A Tale of Two Guesstimates: NASA OIG Report Says Artemis Moon Landing Could be Delayed by Years

Starship on the moon. (Credit: SpaceX)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

A new report from NASA’s Office of Inspector General says the agency’s plan to land two astronauts on the surface of the moon could be delayed by several years beyond the recently abandoned 2024 goal due to continuing problems in the Artemis program.

“NASA’s three initial Artemis missions, designed to culminate in a crewed lunar landing, face varying degrees of technical difficulties and delays heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic and weather events that will push launch schedules from months to years past the Agency’s current goals,” the report said.

“Given the time needed to develop and fully test the [Human Landing System] and new spacesuits, we project NASA will exceed its current timetable for landing humans on the Moon in late 2024 by several years,” the audit said.

Last week, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and other top space officials said the agency had abandoned the 2024 goal in favor of a no earlier than 2025 landing. They also said NASA was aiming to send an uncrewed Orion spacecraft on a test to the moon with the first flight of the Space Launch System (SLS) in February 2002. The OIG audit estimated the flight would likely take place months later in summer.

Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft on Pad 39B. (Credit: NASA)

The audit found that the second SLS/Orion flight with crew members aboard (known as Artemis II) won’t happen until mid-2024 at the earliest due to the need to reuse Orion components from the first flight.

The Artemis III mission is likely to be delayed due to HLS and spacesuit development issues. SpaceX is building the lander under a $2.9 billion contract.

“We found the HLS development schedule to be unrealistic when compared to other major NASA space flight 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,” the audit said.

“Further, while recent space flight programs have on average taken about 2 years between test and operational flights, SpaceX plans to launch its crewed HLS 1.2 years after its uncrewed demonstration mission. To their credit, the company’s rapid “design-build-fly” testing approach and in-house production facilities are unique capabilities that may allow for faster development and production timelines than previous NASA space flight programs,” the report said.

NASA issued a request for proposals on Sept. 29 for new Artemis spacesuits in an effort to deal with delays with the space agency’s efforts to develop new suits.

OIG criticized NASA’s cost accounting as inaccurate.

“NASA lacks a comprehensive and accurate cost estimate that accounts for all Artemis program costs. For FYs 2021 through 2025, the Agency uses a rough estimate for the first three missions that excludes $25 billion for key activities related to planned missions beyond Artemis III,” the report said.

The report’s Results in Brief and Management’s Response and Our Evaluation sections are reproduced below.

NASA’s Management of the Artemis Mission
Office of Inspector General
November 15, 2021
Full Report

Results in Brief

Why We Performed This Audit

The Artemis program seeks to return humans to the Moon by late 2024 rather than 2028 as initially planned. Faced with a shortened timeframe, an uncertain budget, and the nascency of the required development work, NASA implemented modifications to its routine procurement and program management practices in an attempt to accelerate the mission schedule and reduce costs. The Agency’s lunar strategy includes development of the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket, the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion) capsule, a Human Landing System (HLS) to transport astronauts from lunar orbit to the Moon’s surface, the Gateway outpost orbiting the Moon, next-generation spacesuits, and delivery of science investigations and technology demonstrations to the lunar surface by commercial landers.

Currently NASA’s most ambitious and costly activity, the Artemis program faces schedule, procurement, technical, and funding risks. This includes procurement of Artemis-related technologies and space flight hardware using research and development contracts that leverage commercial capabilities but require a Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) deviation for acquiring services and hardware. SLS and Orion have also experienced technical challenges in later development phases as well as the effects of COVID-19 restrictions and severe weather events. Additionally, the Gateway and HLS Programs received significantly less funding in fiscal year (FY) 2021 than required to meet NASA’s initial acquisition strategy.

As the second in a series of audits examining NASA’s Artemis plans, this report assessed the Artemis program’s schedule and projected costs as well as how the Agency’s acquisition and programmatic approaches facilitate landing astronauts on the Moon. To complete this work, we reviewed documents, systems, policies, and procedures pertaining to schedule, cost, budget, operations, acquisition strategy, and program/project management requirements related to Artemis, its programs, and contactors. We also reviewed contracts, interviewed NASA and contractor officials, and conducted site visits at SpaceX headquarters in California and its Starbase facility in Texas.

What We Found

NASA’s three initial Artemis missions, designed to culminate in a crewed lunar landing, face varying degrees of technical difficulties and delays heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic and weather events that will push launch schedules from months to years past the Agency’s current goals. With Artemis I mission elements now being integrated and tested at Kennedy Space Center, we estimate NASA will be ready to launch by summer 2022 rather than November 2021 as planned. Although Artemis II is scheduled to launch in late 2023, we project that it will be delayed until at least mid-2024 due to the mission’s reuse of Orion components from Artemis I. While the Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) Division—which includes HLS, Gateway, and next-generation spacesuits—is working on an integrated master schedule (IMS) for Artemis III that incorporates Exploration Systems Development (ESD) Division programs—SLS, Orion, and Exploration Ground Systems—the draft version does not include information on programs critical to Artemis that are outside of AES and ESD. Given the time needed to develop and fully test the HLS and new spacesuits, we project NASA will exceed its current timetable for landing humans on the Moon in late 2024 by several years.

In addition, NASA lacks a comprehensive and accurate cost estimate that accounts for all Artemis program costs. For FYs 2021 through 2025, the Agency uses a rough estimate for the first three missions that excludes $25 billion for key activities related to planned missions beyond Artemis III. When aggregating all relevant costs across mission directorates, NASA is projected to spend $93 billion on the Artemis effort up to FY 2025. We also project the current production and operations cost of a single SLS/Orion system at $4.1 billion per launch for Artemis I through IV, although the Agency’s ongoing initiatives aimed at increasing affordability seek to reduce that cost. Multiple factors contribute to the high cost of ESD programs, including the use of sole-source, cost-plus contracts; the inability to definitize key contract terms in a timely manner; and the fact that except for the Orion capsule, its subsystems, and the supporting launch facilities, all components are expendable and “single use” unlike emerging commercial space flight systems. Without capturing, accurately reporting, and reducing the cost of future SLS/Orion missions, the Agency will face significant challenges to sustaining its Artemis program in its current configuration.

Further, for HLS, NASA has modified its traditional acquisition approach for large space flight programs to reduce costs, encourage innovation, and meet an aggressive schedule for its Artemis lunar landings. While its acquisition approach relies on competition to drive down costs and ensure redundancy, the Agency selected a single provider—SpaceX—after receiving $2.5 billion less than requested for HLS development in FY 2021. To help compensate, the Agency is accelerating its Lunar Exploration Transportation Services procurement for sustainable, regularly-recurring crewed lunar transportation services, and in September 2021 awarded five HLS contracts for the continued development of sustainable HLS capabilities as a prelude to the competitive services procurement. Over the past year, NASA has worked to solidify its HLS requirements and standards, established insight and collaboration teams, and plans to establish resident offices at SpaceX. However, under NASA’s tailored project management approach, HLS will use less standardized milestone reviews and instead utilize other techniques such as annual synchronization reviews throughout development and testing, but this approach runs the risk of technical changes later in development. Finally, instead of using a systems integrator or Artemis program manager, NASA is establishing various collaborative processes including new boards and a multi-directorate council to facilitate the communication and approval process. The effectiveness of this approach remains to be seen. While these modified approaches have the potential benefit of decreasing costs and encouraging innovation, they also raise the possibility of schedule and performance risks on NASA’s human-rated systems.

What We Recommended

To increase accuracy, transparency, and safety of human space flight, we recommended NASA’s Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate: (1) develop a realistic, risk-informed schedule that includes sufficient margin to better align Agency expectations with the development schedule; (2) expand upon the existing draft Artemis IMS to include Artemis programs outside AES and ESD to properly align dependencies across directorates; (3) develop an Artemis-wide cost estimate and update it on an annual basis; (4) maintain an accounting of per-mission costs and establish a benchmark against which NASA can assess the outcome of initiatives to increase the affordability of ESD systems; (5) definitize outstanding Artemis-related contracts within 180 days in accordance with NASA FAR Supplement 1843.7005(a); (6) develop a realistic funding profile and schedule given the underfunding of HLS in FY 2021, selection of one HLS award, and desire to compete a sustainability contract for future lunar missions; and (7) identify measurable cost reduction targets for its ESD contractors. We also recommended NASA’s Chief Engineer in coordination with the HLS Program Manager: (8) validate annual synchronization reviews meet the intent and expectations of the milestone reviews replaced by the tailored acquisition approach, and the NASA Deputy Administrator in coordination with Mission Directorate Associate Administrators: (9) codify the remaining governance structure such as the Federated Boards and Joint Directorate Program Management Council.

We provided a draft of this report to NASA management who concurred with Recommendations 1, 5, 6, 7, and 8, and described planned actions to address them. We consider the proposed actions responsive for these recommendations and will close them upon completion and verification. In addition, the Agency partially concurred with Recommendations 2 and 9 and non-concurred with Recommendations 3 and 4. These four recommendations will remain unresolved pending further discussions with NASA.

Recommendations, Management’s Response and Our Evaluation

To increase accuracy, transparency, and safety of human space flight, we recommended NASA’s
Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate:

  1. Develop a realistic, risk-informed schedule that includes sufficient margin to better align Agency expectations with the development schedule.
  2. Expand upon the existing draft Artemis IMS to include Artemis programs outside AES and ESD to properly align dependencies across directorates.
  3. Develop an Artemis-wide cost estimate, in accordance with best practices, that is updated on an annual basis.
  4. Maintain an accounting of per-mission costs to increase transparency and establish a
    benchmark against which NASA can assess the outcome of initiatives to increase the
    affordability of ESD systems.
  5. Definitize outstanding Artemis-related contracts within 180 days in accordance with NASA FAR
    Supplement 1843.7005(a), Definitization (2018).
  6. Develop a realistic funding profile and schedule given the underfunding of HLS in FY 2021, the
    selection of one HLS award, and the desire to compete a sustainability contract for future lunar
    missions.
  7. Identify measurable cost reduction targets for its ESD contractors.

In addition, we recommended NASA’s Chief Engineer in coordination with the HLS Program Manager:

8. Validate that the annual synchronization reviews meet the intent and expectations of the
milestone reviews replaced by the tailored acquisition approach.

We also recommended that the NASA Deputy Administrator in coordination with Mission Directorate Associate Administrators:

9. Codify the remaining governance structure such as the Federated Boards and Joint Directorate
Program Management Council.

We provided a draft of this report to NASA management who concurred with Recommendations 1, 5, 6, 7, and 8; partially concurred with Recommendations 2 and 9; and non-concurred with Recommendations 3 and 4. We consider management’s comments responsive to Recommendations 1, 5, 6, 7, and 8 and therefore those recommendations are resolved and will be closed upon completion and verification of the proposed corrective actions. However, we found the Agency’s response to Recommendations 2, 3, 4, and 9 unresponsive. Consequently, those recommendations will remain unresolved pending further discussions with the Agency.

NASA partially concurred with Recommendation 2 to include Artemis activities across the various directorates as part of its IMS. During the course of our audit, NASA developed a schedule that includes both AES and ESD activities, but still lacks other important lunar activities such as the CLPS missions which intends to fly missions biannually to the Moon. While NASA tells us the Artemis missions are not dependent on these other activities, deconfliction of time, space, and resources is still needed as is integration of the essential information provided by these science investigations and technology demonstrations.

NASA also partially concurred with Recommendation 9 to codify its remaining governance structures. NASA agreed with codifying the Joint Directorate Program Management Council, a key decision-making and review authority for the Artemis missions. However, the Agency did not agree to codify the Federated Board because it is a coordination entity and does not make decisions. We learned late in this audit that NASA was in the process of reviewing the necessity of maintaining this Board. To the extent the Agency retains the Federated Board, we believe a charter is needed because such a senior level board can wield significant influence even if it does not have official decision-making authority.

Additionally, NASA non-concurred with Recommendations 3 and 4 that address the need to track the overall cost of the Artemis program and each individual Artemis mission. For Recommendation 3, the Agency states that Artemis-wide cost tracking is not required according to its policy and as such Agency officials are following best practices in providing cost estimates and commitments for Agency-approved programs and projects. Likewise, in response to Recommendation 4—tracking costs by mission—NASA maintains it should not account for costs on a per-mission basis because doing so would reduce contractual transparency to key stakeholders. While we appreciate the importance of tracking metrics aimed at managing individual contracts within specific projects, failure to track the overall cost of the Artemis program and each individual mission reduces insight into the actual costs of the Artemis program and, in turn, makes it difficult to assess the Agency’s progress in reducing costs.