America's ambitious Artemis III likely to miss 2025 Moon landing date, auditors sigh

'SpaceX has made limited progress maturing the technologies needed'

Updated Artemis III, the mission intended to put American boots back on the Moon, is unlikely to meet its 2025 launch schedule, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported on Thursday. 

According to the watchdog, problems with both SpaceX's Starship Human Landing System – the vehicle chosen to deliver US astronauts to the Moon's southern pole – and the Axiom spacesuit selected for those lunar operations, mean there are significant deadlines to be reached in the next two years. These goals are unlikely to be fulfilled in time. 

"NASA and its contractors have made progress, including completing several important milestones, but they still face multiple challenges," the GAO noted. "As a result, GAO found that the Artemis III crewed lunar landing is unlikely to occur in 2025."

Starship to the Moon? Let's get to orbit first

Perhaps the most high-profile delays have come out of SpaceX, which has been manufacturing Starship and its plans to build a variant for NASA's Human Landing System program. 

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A lot of work is needed to get Starship ready for a successful launch: it has so far failed to reach Earth's orbit in tests. Rocket science is hard and all that.

Assuming Starship is used for the super-ambitious Artemis III mission, the Starship Human Landing System (HLS) will hopefully eventually reach Earth's orbit unmanned, at which point it'll be fueled for a trip to the Moon via an orbital propellant depot. The depot, also being designed by SpaceX, will itself need multiple tanker launches to fill up before Starship HLS can be refueled in orbit. 

Once topped-up in space, the Starship HLS will rendezvous with astronauts in orbit of the Moon and take them down to the surface. Those humans are expected to get over to our natural satellite using NASA's Space Launch System and Orion crew capsule.

"NASA documentation states that SpaceX has made limited progress maturing the technologies needed to support this aspect of its plan," the GAO reported. 

"SpaceX used more than 50 percent of its total schedule to reach PDR [preliminary design review] in November 2022," the GAO explained. "On average, NASA major projects used about 35 percent of the total schedule to reach this milestone."

SpaceX, run by the stable genius Elon Musk, is also taking longer than expected to reach what the GAO calls key decision point (KDP) C – when NASA will make its final decision on the viability of the corporation's designs – meaning the Musketeers' work on the project has carried on without formal approval of cost or schedule.

"The HLS program plans to use nearly 14 percent more of its total schedule to proceed from PDR to KDP C while on average NASA major projects used just 4.2 percent more of their schedule to achieve KDP C," the GAO observed. 

Overall, SpaceX and the HLS program have delayed eight out of 13 key events for program completion by between six and 13 months, the GAO discovered. At least two of the remaining key events will take place in 2025 – the year the Artemis III mission is scheduled to take place. Auditors said eight key events still need to take place between November 2023 and mission liftoff if the schedule is to be kept.

Those delays mean "NASA will have a relatively short amount of time to ensure that the HLS complies with human spaceflight safety requirements before the mission start" – not a reassuring thing to keep in mind if you're one of the Artemis III crew.

"If the HLS development takes as many months as NASA major projects do, on average, the Artemis III mission would likely occur in early 2027," the GAO said. 

SpaceX didn't respond to questions for this story.

And then there's the Moon suit

Axiom, which was announced as the vendor selected to develop space suits for use on the Moon by Artemis astronauts, has made progress and met several milestones, but "is still in the early phases of development," the GAO noted. 

NASA's life support requirements for the suit, for example, required revisiting because NASA's reference design "did not satisfy the requirement to make the suit capable of storing" 60 minutes of emergency oxygen. Building this capability may end up taking additional time, depending on the amount of work required. Axiom is also making changes to the modular nature of the suit to prevent supply chain and obsolescence issues, which again will make the deadline harder to hit. 

The timetable for Axiom's suit development indicates a preliminary design review was supposed to take place this month, but it's not clear if that's happened yet. We reached out to Axiom, but didn't hear back. Still, a working space suit is the least of Artemis III's problems – natty duds don't amount to much if you don't have a slick ride to go wear 'em in. 

Subsequent tests of the SpaceXHLS and its associated systems were relying "on successful completion of a second Orbital Flight Test" of SpaceX's Starship. That second test happened a little more than a week ago, and was just as explosive as the last one in April. Pieces of the rocket are now in the Atlantic after the launch failed.

In addition, NASA has its own cross-program issues to iron out – like HLS hardware and software integration, and dealing with lunar dust contamination. For integration work, NASA reported in July that the pace of HLS development hasn't aligned with Orion crew capsule program integration milestones, which also threatens to delay Artemis III. 

Amidst all those problems, "NASA stated that it is reviewing the Human Landing System schedule," the GAO concluded – so don't expect to tune into another historic Moon landing in late 2025. ®

Updated at 16.34 on December 6, 2023, to add:

A spokesperson at Axion Space told us it "generally agrees" with the findings of the GAO report.

"Axiom Space is actively engaged in innovative work to develop and refine spacesuit technologies to meet the demanding requirements of space exploration. While the team is taking numerous steps to reduce risk, to date, Axiom Space has met/exceeded all milestones in support of current requirements and is on track to continue delivering for NASA."

Asked if it had addressed the engineering challenges outlined in the report, Axiom Space described this as "forward work".

"Significant engineering work is required to ensure a high level of safety, reliability, and performance in the design".

The company told us it has "complete confidence that our spacesuit design will be ready in support of the Artemis III mission. Final production is dependent in part on overcoming challenges such as supply chain, as identified in the GAO report."

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