NASA IG: Gateway Not Likely to Be Ready by 2024

NASA IG: Gateway Not Likely to Be Ready by 2024

NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) has concluded that the Gateway space station NASA plans to put in lunar orbit as part of the Artemis program likely will not be ready in time to support the Trump Administration’s plan to land astronauts on the Moon by 2024.  NASA said earlier this year that Gateway is not needed for the landing, but expected to have an initial version in place by 2023 nonetheless.

Gateway is a small space station that will serve as a transfer point for astronauts travelling between Earth and the lunar surface.

The first two pieces are the U.S.-provided Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) and the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO), but the plan is for additional modules and other hardware to be added by international partners in the years ahead.  NASA is working with its current International Space Station partners: the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the European Space Agency (ESA), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and the Russian space state corporation Roscosmos.  Canada has agreed to provide a robotic arm, Canadarm3, building on its experience with the arms it built for the space shuttle (Canadarm) and International Space Station (Canadarm2). NASA just signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the European Space Agency (ESA). ESA will supply a habitation module, iHAB, in cooperation with Japan, and a module providing communications, refueling capability, and windows like the Cupola it built for the ISS.  NASA and Japan signed a Joint Exploration Declaration of Intent (JEDI) in July. NASA is hoping Russia also will participate by providing an airlock, but no agreement has been reached yet.

Illustration of which space agencies (NASA, ESA, JAXA, CSA and Roscosmos) may provide different segments of the Gateway. Credit: ESA

The OIG report criticized NASA’s management of the Gateway program, however.  Its focus is the first two elements, PPE and HALO, not the international contributions.

NASA’s plans for Gateway have changed many times in recent years. During the Obama Administration, it was called Deep Space Gateway and was intended to be a transfer point for astronauts going to and from Mars. Obama eschewed returning astronauts to the lunar surface, choosing instead to focus on getting them to Mars by the 2030s.

President Trump restored the goal of human lunar landings in Space Policy Directive-1 at the end of 2017 and the Gateway was reconfigured and renamed to support that objective.

NASA originally planned to land astronauts back on the Moon in 2028 and described the Gateway as crucial to achieving that goal. But in March 2019, Vice President Pence directed NASA to accelerate the program, now called Artemis, by four years so the landing would take place in 2024, the last year of a second Trump term assuming he was reelected.

As NASA replanned the effort to meet the 2024 date, the Gateway program was buffeted by changes in leadership in NASA’s human spaceflight program and ideas about where Gateway fit in, which impacts its design. By March 2020, the then-head of NASA’s human spaceflight program, Doug Loverro, said Gateway no longer was mandatory for the 2024 landing, although it would be needed in the future. He decided that instead of launching the PPE and HALO separately, they would be integrated together on Earth and launched as a single piece. Just before he left NASA in May 2020, he said Gateway would be launched in 2023, but still was not needed for the 2024 landing.

The OIG found that all the changes increased costs and stretched the schedule.

The development schedules for both the PPE and HALO have been negatively impacted by the Agency’s still-evolving Gateway requirements, including NASA’s decision to co-manifest and launch the two elements on the same commercial rocket rather than separately as initially intended. Given this decision, the PPE is likely to launch at least 17 months behind its original date of December 2022 while HALO has 2 to 5 months of schedule risk, potentially moving its launch readiness date further into 2024. …

With both the PPE and HALO elements highly dependent on each other due to the decision to co-manifest the systems, coupled with an expected 10-month travel time to lunar orbit, the Gateway likely will not be in a position to support a 2024 lunar landing.

The decision to launch PPE and HALO together on the same rocket meant that Maxar, which is building the PPE, had to cancel a launch contract it already had with SpaceX at a cost of $27.5 million.  NASA chose Maxar to build the PPE through a fixed price contract, but the contract value has increased by $78.5 million “with more increases expected to accommodate additional evolving requirements and technical challenges.”

Northrop Grumman was awarded a sole-source contract for HALO, but contrary to standard practices, NASA did not finalize the contract until 10 months later “due to the lack of defined requirements” and the OIG expects costs to continue to grow.

In our judgment, NASA’s acceleration of the acquisition for both the PPE and HALO before fully defining the Gateway’s requirements added significant costs to the projects’ development efforts and increases the risk of future schedule delays and additional cost increases.

NASA Inspector General Paul Martin made eight recommendations that basically call on NASA to understand its requirements and choose appropriate procurement methods before signing contracts and have realistic delivery and launch dates.  NASA concurred.

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