Nov. 9 (Reuters) – NASA extends its target date for returning astronauts to the moon to 2025 at the earliest, the head of the US space agency said on Tuesday, extending by at least a year the timetable announced under the former President Donald Trump.
The Trump administration had set itself the ambitious goal of bringing humans back to the lunar surface by 2024, an initiative called Artemis designed as a stepping stone towards the even more ambitious goal of sending astronauts to Mars.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson cited delays due to legal disputes over the SpaceX contract to build the Artemis lunar landing vehicle as a major reason for the postponement of the target date.
“We’ve lost nearly seven months in litigation, and that probably pushed the first human landing to probably no earlier than 2025,” Nelson said at a press conference. “We estimate 2025 at the earliest for Artemis 3, which would be the human lander of the first demonstration landing.”
Last Thursday, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin against the US government challenging NASA’s decision to award a $ 2.9 billion lunar lander contract to SpaceX rival of billionaire Elon Musk.
The move allows the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to resume working with SpaceX on the lander contract, although Nelson said Musk’s company has continued with its own development work in the meantime.
Citing additional factors for the new timeline, Nelson said Congress previously approved too little money for the program and that “the Trump administration’s goal of a human landing in 2024 was not based on technical feasibility “.
Nelson, a former astronaut and U.S. senator appointed by President Joe Biden to head the space agency, said delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic had also played a role.
NASA previously aimed to bring a crewed spacecraft back to the lunar surface by 2028, after putting a “Gateway” space station into orbit around the moon by 2024.
But the Trump administration, in a surprise 2019 statement from then-Vice President Mike Pence, set a deadline to get Americans back to the moon within five years “by whatever means necessary.”
At the time, Pence said the United States was in a new “space race,” borrowing Cold War-era vocabulary from the 1960s, to counter the potential space weapon capabilities of Russia and China.
COMPETITION WITH CHINA
Nelson said China’s space program, which included robotic exploration of the lunar surface and Mars, remains a boost for Project Artemis.
“We’re going to be as aggressive as possible in a safe and technically feasible way to beat the competition with boots on the moon,” he said.
Since 2020, NASA has launched three crews of astronauts aboard SpaceX rockets to the International Space Station, with a fourth of those missions expected in orbit as of this week.
The US Apollo program sent six human missions to the moon from 1969 to 1972, the only manned spaceflight to yet reach the lunar surface. The Artemis program, named after Apollo’s twin sister and the goddess of the hunt and the moon in Greek mythology, aims to eventually establish a long-term human colony on the moon as a precursor to sending astronauts on Mars.
As part of the latest framework described by Nelson, the very first Artemis mission, an unmanned test flight of the Orion capsule and the new heavy Space Launch System (SLS) rocket that will send it into the air, is expected to take off in February 2022.
The first crewed flight of the SLS-Orion spacecraft would take place no later than May 2024, a mission that would take astronauts some 40,000 miles beyond the moon – farther than humans have ever flown – and would bring them back to Earth, Nelson said.
He said Artemis’ first human landing, now expected no earlier than 2025, would also be preceded on an unspecified date by an unmanned landing. NASA said Artemis’ first crewed moon landing will include at least one woman, with a person of color on that mission or the next. The two would be first.
Reporting by Dan Whitcomb and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Will Dunham and Rosalba O’Brien
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