NASA's Artemis lunar landing mission likely delayed until '2026 at the earliest'

  • 04/03/2022
Part of the rocket for NASA's Artemis moon mission
"We found that the first four Artemis missions will each cost US$4.1 billion per launch." Photo credit: Getty Images

NASA's Artemis project to get humans back on the lunar surface looks likely to be delayed again amid cost blow-outs and development problems.

In November 2021, NASA administrator Bill Nelson announced that the Trump administration's goal of a 2024 moon landing wasn't "technically feasible", moving the target to 2025.

That was partly due to the lawsuit between Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin and NASA over a contract awarded to Elon Musk's SpaceX for a lunar lander.

In an appearance before the House Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee earlier this week, however, NASA inspector general Paul Martin said plans were likely to slip further.

"Given the time needed to develop and test the human landing system and NASA's next generation spacesuits, we estimate the date for a crewed lunar landing likely to slip to 2026 at the earliest," he said.

The Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU) spacesuits were another factor in the original delay from 2024 to 2025.

In a report last August, the space agency's Office of Inspector General (OIG) signalled that 2024 was "all but impossible", highlighting "significant challenges" with production of flight-ready xEMUs.

"A flight-ready suit remains years away from completion. NASA officials expect to spend over US$1 billion on design, testing, qualification, and development efforts before two flight-ready suits are available for use."

Budget reductions, technical problems, supply chain issues and difficulties with 27 different companies supplying components had all contributed to the delay.

The cost for the Artemis missions have also spiralled.

A recent audit of the Artemis project found US$40 billion had already been spent with another US$93 billion expected to be spent through to the end of 2025.

The launch prices have also increased eightfold since they were first announced in 2021.

Back then it was estimated each launch would cost around US$500 million.

"We found that the first four Artemis missions will each cost US$4.1 billion per launch, a price tag that strikes us as unsustainable," Martin told the subcommittee this week.

That doesn't include development costs, he said, only ground operations and production costs.

Part of the blame was also put on Boeing, one of the contractors used by NASA, as well as its own management of the project.

"We did see very poor contractor performance on Boeing's part. Poor planning and poor execution," Martin said.

"We saw that the cost-plus contracts that NASA had been using work to the contractors rather than NASA's advantage, and for NASA's part we saw poor project management and contract oversight."