Blue Origin’s failed lawsuit against NASA over the Human Landing System (HLS) contract, which was thrown out by a judge last week, and the growing progress of the Chinese space program were at the top of mind for NASA officials during a Tuesday briefing updating the public on the agency’s Artemis program.
NASA Administration Bill Nelson had strong words on the lawsuit, saying that the agency lost “nearly seven months in litigation” over HLS, leading to two of the forthcoming missions pushed back by a year or more. Now, Artemis-2 will take place in May 2024, while Artemis-3 – which aims to put the first woman and the first person of color on the moon – will take place no earlier than 2025. (Artemis-1, an uncrewed mission and the first to use NASA’s Space Launch System and Orion capsule, is on track for early 2022.)
The Artemis program is an ambitious series of planned launches by NASA to return humans to the moon since the days of the Apollo program. The HLS will be the final capsule that will transport astronauts to the lunar surface.
Blue Origin brought the lawsuit against NASA over the HLS award in August, after unsuccessfully petitioning the Government Accountability Office over the agency’s decision to award the HLS to SpaceX. Blue argued that NASA’s evaluation of proposals was “unlawful and improper” and has stated in other protests that a single contract award was anti-competitive.
However, it’s unclear whether the legal battle with Blue Origin is the sole reason, or even the dominant reason, for why the missions have been delayed. For instance, Nelson also noted that the Trump Administration’s target of 2024 for the third mission “was not grounded in technical feasibility,” and that Congress did not appropriate enough funds to support the development of multiple human landing systems.
The Senate budget committee was very clear that it wants NASA to select two developers for the HLS program, but it only earmarked an additional $100 million for the agency to do so.
“After having taken a look under the hood for the last six months, it’s clear to me that the agency will need to make serious changes for the long-term success of the program,” he said.
He also pointed to COVID as another reason for the delay, which has caused supply chain disruptions and impacts to the workforce.
Nelson: “We are facing a very aggressive and good Chinese space program”
Nelson also repeatedly brought up China’s rapidly advancing space program, noting that the country is “increasingly capable” of landing taikonauts on the moon. He vowed that NASA would be as aggressive as it could be in a safe and technically feasibly way “to beat our competitors with boots on the moon.”
The Chinese space program has progressed over the past few years at a jaw-dropping pace, quickly launching the first core module of an independent space station earlier this year. It was the third of eleven planned launches through 2022 to get the station up and running. China has also landed a rover on Mars – the only other nation besides the U.S. to do so – and plans for a more complex sample return mission from the Red Planet by the end of the decade.
“Statements that the Chinese space program, which includes the Chinese military, have made give us indications that they are going to be very aggressive,” Nelson said.