NASA deliberately hid major cost overruns on the rocket program underpinning its plans to return astronauts to the moon, according to the federal government’s top watchdog agency.
The Artemis program is NASA’s effort to land astronauts, including the first woman, on the lunar south pole by 2024. (The Greek goddess of the hunt, Artemis is associated with the moon and is the twin sister of Apollo, the name of the original moon mission in the 1960s and ‘70s.)
Artemis will use the massive single-use Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and a crew capsule called Orion that will contain astronauts. The SLS is designed to transport Orion to the moon.
The inaugural launch of the two vehicles was scheduled for 2017, but it has been pushed back to next June.
A report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released Wednesday details how vague budgeting for the program has delayed tests, boosted costs and jeopardized the mission’s anticipated launch date.
“Congress and the public continue to accept further delays to the launch of the first mission without a clear understanding of the costs associated with those delays,” the report said of the SLS and its related programs.
The GAO contends that further delays could push the first launch back even more — to mid-2021. The watchdog also says that NASA underplayed costs associated with the delay, claiming they grew by only $1 billion and not $1.8 billion, as the GAO found.
Pressure has mounted for months on NASA and Boeing, which is building the SLS, to meet the 2024 launch deadline.
In March, Vice President Mike Pence, as head of the White House’s National Space Council, discussed the 2024 deadline and issued a stern warning to Artemis project contractors, including Boeing.
“If our current contractors can’t meet this objective, then we’ll find ones who will,” Mr. Pence said.
Hours after the GAO report was made public Wednesday, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg pushed back against the criticism, insisting that SLS is on track for its 2020 inaugural launch.
“First launch is next year,” he said. “We’re looking forward to making that happen. The first rocket is now about 80% assembled, and we’re going through the detailed system integration.”
Mr. Muilenburg spoke Wednesday at a conference at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston marking the 50-year anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon mission. He acknowledged that “the technology challenges are very significant.”
“These are very complex, sophisticated machines, so the technology itself is a challenge,” he said. “I think it’s manageable. It’s work we know how to do. But it’s tough, challenging work, and we have to do it in a way that ensures safety in the end.”
The Boeing chief added that maintaining political and funding support in Washington for a massive space project also presents a major challenge.
NASA’s official response to the GAO report made similar arguments — including that government investigators were overlooking the complexity of the Artemis mission’s efforts to build a very large rocket and a deep-space capsule.
“The GAO report does not acknowledge that NASA is building some of the most sophisticated hardware ever built,” wrote William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration.
While NASA did agree with a GAO recommendation that it needs to reevaluate incentives paid to Boeing and other contractors, Mr. Gerstenmaier also criticized the tone of the watchdog report.
“The GAO report repeatedly projects the worst-case schedule outcome,” he wrote. “The agency [NASA] does take exception to the unnecessarily negative language used in the report title and section headings and the lack of acknowledgment of progress the agency has made.”