to the surface of the Moon by the end of 2025, as currently scheduled. In 2021, the agency selected Starship as the first crewed lunar lander for its Artemis program of lunar exploration.

The spacecraft is supposed to land astronauts at the ice-rich lunar South Pole in the Artemis 3 mission. It will be humanity’s first return to the Moon since the end of the Apollo program in 1972. The Artemis 3 mission is currently scheduled to launch in December 2025. But it is unlikely that SpaceX will be able to meet the timeline, NASA officials have said.

SpaceX Difficulties

“December 2025 is our current scheduled date. But with the difficulties and delays accumulated by SpaceX, I think NASA is really concerned” said Jim Free, agency administrator, during a meeting on Wednesday, June 7. “I believe it’s more likely to think about a launch in ’26” he added.

Starship was launched for the first time ever in April. The test took place in the skies above South Texas in the first test mission. The flight aimed to send the upper stage of the spacecraft on a trip around the Earth, ending with an ocean landing near Hawaii.

But the two stages of the vehicle failed to separate as planned. SpaceX then ordered the destruction of Starship in the Gulf of Mexico just four minutes after liftoff. It is unclear when SpaceX will try again, given the various obstacles that have arisen. The delays of SpaceX that are frustrating NASA are primarily caused by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is still investigating the launch incident. Furthermore, due to the mid-air explosion, a coalition of environmentalists has sued the FAA. The associations argue that the agency did not adequately assess the damage that spaceship launches could inflict on the surrounding ecosystem.

More Testing is Needed

NASA hopes for a return to flight testing as soon as possible so that Artemis 3 has some chance of meeting the 2025 goal. As Free pointed out, SpaceX will have to carry out many launches of the Starship before the vehicle can start transporting astronauts. For this reason, SpaceX will send an uncrewed spacecraft to the lunar surface to demonstrate the safety and readiness of the vehicle for crewed flight.

The Artemis program aims to establish a permanent and sustainable human presence on and around the Moon by the end of the 2020s. NASA believes that the capabilities and knowledge gained from this goal will help the agency send astronauts to Mars by the late 2030s or early 2040s.

The first Artemis mission has already launched, sending the uncrewed Orion capsule into lunar orbit and back last fall. Artemis 2 is expected to launch astronauts around the Moon by the end of 2024, using Orion and NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. A delay of Artemis 3 until 2026 would not be a disaster. The mission is ambitious and will employ newly designed and highly complex space hardware.

Ongoing Delays

To be honest, the December 2025 date is already a change from the original goal. In March 2019, the Trump administration tasked NASA with landing humans on the Moon by 2024. But this timeline was considered overly aggressive, as noted in a November 2021 report by NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG).

“The NASA’s goal to land astronauts on the lunar South Pole by the end of 2024 faces multiple significant challenges, including serious technical risks. With an unrealistic development schedule and funding levels below those needed, the 2024 date is likely to slip to 2026” wrote the authors of the OIG report.

Starship is not the only private vehicle that NASA intends to use as a crewed lunar lander. Last month, the agency announced that it had selected Blue Origin. Jeff Bezos‘ spaceflight company will provide a second human landing system as part of the Artemis program.

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