WASHINGTON — Members of a key congressional committee expressed disappointment over the latest delay in NASA’s plans to return humans to the moon but showed little interest in making major changes to that program.

At a Jan. 17 hearing of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, a NASA official explained the agency’s decision to delay its next two Artemis missions by nearly a year, with watchdogs and a former NASA administrator offering some skepticism about that revised schedule.

NASA announced Jan. 9 that it was delaying Artemis 2, the first crewed flight of the Space Launch System and Orion, from late 2024 to no earlier than September 2025 to provide more time to address issues with the Orion spacecraft. That, in turn, delayed Artemis 3, the first crewed lunar landing of the overall effort, to no earlier than September 2026.

“We have adjusted the Artemis 2 schedule based on crew safety,” said Catherine Koerner, NASA associate administrator for exploration systems development. The delay provides sufficient time, she argued, to address the issues identified last week. “There is margin built into that schedule for us to complete all of that necessary testing.”

Other witnesses said that delay seemed reasonable. “The Artemis circumlunar mission is, I think, very doable on the timescale that NASA has said,” said Mike Griffin, who was NASA administrator from 2005 to 2009.

However, Griffin and others were not convinced that Artemis 3 could launch as soon as September 2026. “I don’t think Artemis 3, the landing mission, is at all realistically scheduled,” he said.

“NASA will continue to be challenged on the schedule front, particularly with the Artemis 3 mission,” said George Scott, acting NASA inspector general. “Based on lessons learned from Artemis 2, I think the agency will be better positioned to come up with a more realistic launch date for Artemis 3.”

William Russell, director of contracting and national security acquisitions at the Government Accountability Office, said a span of just one year between Artemis 2 and 3 was not realistic. “Artemis 3 is more complicated, so there’s not a lot of time, and as you saw with Artemis 1, there are things that are going to happen that you need to learn, that you need to investigate,” he said. “One year is not a lot of time to do that learning.”

Russell, in his testimony, referenced a GAO report from last November that projected that Artemis 3 might be delayed until 2027 based on the time needed to develop the Human Landing System lander, if that effort follows the average of other major NASA projects.

Members of the community, while disappointed in the delay, avoided sharp criticism of NASA. “I stand behind NASA in prioritizing safety for Artemis and look forward to gaining further insight into the delays and any related costs,” said Rep. Eric Sorensen (D-Ill.), ranking member of the space subcommittee.

Members did push NASA to provide more transparency into cost and schedules for Artemis, following on recommendations made by the GAO and inspector general. “NASA is at an inflection point,” said Russell, because the agency is setting cost and schedule baselines for many key Artemis projects. “We’ll see in the coming 12 to 18 months whether the projects can adhere to those baselines.”

There seemed to be little interest among the committee members, though, to make wholesale changes in Artemis. Griffin, in his testimony, said he opposed the current architecture NASA has developed for returning humans to the moon. “In my judgement, the Artemis program is excessively complex, unrealistically priced, compromises crew safety, poses very high mission risk of completion and is highly unlikely to be completed in a timely manner even if successful,” he said. “We need to restart it, not keep it on track.”

In his prepared testimony, he outlined an alternative approach that echoed what NASA was pursuing under the Constellation program when he was administrator. That architecture involves two launches of SLS Block 2 rockets, one carrying a lunar lander and transfer stage and the other a crewed Orion spacecraft and transfer stage. The two would dock in low lunar orbit to transfer astronauts to the lander, spending a week on the surface before returning to Orion for the trip home.

None of the committee members, though, showed any obvious interest in Griffin’s alternative architecture, and did not ask him or the other witnesses questions about it.

The committee “has long maintained its bipartisan support for Artemis and NASA’s moon to Mars efforts, and I don’t see that changing in any way,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), ranking member of the full committee.

“I’m confident that I speak for everyone on this committee when I say we all support Artemis,” said Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), chair of the full committee, in his opening remarks. “But, this committee’s support of Artemis means asking detailed questions of NASA and providing oversight of the agency’s proposals.”

He added that Artemis, and NASA’s overall human exploration efforts, will be addressed in a NASA authorization bill he expects the committee to take up this spring.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...