NASA is still officially planning to land humans on the moon as part of the Artemis program in 2024, but the latest developments at the agency make that timeline look increasingly unrealistic. After previously expecting to move forward with the development of commercial lunar landers this month, NASA has quietly delayed awarding those contracts until April. Many observers expected this move based on the funding approved by Congress and the ongoing effects of the pandemic, but it’s still a disappointment for anyone who held out hope for a 2024 landing.
Last year, SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Dynetics won a total of $967 million from NASA to begin work on proposed lunar landing systems. The companies were set to submit their designs to NASA for evaluation this month, but the budget passed in December only gave the agency $850 million for the Human Landing System program. It had originally requested $3.2 billion to keep up with the 2024 timeline.
Now, all three companies have been alerted the next phase of the award process will take place on April 30th. With that delay, the already shaky 2024 landing seems even less likely. The Trump administration may have pushed the 2024 timeline simply because that would have fallen during a hypothetical second Trump term. The incoming Biden administration has been focused on managing the pandemic and addressing climate change — it hasn’t even announced a new NASA administrator after the departure of Republican appointee Jim Bridenstine. That puts NASA in a tough spot.
NASA says the delay is intended to give it more time to evaluate the proposals and plan the transition from development to construction. The truth is, it’s probably in a holding pattern until the new administration can roll out space policy and tell NASA whether it still has to try and make that first Artemis landing happen in 2024.
There’s a lot that has to be in place before the Artemis program can succeed in returning humans to the lunar surface. There’s the Space Launch System (SLS) that carries the Orion crew module, and that rocket has yet to reach orbit. The Orion spacecraft is much further along and has successfully flown in space. That’s all before you get to the now-delayed lunar decent hardware. SpaceX wants to use the Starship rocket — no surprise as it wants to use that for everything. Blue Origin wants to develop a new “Blue Moon” lander with Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. Meanwhile, Dynetics has a lander project with Sierra Nevada that scored the largest chunk of NASA funding last year.
The Biden team is expected to clarify space policy in the coming weeks. Many believe that will include a change to the 2024 Artemis timeline — this delay is probably just the first consequence of that move.
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