Here is why NASA cannot land crew on moon until 2027

Despite SpaceX's aim to develop and launch within 79 months, complexities of human spaceflight present formidable challenges
Artistic impression of a future Artemis mission to the lunar surface. — NASA
Artistic impression of a future Artemis mission to the lunar surface. — NASA

NASA's much-anticipated mission to return astronauts to the lunar surface, Artemis 3, is likely to confront substantial delays, as highlighted in the latest report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released on November 30.

The GAO report underscores significant challenges in the development of vital components essential for the Artemis 3 mission, notably SpaceX's lunar lander and Axiom Space's moonsuits. The complexities, technical hurdles, and an ambitious schedule pose substantial threats to the timely execution of the mission, potentially disrupting NASA's lunar exploration roadmap.

Artemis 3, envisaged as a mission to land two US astronauts, including the first woman and the next man, near the Moon’s south pole, faces a possible delay. The GAO cautioned that persisting challenges and adherence to prior NASA development timelines could push the Artemis 3 mission beyond 2027.

Read more: Mars missions on hold  What drove NASA to suspend operations?

The delay in Artemis 3 might lead to a significant gap between missions, with Artemis 2 — a crewed mission around the Moon — scheduled for November 2024. This postponement could potentially affect subsequent Artemis missions, setting back Artemis 4 to 2028, followed by Artemis 5 through 7, planned annually starting in 2029.

SpaceX, tasked with developing the Starship that serves as the human landing system for Artemis 3, has encountered delays in testing the revolutionary megarocket. The delays raise concerns about the feasibility of achieving the first crewed lunar landing since Apollo 17 in 1972 within the targeted 2025 timeframe.

Despite SpaceX's aim to develop and launch within 79 months — 13 months quicker than NASA's average project timeline — the complexities of human spaceflight present formidable challenges. GAO's assessment suggests a more plausible timeline for Artemis 3 in early 2027, highlighting the intricacies involved in the ambitious project.

The report points to multiple delays in SpaceX's Starship milestones, with setbacks averaging several months per event. The inaugural flight test of Starship, which faced a seven-month delay, encountered issues concerning the lack of protective infrastructure at the launch pad and in-flight irregularities, notably a malfunctioning self-destruct sequence.

Meanwhile, Axiom Space, responsible for crafting the Artemis 3 moonsuits, confronts design challenges. The absence of an emergency life support system in NASA's original design might necessitate redesigning parts of the suit, potentially impacting its delivery for the mission.

As NASA navigates collaborations with private contractors, adjusting schedules to realistic timelines becomes pivotal amid overly optimistic forecasts. The inherent complexities of such projects often lead to significant development delays, prompting a more pragmatic approach for effective execution.

This pragmatic approach, although portraying slower progress, aligns with the realistic dynamics of intricate technological endeavours, essential for success in ambitious missions. Factors such as congressional underfunding underscore the challenges NASA faces, emphasising the pragmatic need for realistic timelines and project execution.