US Pushes Back Planned Return of Astronauts to Moon until 2026

The United States has announced a delay in its planned return of astronauts to the Moon until 2026, according to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. This decision comes as a result of technical challenges and delays that the agency is currently facing. The mission, known as Artemis, was introduced in 2017 as part of NASA’s efforts to establish a long-term presence on the Moon and gather knowledge for future missions to Mars.

The first mission of Artemis, called Artemis 1, was an unmanned test flight to the Moon and back that took place in 2022 after several delays. However, Artemis 2, which involves a crew but does not include landing on the lunar surface, has been postponed from its original date later this year to September 2025. Furthermore, Artemis 3, which will mark the first time a woman and a person of color set foot on the Moon’s south pole, is now scheduled for September 2026.

Nelson emphasized that safety is the top priority and the delay will allow the Artemis teams more time to address the challenges they are facing. In addition to the manned missions, NASA is also planning to build a lunar space station called Gateway, where spacecraft will dock during future missions.

SpaceX, owned by Elon Musk, has been awarded the contract for the landing system for Artemis 3. However, the company’s prototype Starship rocket, which will be used for the mission, is still in development and has experienced setbacks with both of its orbital tests resulting in explosions. These delays have implications for other aspects of the mission, such as spacesuit development and astronaut training.

The Artemis 1 mission itself revealed technical issues, including unexpected erosion of the heat shield on the Orion crew capsule and more damage than expected to the ground structure used to launch the SLS rocket.

As of March 2023, NASA has committed approximately $40 billion to various contractors in support of the Artemis program, according to a watchdog report. One notable difference between the Apollo missions of the 20th century and the Artemis era is the increased involvement of commercial partnerships, which is part of NASA’s strategy to reduce costs and make space exploration more accessible.