Technical difficulties and an ambitious schedule: why astronauts will have to wait to meet the Moon
NASA astronauts may go to the Moon much later than expected. The Artemis 3 mission, scheduled for December 2025, may be pushed back to 2027 due to “many challenges” and an ambitious schedule, according to the US Government Accountability Office (GAO).
The reason for this delay was a number of technical problems encountered by the HLS (Human Landing System) lunar landing program. This program is based on a modification of SpaceX's Starship and is designed to deliver astronauts to the surface of the Moon. A significant amount of unfinished work was also discovered related to the development of spacesuits necessary for the safe stay of astronauts on the Moon.
The HLS will use up all its fuel to enter orbit, so it will need to be refueled again before heading to the Moon. Under the current plan, the next step would be to create a fuel depot to refuel Starship in orbit, followed by the loading of methane and liquid oxygen to this “space depot.”
The HLS program is still officially targeting a December 2025 launch and is scheduled to be completed within 79 months—about a year faster than most major NASA projects that don't involve human space launch. However, GAO doubts the ability to meet this schedule as challenging technical aspects remain, including the development of in-orbit refueling technology, on which “SpaceX has made limited progress.”
HLS and SpaceX have already delayed 8 of 13 key milestones by six months to a year, leaving two of them scheduled to take place in 2025, the same year as Artemis 3's scheduled launch.
However, the technical issue is not the only challenge NASA faces. Changing suits also presented a challenge for the Artemis mission. The need to increase the duration of emergency support in spacesuits to ensure the safety of astronauts on the Moon—NASA is requiring Axiom to develop a suit that can provide 60 minutes of life support—will require major changes to the design. Axiom Space, the company responsible for developing the suits, plans to revise components to increase the volume of oxygen tanks, which requires additional time.
As a result, even NASA estimates the planned launch date of Artemis 3 in December 2025 as quite optimistic. In June 2023, concerns had already been raised about delays in the development of the HLS/Starship program, making it unlikely that Artemis 3 would meet the old official schedule.