NASA’s internal planning document for the Artemis program, accessible through the website Ars Technicarevealing that the space agency has been working on two other timelines for its manned lunar exploration program, suggesting inevitable delays.
The first missions of the Artemis program should be completed within the next five years. The first, Artemis I, is scheduled to take off later this year. The Space Launch System (SLS) rocket will launch the Orion spacecraft on an uncrewed trip around the moon.
After that, Artemis II will follow the same path as the previous mission, but this time with four astronauts in Orion. Only on Artemis III will two humans set foot on the lunar surface again and return to Earth. However, NASA has yet to provide details about the program’s upcoming missions.
In addition to the “base” timetable, NASA has developed two other options that indicate agency planners don’t believe the baseline plan will be executed within the current timeframe or budget, internal documents show.
The second schedule, called “Rhythm,” prioritizes regular lunar planned launches. The third, called “content”, only predicts the release when the most important load is ready.
Asked about internal documents, NASA spokeswoman Katherine Hambleton said the agency has been moving forward with its basic plans for missions beyond Artemis III and is regularly evaluating “alternative architectures” for careful planning.
In future plans, NASA is considering adding an Artemis III.5 mission to run until 2027, avoiding a three-year gap when the program starts. The mission requires a fourth launch using the SLS, costing about $5 billion.
Artemis III.5 will send four astronauts to the lunar space station gateway, two of whom descend to the moon. To do that, NASA will need to delay several items in the program, such as the development of the space station itself, the lunar rover, ground habitats and upgrading the SLS rocket’s side thrusters.
In addition to the tight budget for so many projects, NASA seems concerned that after the core components of the lunar space station launch, additional modules won’t be ready to launch until the end of the decade. An updated version of the SLS will be used to launch these modules with the Orion spacecraft.
Lunar Base and Gateway Station
The Artemis plan, established in 2020, includes expanding human economic activity in space by partnering with private companies and other space agencies to establish a permanent human presence on the moon. In theory, all of this will provide scientific and technological support for more distant destinations such as Mars.
NASA has made it clear that it intends to establish a human presence on the lunar surface and in orbit, but this will depend on the development of key technologies, such as a habitable mobile platform that would allow for 45 days of travel on the lunar surface, and up to Habitat for four astronauts.
The problem is that the agency’s internal timeline has pushed the creation of any lunar bases until the 2030s. On the other hand, the documents indicate that NASA will be working on building the Gateway over the next decade or more.
Key elements of the station include its power and propulsion systems and a small habitat pod, which is expected to be launched by the SpaceX Falcon Heavy in late 2024 — components that have a 15-year lifespan, according to NASA.
After that, the I-HAB housing module and the European Supply, Infrastructure and Telecommunications System (ESPRIT) module provided by the European Space Agency (ESA) will be sent along with the gas chambers that will reach the portal finally, in the 2020s or early 2030s.
NASA intends for the Gateway to be the fulcrum for the Artemis mission, because the Orion spacecraft, for example, doesn’t have the propulsion capability to fly into low lunar orbit and back to Earth. However, this solution is feasible for SpaceX’s Starship.
In April 2021, NASA selected the Starship spacecraft as the lander to send astronauts to the moon. In addition to being larger than the Gateway, the spacecraft has many power and propulsion capabilities. So it doesn’t make much sense to invest more time and money at the station.
One thing’s for sure: The documents point to inevitable delays in Artemis’ plans. So the plan is at least 15 years away from establishing a semi-permanent base on the moon, and Mars exploration will only be there in the 2040s or 2050s.