GAO Skeptical of “Ambitious” Artemis Schedule

GAO Skeptical of “Ambitious” Artemis Schedule

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) today warned that NASA’s Artemis program to get astronauts back on the Moon by 2024 is overly ambitious and its accelerated schedule makes it less likely to succeed. The chairwoman of the House committee that oversees NASA called the report a “wake-up call” to NASA and Congress.

GAO gave NASA credit for the progress made since it last reviewed the program in 2019, but concluded that NASA is taking technical and programmatic risks that reduce the likelihood of meeting the 2024 goal set by the Trump Administration.

The Biden Administration supports Artemis, but has not yet indicated if it intends to keep the 2024 date.

One of GAO’s concerns is that NASA’s schedule for developing the multiple systems needed for Artemis is “months faster” than other NASA programs that do not involve human spaceflight even though they are “inherently more complex.”

We found that the current planned pace of lunar program development from project start to launch is months faster than other major NASA projects.  NASA’s major projects that have launched since 2010 averaged almost 87 months from project start—when NASA approves a program or project to begin the formulation phase of the acquisition process—to launch. In contrast, NASA is planning to launch the HALO [Habitation and Logistics Outpost] module of the Gateway 57 months after project start and a human landing system 64 months after program start.

The Gateway is a small space station that will orbit the Moon and serve as a transfer point for crews arriving from Earth on Orion spacecraft and moving into Human Landing Systems (HLS) for the trip down to and back from the surface. It also will be a communications platform and evolve over time with international contributions to serve other functions.

NASA illustration of the first two elements of the Gateway, the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) and Power and Propulsion Element (PPE), with its large solar arrays, orbiting the Moon. The blue streaks illustrate thrusters firing. Credit: NASA/JSC.

Gateway’s two initial components are HALO and a Power and Propulsion Element (PPE). GAO is particularly concerned that the technology needed for the PPE is unproven and behind schedule yet NASA does not have a backup plan or “off-ramp.”

GAO best practices for technology assessments state that if a technology is not adequately mature, management should assess off-ramps at milestones. For this program, off-ramps would include potentially reducing the amount of power the system is required to provide to the Gateway or reassessing the schedule to allow for more time to develop the technology. NASA risks costly design changes or delays if the agency does not identify off-ramps before committing significant resources.

The head of NASA’s human spaceflight program, Kathy Lueders, spoke at a joint meeting of two Boards of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine yesterday. She did not convey any concerns about the PPE, but mentioned that NASA is in the process of finalizing the contract with Northrop Grumman for HALO with a delivery date of late 2024 and launch around that time or in early 2025.  HALO and PPE will be launched together on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.

NASA’s current plan, or architecture, is for the Gateway to be in orbit around the Moon for the first crew landing, Artemis III.  (Artemis I and II are test flights.) That means the currently planned launch date will not support a 2024 landing. Lueders did not get into any details that would indicate whether NASA expects to delay the landing or adopt an alternative approach where Orion would dock directly with an HLS instead of with the Gateway.

GAO says it was told by a NASA official that the agency will not make a decision on whether or not to use the Gateway for the first landing until this summer.

That is just one example of the uncertainty surrounding NASA’s plans for executing Artemis just three-and-a-half years before the deadline. The HLS program itself is stalled as GAO reviews two protests against NASA’s decision to award a single contract to SpaceX.  GAO has until August 4 to issue that ruling.

The report also criticizes NASA’s governance of the Artemis program, which actually is not a formal program led by a single program manager. A February 2020 internal study recommended that Artemis be designated as a program, but instead Artemis missions are assigned to various divisions within the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD).

GAO’s bottom line is that despite the progress NASA has made over the past two years, Artemis faces “several remaining challenges due to ongoing requirements changes, the use of immature technologies, and a pending mission decision on whether NASA will use the Gateway for the 2024 lunar landing. These challenges, along with the ambitious schedule, decrease the likelihood of NASA meeting the 2024 lunar landing goal.”

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas)

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), chairwoman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, called the GAO report a wake-up call.

“The GAO report released today should serve as a clear wake-up call both to NASA’s leadership and to Members of Congress that NASA’s Artemis Moon-Mars initiative is in serious trouble, and strong corrective actions will be needed if it is to succeed…  It is particularly sobering that the problems highlighted by the GAO team are not primarily budgetary in nature, but reflect organizational weaknesses, reliance on immature technologies, an unrealistic timetable and acquisition approach, and lack of commitment to a rigorous systems engineering & integration capability, among other concerns.”

She urged NASA Administrator Bill Nelson to conduct an independent review to ensure Artemis and the entire Moon-Mars effort is on an executable path “or we will not just be wasting money—we will be putting our astronauts and our nation’s standing at risk.”

The chairman of the space subcommittee, Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), added that Artemis has strong bipartisan support in Congress that “comes with the responsibility to ensure that this highly important national effort is carried out based on well-established management and technical processes. … GAO’s report identifies the need for improvement in these areas in order to avoid further delays and costs, and to ensure a successful outcome.”

This GAO report did not look at the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion crew spacecraft, or their associated Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) because they were just reviewed in December 2020.

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