By T. J. Muscaro
NASA administrators joined the agency’s four moon-bound astronauts for what was supposed to be a chance for members of the media to ask questions about Artemis II, the first crewed flight of the Orion capsule and the first crewed spaceflight around the moon since 1972.
But much of the focus of the Aug. 8 press conference at Kennedy Space Center was directed at Artemis III and the SpaceX products it relies upon. Jim Free, NASA associate administrator of the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate, gave a status update on the mission’s equipment development.
Scheduled to launch in December 2025, Artemis III promises to return humanity to the lunar surface for the first time since Apollo 17 returned home in December 1972. Its destination would be the south pole, where NASA hopes to find water and establish a permanent presence with its international partners before communist China.
Mr. Free affirmed NASA is still holding all contractors to a deadline befitting a December 2025 launch. But he also suggested a moon landing could be up in the air.
“We may end up flying a different mission,” he said, confirming that he and his team have considered whether or not Artemis III could be used for other missions. “Right now, we’re still trying to look at their schedule.”
SpaceX’s Lunar Lander
NASA contracted SpaceX to build that first lunar lander. That lunar lander promises to be a variant of Elon Musk’s behemoth Starship. And Starship still has not had a successful launch, let alone a successful mission.
While a recent engine fire test occurred at the Starbase spaceport in Boca Chica, Texas, the last and only launch attempt of Starship happened on April 20 and ended in a fiery explosion over the Gulf of Mexico. No official date for a second launch attempt has been set.
Mr. Free reaffirmed concerns he made back in June that SpaceX will not meet the deadline and the moonshot would have to wait until 2026.
“As I said back in June, they need to launch multiple times, not just for us, but for them. Then they need to launch multiple times for us, so we really want to see them find success in their launches, including the next one,” he said.
The administrator said that he and his colleague’s recent visit to Starbase was a positive one.
“They’re excellent at their technical details,” he said, adding he thinks it’s about “just continuing to grow our relationship beyond commercial crew in this area and conveying why it’s important for us to see that and schedule.”
He also mentioned that there are other contracts to consider besides SpaceX, such as the contractors developing the spacesuits, which is Axiom Space, and those working on the Orion capsule.
“We’re still working to our contractual dates with everyone,” he said.
When asked about what he thought was a realistic date for the first lunar landing mission at this point, Mr. Free had no date to give.
“We don’t want a kind of zero margin schedule,” he said. “We have to understand what the margin is and all of this.”
“So in order to do that, our teams have to interact—that meeting and Starbase that I talked about was one of many. And then I think we’ll come out in concert with the leadership team of the agency and say, ‘Hey, here’s where we think is realistic.'”
More Than Missing the Moon
Mr. Free made it clear that he is not looking at missing the moon landing goal in a negative light.
“We may want to fly a different mission for Artemis three because we want to understand how the system works better,” he said, emphasizing the bigger goal of the program to learn what’s needed to put humans on Mars.
“We’re not going to accomplish everything in one mission. We shouldn’t expect to,” he said. “What we should expect is to fly safely and advance our cause of understanding, do our science for the cause of understanding of our vehicles.”
The original Artemis III mission plan, according to NASA, involved the Orion capsule and Airbus-made European Service Module docking with the SpaceX Starship lander in lunar orbit. Two astronauts will descend to the surface while two remain in orbit. The surface expedition will last six days. The identity of the crew members has still not been released to the public.
Meanwhile, Artemis II is still scheduled to take its crew on a 10-day flyby trip around the moon in November 2024. Its prime crew is Commander Reid Wiseman, Pilot Victor Glover, Mission Specialist 1 Christina Hammock Koch, and Mission Specialist 2 Jeremy Hansen.