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LOGAN, Utah — NASA has left the door open for changing the scope of Artemis 3, currently set to be the first crewed lunar landing of the program, if key elements suffer major delays.
Speaking at an Aug. 8 briefing at the Kennedy Space Center, Jim Free, NASA associate administrator for exploration systems development, said the Artemis 3 mission still has a formal launch date of December 2025 but that he was monitoring potential delays in hardware needed for the mission.
“We may end up flying a different mission if that’s the case,” he said. “If we have these big slips out, we’ve looked at if can we do other missions.” Artemis 3 could also change based on the outcome of Artemis 2, he added.
Asked later what a different mission might entail, Free pointed to the experience from the International Space Station program. “One thing we learned from ISS is to make sure we’re flexible so we keep human spaceflight viable,” he said, such as changing the assembly sequence of the station based on when hardware was available.
“I think it’s incumbent upon us to do that,” he said. “We’re trying to look at all of the missions that we could fly to keep learning.”
Free did not discuss what specifically might trigger changing Artemis 3. However, in a June presentation to a pair of National Academies committees, he expressed concern about the progress SpaceX was making on its Starship vehicle, including the lunar lander version that will be used on Artemis 3. He said then that Artemis 3 “probably” would slip to 2026 because of problems SpaceX has had on Starship.
Free said at the KSC event that NASA received an “updated schedule” for Starship development from SpaceX during a briefing a couple weeks ago at the company’s Starbase test facility in Texas. He did not disclose the contents of that schedule but said that NASA would update its plans in the near future “after we have some time to digest it.”
“My concern is the same because they haven’t launched,” he said of any changes in his views about Starship since the June meeting. The day-long meeting at Starbase offered what he described as “tremendous” insight into the work and their plans, while also giving NASA an opportunity to discuss how Starship fit into the overall Artemis architecture, such as interfaces between the vehicle and spacesuits that Axiom Space is developing for moonwalks.
“When we come up with a date, December of 2025 or whatever that date might be, we want to have confidence for our teams that we all have a realistic path to get there,” he said, including ensuring there are sufficient margins in that schedule.
The briefing coincided with a visit to KSC by the four-person Artemis 2 crew, who saw for the first time the Orion spacecraft that is being assembled for their mission.
Free said that the launch of Artemis 2 remains officially scheduled for late November 2024. However, he said there is “a number of weeks of risk” to that date, with the Orion crew module assembly and testing the critical path on that schedule.
“We’re really not working major issues right now,” he said of preparations for Artemis 2. “I think we’re on a good path.”
NASA is also working to complete investigations into outstanding issues from the uncrewed Artemis 1 test flight last year, such as problems with electronics on the service module and the Orion capsule’s heat shield, which ablated more than expected on reentry.
The heat shield “is definitely the biggest open issue” from Artemis 1, Free said. Engineers are still working to determine the root cause of the heat shield’s performance, including tests in an arcjet chamber that simulates reentry conditions. “We have some ideas on what that root cause might be,” he said, but didn’t discuss them.
The commander of Artemis 2 endorsed that approach. “I know we will find the right solution,” NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman said. “We’re not going to launch until we know we’re ready, until our team knows the vehicle is ready. We will keep the pressure on, but so far all the right things are being done.”
Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science... More by Jeff Foust
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