NASA defends Artemis cost and schedule amid possible planning changes

WASHINGTON NASA Administrator Bill Nelson defended the cost and schedule performance of the agency’s Artemis lunar exploration effort, even as officials hinted at the possibility of changes in a future mission.

In a May 23 hearing, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (DN.H.), chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Commerce, Judiciary and Science subcommittee, pressed Nelson on the costs associated with Artemis and suggested that the agency compile an independent review of these costs.

She asked Nelson to outline what NASA is doing to hold contractors accountable for cost overruns and schedule delays, including whether the agency has withheld payments to contractors for those overruns. She did not cite specific cases with Artemis, but past studies of overall program costs, including an estimate by NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) that each of the first four Space Launch System/Orion launches it will cost $4.2 billion.

Nelson said companies are locked into paying premium fees if their performance falls short. He also highlighted NASA’s use of commercial partnerships in Artemis, such as the Human Landing System program that uses fixed-price contracts.

Given the high cost, has NASA considered an independent review board for exploration? Sheheen asked, citing the benefits of independent reviews of the James Webb Space Telescope program when it encountered additional overruns and delays late in its development.

Nelson argued that such a review was not necessary. We constantly have other eyes on Artemis, he said, citing reviews by the OIG as well as the Government Accountability Office. The fact is, when you go to the moon to go to Mars, it’s hard.

NASA officials have, in fact, expressed dissatisfaction with the level of external control over Artemis. The agencies’ response to the OIG’s most recent audit of Artemis, regarding the agencies’ readiness for the Artemis 2 mission, complained that the OIG had not found any issues it was not already addressing and that working with the auditors caused disruptions to the flow. ongoing work and priorities for those working on the next mission.

The Artemis 2 mission remains on schedule for a September 2025 launch, a realistic date, Nelson told the subcommittee’s ranking member, Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), despite ongoing work on the Orion heat shield and other technical issues. . Nelson emphasized, however, that we don’t fly until it’s ready.

This would be followed in September 2026 by Artemis 3, the first crewed landing. Artemis 3, if you compare it to the Apollo program, is a combination of Apollo 9, 10 and 11, he said. It’s a tall order and, if we land, it’s up to SpaceX to have their lander ready.

Nelsons use of if for an Artemis 3 landing raised a few eyebrows. Nelson said that SpaceX has reached all of their milestones so far in the development of the lunar lander version of their Starship vehicle that will be used on Artemis 3. However, agency officials have publicly questioned SpaceX’s ability to ready the Starship lander on time, and have suggested that NASA may change the Artemis 3 mission if the Starship is behind schedule. There have been more recent reports that NASA is considering options for Artemis 3 that cannot achieve a crewed lunar landing.

The issue came up during an online session of the Lunar Surface Science Workshop on May 23. We are fundamentally focused on Artemis 3 being a human lunar return mission, said Mike Sarafin, NASA’s Artemis 3 mission manager, when asked about possible alternative mission profiles.

However, he admitted that the agency was working on alternative concepts. If we run into problems, we can choose a base, he said. We do what-if exercises internally, but he didn’t reveal what might trigger an offframp or what those alternatives would detail.

Sarafin stated that NASA was closely monitoring the series of tests ahead for Starship, including one planned for next year to demonstrate the transfer of fuel between two Starship vehicles, a key technology needed to refuel the lunar Starship. If any of them show results that are unsatisfactory, he said of those tests, we will absolutely take more time.

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