The highly anticipated 2024 moon landing will have to wait.
Due to a delay caused by litigation with Blue Origin, as well as other factors -- including the pandemic -- the earliest return of NASA boots on the lunar surface through the Artemis program won't take place in 2024 as expected, said NASA administrator Bill Nelson on Tuesday.
"We've lost nearly seven months in litigation and that likely has pushed the first human landing likely to no earlier than 2025," Nelson said during a press conference.
And the Chinese space program is increasingly capable of landing taikonauts on the moon much earlier than originally expected, Nelson said, although he did not identify the original expectation. It's highly possible that China could land on the moon before a return by U.S. astronauts, Nelson said.
"We are facing a very aggressive and good Chinese space program," he said. "This has happened in the last few years that we've seen them achieve quite a number of things. They have stated that they are going to the south pole of the moon. It's the position of NASA, and I believe the United States government, that we want to be there first back on the moon after over a half century. We are going to be as aggressive as we can be in a safe and technically feasible way to beat our competitors with boots on the moon."
Future lunar landings require more funds
To meet the goals of the Artemis program, Nelson announced several changes Tuesday, including the need for a significant increase in funding beginning with the 2023 budget. This will lay the foundation for more than 10 future lunar landings.
Nelson also shared that NASA is committed to an updated Orion development cost of $9.3 billion, up from the initial $6.7 billion from fiscal year 2012, when a model of Orion was first tested, through the first crewed flight test no later than May 2024.
Weeks ago, NASA had announced that the launch of Artemis I, an uncrewed mission serving as the first step of NASA's program to return humans to the moon, has been delayed until at least February.
During the flight, the uncrewed Orion spacecraft will launch atop the SLS rocket to reach the moon and travel thousands of miles beyond it -- farther than any spacecraft intended to carry humans has ever traveled. This mission is expected to last for a few weeks and will end with Orion splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.
The mission was originally scheduled to launch in November, but delays due to the pandemic, storms like Hurricane Ida, and other factors have drawn out the mission timeline.
After the uncrewed Artemis I flight, Artemis II will be a crewed flyby of the moon and Artemis III will return astronauts to the lunar surface at the south pole, putting a woman and person of color there for the first time. The timeline for the subsequent mission launches depends on Artemis I.
The schedule changes will also result in a delayed launch of Artemis II, the first crewed mission, to May 2024, Nelson said on Tuesday. Previously, Artemis II was scheduled for April 2023.
Nelson also suggested that the crewed landing will be preceded by an uncrewed landing on the moon, but did not say when this would occur.
However, these changes should not impact other lunar surface activities planned through the late 2020s, Nelson said.
"We are meeting with SpaceX currently to understand the impact of delays on the entire development schedule," said Jim Free, associate administrator for Exploration Systems Development at NASA.