NASA faces setbacks in push to return humans to moon

“Safety is our top priority,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said. “To give Artemis teams more time to work through the challenges with first-time developments, operations and integration, we’re going to give more time on Artemis II and III.”

Separately on Tuesday, a private company developing a lunar lander meant to gather scientific data about the moon and help astronauts prepare for Artemis III said its craft likely won’t be able to make the journey.

Astrobotic Technology’s Peregrine lander hitched a ride on United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket Monday morning — its first ever flight after a decade of development — from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

But the lander experienced a “propulsion issue” hours after it separated from the rocket, NASA said in a statement Monday afternoon. Astrobotic later said it is considering “alternative mission profiles,” suggesting that it might never be able to land on the moon.

“Given the propellant leak, there is, unfortunately, no chance of a soft landing on the Moon,” the company said Tuesday, adding that the spacecraft is estimated to run out of propellant in 40 hours. Peregrine was slated to take about 46 days to reach the moon.

Delays to the Artemis missions, which are
estimated to cost $93 million
through 2025, had
long been expected
: In November, a
report from the Government Accountability Office
estimated that Artemis III could be delayed until 2027.

The first mission, Artemis I, involved an uncrewed Orion space capsule, built by Lockheed Martin, that flew around the moon in late 2022.

Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, told POLITICO he will hold a hearing on the Artemis program next week. Lawmakers will question experts on the projected delays and how NASA aims to keep timelines and budgets on track.

“Ensuring the success of NASA’s Artemis program is critical to not only returning humans back to the lunar surface but also continuing America’s global leadership in space exploration,” he said in a statement.

The Artemis timeline “was aggressive to begin with,” said Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who focuses on space policy. “Since these are crewed missions, it is better to take the time necessary to get things right than put the whole program at risk.”

With Artemis II, the primary issue NASA scientists are looking into is whether the heat shield for the spacecraft is performing as expected, said Amit Kshatriya, head of NASA’s Moon to Mars Program Office. For Artemis III, he noted issues with the motor control circuitry hardware and batteries.

“As we prepare to send our friends and colleagues on this mission, we’re committed to launching as safely as possible,” said NASA Associate Administrator Jim Free. “We will launch when we’re ready.”

The Peregrine lander news, meanwhile, dealt a blow to NASA’s near-term research goals:

It was part of the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative, which aims to work with American companies to deliver technology to the lunar surface for scientific purposes. It was slated to touch down on the moon’s surface in about 46 days.

Administrator Nelson called Monday’s launch carrying the Peregrine “a giant leap for humanity” before Astrobotic indicated the lander likely couldn’t complete the lunar journey.

“Each success and setback are opportunities to learn and grow,” Joel Kearns from NASA’s Science Mission Directorate said in a statement. “We will use this lesson to propel our efforts to advance science, exploration and commercial development of the moon.”