NASA postpones the return of astronauts to the Moon until 2026

NASA announced Tuesday, January 9, the postponement of its Artemis-3 mission, which was to send astronauts back to the Moon for the first time since the end of Apollo in 1972, as well as Artemis-2, during which a crew must go around the Moon without landing there

NASA postpones the return of astronauts to the Moon until 2026

NASA announced Tuesday, January 9, the postponement of its Artemis-3 mission, which was to send astronauts back to the Moon for the first time since the end of Apollo in 1972, as well as Artemis-2, during which a crew must go around the Moon without landing there.

“We are adjusting our schedule, to target Artemis-2 in September 2025, and September 2026 for Artemis-3,” NASA boss Bill Nelson said at a press conference. Artemis-2 was scheduled for late 2024, and Artemis-3 for late 2025. “Safety is our first priority,” the official continued, explaining that the teams needed more time.

The Artemis program aims to establish a lasting presence on the Moon, in order to prepare the journey of a first crew to Mars. This program was inaugurated in 2022 with the Artemis-1 mission, which successfully flew the Orion spacecraft around the Moon to test it without a crew.

The Artemis-2 mission is expected to last approximately ten days and send four astronauts, three Americans and one Canadian, for a trip around the Moon, without landing there.

Essential components are not yet ready

A report from NASA's Office of Inspector General released in November pointed to several issues that need to be addressed before this mission takes off.

First, during Artemis-1, the heat shield protecting the Orion capsule during its return to Earth's atmosphere was altered "in an unexpected way," according to the report. Additionally, the platform used to transport the massive SLS rocket had “suffered more damage than expected.”

Artemis-3 will then be the first mission to deposit astronauts on the lunar surface in more than fifty years. Two essential components are not yet ready: firstly a lunar lander, ordered from the space company SpaceX, and spacesuits adapted to the lunar environment, the development of which has been entrusted to Axiom Space and Collins Aerospace. SpaceX's lander will be a modified version of the Starship spacecraft, currently being developed by billionaire Elon Musk's company.

However, the first two flights of Starship, mounted on its Super Heavy thruster, ended in explosions in 2023. To reach the Moon, Starship will also have to be refueled in flight: this is a risky and untested operation.