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GAO: NASA Lunar Programs: Significant Work Remains

By Marc Boucher
May 27, 2021
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GAO: NASA Lunar Programs: Significant Work Remains

GAO: NASA Lunar Programs: Significant Work Remains, Underscoring Challenges to Achieving Moon Landing in 2024
Marc’s note: With the current budget process and timelines, does anyone seriously believe a human landing will happen in 2024 anymore?
What GAO Found
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has initiated eight lunar programs since 2017 to help NASA achieve its goal of returning humans to the Moon. NASA plans to conduct this mission, known as Artemis III, in 2024. NASA has made progress by completing some early lunar program development activities including initial contract awards, but an ambitious schedule decreases the likelihood of NASA achieving its goal. For example, NASA’s planned pace to develop a Human Landing System, shown below, is months faster than other spaceflight programs, and a lander is inherently more complex because it supports human spaceflight.

NASA also faces technical risks. For example, the Gateway–which NASA is developing to be an outpost orbiting the Moon–will rely on power and propulsion technology that has never before been used, and contractor efforts to develop the technology are behind schedule. NASA officials said they do not have a technology backup that would meet mission requirements. GAO best practices for technology assessments state that if a technology is not adequately mature, management should assess off-ramps at milestones. For this program, off-ramps would include potentially reducing the amount of power the system is required to provide to the Gateway or reassessing the schedule to allow for more time to develop the technology. NASA risks costly design changes or delays if the agency does not identify off-ramps before committing significant resources.
NASA has not fully addressed management challenges related to its lunar programs that were identified in a 2020 NASA-sponsored study. For example, GAO found that NASA assigned Artemis mission roles and responsibilities to specific divisions in response to a study finding; however, the agency has not clearly documented how it determined what key programmatic and technical tools it plans to use to guide mission decision-making. Without doing so, NASA cannot ensure that it has the appropriate processes in place to track how the missions will achieve objectives and address risks at the mission level.

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