GAO: 2025 Unlikely for First Artemis Lunar Landing, Maybe 2027

GAO: 2025 Unlikely for First Artemis Lunar Landing, Maybe 2027

The Government Accountability Office’s latest report on NASA’s Artemis program is skeptical that the agency can return astronauts to the lunar surface in 2025, the current plan. If development of the Human Landing System and lunar spacesuits, both being procured as Public-Private Partnerships, follows the average timeline for NASA programs, early 2027 is more likely.

In this fourth congressionally-directed review of Artemis, GAO focused on the Artemis III mission, the one that will put astronauts on the lunar surface for the first time since Apollo.

Artemis I was the successful uncrewed flight test of the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft last year. Artemis II is the crewed flight test scheduled for the end of 2024. NASA’s existing schedule calls for Artemis III to take place one year later at the end of 2025. The astronauts will travel to the Moon in a NASA Orion capsule launched by NASA’s Space Launch System rocket. Once in lunar orbit, they will transfer into a SpaceX Human Landing System (HLS) that will take them down to the surface and bring them back to Orion for the trip home.

Flight profile for Artemis III presented at NASA Advisory Council Human Exploration and Operations Committee meeting, November 17, 2023. Credit: NASA

In 2019, the Trump Administration set 2024 as the date for U.S. astronauts to once again set foot on the Moon. At the time, NASA was aiming for 2028, but Vice President Mike Pence, as chair of the White House National Space Council, suddenly pulled it forward by four years so it would happen during a second Trump term if he was reelected.

He wasn’t reelected, but his successor, President Biden, is similarly enthusiastic about space exploration and adopted that goal. By the end of Biden’s first year in office, however, NASA conceded 2024 wasn’t possible and 2025 became the new target.

Those dates have been the subject of considerable skepticism in the aerospace community and Congress since 2019 and remain so today. GAO’s conclusions are no surprise. Even high ranking NASA officials acknowledge the challenges ahead and hint at a delay to 2026 or perhaps flying a different mission. However, 2025 remains the date on the books.

The two critical pieces of hardware still early in development are the Human Landing System (HLS) to take astronauts from lunar orbit down to and back from the surface, and the spacesuits they need to wear on the surface.

Illustration of SpaceX’s Starship on the surface of the Moon. Note the astronauts at the bottom of the lander for scale. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX is under contract to provide the HLS for Artemis III and IV using a version of its Starship vehicle. Axiom Space is developing the spacesuits. Both agreements are Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) where NASA and the company share development costs and NASA agrees to purchase services under firm fixed-price contracts.

SpaceX received a $2.9 billion contract in 2021 for the first HLS. Axiom was selected in 2022 and GAO said the amount NASA awarded for these spacesuits is $229 million. Overall, GAO said NASA’s FY2024 budget request includes $12.4 billion over 5 years for these two systems. The companies retain ownership and are expected to find other customers to close the business case. NASA already uses this procurement model for the commercial cargo and crew systems that resupply the International Space Station.

GAO looked at the status of the HLS and spacesuit programs and at how long it typically takes NASA to develop new technologies. Although the PPP model is intended to take advantage of efficiencies in the private sector that conceptually enable faster development, GAO found that’s not happening here.  “SpaceX used more than 50 percent of its total schedule to reach” Preliminary Design Review (PDR) while NASA uses only about 35 percent, and the “HLS program plans to use nearly 14 percent of its total schedule to proceed from PDR” to the next major milestone, Key Decision Point-C, while NASA projects use just 4.2 percent.

Nonetheless, the plan is to spend 79 months developing HLS, which is “13 months shorter than the average for NASA projects. The complexity of human spaceflight suggests that it is unrealistic to complete development more than a year faster than the average for NASA major projects, the majority of which are not human spaceflight projects,” GAO cautioned.

If HLS development takes the same amount of time as the average NASA project “the Artemis III mission would likely occur in 2027.”

GAO pointed to delays in the development of Starship already. Although SpaceX celebrates the achievements of its test flights in April and November, they nonetheless fell well short of the goal of traveling three-quarters of the way around the globe from SpaceX’s Texas launch site to a splashdown near Hawaii.

SpaceX uses an iterative testing process where each new test builds on what was learned from the last. That takes time. Starship also cannot go directly to the Moon. It must refuel at a fuel depot in Earth orbit, which does not yet exist. Creating the depot and filling it with propellant will take more than 15 Starship launches just for this one mission.

Getting all that done and Starship sufficiently tested to entrust the lives of NASA astronauts in just two more years is what GAO found to be unrealistic.

Prototype of the Axiom lunar spacesuit. The actual suit will be white to reflect heat. The covering shown here is “for display purposes only to conceal the suit’s proprietary design” according to Axiom.  Credit: Axiom Space

The lunar spacesuits face their own hurdles. Axiom Space hasn’t built spacesuits before, but is “leveraging” prior work for NASA. However, NASA now requires that the spacesuits provide 60 minutes of emergency life support, “more than any suit in history” according to GAO. That requires a different design “to accommodate larger tanks that can hold more oxygen.” GAO also listed other challenges as well:  dealing with parts obsolescence, the need to mature critical technologies, procuring suit components, and qualifying the suit for flight.

NASA is still developing guidance on the series of reviews it will conduct to determine if the systems meet their requirements, are safe, and ready for launch. GAO provided a graphic of the processes NASA will use and said NASA plans to release the general Artemis Certification of Flight Readiness plan and the Artemis III mission supplement in 2024, “1 year before launch to give them enough time to be implemented for Artemis III.”

GAO did not make any recommendations in this report.

As with the commercial cargo and crew systems for ISS, NASA has two suppliers for HLS and spacesuits to ensure redundancy and competition. Blue Origin is developing its Blue Moon lunar lander for Artemis V. Collins Aerospace is the other company working on new spacesuits, although theirs are for use in Earth orbit.  GAO did not address those programs since they are not related to Artemis III.

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