NASA’s Moon landing will likely be delayed ‘several years’ beyond 2024, auditors say

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Last week, NASA announced that it was bumping back plans to send humans to the Moon from 2024 to 2025, but according to a new report, the delays could be even more significant. More realistically, such a landing will probably take place several years after 2024, the report claims.

The recent prediction comes from NASA’s Office of the Inspector General, which does periodic audits of the space agency’s various programs. In its latest report, the OIG took a comprehensive look at NASA’s Artemis program, the agency’s ambitious initiative to send people back to the Moon, as well as land the first woman and the first person of color on the lunar surface.

NASA created the Artemis program during the Trump administration. In 2019, then-Vice President Mike Pence challenged NASA with speeding up the program’s timetable in order to land humans on the Moon in just five years. But Pence’s announcement was considered an incredible long shot. NASA’s Artemis program relies on a suite of complicated vehicles all working together to get astronauts safely to the Moon, including a massive new rocket called the Space Launch System, or SLS, that will send people to deep space inside a new crew capsule called Orion. Meanwhile, SpaceX is developing its next-generation spacecraft, called Starship, to carry people to and from the lunar surface for NASA — part of a $2.9 billion contract awarded to the company in April.

However, Starship is still in very early stages of development and has yet to launch to orbit. SLS and Orion also have not flown on their first flight together. The OIG report, released Monday, highlights these issues and reveals just how much work is left to be done on Artemis, making a 2024 landing date unrealistic. “Given the time needed to develop and fully test the HLS and new spacesuits, we project NASA will exceed its current timetable for landing humans on the Moon in late 2024 by several years,” the report states.

Just last week, NASA also admitted that the 2024 landing date isn’t going to happen. However, the agency simply moved the new target to 2025. NASA blamed the adjustment on various factors including delays from the COVID-19 pandemic, changes in scope to some of the programs, as well as an ongoing lawsuit that stifled development on SpaceX’s lunar lander. Rival space company Blue Origin had also hoped to receive a contract from NASA to develop a lunar lander, but when the space agency gave the award to SpaceX, the company sued in federal court. The lawsuit prevented NASA and SpaceX from working together on the lander until the litigation was resolved.

The OIG report notes that the lawsuit did have an impact on the overall schedule, but the office also argues that the development schedule for SpaceX’s Starship is overly optimistic. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk continues to make bold predictions for Starship’s first major test launch, claiming multiple times it’d be ready to fly to orbit for the first time this year. However, the OIG report estimates the first orbital flight test of Starship will occur sometime in the second quarter of 2022.

The document does argue that SpaceX may be able to shave off some time due to its speedy testing pace compared with earlier NASA spaceflight programs. But there is still quite a lot of work to be done after Starship’s orbital flight test. Starship’s design relies on the vehicle being refueled while in orbit, in order to have enough propellant to reach the Moon. SpaceX still needs to test out that capability, something it has never done before. Then it will have to do an uncrewed landing before doing one with people on board. All of these milestones, combined with many of the other programs that need to be finished, have the OIG estimating a lunar landing with people sometime in 2026 at the very earliest.

It’s not just Starship’s schedule that is off target. The OIG report predicts that the debut of NASA’s SLS rocket and Orion combo will also be delayed. Right now, NASA is working toward a launch as early as February 2022 — a mission called Artemis I that will send the rocket and capsule on a weekslong trip around the Moon without crew on board. However, the Inspector General anticipates that flight will be pushed to summer of 2022 instead. Such a delay would not be unheard of for SLS and Orion, which were originally supposed to fly together as early as 2017.

Perhaps the most shocking finding of the report is the substantial price tag for the major Artemis programs. The OIG estimates that NASA will spend $93 billion on Artemis between 2012 and 2025. And each flight of SLS with Orion on top will cost roughly $4.1 billion. That’s about twice as much as an estimate from the White House Office of Management and Budget, which claimed SLS would cost more than $2 billion to fly each time.

The OIG report points the finger at how the SLS and Orion are contracted. The vehicles are being built by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, respectively, under a type of contract known as cost-plus. This method allows NASA to have substantial oversight in the development process and continue to provide additional funds to the contractors if things go over budget. Conversely, SpaceX’s Starship is being built through a fixed-price contract; NASA has less oversight through this method and provides one lump sum of money to SpaceX for development, while the company invests its own money to get the vehicle to the finish line.

The OIG notes that using such fixed-price contracts could help NASA save on costs as it strives to send people to the Moon and eventually to Mars. “With the emerging capabilities provided by commercial partners, the Agency may have future options that can help control costs to meet its exploration goals,” the report states. However, without a more realistic schedule, it’ll be difficult to know the true costs and timeframe for the program going forward.

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