NASA said today the next two missions in NASA’s program to return astronauts to the Moon, Artemis II and Artemis III, remain on track for launch in late 2024 and late 2025, but a lot of work remains. That is especially true for Artemis III, the mission currently slated to put astronauts back on the lunar surface. The head of the Artemis program broached the possibility that a “different mission” could be flown if all the hardware is not ready because the point is to keep flying and keep learning.
Artemis I was an uncrewed test flight last fall. Heralded as a great success, a few anomalies nevertheless are being investigated. Chief among them was the uneven charring of the heat shield during reentry. Jim Free, NASA Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development who heads the Artemis program, said today they have theories, but are still working on determining the root cause. He expects “final disposition early next year.”
Next is Artemis II, which will take four astronauts around the Moon. This is a crewed flight test and they will not even go into orbit never mind land. The international crew — NASA’s Reid Wiseman, Victor Glover and Christina Koch and the Canadian Space Agency’s Jeremy Hansen — got their first collective look at the Lockheed Martin-built Orion capsule they will call home while visiting Kennedy Space Center today.
Free said Artemis II is still on track for launch in November 2024 “but we do have a number of weeks of risk to that date.” The Orion module is “the critical path” in that schedule right now. Unlike the Orion module that flew on Artemis I, this version is outfitted with the systems needed to support humans for the first time.
Free repeatedly stresses that everything about Artemis II is different from Artemis I “except the engineering” and they will be vigilant as they get this spacecraft and the Space Launch System rocket ready to carry astronauts. In June, he listed “complacency” as one of his top three worrries because Artemis I was such a success. His other two concerns were budgets and whether SpaceX’s Starship will be ready in time for the 2025 Artemis III flight.
Questions abound about whether Starship can meet that schedule.
SpaceX is building Starship for many purposes, but one is to serve as the Human Landing System (HLS) for Artemis III and IV. Unlike NASA’s Space Launch System, Starship cannot fly directly to the Moon. It must stop in Earth orbit to refuel at a yet-to-be-built SpaceX fuel depot filled with cyrogenic fuel delivered by other Starships. Neither NASA nor SpaceX will say how many Starship launches are needed to build and fill the depot other than “many.” Not to mention that transferring cryogenic propellant (liquid oxygen and liquid methane) has never been demonstrated in microgravity or that Starship’s one and only flight to date was a failure.
Free said he visited Starbase, SpaceX’s Boca Chica, TX facility where Starship is being built and tested, a couple of weeks ago. He and his team are still digesting the information and they’ll have a better feel for the schedule after that, but for now he is holding everyone to their contracted dates — launching Artemis III in December 2025. The contract with SpaceX is a Public-Private Partnership where SpaceX gets paid when it meets specific milestones. NASA is buying lunar landing services from SpaceX, it does not own the HLS system.
SpaceX not only has to launch many Starships and demonstrate in-space cryogenic refueling, but conduct an uncrewed demonstration test flight of the HLS version of Starship to the Moon to show it can safely land. NASA is not requiring SpaceX to demonstrate it can lift off from the Moon, only land.
In June, Free conceded that 2025 might not be possible and “you can think about that slipping probably into ’26.”
Today he went further, broaching the possibility that Artemis III might turn out to be a different mission entirely.
Noting that lunar spacesuits are another pacing factor, he suggested if all the components aren’t ready in time “we may end up flying a different mission.”
“I think one thing we learned from the ISS is to make sure we’re flexible so we keep human spaceflight viable.
“And one of the things that ISS did was really to look at the assembly sequence as hardware was available and wasn’t. I think it’s incumbent on us to do that.
“That’s what I was referring to. We’re trying to look at all the missions we can fly to keep learning. We may fly [Artemis] II and want to fly a different mission for [Artemis] III because we want to understand how the system works better.
I don’t want to look at it as a negative of a ‘we may not fly III the same way.’ For me it’s continuing to learn, to do exactly what Reid [Wiseman] said, that eventually we’re putting humans on Mars. We’re not going to accomplish everything in one mission. We shouldn’t expect to. What we should do is expect to fly safely and advance our cause of understanding, to do our science for the cause of understanding of our vehicles and systems.”
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