WASHINGTON — NASA has growing concerns that the lunar lander version of SpaceX’s Starship vehicle will not be ready in time for the Artemis 3 mission in late 2025, given the amount of work needed to get the vehicle ready.
Speaking at a joint meeting of the National Academies’ Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board and Space Studies Board June 7, Jim Free, NASA associate administrator for exploration systems development, said Artemis 3, which would feature the first human landing on the moon in more than half a century, was in danger of being delayed from December 2025 to some time in 2026.
Free said NASA’s concern is the number of launches of Starship that SpaceX has to carry out to be ready for Artemis 3. Each Starship lander mission requires launching the Starship lander itself as well as several “tanker” Starships to fuel the lander in Earth orbit before it goes to the moon. Before Artemis 3, SpaceX will carry out an uncrewed Starship lunar landing, and also must demonstrate cryogenic fluid transfer in Earth orbit.
“That’s a lot of launches to get those missions done,” Free said. “They have a significant number of launches to go, and that, of course, gives me concern about the December of 2025 date” for Artemis 3.
He reiterated those schedule concerns later in the meeting when asked about the schedule for Artemis 3. “With the difficulties that SpaceX has had, I think that’s really concerning,” he said. “You can think about that slipping probably into ’26.”
He didn’t elaborate on the “difficulties” that SpaceX has encountered, but the company’s Starship/Super Heavy launch vehicle is currently grounded after its first integrated launch April 20. The vehicle suffered several engine failures in flight and was destroyed by its flight termination system four minutes after liftoff.
NASA has personnel involved in the investigation of the launch, and Free said he had just met with a Federal Aviation Administration official about it. “They’re doing everything they can, but they look at the launch license for the next mission,” he said of the FAA. “What I tried to convey to him is our big picture of everything that’s going to take to get to that human lander.”
Neither the FAA nor SpaceX has provided public updates on the status of that investigation or when the company might be cleared to make another launch attempt. SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said in an April 29 online discussion that the company could be ready in as soon as a “couple months,” but that schedule appears unlikely based on visible progress at the company’s Starbase test site in Boca Chica, Texas.
Regarding development of the lunar lander version of Starship, Free said that SpaceX and NASA have delayed a critical design review of the vehicle until after the company performs a cryogenic refueling demonstration in Earth orbit. The company provided NASA with an updated schedule last week, details of which he did not disclose, that the agency is reviewing.
“I get a lot of questions, ‘Will you make the date?’ Well, they need to get flying before we can get any kind of assessment,” he concluded.
He said he was confident that SpaceX would ultimately deliver the Starship lander, and noted that the fixed-price structure of the Human Landing System award shields NASA from additional costs. “But, the fact is, if they’re not flying on the time they’ve said, it does us no good to have a firm fixed price contract other than we’re not paying more.”