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NASA's Artemis moon program facing rising costs and delays

NASA's "monster" moon rocket ready to fly
NASA's "monster" moon rocket ready to fly 04:00

NASA's Artemis moon program is estimated to cost nearly $93 billion through 2025, NASA's Office of Inspector General reported Monday. The first four flights of the program's giant SLS booster and Orion crew capsule will run in the neighborhood of $4.1 billion each, the OIG says.

The second in an ongoing series of audits examining the Artemis program concludes that the first unpiloted launch of a Space Launch System rocket and Orion capsule on a flight beyond the moon and back will slip into the summer 2022 timeframe.

The program's second flight, a piloted flight around the moon, will slip into 2024 while the first moon landing mission likely will not get off the ground until 2026, according to the OIG.

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An Orion crew capsule, covered by a protective launch shroud, is mounted atop a Space Launch System heavy lift booster inside NASA's Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center. An unpiloted test flight beyond the moon and back is planned for next year. NASA

NASA announced a revised timeline last week, saying an unpiloted test flight of the moon rocket and Orion spaceship is expected as early as February, followed by a piloted flight around the moon no earlier than May 2024 and the first landing sometime in 2025.

It was the first official acknowledgement by NASA that the Trump administration's 2024 target date for the Artemis 3 mission — the first moon landing — was no longer considered feasible.

The OIG, citing the original target date, painted a more pessimistic picture.

"NASA's goal to land astronauts on the moon's south pole in 2024 faces multiple significant challenges including major technical risks, an unrealistic development schedule and lower-than-requested funding levels," the Inspector General wrote. "As a result, the 2024 date will likely slip to 2026 at the earliest."

In addition, the OIG reported, legal challenges to a NASA contract awarded to SpaceX to build a new moon lander delayed work by six months and a follow-up lawsuit, both filed by rival Blue Origin, caused yet another delay.

On top of that, delays developing a planned lunar-orbit staging post known as Gateway "will likely preclude the lunar outpost's availability to provide communications and supplies for both the Orion and (the moon lander) during NASA's early moon landing missions."

NASA currently is preparing the first Space Launch System rocket and an Orion capsule — Artemis 1 — for launch on an unpiloted trip beyond the moon and back as early as February. The OIG expects that flight to slip several more months.

NASA officials said last week the cost of the SLS rocket development program through the Artemis 1 launch will run about $11 billion while the projected cost of Orion through the second Artemis flight will reach $9.3 billion.

But the OIG said the total cost of the program, when all relevant projects are added together, will run in the neighborhood of $93 billion through 2025.

NASA's search for a 21st-century lunar lander... 04:52

"We also project the current production and operations cost of a single SLS/Orion system at $4.1 billion per launch for Artemis 1 through 4, although the agency's ongoing initiatives aimed at increasing affordability seek to reduce that cost," the report said.

Breaking that down, The OIG said a single SLS rocket will cost about $2.2 billion to produce, including two solid-fuel boosters, four RS-25 shuttle-heritage first stage engines, the upper stage and other equipment.

Orion capsules, the report said, cost about about $1 billion to build, plus another $300 million for its service module, provided by the European Space Agency. Ground systems will cost another $568 million per year.

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NASA/OIG

"The $4.1 billion total cost represents production of the rocket and the operations needed to launch the SLS/Orion system including materials, labor, facilities and overhead," the OIG said. It does not include money spent on prior development, a docking system and other planned upgrades.

For comparison, an analysis by the Planetary Society put the cost of the Apollo program between 1960 and 1973 at approximately $28 billion, or roughly $280 billion when adjusted for inflation.

One factor in the high cost of Artemis is that other than the Orion capsule, subsystems and launch facilities, "all components are expendable and 'single use' unlike emerging commercial space flight systems," the Inspector General said.

"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."

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