US must beat China back to the moon, Congress tells NASA

Illustration of NASA astronauts at the lunar south pole.
Artist's illustration of NASA astronauts near the moon's south pole, a region thought to be rich in water ice, a key resource that could help humanity extend its footprint out into the solar system. (Image credit: NASA)

The delays in NASA's Artemis moon program are making some members of Congress nervous.

Last week, NASA announced that it's now targeting September 2025 for its Artemis 2 mission, which will send four astronauts around the moon, and September 2026 for Artemis 3, which will put boots on Earth's nearest neighbor for the first time in more than half a century. 

These new Artemis launch dates represent delays of about a year for each flight. The rightward push was spurred by the need to conduct more studies of key Artemis hardware, such as the heat shield of NASA's Orion crew capsule, which didn't perform quite as expected during the uncrewed Artemis 1 mission in late 2022. 

The U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Science, Space and Technology held a hearing about the new Artemis plan today (Jan. 17), and multiple members voiced concern about the slippage.

"I remind my colleagues that we are not the only country interested in sending humans to the moon," Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) said in his opening remarks.

"The Chinese Communist Party is actively soliciting international partners for a lunar mission — a lunar research station — and has stated its ambition to have human astronauts on the surface by 2030," he added. "The country that lands first will have the ability to set a precedent for whether future lunar activities are conducted with openness and transparency, or in a more restricted manner."

Related: We're in a space race.' NASA chief says US 'better watch out' for China

We need to restart [Artemis], not keep it on track,"

Mike Griffin, Former NASA Administrator

The committee's ranking member, California Democrat Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), voiced similar sentiments.

"Let me be clear: I support Artemis," she said in her opening remarks. "But I want it to be successful, especially with China at our heels. And we want to be helpful here in the committee in ensuring that Artemis is strong and staying on track as we look to lead the world, hand-in-hand with our partners, in the human exploration of the moon and beyond."

Several other committee members stressed that the new moon race is part of a broader competition with China, and that coming in second could imperil U.S. national security. 

"It's no secret that China has a goal to surpass the United States by 2045 as global leaders in space. We can't allow this to happen," Rich McCormick (R-GA) said during the hearing. "I think the leading edge that we have in space technology will protect the United States — not just the economy, but technologies that can benefit humankind."

And Bill Posey (R-FL) referred to space as the "ultimate military high ground," saying that whoever leads in the final frontier "will control the destiny of this Earth."

Related: Is war in space inevitable?

Four witnesses gave testimony during the hearing: Catherine Koerner, associate administrator for NASA's Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate; George Scott, the agency's acting inspector general; William Russell, director of contracting and national security acquisitions at the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO); and Mike Griffin, co-president and co-founder of the consulting company LogiQ, who served as NASA administrator from 2005 to 2009.

Russell and Scott discussed the challenges going forward for the Artemis program, which aims to set up a crewed base near the moon's south pole by the end of the 2020s. Those challenges, they said, include an ambitious launch schedule and a lack of transparency about that planned timeline, as well as the program's price tag.

"NASA has not developed a comprehensive estimate for all Artemis costs," Scott said. (He noted that a 2021 report by the NASA Office of the Inspector General found that the program's total cost from 2012 to 2025 will end up being about $93 billion.)

"Without the agency fully accounting for and accurately reporting the overall cost of current and future missions, it will be difficult for Congress to make informed decisions about NASA's long-term funding needs," Scott added.

Koerner acknowledged these and other challenges but stressed that NASA is working to overcome them — and is on track to do so.

"We believe that — and our administrator spoke about it just last week — that we will be on the surface of the moon before China is. And it's our intent for that to happen," she said, referencing comments made by NASA chief Bill Nelson on Jan. 9, when the Artemis 2 and Artemis 3 delays were announced. 

Griffin doesn't share that optimism. Indeed, he is very down on the Artemis program as it's currently constructed.

"In my judgment, the Artemis program is excessively complex, unrealistically priced, compromises crew safety, poses very high mission risk of completion and is highly unlikely to be completed in a timely manner, even if successful," Griffin said during today's hearing.

Those perceived shortcomings are a big deal, given the importance of the current moon race "in the world of global power politics," he stressed. 

"For the United States and its partners not to be on the moon when others are on the moon is unacceptable," Griffin said. "We need a program that is consistent with that theme. Artemis is not that program. We need to restart it, not keep it on track."

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.