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NASA Artemis moon landing in 2025 "unlikely" as challenges mount, GAO report says

A look at the astronauts selected for Artemis II
A look at the 4 astronauts selected for the Artemis II mission 02:05

A fast-track schedule, along with delays developing SpaceX's moon lander and new Axiom spacesuits, make the first Artemis moon landing "unlikely" in 2025 and, based on past experience, a delay to 2027 could be expected, the Government Accountability Office said in a report released Thursday.

"NASA and its contractors have made progress, including completing several important milestones, but they still face multiple challenges with development of the human landing system and the spacesuits," the agency concluded.

"As a result, GAO found that the Artemis III crewed lunar landing is unlikely to occur in 2025."

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An artist's impression of the SpaceX Human Landing System moon lander on the lunar surface. NASA/SpaceX

NASA is attempting to develop its moon landing system more than a year faster than average for such major projects. "The complexity of human spaceflight suggests that it is unrealistic to expect the program to complete development more than a year faster than the average for NASA major projects," the report said.

"GAO found that if development took as long as the average for NASA major projects, the Artemis III mission would likely occur in early 2027."

While late 2025 remains the official Artemis III launch target, NASA already was re-assessing the flight schedule. Agency officials have raised the possibility of "repurposing" the Artemis III mission if it turns out a moon landing isn't feasible in the near-term timeframe.

But NASA has not yet announced any such changes.

The Artemis program aims to return astronauts to the moon for the first time since the Apollo program's last lunar landing in 1972. In so doing, the space agency would get there well ahead of China, which plans to land its "taikonauts" on the moon in the 2030 timeframe.

U.S. and partner-agency astronauts will fly to the moon in Lockheed Martin-built Orion capsules launched atop the agency's Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket, built for NASA by Boeing, United Launch Alliance and Northrop Grumman.

An initial, unpiloted around-the-moon test flight — Artemis I — was successfully launched last November and NASA hopes to launch four astronauts on a similar flight, Artemis II, in late 2024 or early 2025.

The Artemis III mission is intended to carry four astronauts to lunar orbit where they will rendezvous with a variant of SpaceX's Starship rocket, known as the Human Landing System, or HLS. Two astronauts then would move into the HLS for descent to the moon's south polar region.

Once on the surface, the first woman and the next man to walk on the moon will use new spacesuits designed by Axiom Space as a commercial venture. Once the initial six-day surface mission is complete, the astronauts would fly back up to the waiting Orion capsule using the HLS.

The HLS is a variant of the commercial Starship upper stage used by SpaceX's Super Heavy rocket. NASA awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract in April 2021 to build the HLS system for the Artemis III flight.

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An artist's impression of the SpaceX Human Landing System moon lander on the lunar surface. GAO

The HLS will use most of its initial load of cryogenic liquid methane and liquid oxygen propellants just getting into Earth orbit after launch atop a Super Heavy booster.

To get to the moon, the HLS must be refueled. SpaceX plans to launch a Starship propellant depot and multiple "tankers" to fill it with the required methane and liquid oxygen.

The HLS vehicle then would attach itself to the depot, take on propellants and then head for the moon to await the Orion astronauts. NASA's contract with SpaceX requires one unpiloted lunar landing mission before astronauts launch on the Artemis III mission.

The GAO noted that the initial flight test of the integrated Super Heavy-Starship rocket was delayed by seven months to April. "It was then terminated early when the vehicle deviated from its expected trajectory and began to tumble."

A second test flight was launched Nov. 18 and while the Starship upper stage successfully reached space, a problem of some sort apparently triggered its self-destruct system just before, during or after engine shutdown. SpaceX has not yet provided details or announced when a third test might be attempted.

But given the presumably high number of successful flights required to demonstrate reliability and to perfect the required autonomous refueling systems, a moon landing in 2025 is not likely, the GAO concluded.

"SpaceX must complete a significant amount of complex technical work to support the Artemis III lunar landing mission, including developing the ability to store and transfer propellant while in orbit.

"A critical aspect of SpaceX's plan for landing astronauts on the moon for Artemis III is launching multiple tankers that will transfer propellant to a depot in space before transferring that propellant to the human landing system."

The GAO said NASA documentation "states that SpaceX has made limited progress maturing the technologies needed to support this aspect of its plan."

The other major issue facing the space agency is development of the new moonsuits. NASA spent $420 million over 14 years to come up with a viable design before awarding Axiom Space of Houston a $229 million contract last year to continue development on a more commercial basis.

But the GAO said Axiom faces multiple challenges, including a NASA requirement for an emergency oxygen supply lasting a full hour. Axiom also must address supply chain issues and obsolescence in existing spacesuit elements.

"As a result, Axiom representatives said they may redesign certain aspects of the space suit, which could delay its delivery for the mission," the GAO said.

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