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US Government Accountability Office dumps sack of coal on NASA's desk over Moon mission naughtiness

It'll be fine, just keep giving Boeing money

Those within NASA hoping for some festive treats were in for disappointment this week as the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) administered a kicking over the agency's beleaguered Artemis programme.

The GAO's report spelled out just how much trouble the over-budget and behind-schedule Moon mission is in, and remarked that things hadn't really improved since its last report in 2019.

Noting that the first launch of NASA's heavy launcher, for the uncrewed Artemis I mission, "was again delayed, this time due in part to manufacturing challenges," the GAO pointed out that "the new date, November 2021, doesn't take into account any COVID-19 delays."

To put that postponement into context, NASA put in place a schedule to measure performance in 2014. Since then, according to GAO, Artemis I has suffered a 36-month slip. Even the latest launch date (November 2021) might be in doubt due to problems including an issue with the Orion capsule and the impact of COVID-19 on the programme.

The delays to Artemis I will have a direct impact on Artemis II. Bits of the Orion crew module of Artemis I are planned for Artemis II, but refurbishment and installation will take "a minimum of 20 months" meaning the earliest Artemis II could launch would be July 2023. That would mean only 14 months until the Moon landing mission of Artemis III, scheduled for September 2024.

It's all starting to look rather tight, and one can't but help wonder if an incoming US administration might opt to fiddle with the boots-on-Moon-soonest approach of Donald Trump in favour of something a little more sustainable and, dare we say it, achievable.

Costs have also continued to rise. The SLS programme has jumped by 42.5 per cent and the Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) by 32.3 per cent since 2014, according to the GAO. An overall increase of $3bn to $11.5bn, and more revised estimates are due in 2021.

A sizeable chunk of cash has been spent on missions beyond Artemis I, but a lack of focus after Artemis I and the crewed Artemis II by the agency "places billions of dollars at risk of insufficient NASA oversight," according to the GAO.

Indeed, the report reads as though NASA had assembled a set of dominos, with a delay in Green Run testing of the SLS core stage impacting Artemis I, which impacts Artemis II and so on. Sadly, for folk fondly remembering the epic domino runs of old, the only record broken is likely to be in the budget overrun arena. And that's without considering the more powerful versions of the SLS needed for missions after Artemis III.

The GAO did note the progress being made by NASA, but commented: "This progress has also been accompanied by extensive cost overruns and schedule delays for the SLS, Orion, and EGS programs."

"NASA," it added, "is also facing further risks as it begins to commit billions of dollars to the development of future capability upgrades for these programs while mission requirements remain in flux."

Sounding a little like a broken record, the GAO recommended the agency establish cost and schedule baselines for the next round of Artemis and SLS work, as well as adding technical performance updates in its quarterly status reviews.

For its part, NASA concurred with the recommendations and set an estimated completion date of 31 March 2021 for the latter and 30 September 2021 for the former. ®

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