NASA’s acting administrator said Wednesday evening that the goal of landing humans on the Moon by 2024 no longer appears to be feasible.
“The 2024 lunar landing goal may no longer be a realistic target due to the last two years of appropriations, which did not provide enough funding to make 2024 achievable,” the acting administrator, Steve Jurczyk, told Ars. “In light of this, we are reviewing the program for the most efficient path forward.”
Two weeks ago Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, said the new administration would support the space agency’s Artemis program to land astronauts on the Moon and set the stage for an eventual human mission to Mars. Jurczyk said during an interview that NASA has welcomed a vote of confidence from the Biden administration.
“The Administration supports the goals of the Artemis program and we are excited about next steps,” he said. “We fully intend to maintain the continuity of purpose of the Artemis program.”
It was notable that the administration provided such a clear statement of support for the Artemis program, both because it continues an initiative begun under the Trump administration, and also because it came so early after Biden moved into the White House. Often, major space policy decisions come later in a presidency, and NASA does not yet have a nominee to serve as its leader. However, the early and clear signal was largely welcomed in the space community, which has asked for stability rather than major upheaval with every new president.
Beyond expressing general support in her press statement two weeks ago, Psaki did not provide any details. Although it has been widely speculated that the 2024 landing date was not possible—especially after Congress did not fully fund NASA’s request for human landing system development in the fiscal year 2021 appropriation—this is the first time a senior NASA official has publicly backed off that date. Jurczyk said the agency will be working closely with the White House over the next couple of months to identify a realistic path forward for the Artemis program.
The Trump administration set the Artemis plan in motion in 2019, and while it proved to be a popular program, some of its timelines were more aspirational than grounded in fact. There remains an incredible amount of work do be done not just on rockets and the lander, but also on spacesuits and myriad other technologies needed to safely send humans to deep space and back.
Finding a lander
Chief among the deliberations in establishing a new timeline will be down-selecting from three bids for the Human Landing System to two, or possibly even one. NASA has been considering proposals from a team led by Blue Origin, another by Dynetics, and a third plan from SpaceX to transport humans from lunar orbit down to the Moon, and back.
A decision was originally expected in late February, but Jurczyk said the agency needed more time with the “large and complex” procurement. He said a decision on Human Landing System contracts should now come in mid to late April. Determining when one or more of these landers could be built, tested, and flown will be key in determining a realistic date for when humans might land on the lunar surface.
In addition to boosting morale at NASA, Jurczyk also said the continuation of the Artemis program was important both for the space agency’s commercial partners, as well as other countries who plan to participate. It provides certainty for NASA’s contractors and sends a crucial message to space agencies in Canada, Europe, Japan, and elsewhere that are already contributing money and material to the Artemis effort.
By continuing under the Biden administration, the Artemis program will become NASA’s first deep space human exploration program to continue in both name and function since the Apollo Moon program in the 1960s.