The obstacles to meeting the 2024 goal have been political and technical, from ambivalence among lawmakers in Congress to engineering challenges and delays with other systems and spacecraft that NASA may also need to get astronauts on the moon. The Covid pandemic also played a role. The agency’s centerpiece moon rocket, the Space Launch System, is a multibillion dollar undertaking that has experienced years of delays.
But last week, NASA overcame a significant obstacle. The agency emerged victorious from a bitter and protracted legal fight with Jeff Bezos’ space company, Blue Origin, which had lodged two protests against NASA’s decision to pick SpaceX. The dispute paralyzed the moon lander program for nearly six months, precluding NASA from working with SpaceX on Starship development.
Yet Starship is only one among a wide variety of rockets and technologies that NASA says it needs for its moonshot.
In February, the Space Launch System is scheduled to carry out its first uncrewed launch of a capsule called Orion that is meant to transport astronauts to the vicinity of the moon, but not land. A subsequent mission that will carry astronauts around the moon and back could then happen in May 2024, pushed back from April 2023.
“There’s multiple factors” underpinning Orion’s delay, said Jim Free, the NASA official who oversees development of space exploration systems. That includes the Covid-19 pandemic, “both in the work force and in the supply chain,” hurricane damage to Orion’s development facilities in Louisiana and engineering challenges related to upgrading hardware to make it possible for astronauts to fly on the capsule.
The delays, as well as several new engineering requirements, came with a $2.6 billion increase to the price of developing Orion, for total cost of $9.7 billion over a dozen years.
While moving the moonshot to 2025 affords NASA more time, it is still an extremely optimistic schedule. The Space Launch System would send an Orion capsule bearing astronauts to the vicinity of the moon. In a manner that has not yet been fully explained, it would dock with SpaceX’s Starship lander, which would then carry the astronauts to the surface.