Could China beat the US back to the moon? Congress puts pressure on NASA after Artemis delayed

The United States appears to be in the midst of another heated space race, this time with China.

The delay in NASA's Artemis lunar program prompted some members of Congress this week to fear that the U.S. goal of beating its Asian adversary back to the moon could be threatened.

NASA had hoped to send a group of spacefarers on a trip circumnavigating the moon as early as November as part of its goal of putting astronauts back on the moon for the first time since the last Apollo mission in 1972.

But last week, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson announced that the space agency’s first crewed lunar mission in more than 50 years, Artemis II, would be delayed until at least September 2025. Artemis III, the mission that would land Americans on the moon itself, now won't be happening until 2026.

The setback appeared to unnerve some elected leaders concerned about China's own lunar ambitions. The country's growing space program is actively seeking international partners for a moon mission with the stated goal of putting astronauts on the surface by 2030, Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, said during a Wednesday hearing.

“I remind my colleagues that we are not the only country interested in sending humans to the moon,” Lucas said in opening remarks. “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.”

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Why did NASA delay the Artemis missions?

The crew of Artemis II, astronauts Reid Wiseman, commander; Victor Glover, pilot; Christina Hammock Koch, mission specialist; and Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen, mission specialist, gather in front of the Artemis II crew module in August at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The crew of Artemis II, astronauts Reid Wiseman, commander; Victor Glover, pilot; Christina Hammock Koch, mission specialist; and Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen, mission specialist, gather in front of the Artemis II crew module in August at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

A battery flaw and "challenges" with the air ventilation and temperature control systems of the Orion spacecraft, the vehicle that will ferry Artemis astronauts to the moon, were among the issues prompting NASA to postpone Artemis II by at least a year.

For Artemis I, NASA first tested the Orion spacecraft needed for deep space exploration in 2022 during an uncrewed flight to see how its heat shield performed under extreme reentry conditions. The heat shield charred more than expected, prompting NASA to launch an investigation into the issue it expects will conclude this spring.

“We are returning to the Moon in a way we never have before, and the safety of our astronauts is NASA’s top priority as we prepare for future Artemis missions,” Nelson said in a statement announcing the delay.

Once the problems are fixed, the Artemis II crew of NASA astronauts Christina Koch, Victor Glover and Reid Wiseman, as well as Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen will head out for a 600,000-mile round trip to the moon and back. And when they board the capsule for the 10-day trip to test the capabilities of NASA's Space Launch System rocket and a crewed Orion spacecraft, they'll help pave the way for Artemis III.

That mission, which NASA promises will see the first woman and first person of color walk on the moon, has faced setbacks of its own.

Once NASA is back on track in the years ahead, the crew is intended to land at the moon's south polar region, where they will will lay the groundwork for NASA to establish a permanent human presence on and around the moon ahead of future missions to Mars.

But the delays aren't the only problems ailing NASA. George Scott, the agency's acting inspector general, said in testimony released Wednesday that the total cost of the program could reach $93 billion by 2025.

"Of utmost importance is resolving technical issues that could threaten astronaut safety,” Scott told lawmakers. “The agency will need to do this while also addressing long-standing concerns such as unsustainable costs, unreliable project schedules, and the lack of transparency into funding needs.”

Nelson, however, said at a briefing last week that he remains confident that NASA is still in a position to land its astronauts on the moon before China.

"I think that China has a very aggressive plan," Nelson said. "But, the fact is that I don't think they will."

Artemis retains bipartisan support despite concerns

However, not everyone shares that optimism.

Mike Griffin, a former NASA administrator who has also served at the Pentagon, testified Wednesday that the space agency's 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."

Meanwhile, China is a growing space superpower who remains one of four nations in history, along with the U.S., Russia/Soviet Union and now India, to successfully touchdown a lunar lander. Now, NASA is locked in a competition with China to return humans to the lunar surface.

“Our self-declared adversaries, the Chinese Communist Party, together with their Russian partner, fully understand the role that being on the space frontier has in the world of global power politics,” Griffin said. “For the United States and its partners not to be on the moon when others are on the moon, is unacceptable.”

Despite his concerns, the Artemis program established under the Trump administration continues to have bipartisan support in Congress.

“I support Artemis,” Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said during Wednesday’s hearing. “But I want it to be successful, especially with China at our heels.”

Eric Lagatta covers breaking and trending news for USA TODAY. Reach him at

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Could China could beat US back to moon? Artemis delay prompts concerns