NASA Artemis Program Faces Significant Challenges on Human Lunar Landing in 2024

Artist concept of the SpaceX Starship on the surface of the Moon. (Credits: SpaceX)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The combination of an ambitious schedule, technical challenges and immature technology will make it difficult for NASA to meet its goal of landing two astronauts on the moon in 2024, according to a new assessment by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

“NASA has made progress by completing some early lunar program development activities including initial contract awards, but an ambitious schedule decreases the likelihood of NASA achieving its goal. For example, NASA’s planned pace to develop a Human Landing System, shown below, is months faster than other spaceflight programs, and a lander is inherently more complex because it supports human spaceflight,” GAO said in a report to Congressional committees.

The space agency awarded a $2.9 billion contract to SpaceX to adapt its Starship spacecraft to serve as the Human Landing System earlier this year. The company has been testing Starship prototypes in Texas.

An illustration of the Gateway’s Power and Propulsion Element and Habitation and Logistics Outpost in orbit around the Moon. (Credits: NASA)

GAO said the lunar-orbiting Gateway Power and Propulsion Element being developed by Maxar Technologies is a major concern. The module will be powered by a 50-kilowatt solar electric propulsion that has never been used in space previously. Development is running behind schedule, and NASA does not have a backup to it, the government watchdog said.

GAO recommended that NASA assess “the solar electric propulsion thrusters’ technical risks and determine whether off-ramps—such as reduced requirements for PPE—are needed or whether the project’s schedule should be reassessed.” NASA agreed to implement the recommendation.

GAO also recommended that NASA include the development costs from the canceled lunar Resource Prospector program in the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) cost baseline. GAO said the space agency should also include include the $199.5 million cost of delivering the rover to the lunar surface as part of the VIPER program.

NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER, is a mobile robot that will roam around the Moon’s south pole looking for water ice. The VIPER mission will give us surface-level detail of where the water is and how much is available for us to use. This will bring us a significant step closer towards NASA’s ultimate goal of a sustainable, long-term presence on the Moon – making it possible to eventually explore Mars and beyond. (Credit: NASA Ames/Daniel Rutter)

VIPER is designed to search for water ice at the lunar south pole. The spacecraft is set to launch aboard Astrobotic Technology’s Peregrine lander in late 2023 under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program. VIPER is based upon work conducted under the Resource Prospector mission, which NASA canceled in 2018.

NASA did not concur with GAO’s recommendation.

“NASA explained that it did not include development costs for the Resource Prospector project in the baseline because VIPER’s mission was significantly different, its design is much more capable, and a different mission directorate funded the project. NASA stated that development costs from the Resource Prospector project are analogous to early technology development investments, or design heritage, and the agency does not carry these costs into the cost baseline of a later mission,” the report said.

“In addition, NASA stated that it chose not to include the Commercial Lunar Payload Services task order costs in the VIPER project’s cost baseline because the Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative differs from other launch services procured for NASA missions. For example, under this initiative, NASA stated that it procured delivery of the rover as a service and the agency inherently has less ability to shape and control the launch integration and process,” GAO said.

A summary of GAO’s findings follow.

NASA Lunar Programs:
Significant Work Remains, Underscoring Challenges to Achieving Moon Landing in 2024

Government Accountability Office
Report to Congressional Committees
May 2021

What GAO Found

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has initiated eight lunar programs since 2017 to help NASA achieve its goal of returning humans to the Moon. NASA plans to conduct this mission, known as Artemis III, in 2024. NASA has made progress by completing some early lunar program development activities including initial contract awards, but an ambitious schedule decreases the likelihood of NASA achieving its goal. For example, NASA’s planned pace to develop a Human Landing System, shown below, is months faster than other spaceflight programs, and a lander is inherently more complex because it supports human spaceflight.

Notional Human Landing System

NASA also faces technical risks. For example, the Gateway—which NASA is developing to be an outpost orbiting the Moon—will rely on power and propulsion technology that has never before been used, and contractor efforts to develop the technology are behind schedule. NASA officials said they do not have a technology backup that would meet mission requirements. GAO best practices for technology assessments state that if a technology is not adequately mature, management should assess off-ramps at milestones. For this program, off-ramps would include potentially reducing the amount of power the system is required to provide to the Gateway or reassessing the schedule to allow for more time to develop the technology. NASA risks costly design changes or delays if the agency does not identify off-ramps before committing significant resources.

NASA has not fully addressed management challenges related to its lunar programs that were identified in a 2020 NASA-sponsored study. For example, GAO found that NASA assigned Artemis mission roles and responsibilities to specific divisions in response to a study finding; however, the agency has not clearly documented how it determined what key programmatic and technical tools it plans to use to guide mission decision-making. Without doing so, NASA cannot ensure that it has the appropriate processes in place to track how the missions will achieve objectives and address risks at the mission level.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making four recommendations, including that NASA assess off-ramps for an immature Gateway technology and document the process for determining key programmatic and technical tools for the Artemis missions. NASA concurred with three of the recommendations, but did not concur with the fourth, which related to the costs included in a lunar rover’s cost estimate. GAO believes this recommendation remains valid.

Recommendations for Executive Action

The NASA Administrator, in coordination with the Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, should ensure the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) project office includes relevant development costs from the Resource Prospector project and the cost of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services task order for the delivery of VIPER to the lunar surface into its cost baseline. (Recommendation 1)

The NASA Administrator should ensure that the NASA Office of the Chief Engineer develop guidance to mitigate risks associated with delaying the establishment of high-level requirements early in the acquisition process when using service-type contracts and incorporate it in its reference guide or a similar document. (Recommendation 2)

The NASA Administrator, in coordination with the Associate Administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, should ensure the Gateway program, in advance of the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) project’s confirmation review, assesses the solar electric propulsion thrusters’ technical risks and determine whether off-ramps—such as reduced requirements for PPE—are needed or whether the project’s schedule should be reassessed. (Recommendation 3)

The NASA Administrator, in coordination with the Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, should ensure the Advanced Exploration Systems Division documents the process used to determine the program and technical management practices and tools that it will apply to the Artemis III and later missions, in the absence of establishing a formal Artemis program. (Recommendation 4)

Agency Comments and Our Evaluation

We provided a copy of this report to NASA for review and comment. NASA provided written comments that are reprinted in appendix II. In its response, NASA concurred with three of our four recommendations and estimated that actions to close these recommendations would occur between October 2021 and May 2022. NASA also provided technical comments that we incorporated as appropriate.

NASA did not concur with our recommendation for the VIPER project office to include relevant development costs from the Resource Prospector project and the cost of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services task order for the delivery of VIPER to the lunar surface into its cost baseline. NASA explained that it did not include development costs for the Resource Prospector project in the baseline because VIPER’s mission was significantly different, its design is much more capable, and a different mission directorate funded the project. NASA stated that development costs from the Resource Prospector project are analogous to early technology development investments, or design heritage, and the agency does not carry these costs into the cost baseline of a later mission.

However, as stated in the report, the relevant costs incurred for the VIPER project’s development under the Resource Prospector project are important because they provide visibility into the total cost of developing the rover and some of its instruments. Exclusion of these costs from the project’s cost baseline understates how much NASA has invested in developing a rover to map volatiles on the lunar surface. Although NASA noted that the two projects have different missions and funding sources, the VIPER project nonetheless is leveraging some of the Resource Prospector project’s design work and technology development efforts.

In addition, NASA stated that it chose not to include the Commercial Lunar Payload Services task order costs in the VIPER project’s cost baseline because the Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative differs from other launch services procured for NASA missions. For example, under this initiative, NASA stated that it procured delivery of the rover as a service and the agency inherently has less ability to shape and control the launch integration and process. In summary, NASA stated that its approach will allow the performance of VIPER’s direct scope, which is under the project manager’s control, to be measured and tracked.\

However, as noted in the report, the cost of Commercial Lunar Payload Services task order to deliver VIPER to the Moon is a key cost of the project’s life cycle, even if the project is not responsible for managing the task order. While NASA included a note about the current cost of the task order in the project’s key decision point-C decision memorandum, the agency does not plan to track the task order costs with the VIPER project’s cost baseline or under a separate project cost baseline. As a result, NASA does not have a mechanism to track and externally report cost growth on the task order, which has already grown by $27 million, or 13.5 percent. Excluding these costs results in NASA not encompassing all past, present, and future costs for every aspect of the VIPER project, regardless of the funding source.

Therefore, we continue to believe that NASA will underestimate the cost of the VIPER project by not including the relevant Resource Prospector costs and the costs of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services task order to launch and deliver VIPER.

Why GAO Did This Study

In March 2019, the White House directed NASA to accelerate its plans for a lunar landing by 4 years, to 2024. Accomplishing this goal will require extensive coordination across lunar programs and contractors to ensure systems operate together seamlessly and safely. In December 2019, GAO found that NASA had begun making decisions related to requirements, cost, and schedule for individual lunar programs but was behind in taking these steps for the Artemis III mission.

The House Committee on Appropriations included a provision in 2018 for GAO to review NASA’s proposed lunar-focused programs. This is the second such report. This report assesses the extent to which NASA has (1) made progress on its lunar programs, including for the 2024 lunar landing goal, and (2) addressed challenges related to its management of lunar programs.

GAO analyzed lunar mission and program documents and assessed the results of a 2020 NASA-sponsored study on lunar program status. GAO interviewed NASA officials on lunar program progress and risks and on plans to address study findings.