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Big delays mean trouble for NASA's Artemis

Earth rising above the moon.
Photo: NASA/JSC

Long-delayed NASA programs like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and Space Launch System (SLS) mega-rocket could threaten the space agency’s future missions, like the Artemis program to send people back to the Moon by 2024, according to an independent report released May 30.

Why it matters: NASA is asking Congress for an extra $1.6 billion above its original budget request for fiscal year 2020 to jumpstart Artemis.

  • However, according to the report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), NASA can’t afford more delays with the SLS if they want to meet the Trump administration's 2024 deadline.
  • NASA plans to use the SLS as a key part of its plans for the Moon, with multiple launches of the rocket expected ahead of a human landing.

Details: According to the GAO report citing NASA officials, it’s “unlikely” the SLS will see its first flight in 2020, as the space agency expects. That said, NASA is planning to use some of the extra funding requested for Artemis to continue developing and testing the SLS.

  • The GAO criticized NASA's continued cost overruns with the JWST, for example. That telescope is now expected to cost nearly $10 billion, $2 billion more than initially projected.
  • “I think the fact that Webb has been such a poison pill in the middle of NASA’s program still stands out,” Logsdon said. “Particularly NASA robotic science is paying a very high price for the problems with Webb.”

Yes, but: NASA “generally agreed” with the recommendations made, according to the GAO. However, history suggests the space agency may not implement them fully.

  • “We’ve had some very basic recommendations that we’ve been pushing for the past 10 years at least, and they can still be adopted more by NASA,” the GAO’s Cristina Chaplain said in a podcast about the report.
  • Those recommendations include being more "realistic" about the cost and schedules of large programs, being sure to update them along the way.
  • The GAO has also recommended that NASA be sure to include reserves in the human spaceflight systems programs to manage risk and potential cost overruns.