Why Does NASA's Return to the Moon Keep Getting Delayed? | Unveiled

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The Artemis Program has been a flagship NASA mission for years now, but we're still waiting to see astronauts return to the moon. In this video, Unveiled takes a closer look at the reasons why NASA has suffered so many delays with the Artemis Program... and updates the diary with all the new key dates to look out for!

Why Does NASA’s Return to the Moon Keep Getting Delayed?

Not since the early 1970s has a human being stepped foot on our closest celestial neighbour, the moon. Back then, the sudden winding down of the Apollo Program after such a monumental success just a couple years earlier came as quite a shock to the scientific community… but, for one reason or another, we haven’t yet brought back crewed lunar missions. That’s apparently set to change with the Artemis Program, NASA’s plan to return to the moon in the coming years, but it’s taking a lot longer to happen than many had hoped.

So, this is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; why does NASA’s return to the moon keep getting delayed?

Although America’s latest attempt to get back to the moon is really the culmination of years’ worth of work stretching back to the early 2010s, it was started in earnest in late 2017. And then was given the name “the Artemis Program” in May 2019. Back then, the chief takeaways were that NASA was aiming for another moon landing by 2024, with the promise that Artemis would send the next man and the first woman to the lunar surface. At first there were reasonably generous state funding packets, to get the mission started… although in more recent times NASA has increasingly looked to private companies to help them achieve their goals - including Blue Origin and SpaceX.

Regardless, as we move into 2022, that initial target of a moon landing by 2024 has unfortunately disappeared. In early November ‘21, the NASA Administrator Bill Nelson revealed during a press conference that NASA was now estimating “no earlier than 2025”. Nelson continued that a 2024 landing date, as laid out by the previous Trump Administration, “was not grounded in technical feasibility”. Although there were other reported reasons for the pushback, too. For one, the impact of the coronavirus global pandemic saw work on Artemis severely slow down. But, also, there was the impact of a drawn-out lawsuit to factor in, as well, with the space firm Blue Origin filing against NASA after it selected rival company SpaceX to provide a key piece of mission equipment - the HLS Human Landing System. Nelson revealed, again in the November ‘21 press conference, that NASA had only been able to speak with SpaceX about HLS (for the first time) just the week beforehand.

However, the projections got worse only a few days after that press conference, with a NASA report published on November 15th, 2021, specifically looking at the Agency’s management of the Artemis missions. The authors of that report delivered an even more pessimistic outlook, concluding that they foresaw NASA would “exceed its current timetable for landing humans on the moon in late 2024 by several years”. In the same report it was also suggested that NASA had severely underestimated the cost of the Artemis Program by upwards of $25 billion dollars.

But, still, it’s not as though the Artemis Program has been totally closed. And the Biden administration, taking over from the Trump presidency which launched the initiative in the first place, has fully endorsed it to continue. In a broad sense, the Artemis pathway hasn’t altered that much, either. There are still three key missions to look out for, appropriately named Artemis One, Two, and Three. Although, again, the planned launch dates for all of those have been delayed.

Artemis One is set to be an uncrewed test flight, putting much of the Artemis tech through its paces in space for the first time. It will see the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle launched to the moon, where it will operate as a high-profile moon orbiter for almost a week before returning to Earth. In all, this part of the mission should take around 25 days from launch to splashdown. Following that, Artemis Two is the Program’s first crewed mission, set to send the Orion spacecraft, again, to, from, and around the moon… but this time with astronauts inside. It will represent the first time since 1972, Apollo 17, and the last moon landing that any human being will’ve travelled beyond low-Earth orbit.

But then comes Artemis Three, and this is the really big one. Scheduled to be NASA’s first crewed lunar lander mission for more than fifty years. With all the delays and development issues, the specifics of the mission are yet to be ironed out… but there are some aspects of it that we already know. Artemis Three will be aiming for around the lunar south pole, for example. And while there may be as many as four astronauts launched from Earth onboard the Orion, only two of them will touchdown on the moon. It’s hoped that those two will then be able to spend between six and seven days on the surface, conducting spacewalks and experiments. Meanwhile, the mission’s other astronaut (or astronauts) will be docked in lunar orbit, potentially at the Gateway - a small space station setup close to the moon - if it’s built in time.

With so much still to achieve, it’s perhaps easy to see why NASA has already had to climb down from that initial 2024 target. The delays regarding the Human Landing System alone serve to highlight just how difficult the mission is - with the HLS being the vehicle that will ultimately transport astronauts from the bigger Orion spacecraft to the lunar surface, and back again. But really, problems and delays have been felt all the way through the planned schedule. Such as in late December 2021, when the launch of Artemis One was knocked back from February 2022 until March or April 2022.

According to NASA, the problem here had to do with a discovered need to replace at least one of the engine controllers (of which there are four) in the mission’s Space launch System rocket. The SLS rocket is another example of new and cutting-edge (but also crucial) tech that’s being used on the Artemis Program, as Artemis One will double up as its first flight, too. Naturally, then, because so much of this equipment is new, because so much of it is planned to feature so heavily in the coming years for NASA, and because it will ultimately be used to ferry whole crews of people from Earth to the moon (and perhaps to other places), it’s vitally important to get it right. Lives will be depending on the SLS rocket, and the HLS Landing System, and the proposed Gateway docking station, as well as on countless other things within the Artemis Program. It’s just not something that can be rushed.

We can see then that NASA is having to manage a number of situations with Artemis that aren’t ideal. First off, the initial target of 2024 is now generally said to have been unrealistic from the outset. Secondly, the coronavirus pandemic has slowed down development across the board, as America and the rest of the world strives to adapt. Thirdly, while the influx of private space firms in recent years has served to accelerate our space travel goals, it’s also led to increased competition and, in the case of Artemis, at least one high-profile legal challenge. Finally, though, and perhaps most importantly, there’s no underestimating the sheer size and scope of what Artemis aims to do. We’re talking astronauts taken from Earth to the moon for close to a week… and this time, perhaps unlike with the iconic Apollo Program, onlookers are expecting that NASA and the like will be able to do it over and over again, into the future.

In a previous video we took a closer look at the reasons why recreating the moon landing missions has proven so difficult for modern science, so be sure to check that out after this! But what’s clear from the beginning is that we can’t just pick up from where we left off in 1972, with Apollo 17. The world has moved on, science and technology has moved on, and we find ourselves positioned back at (if not the very bottom) then very near the bottom of the mountain when it comes to lunar travel.

The Artemis Program promises to land the first woman and the next man on the lunar surface, and also to usher in a new era of space travel that could, in the most dramatic sense, completely redefine the future of our species. We’ve waited many years to return to even this point… so, now that we’re here, there’s immense pressure and determination to succeed. When Artemis does get off the ground, it’ll be another major milestone in history. But that’s why NASA’s return to the moon keeps getting delayed.