The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has released a report indicating that NASA’s highly anticipated Artemis III moon landing, originally scheduled for late 2025, is likely to be postponed until at least 2027. This delay is attributed to slower-than-expected progress in the development of both the Human Landing System (HLS) by SpaceX and new lunar spacesuits by Axiom Space. The report, released on November 30, provides a comprehensive analysis of the challenges and setbacks that have impacted the Artemis program, a cornerstone of NASA’s efforts to return humans to the lunar surface for the first time since 1972.
The GAO’s findings highlight several critical issues with the HLS development under SpaceX. The report notes that the project has encountered various challenges, including a condensed timeline, delayed development milestones, and extensive technical work still required. The report suggests that the pace of progress on HLS is slower than expected, with more than half the allocated schedule consumed just to reach the preliminary design review phase. This lag contrasts with the average progression rate for major NASA projects, which typically complete this phase within 35% of their overall timelines.
A crucial aspect of SpaceX’s HLS project is the Starship lunar lander. Despite the company’s efforts, the GAO report points out that SpaceX has had to postpone several key events from 2023 to 2024, further compressing the already tight schedule. Technical milestones yet to be achieved include the validation of Starship/Super Heavy’s Raptor engine performance and demonstrating the ability to transfer cryogenic propellant in space. The latter is a prerequisite for the critical design review of the Starship lander.
NASA officials, while acknowledging these challenges, have not disclosed specific details regarding the revised schedule for Starship’s HLS development submitted by SpaceX. Jim Free, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development, emphasized the interconnectedness of the lander’s development with other elements of the Artemis program during a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s human exploration and operations committee.
The GAO report also sheds light on the development of lunar spacesuits by Axiom Space. The report flags potential delays in this area, noting that Axiom is still in the early stages of suit development with a preliminary design review scheduled for November. Challenges include redesigning parts of the suit to meet NASA’s requirements for emergency life support capabilities and dealing with supply chain issues that could extend lead times for critical components.
GAO’s analysis underscores the ambitious nature of the Artemis III mission’s schedule. The HLS program aims to complete its development in 79 months, 13 months less than the average for NASA major projects. This condensed timeline, combined with the complexity of human spaceflight, presents significant hurdles. The report reveals that as of September 2023, the HLS program had delayed eight of 13 key events by at least six months, including critical tests that were postponed due to technical issues.
The challenges facing SpaceX’s development of the HLS include the need for advanced technical capabilities like in-orbit propellant storage and transfer. Similarly, Axiom’s effort to develop modernized space suits based on NASA’s designs faces its own set of design and development challenges.
In response to these challenges, NASA has implemented additional processes to ensure that SpaceX’s and Axiom’s systems meet mission requirements and maintain crew safety. This includes supplemental processes for system validation and insight clauses in contracts to maintain visibility into the contractors’ development work.
The GAO report is part of an ongoing assessment of NASA’s Artemis program, mandated by a House report provision. It aims to evaluate the progress in developing key systems for the Artemis III mission and to ensure that these systems will fulfill NASA’s needs and uphold safety standards.
This potential delay in the Artemis III mission represents a significant shift in NASA’s timeline for returning humans to the moon. The Artemis program, which is integral to maintaining U.S. leadership in space exploration and preparing for future missions to Mars, now faces the challenge of overcoming these development hurdles to achieve its historic objectives.