Surprise! NASA Artemis Lunar Program Schedule Likely to Slip Again, 2024 Landing Unlikely

An astronaut descends the ladder to explore the lunar surface. (Credit: NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The latest in a series of updates from NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) says that despite making significant progress on the $86 billion Artemis program, the space agency’s schedule for returning astronauts to the moon in four years is likely to slip. [Full report]

“Nonetheless, the Agency faces significant challenges that we believe will make its current plan to launch Artemis I in 2021 and ultimately land astronauts on the Moon by the end of 2024 highly unlikely,” the update said.

The uncrewed Artemis I mission will likely slip into next year due to the “complex and time-consuming process” of integrating the Space Launch System, Orion spacecraft and Exploration Ground Systems for the first time at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the report said.

Any delay in Artemis I would have a cascading effect, pushing the Artemis II flight test with astronauts into at least the third quarter of 2023. That would push back the third Artemis flight during which astronauts would attempt a landing at the lunar south pole, the OIG said.

NASA is also facing delays and cost increases in the development, integration and launch of the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) and Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) that are the first two element of the lunar orbiting Gateway station.

“The Gateway program faced challenges related to the PPE’s propulsion system development, vehicle weight, and mass levels, as well as defining requirements for the HALO component to avoid schedule delays and cost increases,” the report said.

“In January 2021, the program reported no schedule margin for a January 2024 launch with the PPE component facing the same challenges reported in November 2020. Combined with issues in HALO’s thermal control systems, as of March 2021 the program faces up to 12 months of schedule risk,” the document added.

In fact, the launch of the two elements aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy is scheduled for no earlier than May 2024, a slip of four months from the previous plan. The launch will cost $331.8 million, a figure that includes the launch service and other mission-related costs.

OIG also concluded that NASA’s plan to save time and money by launching PPE and HALO together instead of separately had not worked out as planned.

“However, the requirements changes resulting from co-manifesting the PPE and HALO launches are not certain to result in the Agency’s suggested savings and instead have led to schedule delays,” the report said.

The OIG report also found potential issues with the the development of the Human Landing System (HLS) that will take astronauts to and from the lunar surface.

In December, Congress provided only $850 million of the Trump Administration’s $3.4 billion request for HLS in the fiscal year 2021 budget. NASA officials said it could not make the 2024 landing date without the full amount.

“According to NASA officials, the wide gulf in funding between what the program requested and what it received in FY 2021 jeopardized the Agency’s plan to select two contractors to build the HLS. At the time, officials expressed concern that selecting a single contractor would result in a lack of redundancy and potentially higher, less sustainable future HLS costs due to a lack of competition,” the report said.

“Nevertheless, on April 16, 2021, NASA announced award of a $2.9 billion contract to SpaceX for the HLS. Despite selecting a single contractor, the reduction in funding will likely slow HLS development and extend its schedule. Given the lunar lander’s central role, any development delays could jeopardize NASA’s plans to land astronauts on the Moon in 2024 or the foreseeable future,” the document added.

NASA rejected HLS bids from Dynetics and Blue Origin’s National Team, which included Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper.