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NASA’s delayed moon lander puts pressure on Artemis schedule

NASA is looking increasingly unlikely to meet its 2024 target date for putting the first woman and next man on the moon as part of its Artemis program.

The latest reason is an alteration in the deadline for the submission by three private contractors of proposed designs for human lunar lander systems, The Verge reports.

Designs by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, and Leidos-owned Dynetics were on track to be submitted by the end of February, but in recent days the space agency told the three companies it was extending the date to April 30.

NASA said the delay will give it more time to scrutinize the companies’ proposals and enable it to “seamlessly transition” from the development phase of the project.

A report on NASA’s management and performance challenges released in November 2020 provided an early indication that the 2024 timeline for getting humans back on the moon might slip.

In the report, the space agency laid out the growing challenges facing the Artemis program, admitting for the first time that it will be “hard-pressed” to meet the proposed date.

Since then, a new administration has entered the White House that’s focused on more immediate issues such as the pandemic and economy. Shortfalls in funding from Congress have also added to pressures, forcing NASA to reevaluate its work moving forward.

NASA will eventually select up to two landing systems among the three proposals currently under development.

They include SpaceX’s Starship, a second-stage booster and spacecraft that will launch atop its first-stage Super Heavy rocket. A prototype Starship recently completed a successful high-altitude test flight, though it exploded on return to Earth after experiencing a heavy landing. The company is now trying to organize a second test flight.

Blue Origin is working on the Integrated Lander Vehicle, a three-stage lander that would reach the moon on either the company’s own New Glenn rocket or the ULA’s Vulcan launch system.

Dynetics is developing the Dynetics Human Landing System that would reach space via the ULA’s Vulcan launch system or NASA’s Space Launch System.

The uncrewed Artemis I mission and crewed Artemis II mission will perform fly-bys of the moon and so the landers won’t be required. That means NASA still hopes to launch the first mission in November 2021, followed by Artemis II in 2023. As for the long-term plan to put the first woman and next man step on the lunar surface, many challenges still remain.

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