It’s unlikely NASA’s orbiting gateway around the moon will be there in 2024 when the space agency plans to start sending astronauts back to the lunar surface, according to a new report from the NASA Office of Inspector General.
The lunar Gateway -- a small space station around the moon-- is a key part of NASA’s Artemis program that will provide a location for spacecraft to deploy down to the surface of the moon with astronauts.
NASA’s OIG is an independent organization and is performing several audits of the Artemis program. On Tuesday, the OIG released the first in a series examining the Gateway schedule, funding, costs, contract negotiations and technical risks.
Gateway consists of two main parts: the Power and Propulsion Element, or PPE, which powers and propels the station in orbit around the moon, and the Habitation and Logistics Outpost, or HALO, a docking location for the Orion astronaut capsule as well as living and working spaces.
[READ THE REPORT: NASA’s management of the Gateway Program for Artemis missions]
The OIG audit found both pieces have been negatively impacted by NASA’s “still-evolving Gateway requirements,” including the decision to launch two pieces on the same commercial rocket instead of on two rockets as originally planned.
The PPE is at least 17 months behind its original completion date of December 2022 and HALO is two to five months behind schedule, according to the OIG report. NASA’s decision to launch the two pieces together also meant the PPE contractor Maxar was forced to terminate a contract with SpaceX, which the company had already paid $27.5 million for launch services, a portion of which was paid by NASA.
Northrop Gruman was awarded the HALO development contract and plans to spend $200 million by January 2021, but the OID expects an increase in cost because of undefined requirements for the habitation module.
The OIG found that launching the two elements together also increases the risk because the pieces may be too heavy for commercially available rockets.
With both of these elements needed for Gateway, the orbiting space station will likely not be in place for the first 2024 astronaut lunar landing.
The OIG also examined whether the coronavirus pandemic has played a role in delaying Gateway progress. According to the report, COVID-19 is primarily impacting in-house work on the lunar spacesuit development and “to a smaller extent” the PPE and HALO.
For example, spacesuit delivery is likely delayed from March 2023 to June 2023. However, COVID-19 delays for the spacecraft design and development are still being assessed for subcontractors.
The OIG made eight recommendations to NASA, all of which NASA’s head of Human Exploration and Operations Kathy Lueders responded to and agreed with the recommendations in a letter to the OIG.