NASA Inspector General warns of further delays in returning humans to the moon

LAS VEGAS – NASA’s plans to return humans to the moon, which it has already pushed back to at least 2025, could be further delayed, the agency’s inspector general warned on November 15.

In a report on the Artemis program, NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) said that NASA’s timeline for developing a manned lunar lander through the Human Landing System program is far too aggressive compared to previous efforts to develop large programs.

“We found that the HLS development plan was unrealistic compared to other major NASA spaceflight programs,” the report said. “Specifically, spaceflight programs over the last 15 years have taken an average of about 8.5 years from contract award to first operational flight, and the HLS program attempts to do so in about half that time.”

The report noted that NASA was aware of the issues with the schedule for some time, citing a February 2020 report for the agency from The Aerospace Corporation, which concluded that a lander would not be ready until mid-2026. The OIG report concluded that based on the average delays in recent major NASA spaceflight programs, “we estimate that the HLS program may face up to 3.4 years of delays before operational flights begin.” It would push the landing, originally planned for the end of 2024, to as late as 2028.

It would affect Artemis’ overall plans, although other elements, such as the Space Launch System and Orion, remain on their current schedules. The OIG report stated that NASA officials “raised the possibility of using Artemis III to carry out an additional orbit of the Moon instead of a lunar landing mission whose necessary systems are not available in time.”

The study, which was prepared when NASA predicted a launch in late 2021 for the first SLS / Orion mission, Artemis 1, concluded that the mission is likely to be launched in the spring of 2022 “with a higher probability of launch – according to our estimates – in the summer of 2022. ‚ÄĚNASA announced on October 22 that it did not aim for the launch until February 12, 2022.

The report also criticized NASA for cost accounting for Artemis. “NASA does not have a credible estimate that consolidates all Artemis costs across mission directorates,” it states. OIG’s analysis of budget data and projections concluded that NASA will spend, from fiscal year 2012 to 2025, $ 93 billion on the various elements of Artemis.

A single Artemis mission, it added, would cost NASA $ 4.1 billion. It includes $ 1.3 billion for the Orion spacecraft – a figure that includes $ 300 million for the service module provided by the European Space Agency through a barter agreement – and $ 2.2 billion for SLS. Earth systems account for the remaining $ 568 million.

However, NASA rejected recommendations from the OIG to develop an overall Artemis cost estimate or improve the clearance cost accounting. “NASA already follows best practices and the Agency’s policy of providing cost estimates and commitments for the Agency’s approved programs and projects,” said Jim Free, NASA’s Associate Director for Exploration Systems Development, in a response included in the report. He noted that Artemis is “the campaign for the agency’s efforts against lunar exploration” and not an official program.

These high costs led the OIG to propose to NASA to eventually consider alternatives to SLS and Orion. “In the short term, SLS is the only launcher with the ability to lift the 27-metric ton Orion capsule to the lunar orbit. But over the next 5 to 7 years, other human-valued commercial alternatives may become available,” it says, such as SpaceXs Starship / Super Heavy and Blue Origins New Glenn.

“Although Congress mandated that NASA build SLS and Orion for its space exploration targets in 2010, the agency may soon have more affordable commercial opportunities to transport humans to the Moon and beyond,” the report said. “In our view, the Agency should continue to monitor the commercial development of heavy-lift aerospace systems and begin discussions on whether it makes economic and strategic sense to consider these options as part of the Agency’s overall plan to support its ambitious space exploration objectives.”

While the OIG report did not contain any specific recommendations to NASA to consider alternatives to SLS and Orion, agency executives have stated that they believe these vehicles remain the only way to perform human missions to the moon.

At a November 9 briefing updating the schedule for the Artemis program, a reporter asked if NASA would consider using SpaceX’s Starship instead of SLS and Orion to launch humans to the moon, as it already plans to use Starship as a moon lands. “I do not think it would work from an architectural perspective,” Free replied.

“Right now, only one rocket is capable of doing this, and this is SLS and Orion at the top,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “We go with what we have, and if anyone comes up with another alternative, we like to look at any other alternative.”

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