NASA’s ambitious plan to put humans back on the moon in 2025 is “unrealistic” according to an audit undertaken by the US Government Accountability Office.
The GAO provides non-partisan information to American lawmakers and is described as “the investigative arm” of Congress.
It completed an audit of NASA’s Artemis program, which last year undertook its first space mission by putting the Orion Spacecraft into orbit around the Moon.
NASA’s plan – through three Artemis missions – is to eventually return humans to the lunar surface and establish a base for scientific operations. Artemis II is the next scheduled mission, due for November 2024, which will put NASA astronauts into lunar orbit. Artemis III was due for landing on the surface in December 2025.
In its report, the GAO found NASA is dealing with multiple internal and contractor-based challenges, particularly in the development of its lunar lander and spacesuits. Astronauts are therefore unlikely to set foot on the Moon in December 2025.
In particular, the GAO found NASA’s “ambitious schedule” – 13 months shorter than average for NASA’s biggest projects – is unrealistic.
In a statement, it said, “the complexity of human spaceflight suggests that it is unrealistic to expect the program to complete development more than a year faster than the average for NASA major projects, the majority of which are not human spaceflight projects.”
Delays in developing the Human Landing System (HLS) that will transport astronauts to the surface and back from the orbiting Orion spacecraft, were also singled out. Elon Musk’s SpaceX was awarded the US$1.15 billion contract to deliver the HLS, which will be a modified version of the Starship system also being tested for Mars exploration. So far, 8 out of 13 key milestones have been delayed as part of the Starship HLS development. Two orbital flight tests have also ended in the destruction of the Starship.
GAO found “a large volume of remaining work” remains for SpaceX to support the lunar landing program.
But SpaceX isn’t the only contractor struggling to meet expectations. Axiom Space, commissioned to develop highly specialised spacesuits for NASA’s astronauts, still needs to complete “significant work” to resolve existing design challenges, including revisions to provide the “minimum amount of emergency life support” required for the mission.
Based on typical timeframes for advanced NASA missions, GAO expects Artemis III would lift off no earlier than the start of 2027.