No U.S. Astronauts on the Moon in 2024 as Schedule Slips and Costs Rise

No U.S. Astronauts on the Moon in 2024 as Schedule Slips and Costs Rise

NASA officials conceded today that 2025 is the earliest possible date U.S. astronauts will return to the Moon, not 2024 as promoted by the Trump Administration and adopted by the Biden Administration earlier this year. That will be the third mission in the Artemis series and the first two also have slipped. Meanwhile the development cost for the spacecraft that will transport the crew, Orion, has grown from $6.7 billion to $9.3 billion.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told reporters today that a number of factors are affecting the schedule for the Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon as a steppingstone to Mars. The impacts of COVID-19 on the NASA and industry workforce and supply chain, first time development challenges, less than requested congressional funding for the Human Landing System (HLS) to get from lunar orbit down to and back from the surface, and a seven-month delay due to litigation over the HLS contract NASA signed with SpaceX are all contributors.

SpaceX’s two-stage Starship space transportation system stacked for the first time, August 6, 2021, Boca Chica, TX. The silver first stage is called Super Heavy, and the second stage, covered in black thermal protection tiles, is Starship, a name also used to refer to the two of them together. It is the second stage that would serve as an HLS. Photo credit: SpaceX

That HLS litigation ended last Thursday with the Court of Federal Claims ruling in NASA’s favor, which prompted the agency’s decision to provide today’s program update. Nelson stressed that they have been prohibited from any discussions with SpaceX about HLS while the contract was being challenged and until they sit down and talk with company officials they really do not know when the first human landing might take place. That is why 2025 is a “no earlier than” date, not a commitment.

SpaceX has continued working on Starship with its own funds. Starship is not only envisioned as an HLS for NASA, but for sending people and cargo anywhere in the solar system including millions of people to Mars.

Nelson said he, Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy and Associate Administrator Bob Cabana will visit SpaceX’s Starship testing site in Boca Chica, TX early next year to see the progress first hand. SpaceX is getting ready for a first orbital test flight in the next several months.

HLS is just one component of what is needed to get people back on the Moon. They will launch from Earth to lunar orbit in a Lockheed Martin-built Orion spacecraft atop a Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. Boeing is the prime contractor for SLS. There Orion will meet up with an HLS either directly or at a lunar space station called Gateway. The crew will go down to and return from the lunar surface on the HLS and transfer back into Orion for the trip home.

Artemis I is a test launch of  SLS and an uncrewed Orion. NASA revealed on October 23 that the launch is delayed again, until at least February 2022. In 2014, NASA committed  to that launch in November 2018. That slipped to December 2019-June 2020, then to mid-late 2021. Until two weeks ago NASA still was saying it would happen this year.

Progress is being made, though. The Artemis I SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft are now stacked together, 322 feet tall,  in the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center.

NASA completed stacking Oct. 21, 2021, of the agency’s Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft for the Artemis I uncrewed mission around the Moon. The core stage is yellow. On top of it are the white upper stage, Orion, and Launch Abort System. Credit: NASA

Next will be Artemis II, a test flight with a crew.  That was planned for April 2023, but Nelson said today it will slip to at least May 2024.

The big question is when Artemis III will put American astronauts back on the lunar surface for the first time since 1972. In 2019, then-Vice President Mike Pence set the date at 2024 so it would happen while Donald Trump was still President if he was reelected. The idea of achieving such a feat in just five years was greeted with widespread skepticism for technical and budgetary reasons. Much to the surprise of many, President Biden embraced the deadline this year in his FY2022 budget request for NASA.

Not any more. Today Nelson criticized the Trump Administration’s 2024 date as “not grounded in technical feasibility.”

The questions about technical feability starts with the landing system. At the time of Pence’s announcement, no HLS systems were even in a concept stage, much less development. NASA decided to procure HLS through Public-Private Partnerships similar to those for the commercial cargo and commercial crew systems that support the International Space Station (ISS). After concept development by three bidders in 2020 and early 2021, NASA awarded its first HLS contract to SpaceX in April for Starship, but competitor Blue Origin contested the award first to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and then to Court of Federal Claims. It lost both times.

NASA wants more than one HLS provider, though, and has opened a new round of competition for future landers. What it needs is adquate funding from Congress, which gave the agency just 25 percent of what it requested last year. Nelson said he will continue to fight for the money:  “Going forward, NASA is planning for at least 10 Moon landings in the future, and the agency needs significant increases in funding for future lander competition, starting with the 2023 budget.”

Nelson also revealed a substantial cost increase for Orion today. It is because of Nelson that Orion and SLS even exist. Then a U.S. Senator from Florida, Nelson and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) crafted the 2010 NASA Authorization Act requiring NASA to build a new Saturn V-class rocket and a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit. Their action came after President Barack Obama cancelled the Constellation program underway during the George H. Bush Administration to put astronauts back on the Moon by 2020. Thanks to the Nelson-Hutchison law, SLS replaced the Ares rockets that were being built for Constellation. NASA retained Orion as the MPCV.

Lockheed Martin had won the Orion contract in 2006, but 15 years later it still has not flown. A mockup was launched to test its heat shield in 2014, but Artemis I will be its first real spaceflight and even then it will not be outfitted with the life support systems needed to support a crew. That will not happen until Artemis II.

A model of an Orion capsule undergoes a drop test from the height of 18 inches in splash impact basin at NASA’s Langley Research Center, VA. March 23, 2021. Credit: NASA

In 2015, NASA made an Agency Baseline Commitment to Congress of $6.7 billion for development of Orion through the first flight with a crew, now called Artemis II (Exploration Mission-2 at the time). Today Nelson said the agency is updating that cost commitment to $9.3 billion.

That is only the development cost through the first flight with a crew. It does not include formulation costs or other life-cycle costs. It also excludes $6.3 billion spent during the Constellation program. NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued a highly critical report last year of how NASA accounts for Orion costs.

NASA Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development Jim Free attributed some of the cost increase to additional requirements that were levied on Orion after the initial estimate, such as demonstrating rendezvous and proximity operations that will be needed for docking with the Gateway lunar space station.

SLS’s development pricetag through Artemis I is $11 billion according to Free. The agency has not disclosed what the costs will be beyond that and is initiating an effort to eventually turn it over to the private sector to operate. As for how much each SLS launch will cost, NASA Associate Administrator for Space Operations Kathy Lueders said they would be happy to get it in the $1 billion to $1.5 billion range, but acknowledged “we’ve got a little ways to go” to achieve that.  Streamlining production and consolidating contracts are steps NASA will take in that direction.

Another critical element for Artemis is spacesuits that can be used on the lunar surface.  NASA has been working on a new generation of spacesuits in-house for several years, but now wants to open that up to Public-Private Partnerships, too. Free said the agency plans to make multiple awards next year with a demonstration capability by 2024. The suits will be tested on the ISS before the Moon.

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