NASA struggles to make Artemis rocket costs affordable, government report says

At current cost levels, the rocket is unaffordable, officials say

The SLS rocket launches the Artemis I mission from Kennedy Space Center in November 2022.

ORLANDO, Fla. – Seniors NASA officials admit that at current cost levels, the Space Launch Systems rocket key to the Artemis moon missions is unaffordable, according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office.

It’s a problem NASA officials say they are working to better control, but the GAO says the agency still has not implemented its past recommendations, including plans to measure production costs to monitor affordability.

The report is the latest to criticize the cost overruns in the SLS rocket program, which grew from the original Constellation program 10 years ago and has long been criticized by space and budget experts for cost overruns and schedule issues.

It also comes as NASA and the Biden administration seek a $1.2 billion increase in the space agency’s budget from Congress.

NASA requested $6.8 billion for the programs used for the Artemis III mission. The GAO report says the SLS program itself accounted for 37% of that request, $2.5 billion.

The GAO says NASA created a rolling 5-year estimate of production and operations costs, but that is a “poor measure of cost performance” because it doesn’t track costs by Artemis mission or for recurring production items.

The Artemis I mission successfully launched and returned to Earth in November 2022. The uncrewed SLS rocket lifted off from Kennedy Space Center, and its Orion space capsule orbited the moon before returning to the planet. The mission’s trajectory actually traveled further in space than any human-grade spacecraft had ever traveled.

The Artemis II mission is expected to launch November 2024, sending four astronauts to orbit the moon. Artemis III is expected no earlier than 2025, with four astronauts landing on the moon.

However, NASA is also developing bigger components to sustain future missions after Artemis III. That includes upgraded SLS rockets to handle more power, and components for a sustained presence on the moon.

“NASA plans to spend billions of dollars to continue producing multiple SLS components, such as core stages and rocket engines, needed for future Artemis missions. These ongoing production costs to support the SLS program for Artemis missions are not captured in a cost baseline, which limits transparency and efforts to monitor the program’s long-term affordability,” said the GAO report.

NASA says it is taking four steps to improve the affordability of the SLS program:

  • Stabilize the flight schedule
  • Achieve learning curve efficiencies, such as getting contractors to be more efficient with hardware production
  • Encourage innovation
  • Adjust acquisition strategies

However, the GAO report says it’s too early to determine if these steps will lead to significant cost savings.

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Christie joined the ClickOrlando team in November 2021.