Forget going back to the moon in 2024. Last week, NASA’s leadership presented updates to the manned lunar return schedule. The agency now says that the first launch of astronauts to the surface won’t happen until 2025. And don’t be surprised if that date slips into 2026 or even 2028.
The scapegoat was the lawsuit recently imposed in the US federal court by the company Blue Origin, owned by Jeff Bezos, after losing the bidding for the choice of the landing system for the lunar program. With three companies in the running, NASA ended up opting for just one contract, with SpaceX, owned by Elon Musk, based on its Starship vehicle.
Highly innovative, it could transport up to 100 tons at a time to the lunar surface, something that would change the rules of the game for the creation of a future base. But it’s also a high-stakes gamble, as a lot of things it’s never done before (like refueling in orbit and high launch cadence) needs to be demonstrated before it can complete the mission.
Blue Origin challenged the choice in court, saying NASA could have chosen two companies. By choosing just one, in addition to inhibiting competition, the agency would be putting the return to the Moon at risk. It took seven months, but the Federal Court validated NASA’s choice process.
Bezos put his tail between his legs, and the agency used the delay to justify losing the chance to make the first manned landing in 2024. But it’s worth noting that this goal has always sounded fanciful. It has now become “not before 2025”. Still, there is optimism. There’s a lot that needs to happen before the next human footprints on the lunar ground.
The action begins next year with the Artemis I mission. It will carry an Orion capsule for the first time, propelled to lunar orbit by the new (and very expensive) SLS superrocket. But no crew. It should happen in the first semester. At the moment, the schedule indicates February.
After that will come the Artemis II, the first manned. Repeating the flight profile of its predecessor, it will represent the first return of astronauts to lunar orbit since the Apollo missions, which ended in 1972. The spreadsheet today indicates that the flight should be carried out by May 2024. And its historical value cannot be underestimated. : she will be the Apollo 8 of the 21st century.
In parallel, SpaceX needs to mature its Lunar version of the Starship and make a successful unmanned landing on the Moon, before it can take astronauts off the Artemis III ground mission. At the moment, this demo flight has no date to take place, but the company hopes to make the first orbital launch of the Starship as early as the beginning of next year.
These are the two parallel walks that will determine when we will see humans hopping across the Moon again. It is still optimistic to think that it will be in 2025, but the path has been mapped out, and the setbacks, mapped.
This column is published on Mondays in Folha Corrida.
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