WASHINGTON—Questionable contracting procedures, unnecessary accounting problems, schedule delays and more than $2 billion in cost overruns are raising serious doubts about NASAs plan to return Americans to the Moon in late 2024, according to the agencys Inspector General (IG).
When NASA announced in 2019 the Artemis program to put American astronauts on the Moons surface in late 2024, the plan was to use the Space Launch System (SLS), a two-stage heavy lift rocket, to put the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle (Orion) into space.
That manned Moon return mission, Artemis III, was to be preceded by the unmanned Artemis 1 orbiting the Moon in November 2020 and the manned Artemis II orbiting the Moon in October 2022.
But SLS development has been plagued with problems involving three major contractors, including The Boeing Company, Aerojet-Rocketdyne, and Northrop Grumman, according to NASAs IG.
“NASA continues to struggle managing SLS Program costs and schedule as the launch date for the first integrated SLS/Orion mission slips further. Rising costs and delays can be attributed to challenges with program management, technical issues, and contractor performance,” the IG said in a report made public late March 10.
Preparations for Artemis I “have experienced technical challenges, performance issues, and requirement changes that collectively have resulted in $2 billion of cost overruns and increases and at least 2 years of schedule delays,” the report said.
The report said the IG expects “additional cost increases totaling approximately $1.4 billion … before the Artemis I launch,” which is now delayed until the Spring of 2021.
Total costs for the program through Artemis I were originally projected at $17.4 billion, but the IG said the many problems mean the bottom-line could reach nearly $23 billion if the second mission is delayed until 2023.
The problems with the SLS program begin with the contracts NASA signed with the three major contractors, the IG said.
“For example, the structure of the SLS contracts limits visibility into contract costs and prevents NASA from determining precise costs per element,” the IG said.
“Specifically, rather than using separate Contract Line Item Numbers (CLIN) for each elements contract deliverables, each of the contracts have used a single CLIN to track all deliverables, making it difficult for the agency to determine if the contractor is meeting cost and schedule commitments for each deliverable,” the IG continued.
“Moreover, as NASA and the contractors attempt to accelerate the production of the SLS Core Stages to meet aggressive timelines, they must also address concerns about shortcomings in quality control,” the report warned.
Management and quality control problems are of heightened concern in NASA because of the nature of space flight and the agencys record of occasional, but deadly accidents.
Three astronauts—Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Ed White—died in their Apollo I command module space craft Jan. 27, 1967 during a launch pad test at Cape Canaveral, Florida.
A subsequent NASA investigation found the command module had been pressurized with pure oxygen, which is highly flammable, as well as problematic wiring and plumbing.
The Washington Post reported in 2017 that Mark Grissom claimed his father “had concerns about the Apollo spacecraft before his death,” and that he was surprised when his father continued on the mission.