February 27, 2024

Nasa has postponed its plans to send humans to the moon after delays hit its hugely ambitious Artemis programme, which aims to bounce space boots back onto the lunar surface for the first time in half a century.

The US space agency has the Artemis III mission to land four astronauts near the moon’s south pole will be delayed a year to September 2026. Artemis IIA 10-day expedition to send a crew around the moon and back to test life support systems will also be pushed back to September 2025.

Nasa said the delays would allow its teams to work through development challenges associated with the program, which partners with private companies including Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Lockheed Martin and uses largely untested spacecraft and technology.

“We are returning to the Moon in a way we never have before, and the safety of our astronauts is NASA’s top priority as we prepare for future Artemis missions,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.

Washington wants to establish a long-term human presence beyond Earth’s orbit, including building a lunar base camp as well as a space station orbiting the moon. His ultimate plans are to send humans to Mars, but he decided to first return to the moon to learn more about deep space before embarking on what would be a months-long journey to the red planet.

Artemis I, the first mission of the program, continued successfully in 2022, with Nasa providing the powerful Space Launch System (SLS) rocket from Florida, carrying an unmanned Lockheed-built Orion capsule on a 25-day, 1.3-m-mile trip to the moon and back. It provided essential data for Nasa about what needed to be fixed, including the heat shield, part of which had broken off.

Watch the moment Nasa’s Artemis 1 blasts towards the moon – video

The delay for the next missions will also give private companies, such as Axiom Space. who design the space suitsmore time to develop their technology.

SpaceX is tasked with developing a lunar lander that would fly to the moon without a crew and then rendezvous with astronauts in orbit before descending to the surface. However, the company’s Starship system, the largest and most powerful rocket ever made, remains in early testing stages. Two flights were successfully launched, but inflated at altitudealthough SpaceX says “failure” is part of its development process, allowing the for-profit company to take risks that government space agencies try to avoid.

The new Nasa schedule “recognizes the real development challenges experienced by our industry partners,” said Amit Kshatriya, head of Nasa’s lunar and Mars exploration strategy.

Eugene Cernan, who visited the moon in 1972, was the last person to walk on Earth’s nearest neighbor. The Artemis program aims to land the first woman and first person of color on the lunar surface.

Jeffrey Alan Hoffman, former NASA astronaut and professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, said the delay was no surprise because there were still “a lot of things to be done.”

“Space X’s Starship, which will eventually bring the crew… to the surface of the moon. I mean, Starship has yet to reach orbit,” Hoffman, who made five flights as a space shuttle astronaut, told the BBC.

The astrophysicist said it was frustrating but not unexpected to see the delays, which he said were due to Nasa’s relatively small budget today compared to the space race of the 1960s and 1970s, when Washington first and last sent to the moon the Apollo program. “Nasa’s budget for Apollo was huge. We had 400,000 people working on the Apollo project and NASA doesn’t have anywhere near that level or resources right now,” he said.

“They are not going to launch until they are ready because the safety of the crew is paramount.”

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