We got a glimpse of future NASA lunar missions and likely delays

Enlarge / A rendering of SpaceX’s Starship lander on the surface of the Moon.

Nasa

For several years, NASA has publicly discussed the initial phase of its Artemis Moon program. These first three missions, to be carried out over the next four or five years, are steps towards establishing a human presence on the Moon.

The Artemis I mission is set to launch later this year, testing NASA’s Space Launch System rocket and boosting the Orion spacecraft into lunar orbit. The second mission, Artemis II, will be more or less a repeat, only with four humans aboard Orion. Next comes the big test, Artemis III, which will send two humans to the Moon and back in the middle of this decade.

Beyond those missions, however, NASA has remained vague on the timing of future Artemis missions to the moon, though some members of Congress have pushed for more details. Now we may know why. Ars Technica obtained internal planning documents from the space agency showing an Artemis mission timeline and manifesto for now through fiscal year 2034.

Currently, NASA has its basic plan for Artemis, which is shown below. But NASA has also developed at least two “in-guide” schedule options, which agency planners say are achievable with projected budgets, according to the documents. These revised schedules indicate that NASA planners do not believe the basic plan will be achievable on time or within budget.

One of the internal schedules, titled “cadence”, prioritizes regular launch. The other, labeled “content”, prioritizes launching only when the most significant payloads are ready. Combined, they reveal that NASA is struggling to cram an ambitious exploration plan into a limited budget. The result is a slow-moving lunar program that largely fails to meet US national space policy goals.

In addition to its baseline schedule, NASA is considering two more
Enlarge / In addition to its baseline schedule, NASA is considering two additional “in-guide” schedules for the Artemis program. They are reproduced here from internal documents.

Ars Technica/NASA

In response to questions about internal schedules, NASA spokeswoman Kathryn Hambleton said, “NASA is continuing its baseline plans for Artemis missions beyond Artemis III. The agency regularly evaluates architectures alternatives as a prudent part of programmatic planning.”

While NASA can say it’s sticking to the “baseline” plan for Artemis, that theoretical timeline is almost certainly unattainable. Already, the agency is considering moving the Artemis III mission past 2025 due to a number of factors, including a lack of moon-ready spacesuits. Moreover, the preparation of revised schedules strongly suggests that NASA is prepared for inevitable delays.

Here are some of the main issues raised by the revised schedules, which are reproduced above from the original NASA documents to protect our sources.

  • There are huge gaps between missions. To fill a three-year gap, NASA is considering creating an “Artemis III.5” mission that would require the agency to procure an intermediate upper fourth stage and delay development of other key programs.
  • The slow progress of missions is delaying the development of a “base camp” on the Moon for years, with the first establishment of a lunar surface habitat not occurring until 2034.
  • NASA will spend the next 10 years focusing on assembling a small space station in lunar orbit, rather than building capacity on the surface of the Moon.

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