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NASA’s quest to return astronauts to lunar space has been postponed as the U.S. space agency and its industry partners work to surmount technical obstacles associated with the Artemis program.

During a press briefing on Tuesday, NASA chief administrator, Bill Nelson, told reporters that the upcoming launch of Artemis II is now scheduled for September, 2025, a 10-month shift from the previous target of November.

The mission is set to carry a four-person crew, including Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen, on a long looping flight around the far side of the moon and back. At the midpoint of the planned journey, the astronauts will be farther from Earth than humans have ever been, including during NASA’s Apollo moon missions, which flew to the moon between 1968 and 1972.

The announced delay in the launch of Artemis II means that Artemis III, which is designed to carry astronauts to a landing site near the lunar south pole, will not lift off any sooner than September, 2026.

“As we remind everybody at every turn, safety is our top priority,” Mr. Nelson said. “We don’t fly until we’re ready.”

Still on track for a 2028 launch is Artemis IV, the mission whose primary purpose is assembling Gateway, an orbiting way station that is intended to act as a transfer point between future missions from Earth and forays down onto the lunar surface. As an international partner, Canada has committed to supplying Gateway with a robotic arm.

During Tuesday’s briefing, officials with NASA and contractors on the project provided new details about a number of issues that have emerged over the past year in the development and testing of the Space Launch System (SLS) that is to be the workhorse of the lunar program.

Some of those issues were detected following the successful flight of Artemis I, an uncrewed first full test of the system that included a flyby of the lunar surface in December, 2022.

Among them was the separation of some heat-shield material from the exterior of the Orion crew capsule that splashed down in the Pacific Ocean at the end of the flight. The shield is meant to absorb the fierce heat of re-entry as the capsule plummets through the atmosphere while protecting the crew inside.

“The heat shield is an ablative material. It’s supposed to char,” said Amit Kshatriya, deputy associate administrator of NASA’s Moon to Mars program, “What we were not expecting was some pieces of that char to be liberated from the vehicle.”

Mr. Kshatriya said the small amount of material lost would not have posed a risk to crew members had the capsule been occupied during its descent, but he added that an extensive investigation was under way to fully understand the cause of the material separating from the capsule. The results will be needed to inform the next flight, which is one reason for the shift in schedule.

He added that another issue was an apparent failure of a motor valve in the life support system for Artemis III. Following closer inspection, that discovery highlighted a design flaw in the circuit that controls the component.

“It became very clear to us that it was unacceptable to accept that hardware and we have to replace it in order to guarantee the safety of the crew,” Mr. Kshatriya said.

Another element of the mission that has yet to prove itself is the Starship lunar lander being developed by private aerospace company SpaceX to ferry astronauts down to the lunar surface. The first two flight tests of Starship failed last year.

Jessica Jensen, the company’s vice-president for customer operations and integration, said a third flight test of the lunar lander is expected to take place in February.

In a statement, crew members of Artemis II said: “The change in the Artemis II schedule is a testament to the strong, open and healthy culture we have at NASA.”

Canada’s Mr. Hansen was selected as a crewmember on the flight last spring. In November, the Canadian Space Agency announced that Jennifer Sidey-Gibbons will train as his back up.

The schedule change for Artemis II comes after news that a small commercial lunar lander launched on Monday as part of a NASA project to encourage private-sector activity on the moon has failed. The lander, built by Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology Inc., is just the latest in a string of failed missions by companies looking to provide access to the lunar surface for corporate and academic clients.

During the briefing, Mr. Nelson recalled the words of then-president John F. Kennedy, who famously said that the United States chose to go to the moon and do other things “not because they are easy but because they are hard.”

Mr. Nelson added that he did not anticipate that the delays to Artemis would create a window for China to become the first country to put astronauts on the moon in more than half a century as the U.S. rival forges ahead with its own lunar program.

“I think that China has a very aggressive plan,” he said. “I think they would like to land before us because that might give them some PR coup. But the fact is that I don’t think they will.”

Artemis I is the first step toward an ongoing human presence on the moon. The ambitious international program using NASA’s most powerful rocket ever, aims to send two test flights to the moon before the first human landing since the Apollo missions.

The Globe and Mail

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