May 22, 2024

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NASA may modify Artemis III to be able to dock Starship and Orion in low Earth orbit

NASA may modify Artemis III to be able to dock Starship and Orion in low Earth orbit
Zoom in / This image taken by NASA's Orion spacecraft shows its view just before the spacecraft flies past the moon in 2022.

NASA

Although NASA is unlikely to talk about this publicly anytime soon, the space agency is privately considering modifications to its Artemis plan to land astronauts on the moon later this decade.

Multiple sources have confirmed that NASA is considering alternatives to the planned Artemis III landing of two astronauts on the moon, nominally scheduled for September 2026, due to concerns about hardware readiness and the complexity of the mission.

Under one option, astronauts would launch into low Earth orbit inside an Orion spacecraft and rendezvous there with a Starship vehicle, which SpaceX would launch separately. During this mission, similar to Apollo 9, which was the precursor to the lunar landing of Apollo 11, the crew will verify the ability of Orion and Starship to dock and test habitability inside the spacecraft. Then the crew will return to Earth. In another option being considered by NASA, a crew would be launched in Orion and fly to a small space station near the moon, the Lunar Gateway, and then return to Earth.

To discuss these options, Ars requested an interview with Katherine Koerner, the deputy associate administrator who oversees exploration systems development at NASA. Instead, the space agency provided a non-binding statement.

“NASA continues to work toward a crewed Artemis 2 test flight in September 2025 and an Artemis 3 crew test flight to land astronauts near the lunar south pole in September 2026,” the statement read. “The agency evaluates the progress and condition of the element on a daily basis and uses that data to make timely decisions for each mission as part of programmatic and mission-wise management. In the event that a particular hardware element is not available to support the mission as scheduled or planned, NASA will evaluate hardware readiness Options are available to make those decisions with crew safety as the first priority.

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Unrealistic timetable

The space agency's date for Artemis II is optimistic but likely possible if NASA can solve the Orion spacecraft's heat shield issues. However, landing on the moon in September 2026 seems completely unrealistic. The biggest obstacles facing Artemis III are the lack of a lander, which SpaceX is developing through its Starship program, and the spacesuits needed for lunar missions by Axiom Space. It's not clear when the lander or suits, which NASA began funding in the past two or three years, will be ready.

There are also concerns about the complexity of Artemis III. It will require a number of previously untested steps, including rendezvous with the Orion spacecraft and docking in lunar orbit; Humans fly inside spacecraft in space; The spacecraft descends to the surface and returns to dock with Orion; And more. Mission planners would be more satisfied if they could, in NASA's parlance, “risk mitigate” Artemis 3 by validating some of these precise maneuvers before a lunar landing mission.

That's why NASA asked SpaceX to consider a mission where Orion would rendezvous with a Starship in Earth orbit. Such a mission — whether called Artemis IIS or Artemis III — would solve a lot of problems for the space agency and appears to be the preferred option at this time. Most importantly, it will verify the ability of the two spacecraft to dock in an environment where, if there is a problem, it will be much easier for the crew to return safely home. It will also verify the astronauts' ability to live inside the spacecraft and perform some ascent and landing maneuvers.

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