NASA's Artemis astronauts won't land on the moon by 2024 deadline

Artist's illustration showing an Artemis astronaut walking onto the moon surface. NASA image credit
NASA has given up on its goal of bringing humans back to the moon's surface in 2024.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson stated today, Nov. 9, that 2024 was not technically possible. "We [now] estimate no earlier than 2025."

NASA is working to land humans on the Moon by 2024 according to a timeline established by Trump's administration. This already ambitious target was made even more difficult by delays due to the coronavirus pandemic, and a Blue Origin lawsuit, which caused NASA to halt development of the landing system for the first crewed touchdown. Nelson has now officially announced that the agency has a lunar timeline.

Related: NASA's Artemis moon landings with astronauts

2024 is unlikely to occur

NASA's Moonshot Goal with Artemis is to Return Humans to the Moon and Create a Continuous Human Presence on and Around the Lunar Surface. This will begin with landing the first woman and first person of color to the moon in this decade. The deadline for Artemis' first crewed landing, which was set by the Trump administration in 2024, has been met by the agency.

Nelson stated that today's official change by the agency to the lunar landing deadline was made "no later than 2025". This is partly due to technical difficulties and delays caused in part by the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic and a Blue Origin lawsuit.

Nelson stated that the Trump administration's target of 2024 human landing was not technically feasible.

NASA awarded the Human Landing System contract (HLS) to SpaceX in April. Blue Origin, a contender for the contract was notified and published an open letter. NASA eventually filed a federal suit against Blue Origin. The petitions were denied but the federal lawsuit stopped all collaboration on the lunar lander project until Blue Origin was declared the winner.

Artist's illustration of the SpaceX Starship landing on the Moon for NASA. SpaceX, Image Credit

Nelson stated that NASA can now work with SpaceX to develop its moon lander. This is a crucial piece of equipment as it will transport astronauts to the lunar surface.

Nelson stated that he spoke with Gwynne shotwell, SpaceX's CEO, last Friday. This was the first contact he had about the HLS program since the lawsuit.

He said, "We both stressed the importance of returning safely and quickly to the moon. The court's decision on Friday signifies progress for the Artemis programme." "But, our teams still need to work through the details before we can give an overview of the readiness timeframe."

Nelson did however share some timeline goals for major milestones.

Changes in plans and finances

Nelson stated that NASA plans to launch Artemis 1 (the program's first test flight) aboard the Space Launch System rocket on an uncrewed mission about the moon in February 2022. This is the same target as was previously set. Artemis 2, which will fly astronauts aboard Orion to the moon and back, will be launched in May 2024. This is in contrast to the September 2023 goal. Artemis 3, which will be the first crewed lunar landing mission, will launch "no sooner than 2025."

Nelson said that Artemis 2 would travel "further then humans have ever been", probably 40,000 miles [about 64,000 km] beyond the moon, before returning to Earth.

Nelson shared his frustration with the Artemis program's delays and difficulties, and also said that there would be an increase in the budget for Orion spacecraft.

He stated that NASA is committed to an Orion updated development cost of $9.3 billion starting in fiscal year [20]12 and ending with the first crewed flight testing, no later than May 20,24."

This figure is significantly different from the $6.7 billion "previous agency baseline obligation," NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy stated during the briefing.

Space competition

During the briefing, Nelson stated that the three first missions, which were the two test flights, are only the beginning and that he hopes to keep space competitive.

SpaceX is currently the only company with a contract to construct a crewed lunar landing lander for NASA. However, Nelson stated that Congress has demanded that there be more competition for those 10+ moon landings. The competition will require significant funding increases. This will be the case starting with the budget for 2023.

"I have never been shy about declaring this. Nelson spoke out about the need for more funding to encourage competition in technology development like HLS. We need, for full-up competition -- which Congress made clear, in no uncertain terms their preference and their strong, firm urging to have a contest for the eventual lander. He said that this would require a budget of approximately $5.7 billion for six years.

Nelson stated that in addition to increasing competition among U.S. businesses, the need for a budget raise also takes into consideration international competition from China.

Nelson stated that "we are facing an aggressive and very good Chinese space program." "The Chinese space program has shown that it is capable of landing Chinese astronauts on the moon much sooner than initially expected.

Nelson pointed out China's recent achievements, such as putting the first module of its Tiangong space station into orbit, sending astronauts aboard that station, and continuing robotic lunar missions.

Nelson stated that there is every reason to believe that China has a competitor. He said that the Chinese will be returning to the moon with taikonauts. "And that's the position NASA and I believe it the United States government that want to be the first back on the Moon after more than a half-century."

Nelson emphasized the bigger, more overarching goal of Artemis to not only land humans on the Moon but also inspire the next generation.

"NASA is committed pushing the limits of what we know is possible." Nelson stated that Artemis missions will make science fiction science fact.

We will make new discoveries, advance technology and learn how to live and work in another world. He added that we will do all this while inspiring the next generation scientists, engineers, and mathematicians: the Artemis Generations."