In a media teleconference held on January 9th, NASA leadership announced significant delays to the next two missions in its Artemis program. Artemis II, the first crewed mission of the program, is now targeting September of 2025, a delay of ten months from its previous date. Artemis III, set to land the first humans on the lunar surface in over fifty years, is now targeting September of 2026. Subsequent missions remain on track for their original dates, starting with Artemis IV in September of 2028. In opening statements during the conference, NASA Administrator Senator Bill Nelson emphasized the importance of crew safety, stressing that these schedule adjustments will ensure NASA teams can adequately prepare for the flights ahead.
Amit Kshatriya, Deputy Associate Administrator for NASA’s Moon to Mars Program, provided detailed insight into the action items responsible for the delay of Artemis II. Chief among them is the discovery of a design flaw in the drive system for several valves within the Orion life support system. Although this system passed testing ahead of Artemis II, a failure seen in Artemis III testing will now require engineers to partially disassemble the Artemis II spacecraft to remove and replace the faulty system, a lengthy process which Kshatriya cited as the primary reason for the schedule adjustment across both missions. Similar corrective action will be needed to prepare the Artemis III spacecraft prior to its flight in 2026.
Additionally, some unexpected erosion of Orion’s heat shield was observed during the reentry of Artemis I. Although the heat shield performance was well within predicted safety margins, Tonya Ladwig, Orion Program manager at Lockheed Martin, emphasized teams’ commitment to fully understanding the root cause of the issue ahead of Artemis II. Finally, the performance of batteries onboard the Orion spacecraft during certain abort scenarios was also cited as an action item prior to the next Artemis mission. Kshatriya and Ladwig both underscored the importance of characterizing these issues to ensure safety and mission success for future flights.
Kshatriya also highlighted challenges facing the upcoming Artemis III mission, primarily due to SpaceX’s Starship Human Landing System and Axiom’s xEVA spacesuit for use on the lunar surface. The complex multi-launch refueling campaign required to deliver the Starship HLS to the moon was cited as a major challenge, with cryogenic propellant transfer and ground-side choreography posing significant technical and operational risks. Kshatriya noted that the delay to Artemis III accommodates the “very real development challenges” facing SpaceX as they continue their Starship program. SpaceX have yet to successfully complete an orbital flight of their Starship vehicle, with their previous attempt failing during second stage flight.
Jessica Jensen, vice president of customer operations and integration at SpaceX, noted the company is aiming to complete as many test flights as possible prior to Artemis III, with orbital refueling as a major milestone. When pressed, Jensen estimated “ten-ish” refueling flights would be needed to support the HLS campaign, lower than the “high teens” figure previously cited by NASA. Jensen noted that the final number of refueling flights will not be understood until cryogenic propellant transfer is demonstrated on orbit. Jensen also cited a target of February 2024 for Starship’s third Integrated Flight Test, with the uncrewed lunar landing demonstration currently slated for 2025.
Looking further into the future, Kshatriya reaffirmed Artemis IV’s plans to send crew to Gateway for the first time, delivering the I-HAB module as a co-manifested payload aboard the upgraded SLS Block 1B. However, Kshatriya also confirmed that the launch of the Gateway Co-Manifested Vehicle (CMV) stack, comprising the integrated PPE and HALO modules aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy, has slipped indefinitely from its previous date of October 2025. This poses risks to the schedule for Artemis IV and beyond, as the CMV will need more than a year to spiral out towards the moon before astronauts can visit it in Orion. Gateway represents a crucial component of the Artemis architecture, and continued delays may have significant impacts to the program’s future.
Despite these changes to the Artemis schedule in the near term, other elements of the program continue to make meaningful progress. SpaceX has resumed development on their Dragon XL spacecraft to support Gateway Logistics Services, and NASA has recently opened an onramp for an additional resupply provider. The agency also expects to announce its selection for the unpressurized Lunar Terrain Vehicle in the coming months. Meanwhile, Blue Origin continues to develop their crewed Blue Moon lander, set to perform a landing during Artemis V. Much like the Starship HLS, Blue Moon will need to pass through several milestones prior to this mission, including an uncrewed landing test. Furthermore, the Space Launch System rockets for Artemis II and III remain ahead of schedule, with the former’s Core Stage now planned to remain at Michoud until later this year.
Undeterred by the delays of Artemis II and III, NASA leadership repeatedly stressed their commitment to achieving the goals of the Artemis program. Although the adjusted schedule represents another setback to the program’s ambitious timeline, speakers during the teleconference emphasized that the additional time would only help to ensure mission success. Associate Administrator Jim Free reaffirmed NASA’s confidence in the current schedule, expressing their intention to hold accountable their own teams as well as their industry partners. Despite the challenges ahead, Artemis II and III will proceed as planned, holding safety paramount in NASA’s quest to return astronauts to the Moon.