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NASA admits its SLS Artemis moon rocket costs are ‘unaffordable’

A newly released report from the Government Accountability Office urges NASA to work toward lowering costs for its lunar ambitions.

NASA's Artemis 1 unmanned lunar rocket lifts off from Kennedy Space Center at the start of its 25-day lunar mission - Copyright AFP Jim WATSON
NASA's Artemis 1 unmanned lunar rocket lifts off from Kennedy Space Center at the start of its 25-day lunar mission - Copyright AFP Jim WATSON

A newly released report from the Government Accountability Office urges NASA to work toward lowering costs for its lunar ambitions.

The development of NASA’s Space Launch Systems (SLS) mega-rocket began in November 2011, with a target date of 2016, as NASA aimed to put astronauts back on the moon.

The development of the SLS was the centerpiece of the Artemis Program, which aims to send astronauts back to the moon and one step closer to Mars by the end of the 2020s.

The SLS core stage rolling out of the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans for shipping to Stennis Space Center. Source – NASA, Public Domain

All along, NASA’s cost estimates have been very optimistic at each stage of the SLS’s development, with NASA deciding some time ago to monitor costs via the five-year production and operations cost estimate.

However, the GAO, in their report says these are poor tools to control costs, and NASA hasn’t even been consistent about updating the five-year estimates.

To date, NASA has spent $11.8 billion developing the SLS. The 2024 budget proposal includes another $11.2 billion to see the program through 2028.

In May this year, a 56-page analysis by NASA’s independent inspector general said “significant cost overruns and delays” could jeopardize the space agency’s lunar program as funds run low.” It was estimated the Space Launch System’s booster and engine are now projected to cost at least $13.1 billion over 25 years.

An artist rendering shows how engineers are designing NASA’s new rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS) to evolve from a Block 1 configuration to various configurations capability of supporting different types of crew and cargo missions. Source – NASA, Public Domain

And the GAO, in submitting its report to the Congressional committees that have jurisdiction over NASA’s budget was quite explicit in saying that “Senior NASA officials told GAO that at current cost levels, the SLS program is unaffordable.”

As it currently stands, Artemis II is on the books for late 2024, and the Artemis III moon landing follows in 2025. However, the GAO projects that Artemis II will launch no earlier than 2025, and Artemis III will be lucky to get off the ground in 2026.

The version of the SLS we have now isn’t even the final one. NASA hopes to move from the Block 1 design to more powerful Block 1B and Block 2 setups starting in Artemis IV and IX, respectively.

The GAO report does not attempt to estimate the cost of these design updates but notes that the creation of new components like the Exploration Upper Stage could be too expensive to fund.

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We are deeply saddened to announce the passing of our dear friend Karen Graham, who served as Editor-at-Large at Digital Journal. She was 78 years old. Karen's view of what is happening in our world was colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in humankind's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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