Shock news: NASA lunar ambitions might be a bit too... ambitious

'We believe the Agency will be hard-pressed to land astronauts on the Moon by the end of 2024'

The NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG) has said the chances of the agency meeting the goal of landing humans on the Moon by 2024 are looking ever slimmer.

"We believe the Agency will be hard-pressed to land astronauts on the Moon by the end of 2024," said the OIG in a report (PDF) filed yesterday on the management and performance challenges faced by NASA.

Technical hurdles aside, even getting close to that goal "will require strong, consistent, sustained leadership from the President, Congress, and NASA, as well as stable and timely funding."

It's fair to say that 2020 has not been kind, and the ongoing fall-out from the recent US election is very much the extra toppings on a turd sandwich for anyone seeking "strong, consistent, sustained leadership" from those in charge.

The Artemis project is an easy target. The rocket NASA is to use, the Space Launch System (SLS), has had its first test flight delayed yet again, to 2021, and work on the monster rocket was delayed or halted as the agency closed facilities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Plans for the Human Landing System to send astronauts to the lunar surface remain in flux and NASA has yet to make final decisions on components such as the Gateway station, the first elements of which are set for a January 2024 launch.

And then there is the thorny issue of money. The OIG noted that NASA will soon pass $17bn in SLS spending and budget-busting has continued with the Orion capsule and ground systems to support the program.

Sounding a little like a broken record, the OIG intoned: "NASA must determine the true long-term costs of its human exploration programs, set realistic schedules, define system requirements and mission planning, form or firm up international partnerships, and leverage commercial space capabilities."

For the latter two points, progress has been made with the Artemis Accords, and the European Space Agency (ESA) is making a substantial contribution to both the Gateway and Orion (in the form of the ATV-derived service module) and companies such as SpaceX will be contributing launch capabilities.

However, NASA does remain determined to use the SLS. A congressional mandate requires the agency to use the monster rocket for its Europa Clipper mission, although bets are being hedged as "the Clipper team is developing the spacecraft to accommodate the differing launch and flight capabilities of the SLS and a commercial launch vehicle," according to the OIG.

Indeed, in its FY2021 request, a proposal was made to switch out the SLS for a commercial vehicle, which would see a 2024 launch and savings of over $1.5bn.

The OIG also called out other areas including NASA's management of major projects, noting the agency's "culture of optimism and the positive and negative effects this has had on project management," the ongoing challenge of sustaining a human presence in Low Earth Orbit, and the ageing infrastructure and facilities relied upon by the agency.

The goal of returning astronauts to the Moon by 2024 was set by the White House in March 2019. 2021's incumbent may have different priorities. ®

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