Published: Friday, 04 March 2022 17:43
While NASA expects to land astronauts on the moon on the Artemis 3 mission in 2025, other witnesses at a March 1 hearing expected that to be delayed by at least one or two years. Credit: SpaceX
WASHINGTON — Members of Congress, concerned about growing costs and slipping schedules, pressed NASA for more details about the management and overall strategy of the agency’s Artemis lunar exploration plan.
At a March 1 hearing by the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, members of both parties said they were impatiently waiting for long-promised plans from NASA on how Artemis will be managed while ensuring it supports eventual human missions to Mars.
“By all accounts, Artemis is facing significant challenges. The advisory boards, reviews and audits are sounding warnings,” said Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), chair of the subcommittee. “Schedule delays and cost growth years in the making, a confusion mishmash of contract types and untried approaches to organizations and management are just a few of the concerns that have been raised.”
Members heard about those concerns from three organizations that have raised them. Witnesses from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) and NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) all recapped issues they previously discussed on topics such as how Artemis is managed to how much it will cost.
NASA Inspector General Paul Martin, for example, summarized findings from a report his office published in November on delays and cost accounting, including an estimate that each of the first four Artemis missions will cost $4.1 billion in production costs alone for the Space Launch System, Orion and ground systems. That, he said, is “a price tag that strikes us as unsustainable.”
Both OIG and GAO have warned about schedule delays that make it doubtful that NASA can return humans to the lunar surface in 2025 on the Artemis 3 mission as currently projected by the agency. “The Artemis 3 schedule remains challenging,” said William Russell, director of contracting and national security acquisitions at the GAO, citing in part a seven-month delay in starting work on NASA’s Human Landing System award to SpaceX because of legal challenges. “It increases schedule risks as the program already planned to develop and launch the system months faster than other spaceflight programs and will need to mature critical technologies along the way.”
Patricia Sanders, chair of ASAP, reiterated concerns by her panel about how NASA is managing Artemis. “NASA should manage Artemis as an integrated program with top-down alignment, and designate a program manager endowed with authority, responsibility and accountability, along with a robust bottoms-up collaborative feedback process,” she said.
Members like Beyer said they were surprised that Artemis was not formally considered a program but instead a “campaign” of missions using a collection of programs. NASA has resisted creating an overarching Artemis program along the lines recommended by ASAP.
Jim Free, NASA associate administrator for exploration systems development, said he is establishing an “Artemis campaign development division” that would provide centralized oversight of Artemis missions. “It will run all of our Artemis missions. There will be a mission manager for every single mission,” he said. “They will understand the requirements of the mission, the goals of the mission, and will be responsible for tracking the hardware through its development and bringing it together.”
Free’s exploration systems development mission directorate, still being formally established from last year’s split of the former human exploration and operations mission directorate, has made some management changes. NASA announced Feb. 28 that Catherine Koerner, previously Orion program manager, will be deputy associate administrator. Free announced just as the hearing started that Mark Kirasich, who had led the directorate’s advanced exploration systems division, will now be deputy associate administrator for the new Artemis campaign development division.
Other members pressed for details about the overall plan for the Artemis effort. “NASA needs to provide us with an updated plan, a precise timeline and a realistic budget,” said Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), ranking member of the full committee. “Simply put: tell us how long it will take, how we will do it and how much it costs. The Artemis program must be NASA’s highest priority.”
Free, asked by Lucas about the status of those plans, said it would be a priority of the new Artemis campaign development division. “We have a longer-term architecture we’re trying to put the final details on by the end of this year,” he said, along with work on new budget proposals.
He emphasized that development of those plans is driven by what’s needed to support later human missions to Mars. “Our ultimate goal is putting people on Mars,” he said. “It’s getting two people to Mars, on the surface for 30 days, getting them there and back safely. Everything we do should be driven by that on the moon.”
He said later that includes testing technologies in the moon’s partial gravity, from spacesuits and habitats to power systems. “When we talk about adding elements to our lunar architecture, it’s always about how does that play forward into what it can do on Mars.”
Beyer, though, wondered if some of the recommendations of the witnesses went too far, such as a recommendation by OIG of a full life-cycle cost estimate for Artemis. “Is there any sense that would terrify the American public and shut down the public like this?” he asked, by putting a single large price tag on the program.
“The politics of it I will leave to you and the members of the committee,” responded Martin. “We just think, operationally and strategically, it’s in NASA’s best long-term interest to have an idea, when they’re presenting whatever, be it Artemis or be it the James Webb Space Telescope, to have a detailed and accurate life-cycle cost estimate so you know what the American taxpayer is buying.”
Lucas asked the witnesses their estimate of when NASA will land astronauts on the moon. Free stuck to NASA’s current schedule of 2025. “That’s based on how I see the hardware coming together for the suit and the landers, and Orion and SLS,” he said.
The other witnesses were more pessimistic. “Based on our current work, we say no earlier than 2026,” Martin said, based on work on the spacesuits and lander. “It could be later.”
“Even 2025 may be optimistic,” said the GAO’s Russell. “2025 is not impossible but it seems improbable given the current situation.”
“We don’t think it’s impossible, but it’s s stretch goal,” ASAP’s Sanders said of a 2025 landing. “It’s sometimes good to have stretch goals in terms of your schedule but you need to be realistic as well.”
“From our perspective, the 2025 date is certainly on the optimistic stretch-goal side,” said Dan Dumbacher, executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and a former NASA official. “The 2025 to 2027 time frame is probably realistic with the right focus and the right resources.”
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