NASA Inspector General Calls Artemis Lunar Program Costs “Unsustainable”

A close-up view of the Artemis I Space Launch System rocket inside High Bay 3 of the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Sept. 20, 2021. All 10 levels of work platforms have been retracted from around the rocket as part of the umbilical release and retract test. (Credit: NASA/Frank Michaux)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Earlier this week, NASA Inspector General Paul K. Martin presented the House Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee with the results of his office’s latest analysis of the space agency’s decade-old effort to return astronauts to the moon, otherwise known as the Artemis program. The results were eye popping, depressing and not at all surprising.

We’ll start with the eye popping, which came in the form of a series of numbers:

  • $53 billion: amount NASA will spend between fiscal years (FY) 2021 and 2025
  • $93 billion: amount NASA will have spent since FY 2012 (when Artemis work began in earnest) and FY 2025
  • $25 billion: amount NASA has excluded from budget estimates through FY 2025 for work beyond the Artemis III mission
  • $4.1 billion: cost of launching each Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft through the first four missions
  • Hundreds of billions of dollars: likely amount NASA will spend on Artemis and crewed Mars missions over the next two decades.

“Our detailed examination of Artemis program contracts found its costs unsustainable. Given our estimate of a $4.1 billion per-launch cost of the SLS/Orion system for at least the first four Artemis missions, NASA must accelerate its efforts to identify ways to make its Artemis-related programs more affordable,” Martin said in his written testimony. “Otherwise, relying on such an expensive single-use, heavy-lift rocket system will, in our judgment, inhibit if not derail NASA’s ability to sustain its long-term human exploration goals of the Moon and Mars. In addition, the Agency has seen significant cost growth in the Mobile Launchers, spacesuits, and to a lesser degree the Gateway.”

Another unsurprising finding is that Artemis’ ever slipping schedule is likely to slide further to the right. NASA expects to launch SLS and Orion on the uncrewed Artemis I mission to the moon by this summer. However, the IG said there is likely to be a two-year gap until the next flight with astronauts aboard.

“With Artemis II, NASA is facing additional schedule delays—until at least mid-2024—due to the second mission’s reuse of Orion components from Artemis I. Finally, given the time needed to develop and fully test the HLS and NASA’s next-generation spacesuits needed for lunar exploration, the date for a crewed lunar landing likely will slip to 2026 at the earliest,” Martin said.

The return of American astronauts to the moon would thus take place at least one year or more beyond NASA’s current plan to land them on the surface in 2025.

“The Artemis program lacks transparency. In particular, NASA does not have a comprehensive and accurate estimate that accounts for all Artemis program-related costs. Because NASA has not defined Artemis as a formal program under the Agency’s Space Flight Program and Project Management Requirements, an Artemis-wide full life-cycle cost estimate is not required. Instead, NASA’s disparate programs and projects individually submit budget estimates through their divisions and directorates to the Office of the Chief Financial Officer,” the IG said.

Nothing in Martin’s testimony was new. The NASAS IG and the Government Accountability Office have reached similar conclusions in a series of reports stretching back many years.

Martin suggested that NASA encourage more competition and move away from cost-plus contracts in which companies can charge more as the program progresses to fixed-price contracts under which they must deliver for the amount specified in the contract. The space agency has used fixed-price contracts on the Commercial Crew and Commercial Cargo programs.

“With the emerging capabilities provided by commercial partners, the Agency may have future options that can help control costs to meet its exploration goals,” Martin said in his testimony.