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Citing China threat, NASA says moon landing now will come in 2025

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson says Blue Origin’s legal challenges to NASA’s award of a lunar lander contract to SpaceX delayed the lunar program 7 months

NASA and other crews work on the Artemis I mission at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in June 2021. (NASA/AFP/Getty Images)

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said Tuesday for the first time that the Trump-era goal of returning astronauts to the moon by 2024, a timeline initially embraced by the Biden administration, is no longer feasible and that a human landing would be pushed “likely to no earlier than 2025.”

He blamed a series of events for forcing the revision of the Artemis schedule, which many in the space industry had said was overly ambitious given the difficulties of getting humans into deep space. Dealing with the pandemic was a major driver of the delay, Nelson said in a call with reporters, as were unrealistic budgets under the Trump administration. The legal challenges filed by Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, which prevented NASA from working with SpaceX on the contract it had won to build the spacecraft that would ferry astronauts to and from the lunar surface, delayed work by seven months, he said.

But now that Blue Origin’s latest challenge was struck down by a federal court, NASA is moving ahead with SpaceX to resume work as quickly as possible. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

The first flight of NASA’s massive Space Launch System rocket with the Orion spacecraft on top of it is on track for the first part of next year, Nelson said, possibly as early as February. That mission, known as Artemis I, would put Orion, without any astronauts on board, in orbit around the moon.

The next mission, Artemis II, is now scheduled for May 2024, more than a year later than originally scheduled, he said. That flight would be similar to Artemis I but would have astronauts on board, in what would be the first crewed mission to the moon since the Apollo program.

The landing with humans would come sometime in 2025, but NASA officials said the timing would depend on the success of the previous test flights as well as SpaceX’s development of the Starship spacecraft that would meet up with Orion in lunar orbit and ferry the astronauts to the surface of the moon.

Given the immense technical challenges, the new vehicles NASA and the space industry are developing and congressional reluctance, it is possible 2025 also is not feasible.

To meet that timeline, Nelson said that the estimated cost of developing the Orion program, beginning in 2012 and running through the first crewed mission, would grow from $6.7 billion to $9.3 billion. NASA officials said the increase was driven by changing requirements as well as delays caused by the pandemic.

As soon as Blue Origin’s lawsuit was thrown out, Nelson said he was on the phone with Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, to discuss the lunar lander for the first time in months. “We both underscored the importance of returning to the moon as quickly and safely as possible,” he said.

To meet the timeline, however, Nelson said the agency would require significant spending increases, and it is unclear how amenable Congress would be to appropriate the additional $5.7 billion over six years that Nelson said the agency would need.

“All these ambitious plans are contingent on funding,” he said. “And I'm going to continue to fight for sustained funding.”

He maintained that the United States needed to get to the moon and fast, casting the program as a Cold War-like space race, only this time against China instead of the Soviet Union. Having landed a rover on Mars and a robotic spacecraft on the far side of the moon, China has big ambitions in space, he said. It is also building a space station in low Earth orbit and is working toward a human landing on the moon, as well.

“We have every reason to believe that we have a competitor, a very aggressive competitor, in the Chinese,” Nelson said. “It’s the position of NASA and, I believe, the United States government that we want to be first back on the moon. … And we are getting geared up to go.”