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NASA auditor's reality check says '2026 at the earliest' for Artemis Moon landing

All stacked up and nowhere to go

NASA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) has administered a kicking to the US space agency over its handling of the Artemis project, making grim reading for anyone hopeful of even a 2025 crewed lunar landing.

While the 2024 landing deadline imposed by the Trump administration is now history, even 2025 is looking shaky as the OIG reckoned [PDF] that "NASA will exceed its current timetable for landing humans on the Moon in late 2024 by several years."

So looking more and more like 2028 as originally planned.

NASA has yet to manage a first launch of its monster SLS rocket. Hopes were fading that the rocket would get off the pad in 2021, but the OIG estimates it will take until summer 2022 before the uncrewed test is launched.

A need to reuse Orion components from Artemis I in Artemis II will mean that there is every chance the latter will also slip; from late 2023 to "at least mid-2024". Artemis III, the landing mission, will follow.

The OIG report also sought to put a price tag on the SLS/Orion combo, estimating that current production and operations costs of a single vehicle would come in $4.1bn per launch (our italics) for Artemis I through IV.

"All components are expendable and 'single use' unlike emerging commercial space flight systems," the report observed.

It's all a bit unfortunate. NASA had a reuseable spacecraft in the form of the Space Shuttle and has been busily taking the orbiter's main engines and turning them into marvels of expendability. Even the recovery capability of the Shuttle-derived Solid Rocket Boosters have been sacrificed on the altar of Artemis.

To be fair to NASA, the 2024 deadline was somewhat arbitrary, and factors such as the pandemic and severe weather events have hampered the development of its SLS. The core stage for Artemis I required a retest after a premature shutdown, adding more months to the schedule and making a 2021 launch look ever more unlikely despite the recent stacking of the Artemis I rocket in Kennedy Space Center's Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB).

Ambitious timelines, set for the Human Landing System (HLS) being developed by SpaceX, were also questioned. The OIG drily noted: "We found the HLS development schedule to be unrealistic when compared to other major NASA spaceflight programs. Specifically, space flight programs in the last 15 years have taken on average about 8.5 years from contract award to first operational flight and the HLS Program is attempting to do so in about half that time."

And then there are the spacesuits, flight versions of which might be available by May 2025 "at the earliest."

The OIG estimated that US taxpayers would need to pay more, with total Artemis costs expected to hit $93bn, of which $40bn had already been spent. Unsurprisingly, NASA was advised to keep a close eye on the heavy lift capabilities of commercial alternatives.

In conclusion, 2026 is now likely to be the earliest year boots will once again stomp on the regolith, according to the OIG. Even getting the first of NASA's big orange rockets off the pad is unlikely to happen before summer 2022. ®

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