'That's part of space exploration': Artemis 2 astronauts unfazed by moon mission delays (exclusive)

When you're developing a new type of space mission, expect to wait.

That was the message from three Artemis 2 astronauts who are now expected to fly to the moon no earlier than September 2025, about a year later than initial expectations. A previous uncrewed mission, Artemis 1, encountered unexpected eroding of the Orion spacecraft's heat shield during re-entry in Earth's atmosphere. That was one of the key reasons behind an Artemis 2 schedule change in January, although the problem has been worked on since Orion's splashdown in December 2022.

The moon crew's comments here at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) were especially apt; their interviews in early May came days before Boeing's Starliner spacecraft, aiming for its first-ever mission with astronauts, was also delayed to at least Tuesday (May 21) due to a valve issue with the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. (This news comes after Starliner's launch to the International Space Station was adjusted several years after numerous technical issues, requiring an extra test mission without astronauts and other adjustments.)

Artemis 2 mission specialist Jeremy Hansen, of the Canadian Space Agency, therefore urged everyone watching these missions to adjust their expectations. "If all you do is try to simplify a program down to 'this launches on a certain date that you initially set as a goal, you can feel like you're failing all the time,' " Hansen said.  

Related: NASA inspector general finds Orion heat shield issues 'pose significant risks' to Artemis 2 crew safety

The Artemis 2 moon crew during splashdown practice at NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in Houston. (Image credit: NASA/Josh Valcarcel)

While NASA launch dates are as realistic as possible, Hansen said he sees delays "completely the other way." (Notably, Hansen has not flown in space yet since his selection as an astronaut in 2009, in large part because CSA space seats typically happen once every five or six years due to the agency's modest funding compared to other agencies.) 

To Hansen, delays have a silver lining: "If you can identify a problem without killing somebody, that's a huge success. And then if you can identify ways that you can address it, and learn from it and fix it on the ground, even better.

"At the end of the day," he continued, "I think it's also important to recognize we will never be able to make this risk zero. We will learn everything we can in our testing facilities, and [in what] science can achieve on the ground. And then ultimately, we'll still have some unknown risk that we'll have to accept. But that's part of space exploration."

Aside from Hansen, the Artemis 2 astronauts are NASA commander Reid Wiseman, NASA pilot Victor Glover (who will become the first Black person to leave low Earth orbit, or LEO) and NASA mission specialist Christina Koch (the first woman to go beyond LEO). Hansen will be the first non-American beyond LEO. They were assigned to the mission in April 2023.

NASA's Orion spacecraft for the Artemis 1 mission after it splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on Dec. 11, 2022. (Image credit: NASA/James M. Blair)

The heat shield conversation once again came up in the news this month after NASA's Office of the Inspector General (IG) issued a report saying the ablation problems create "significant risks" to Artemis 2 safety. NASA found more than 100 areas on Orion's heat shield with unexpected erosion, according to the IG.

"With the recent IG report, the heat shield is getting a lot of attention. But it already has been; this is not new," Glover told Space.com in a separate KSC interview. "The IG report seems like a big deal to some folks, but we've been talking about that [the heat shield] as one of our top issues since Artemis 1 landed, almost."

Glover emphasized that when people sympathize with him about a mission "delay", he sees the better terminology as a "correction" because "the system had to right itself" to allow for a safer launch. The crew, he emphasized, was not surprised and did not see the timeline change as "a negative."

Related: NASA's Artemis 1 Orion spacecraft aced moon mission despite heat shield issue

NASA astronaut Victor Glover (in orange flight suit, center) being helped by recovery personnel during an Artemis 2 recovery exercise in the Pacific Ocean on Feb. 25, 2024. (Image credit: NASA/Kenny Allen)

"It allows time to be less of a pressure as we analyze the heat shield and repair the mobile launcher," Glover, a former U.S. Navy Test pilot, said; the powerful launch of Artemis 1 caused some damage to the mobile launcher. Other issues, such as foam cracking on the core stage of Artemis 1's Space Launch System rocket, will also be scrutinized, he said.

Related: Huge Artemis 1 moon rocket blew the doors off NASA's launch tower elevators (video)

Training also continues as Artemis 2 aims to be "the vanguard, the leading edge, finding a path" for future moon missions after it, Glover said. The coming 18 months will be full of what he calls the "three Ts": training, testing, and talking (or public engagement). Testing on the heat shield, he emphasized, is ongoing around the world with NASA, the Department of Defense and other places.

Wiseman, also a former U.S. Navy test pilot, told Space.com in his own KSC interview that developmental programs should not have schedules as their main goal. "The whole purpose of the developmental program, if you cut everything else away, is to go fly," he said.

"When you build a new vehicle, it doesn't matter how many requirements you set and how many qualification programs you set. When human hands are trying to put together an incredibly complex and powerful machine, it is going to manifest in some issues. And there are going to be things you learn as you go all the way up to launch," he added.

Issues do resolve, Wiseman, emphasized, "after a few vehicles fly, because you start to shake those things out. But I would also say in spaceflight, there is no such thing as routine. I think we've just learned that throughout all of history. There is going to be a curveball, every now and then, that you got to go tackle, solve, fix and integrate."

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace