NASA Inspector General Paul Martin told a congressional subcommittee today that each of the first four Artemis missions will cost $4.1 billion and projected the agency will spend $53 billion on Artemis from FY2021-2025. Even at that, he predicts the first astronauts will not return to the Moon until at least 2026. Other witnesses at the House hearing forecast dates between 2025 and 2027, but the hearing overall was strongly supportive of Artemis and its ultimate goal of putting people on Mars.

Martin’s testimony to the space subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee recapped a November 2021 report from his office on NASA’s management of the Artemis program. It concluded that production and operations costs for Artemis I through Artemis IV will be $4.1 billion each.

That’s a “price tag that strikes us as unsustainable,” he said today.

That does not include development costs. His office projects the total cost for Artemis from FY2012, when the Space Launch System (SLS) program began, through FY2025 will be $93 billion. Of that, $53 billion is for FY2021-2025.

He also pointed to “varying degrees of technical risk that will push launch schedules from months to years” beyond current plans, leading to his estimate that the first return to the Moon “likely will slip to 2026 at the earliest.”

Joining him at the witness table were Jim Free, NASA Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development; William Russell from the Government Accountability Office (GAO); Patricia Sanders, chair of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel; and Dan Dumbacher, Executive Director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) and a former NASA executive.

Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK), the top Republican on the full committee expressed his strong support for Artemis, but wanted all the witnesses to estimate when they think the first Artemis landing will occur.

Free said NASA’s current estimate of 2025, a one-year slip that NASA Administrator Bill Nelson conceded in November, is based on how all the hardware is coming together right now.

GAO’s Russell said 2025 “is not impossible, but it seems improbable” considering the need to develop and certify a human landing system and spacesuits.

Sanders agreed 2025 is not impossible, but characterized it as a “stretch goal.” She added that while it can be good to have stretch goals, it also is important to be realistic and not let a prescribed deadline lead to unwise decisions that impact safety and success.

Dumbacher agreed on the importance of not allowing “schedule pressure to force bad decisions” and thinks 2025-2027 “is probably realistic with the right focus and the right resources.”

Most of the hearing covered familiar ground, with members from both parties urging NASA to provide more information on the specifics of its plan for putting humans on Mars using the Moon as a steppingstone.

Today’s hearing is the third in a series that dates back to 2019 — “Keeping Our Sights on Mars.” Though NASA has made progress getting its big new rocket, the Space Launch System, and Orion crew spacecraft ready for a test launch later this year, it apparently has not been successful in providing this committee with a rationale and set of plans they feel they can use to convince their colleagues of its merits.

Subcommittee chair Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) said bipartisan support is strong, but answers are missing to questions about priorities and “what are we trying to accomplish and how are we going to do it.”

Funding will not be unlimited and choices will need to be made. Are we establishing a sustainable lunar program of unlimited duration, or are we meeting milestones and defined objectives that feed forward to enable the Mars goal? Are we developing national capabilities needed for Moon to Mars or investing in commercial capabilities designed for objectives other than national needs? Is Artemis going to be a national program or disparate set of projects? Have we laid out a credible plan, approach, organization, and management structure, and identified the resources needed to implement it?

Everything…everything is dependent on having a clear and agreed-upon story of what we are doing, why, and how we will get there. More than four years into Artemis—the nation’s premier effort to lead America back to the Moon and on to Mars—I’m still looking for that narrative, something that I can tell my constituents, my family, my colleagues abroad, and my colleagues in here in Congress—especially appropriators.

Subcommittee ranking member Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) said much the same thing.

We have no reliable cost for Artemis, no integrated master schedule for Artemis and its subcomponents, and no clarity on how the integration of elements such as Gateway, space suits, HLS, SLS, Orion, and EGS will happen, or who is responsible for ensuring ultimate success. …

I am also confident we all have the same shared goal – a robust human spaceflight program.  But, as the saying goes, the devil is in the details.  We are still waiting on those details.

Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), displaying his Mars 2033 bumper sticker at a House space subcommittee hearing, March 1, 2022. Screengrab.

Free responded that the goal is putting two people on the surface of Mars for 30 days and getting them there and back safely. Everything NASA plans to do on the Moon is driven by achieving that goal.

Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), renowned for his “Mars 2033” bumper sticker, wanted reassurances that Mars is indeed still the plan because everyone at the hearing was talking about the Moon. Free stressed that operations on the Moon are needed to understand how systems operate in partial gravity, how humans react to partial gravity, and there are parallels between the rovers, spacesuits and habitats needed for both Moon and Mars.

Perlmutter wanted a cost estimate for the Mars misson, but Martin said “to be honest, there’s no reliable estimates out there.” Perlmutter proposed that DOD be asked to contribute. “We know we’re in competition with China, with others, and you know sometimes even though we try to keep the civilian side and the defense side separate, there will be benefit to the defense side as well. We should be able to take advantage of their budget since it’s about 100 times bigger than NASA’s.”

In the near term, however, the focus is getting to the Moon. Free agreed that it is “my responsbility to put an integrated plan and budget together to show [how we are] getting to that first landing,” but he did not have it today.


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