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New report suggests NASA's moon shot timeline could be in trouble

Artist's illustration of an SLS rocket launch.
Artist's illustration of an SLS rocket launch. Image: NASA

NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) mega rocket and the Orion spacecraft — designed to take people to deep space destinations like the Moon and Mars — are facing possible delays and cost overruns, according to a new independent report released Wednesday.

Why it matters: Orion and SLS are key elements of NASA's planned Artemis mission, which is the Trump administration's plan to bring astronauts back to the surface of the Moon by 2024. If development of the rocket and spacecraft experience further delays, the agency may not meet that deadline, according to the Government Accountability Office report.

Details: "NASA is unlikely to meet its recently revised launch date for the first test flight," the report says. "In addition, its reporting of cost growth for SLS and Orion is distorted."

  • NASA has been working toward launching the Orion and SLS together for the first time in June 2020.
  • The report, however, suggests that date is unlikely to be met and could slip to as late as June 2021 if issues are found during testing.
  • The GAO also found that the SLS's cost has grown by about $1.8 billion.
  • Assuming it's completed and launches successfully, the SLS would be the most powerful rocket NASA has ever built.

Between the lines: NASA has looked into using a privately built rocket — like SpaceX's Falcon Heavy or ULA's Delta IV Heavy — for deep space exploration, but the agency decided to move ahead with the long-delayed SLS program instead.

The intrigue: The report also suggests that NASA re-evalulate how the agency incentivizes its contractors due to cost overruns and delayed schedules.

  • "NASA paid over $200 million in award fees from 2014-2018 related to contractor performance on the SLS stages and Orion spacecraft contracts," the report reads. "But the programs continue to fall behind schedule and overrun costs."

Background: Orion and the SLS have both experienced major delays and technical issues through the course of their development. The SLS, for example, was expected to fly for the first time in 2017.

  • The Artemis program itself is expected to cost at least $20 billion to $30 billion, according to NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine.
  • NASA asked Congress for $1.6 billion to fund the moon shot this year in an amended budget request, but Congress has been reluctant to grant NASA such funds without knowing what the total program will cost.