NASA IG Disputes NASA’s Optimism on Artemis Schedule

NASA IG Disputes NASA’s Optimism on Artemis Schedule

NASA’s Inspector General does not agree the next American astronauts will arrive on the Moon in 2025, the date announced by NASA last week, which is a year later than earlier planned. A new audit released today concludes it will be 2026 at the earliest and estimates the cost of the Artemis program at $93 billion through 2025.

NASA conceded last week that it cannot meet the 2024 goal set in 2019 under President Trump and embraced by President Biden earlier this year. A seven-month delay in the development of a Human Landing System (HLS) to get down to and back from the lunar surface due to litigation over the contract NASA awarded to SpaceX was a major factor in the delay. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson cautioned that the agency would not really have a good handle on the schedule until it could sit down with SpaceX for a detailed review, but 2025 is the tentative new goal.

NASA’s independent Office of Inspector General (OIG) is not that optimistic. For starters, it concludes the first Artemis launch, an uncrewed test flight of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft, will not take place until next summer, months beyond NASA’s latest schedule, February 2022.

NASA itself now puts Artemis II, a crewed test flight, in May 2024, essentially a one-year slip from its previous date. The OIG is somewhat in agreement, anticipating it in mid-2024, but the OIG does not envision Artemis III, the return of astronauts to the surface, until “several years” later, not 2025.

In large part that is because the HLS development schedule is “unrealistic when compared to other major NASA space flight programs.”

The report complimented NASA’s use of the Public-Private Partnership model to procure HLS, similar to the commercial cargo and commercial crew programs. It notes that “SpaceX has contributed much more than half of the required funding to date for the HLS system and plans to continue this level of contribution.” But while “contractor flexibility in meeting requirements provides the freedom to innovate … it also runs the risk of not meeting NASA requirements, especially when it comes to human rating the spacecraft.” The commercial crew partners took “10 years to reach flight readiness, largely because of difficulties meeting human rating requirements.”

Boeing still has not flown its Starliner commercial crew vehicle with astronauts. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is operational, but Starliner is at least a year away from a crewed test flight.

The availability of lunar spacesuits is another pacing item for Artemis as the OIG reported earlier this year.

The OIG also found that NASA’s estimates “significantly understate” the cost of the Artemis program overall as well as the cost for each mission. By the OIG’s calculations, Artemis will cost $93 billion from FY2012-2025.

It also concludes the per-mission production and operating cost is $4.1 billion at least for the first four missions.

The OIG weighed in on how the Artemis program is managed as well including a recommendation that NASA reconsider relying on SLS for crew launches.

Congress directed NASA to build SLS in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, but the launch vehicle landscape has changed dramatically in the past decade with commercial alternatives emerging that are significantly less expensive in part because they are reusable. SLS is not. The OIG thinks NASA “should continue to monitor the commercial development of heavy-lift space flight systems and begin discussions of whether it makes financial and strategic sense to consider these options as part of the Agency’s overall plan to support its ambitious space exploration goals.”

The report makes a total of nine recommendations. In a response, published as an appendix, NASA officials concurred with five and partially concurred with two.

They did not concur with two others. Those address the need to track the overall cost of the program and the cost per mission. Regarding an overall cost estimate, Jim Free and Ralph Roe replied that NASA is already following best practices and NASA policy and since Artemis is a “campaign” of lunar exploration efforts, not a defined program, a cost estimate “would not be in accordance with best practices or provide additional transparency into specific development, production and operations costs for programs and projects.”  As for the per-mission cost, they argued the agency “does not account, track, or report costs on a per-mission basis, precisely because doing so would reduce contractual transparency to key stakeholders.”  Free is Associate Administrator for the new Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate. Roe is NASA’s Chief Engineer.

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