The chances of NASA sending the first woman and next man to the Moon by 2024 is looking less and less likely, according to a report this month by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
Under the previous White House administration, the US space agency was told to make the lunar landing by that deadline. Prior to that order, NASA had 2028 in mind. In any case, so far it's not looking good: NASA still isn't quite sure how much this will cost nor how long it will take to get the equipment and personnel ready.
The mission, dubbed Artemis III, is ambitious. NASA wants to send astronauts to Earth's natural satellite using a new rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS). The crew will live in a capsule, known as the Gateway, which will orbit the Moon. They will then land on the lunar surface in a separate vehicle, called the Human Landing System (HLS), which SpaceX was due to provide.
“Achieving a lunar landing in 2024 is an ambitious goal, and little is known about the overall cost of NASA’s efforts to do so,” the auditors' 50-page report [PDF] stated.
“With just over three years remaining, NASA lacks insight into the cost and schedules of some of its largest lunar programs in part because some of its programs are in the early stage of development and therefore have not yet established cost and schedule estimates or baselines.”
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The GAO did note the space agency has made some progress in delegating tasks. However, SpaceX's contract to build the HLS was paused earlier this month after rivals Blue Origin and Dynetics filed an official complaint. Thus, it's no wonder the mission is behind schedule.
The mission also involves building hardware including an electric ion propulsion system for the Gateway, which will require long and rigorous testing. Rushing this process introduces levels of risk that can’t be taken, considering it’s a crewed mission, and contractors are already behind schedule.
NASA only completed its first test of the ion drives, needed to keep the astronauts in position over the Moon, in March. You can see it in action below, with the sound off if you hate cheesy techno music:
“GAO best practices for technology assessments state that if a technology is not adequately mature, management should assess off-ramps at milestones,” the watchdog stated.
"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."
Instead, the GAO recommends the agency reassess its timeline for the Gateway's propulsion, or reduce its technical requirements. The accountability office has audited NASA’s progress on the overall Artemis mission multiple times. Last year, it also doubted the space agency would, in a pandemic, be able to complete the first phase of the project by 2021, which involves launching a non-crewed test of the SLS.
The SLS is still slated to fly in November this year. We’ve asked NASA for comment on the report, and will update accordingly. ®