NASA Delays Next Artemis Missions to 2025 and 2026

NASA Delays Next Artemis Missions to 2025 and 2026

NASA announced today that the Artemis II mission that was to launch this year and send astronauts around the Moon for the first time in five decades is being delayed to September 2025. Artemis III, which will return astronauts to the lunar surface, similarly is delayed for about a year, from the end of 2025 to September 2026. The revised schedule is due to technical problems with existing systems and development delays with SpaceX’s Human Landing System and Axiom Space’s lunar spacesuits. The House authorization committee that oversees NASA will hold a hearing next week to learn more about the causes and costs of the delay.

In announcing the revised schedule during a media telecon this afternoon, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson stressed that NASA’s first priority is safety and they will not launch until they are ready.

Amit Kshatriya, Deputy Associate Administrator for the Moon to Mars Program, laid out a number of technical challenges the agency and its industry and international partners must resolve before Artemis II can fly. That flight will set the pace for Artemis III and beyond.

For example, although the 2022 Artemis I uncrewed test flight of the Space Launch System rocket and Orion crew capsule was a complete success, NASA was surprised that some of the protective coating on Orion’s heat shield came off during reentry. The ablative material was expected to char, but none of the charred material was supposed to be “liberated.” No one was inside the Lockheed Martin-built capsule and the interior temperature remained stable, but they want to fully understand why it behaved differently than expected before they launch the next one.

The Orion capsule after splashing down in the ocean off California on December 11, 2022 at the end of the uncrewed Artemis I test flight. Screengrab.

That next launch, Artemis II, is the first Orion with a life support system and will take four astronauts on a test flight around the Moon. Not only is NASA still trying to understand the heat shield issue, but some of the capsule’s components failed acceptance testing.

In particular, they found a design flaw in motor valve circuitry for a part of the life support system that removes carbon dioxide. It actually had passed acceptance testing for the second Orion, but failed when tested for the third. That led NASA and Lockheed Martin to take a second look at the system and they decided it was “unacceptable.” The hardware will have to be replaced in the Orion capsule for Artemis II, a laborious process because of where it is located and all the retesting that will have to be done because adjacent connectors might get disturbed. “We’ll have to put the vehicle through full up function testing afterwards,” Kshatriya said.

Those are just two of the issues that led NASA to conclude they cannot meet the original schedule and delayed the launch from the end of 2024 to September 2025.

Artemis II is a crewed test flight around the Moon. It will not enter orbit, much less land on the Moon, but fly a free-return trajectory so the spacecraft will return to Earth even if the Orion thrusters do not work as planned. That flight needs to prove out the systems before launching Artemis III, the first Artemis lunar landing mission, so a delay to one is a delay to the other.

The Artemis II crew: Jeremy Hansen (Canadian Space Agency), Christina Koch (NASA), Victor Glover (NASA), Reid Wiseman (NASA). Credit: NASA

Even if Artemis II did not have to be postponed, Kshatriya acknowledged Artemis III would have slipped anyway because of the extensive work that remains on SpaceX’s Starship Human Landing System (HLS) to take astronauts down to and back from the surface and Axiom Space’s spacesuits the astronauts need to wear on the surface. Both are being developed through Public-Private Partnerships where the companies develop and own the systems, while NASA purchases services.

Jim Free, NASA’s new Associate Administrator, the highest ranking civil servant in the agency who until last week headed NASA’s Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate (ESDMD) that oversees Artemis, made it clear: “we must be realistic.” He added the crew asked for a realistic plan “because they feel that gives them the best path.”

Today’s announcement is what NASA considers a realistic plan: Artemis II in September 2025, Artemis III in September 2026, and Artemis IV on its current schedule for September 2028. Additional schedule changes are in the works for the Gateway space station that will orbit the Moon and support the landings. The first two components, a Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) and a Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) were supposed to launch in September 2025, but that also will be delayed. Gateway is being built by an international partnership among the United States, Canada, Europe, Japan, and, as of Sunday, the United Arab Emirates. NASA is providing the PPE and HALO.

Free has warned in the past about the Artemis III schedule, especially for Starship HLS.  Starship cannot go directly to the Moon. It must stop in Earth orbit and refuel at a propellant depot. No propellant depots exist today and in-orbit transfer of cryogenic propellant (liquid methane and liquid oxygen) from one vehicle to another has never been done.  One Starship will be launched to serve as the depot, then many more to fill it up. Then the Starship that will serve as the HLS can be launched, refueled and sent on its way.

Illustration of SpaceX’s Starship Human Landing System on the Moon. Note the astronauts at the bottom of the lander for scale. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX’s contract with NASA requires an uncrewed Starship HLS landing on the Moon before the Artemis III mission. That was another delay announced today. Instead of launching this year, SpaceX Vice President of Customer Operations and Integration Jessica Jensen said at the media telecon that it will be in 2025. The contract only requires SpaceX to land on the Moon, not lift off, but Jensen said the test was “an uncrewed landing on the Moon and then ascending off the surface.”

A lot of mystery surrounds just how many Starship launches are needed for a single HLS mission to the Moon. Asked today for that number, Jensen tried to avoid a direct answer, but Nelson intervened and she finally replied she thinks it will be about 10, but could be more or less.

“So I will say it will roughly be 10-ish. That would be my rough guess right now, but it could be lower depending on how well the first flight tests go or it could be a little bit higher.” — Jessica Jensen, SpaceX

SpaceX’s two test flights of Starship so far have been less than successful, though the second got further than the first. Jensen said SpaceX will be ready for the third flight this month, but does not anticipate getting its FAA license until February.

NASA also revealed that it has asked SpaceX and its other HLS contractor, Blue Origin, to start looking at developing cargo versions of their HLS systems to deliver large amounts of cargo to the lunar surface.

Nelson often raises the specter of China putting people on the Moon before America can return as a motivation for the Artemis program. Asked today if he’s worried these delays might put China in the lead, he emphatically said no.

“I really do not have a concern that China’s gonna land before us. I think that China has a very aggressive plan. I think they would like to land before us because that might give them some [public relations] coup. But the fact is that I don’t think they will. I think it is true that the date that they announce keeps getting earlier, but specifically with us landing in September ’26, that will be the first landing [since Apollo].” — Bill Nelson, NASA

The top Republican and Democratic leaders of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee reacted to the news this afternoon by announcing a hearing next week where they want to learn more about why the delays are needed and what the cost will be, but remained strongly supportive of the effort overall.

Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK), Chair, House Science, Space, and Technology Committee

“Ensuring the success of NASA’s Artemis program is critical to not only returning humans back to the Lunar surface but also continuing America’s global leadership in space exploration. The Science Committee is holding a hearing on the Artemis program next week where I look forward to questioning experts on the projected delays and how NASA can keep timelines and budget on track.” Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK), HSS&T Chair


Rep. Zoe Lofgren, full committee Ranking Member, House SS&T Committee

“While we are disappointed to learn of an Artemis delay today, we stand by NASA in their commitment to safety,” said Ranking Members Lofgren and Sorensen. “We support Artemis and its goal to return astronauts to the Moon; we want these missions to be safe and successful. As we move forward to ensure Artemis stays on track, we must understand the challenges of this complex effort and its delays. The Artemis Program holds tremendous importance to our nation. It will inspire the next generation, strengthen our industry and international partnerships, and demonstrate capabilities needed for eventually sending humans to Mars.

“Next week, the Committee plans to hold a hearing on the Artemis Program. We look forward to learning more about the cause and costs of delays then.”

U.S. efforts to return astronauts to the lunar surface have experienced many twists and turns since the Apollo 17 crew lifted off in December 1972.

In this century, President George W. Bush instituted the Constellation program to get back on the Moon by 2020, but President Barack Obama not only nixed that program, but said there was no need to return to the Moon at all, America should focus on sending humans to orbit Mars in the 2030s instead.

President Donald Trump kept Mars, but restored the Moon to the plan when he assumed office and NASA developed a plan to get there by 2028. But in March 2019, Trump’s Vice President, Mike Pence, as chair of the National Space Council, abruptly directed NASA to accelerate the schedule to 2024 so it would happen during Trump’s second term if he was reelected.

Trump was not reelected, but President Joe Biden adopted Trump’s plan and initially maintained the 2024 date. Less than a year later, Nelson conceded that wasn’t possible and it would slip to 2025. Now it’s 2026. The Government Accountability Office recently estimated it would be 2027, and between technical challenges and budgetary uncertainty, many would not be surprised if 2028 turns out to be the date after all.

Whenever it happens, NASA officials left no doubt that safety will be the top priority.


This article has been updated.

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