NASA is pushing its human moon landing back to 2025, and its top official worries China will beat the US there

starship moon human landing system
An illustration of SpaceX's Starship as a lander carrying NASA astronauts to the moon.

NASA is officially pushing back the timeline for its return to the moon.

The agency had been saying for years that it planned to put boots back on the lunar surface by 2024. But on Tuesday, its leaders finally admitted that timeline was unrealistic. Now, NASA aims to send astronauts to the moon on a SpaceX lander no earlier than 2025.

The agency also announced a nearly 39% increase in the cost of the program, bumping the previous $6.7 billion budget to a new estimate of $9.3 billion. That sum doesn't include the actual astronaut landing - just the development of the rockets and two test flights leading up to it.

space launch system tall orange rocket standing inside tiered platforms
The Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft, completely stacked at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, October 21, 2021.

When NASA does attempt to land astronauts on the moon - for the first time since 1972 - it plans to first launch them to space aboard its own Space Launch System rocket, which will then carry them to the moon. After that, the plan calls for NASA's Orion spaceship to rendezvous with SpaceX's Starship megarocket in orbit around the moon, so that the astronauts can climb aboard their lander.

But that's just the first step in the much larger program NASA calls "Artemis." Long-term, it involves building a moon-orbiting space station, establishing permanent facilities on the lunar surface, and eventually using this lunar base to send astronauts on to Mars. The agency aims to launch the first elements of its lunar space station, called Gateway, in 2024.

NASA officials said Tuesday that the moon-landing delay does not affect the schedule for those larger projects.

Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of SpaceX, previously said that the Trump administration's goal of landing humans on the moon by 2024 was "doable." Former NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine agreed. But current NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said on Tuesday that timeline was "not grounded in technical feasibility," and that Congress has not given NASA enough money to move quickly.

Nelson also partially blamed the delay on Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos' rocket company. In April, Blue Origin joined competitor Dynetics to file a protest against NASA, alleging that the agency's decision to award the lunar-lander contract to SpaceX was "flawed." When the US Government Accountability Office denied that protest, Blue Origin sued NASA.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson sitting at a table pointing a finger
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson at the 36th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado, August 23, 2021.

Standard procedure required that NASA and SpaceX stop working on their lunar lander while the protest and lawsuit progressed. But on Thursday, a federal judge ruled against Blue Origin, effectively ending the lawsuit. Now work on the lunar Starship can resume.

"Our teams need time to speak now with SpaceX about the human landing system. We've lost nearly seven months in litigation and that likely has pushed the first human landing, likely, to no earlier than 2025," Nelson said in a press conference on Tuesday.

Jeff Bezos
Jeff Bezos, who founded Blue Origin in 2000.

Nelson wasn't the first to say that a 2024 moon landing was unrealistic, though. Industry experts have been saying the same for years, and an August report from the NASA Office of the Inspector General said the timeline was "not feasible."

"We are going to be as aggressive as we can be in a safe and technically feasible way," Nelson said.

China could beat the US to the moon

China Space Station
Taikonauts salute in a video call from aboard China's space station.

Before NASA can put astronauts on the moon again, it must still finish testing its Space Launch System and then send it into space. The rocket and its Orion spaceship are scheduled to fly around the moon without a crew for the first time in February.

After that, NASA is planning a similar flight around the moon with astronauts on board. That mission was previously scheduled for April 2023, but Nelson said Tuesday that the agency now plans to launch it in May 2024.

At some point, SpaceX must also land Starship on the moon without a crew in order to show that it can safely carry astronauts.

While all that's happening, Nelson said, it's possible China will make put its own astronauts (called taikonauts) on the moon first.

china space station launch Long March-5B Y2 rocket
The Long March-5B Y2 rocket, carrying the core module of China's space station, sits at the launch pad, April 23, 2021.

"The Chinese space program is increasingly capable of landing Chinese taikonauts much, much earlier than originally expected," he said.

Already this year, China launched the first module of its own space station and has flown two taikonaut crews to it. China's space agency also landed a rover on Mars in February, with plans to eventually bring samples back to Earth. China and Russia also unveiled plans for their own lunar base with a moon-orbiting space station.

However, China has not announced any plans to send taikonauts to the lunar surface this decade.

"We have every reason to believe that we have a competitor, a very aggressive competitor, in the Chinese going back to the moon with taikonauts. And it's the position of NASA and, I believe, the United States government that we want to be there first," Nelson said.

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