NASA's Artemis Program Has Big Problems And Few Solutions

Keith's note: There was a media briefing today. NASA Administrator Senator Bill Nelson gave an Artemis update and guess what: everything is delayed and it will cost billions more than it was going to cost yesterday. Surprise.

Mostly Nelson blamed lack of NASA progress on Artemis on unrealistic schedules set by the Trump Administration (2024 etc.); the Blue Origin lawsuits; Congressional issues; and of course COVID. And, for good measure he threw in a Chinese threat he has been creating out of thin air saying that China may be landing humans on the Moon sooner than expected - without a single reference to substantiate his claim.

At no point did Nelson or anyone else from NASA accept any blame for things being years late and billions over budget either by NASA or its contractors. Instead there was a lot of happy talk from people reading words that someone else wrote in a monotone, disinterested tone of voice - not exactly the best way to inspire confidence among NASA employees and all of those stakeholder types that they "get it" at NASA. Nelson did say "we have to do better" but he never really defined who "we" is - and no one speaking on behalf of NASA today ever mentioned anything that was "better".

The obvious solution is to distract people from the obvious and split HEOMD into two new directorates since that will make everyone more efficient and happier. Next, NASA will somehow consolidate all SLS activities into a new single contract that sounds a lot like United Space Alliance from the Shuttle era. And of course everything is delayed. Artemis I will be launched no earlier than February 2022. Artemis II - the crewed lunar fly around mission - is now no earlier than May 2024. And there will be no flags and footprints on the Moon with Artemis III until some time in 2025. Oh and Nelson says that NASA still needs an additional $5.7 billion over the next six years to meet the 2025 date. If that additional money is not found then 2025 becomes unlikely and we're talking about 2026 - or beyond.

NASA wants to cut the cost of flying SLS to 50% of what it is now. So, you ask, how NASA is going to lower the SLS cost to 50% of whatever it is now - if we do not know what it costs - now? Pam Melroy was asked what the current cost is. She avoided answering that but said that NASA wanted to get the SLS per flight cost down to a $1 - $1.5 billion. If you apply a little logic that means that a SLS flight cost somewhere around $2 to $3 billion - but of course that is according to NASA's math using funny money.

Even if that SLS cost reduction aspirational goal is met, everything else associated with Artemis will still cost more. Because it always costs more. The new projected cost baseline for SLS/Orion - computed from from FY 2012 to the first crewed flight - will be dialed up from $6.7 billion to $9.3 billion. That is up by almost $2.6 billion from the earlier baseline. And then Nelson said that Congress wants a competition for human landers for the 10 or so landings in the notional Artemis storyline. And that is going to cost a lot of money too. Of course the promised windfall that Nelson thought he had discovered in the whole Infrastructure cookie jar never materialized for Artemis.

When asked about other ways to do this Jim Free, the new AA for the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate (ESDMD), said that using a direct landing by Starship would not work since the crew has to be launched on a SLS/Orion. OK. So launch the Artemis III crew on a Falcon-9/Dragon - and save some money while you are at it. Nelson added that there is "only one rocket that can do this - SLS/Orion". But he added that if anyone happened to know about another rocket to please give him a call.

Speaking of other rockets - the SpaceX Starship test flight will likely happen before SLS ever flies and it will be testing a precursor of the Artemis III human lander. But NASA wants you to keep your eyes on SLS - not on that shiny new Starship thing. That said Nelson and his 9th floor posse will be going down to SpaceX in Texas to see the other rocket as soon as they can i.e. next year. Why hurry?

As for the whole Artemis program itself Nelson says that it is being done so that we can learn how to live on Mars and that he expects NASA to send crews there by the end of the 2030s. Charlie Bolden used to say that we'd do this by the early- to mid-2023s. At the rate NASA is dragging its feet it will be the late 2040s/early 2050s.

Just sayin'.

P.S. If you thought today's Artemis news was fun just wait until tomorrow when the NASA IG office releases a report on NASA SLS.

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on November 9, 2021 5:37 PM.

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