A new federal report finds NASA’s plans to put astronauts back on the moon in 2025 via the multiphase Artemis program was overly optimistic to begin with and now, with multiple delays afoot, returning humans to the lunar surface appears more likely in 2027 at the earliest.
In an assessment published on Thursday, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that while NASA and its contractors had made progress since the auditing body’s last report in September 2022, “they still face multiple challenges with development of the human landing system and the space suits.” Auditors also noted failures in recent attempts at orbital tests of the SpaceX Starship rocket system slated to power NASA astronauts’ return to the moon are also contributing to extended timelines.
The GAO report underscored that NASA may have erred in its estimation of timelines for the planned advancements in the Artemis program, calculating shorter development windows than the agency has used in the past for less complicated projects.
“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,” the report reads. “GAO found that if development took as long as the average for NASA major projects, the Artemis III mission would likely occur in early 2027.”
Auditors also noted that NASA is making unprecedented use of third-party contractors to reach the goals established for the different phases of the Artemis program.
“To accomplish the Artemis III mission as planned by December 2025, NASA needs to develop, acquire, and integrate several new systems,” the report reads. “These include a system to transport crew to and from the lunar surface, and space suits for lunar surface operations. NASA is using a relatively new approach to acquire the human landing system and space suits that is intended to increase innovation and improve affordability.”
Those contractors include SpaceX, which is tasked with developing the system to get astronauts to the lunar surface and Axiom Space, the company working to develop a next-generation spacesuit for Artemis astronauts.
SpaceX also appears to be behind schedule in one critical aspect of the plan for landing astronauts on the moon for Artemis III. That is the development of a system to launch multiple tankers that will transfer propellant to a depot in space before transferring that propellant to the human landing system. Per the report, NASA documentation states that SpaceX has made limited progress “maturing the technologies needed to support this aspect of its plan.”
According to the GAO’s report, NASA has requested $12.4 billion over the next five years to develop the lunar human landing system and modernized space suits.
NASA successfully completed the Artemis I mission last December with a 25-day flight that utilized the massive Space Launch System rocket and Orion space capsule.
The crewless Artemis I mission allowed NASA experts to test the new SLS components, many of which had been repurposed from the old space shuttle program and other systems, as well as the Orion space capsule.
Artemis II, currently anticipated for sometime in 2024, will head to space with a four-person crew in the Orion capsule that will fly the craft around the moon in further testing. The Artemis III mission, which will include putting astronauts on the lunar surface, now appears to be slated for no sooner than 2027.
In a posting on the Artemis missions’ website, NASA lists a few reasons why it’s devoting billions of dollars to making moon landings, once again, a priority.
“We’re going back to the moon for scientific discovery, economic benefits and inspiration for a new generation of explorers: the Artemis Generation,” NASA says. “While maintaining American leadership in exploration, we will build a global alliance and explore deep space for the benefit of all.”
While a return to the moon smacks a little of “been there, done that,” NASA says it’s committed to accomplishing some other first benchmarks as part of the series of Artemis missions, including extending manned exploration deeper into the solar system.
“With Artemis missions, NASA will land the first woman and first person of color on the moon, using innovative technologies to explore more of the lunar surface than ever before,” NASA says in a web posting. “We will collaborate with commercial and international partners and establish the first long-term presence on the moon. Then, we will use what we learn on and around the moon to take the next giant leap: sending the first astronauts to Mars.”