NASA Heads to the Moon Again but Only if It Fixes Its Problems
WASHINGTON — If there was a single lesson from a congressional hearing Tuesday on plans for a U.S. return to the moon, it is that space exploration remains filled with dangers, technical difficulties and enormous costs.
The difference between NASA’s Artemis project and previous moon landings is that this time astronauts plan a permanent habitation before moving on to Mars.
First, NASA must do a better job of arranging its budgets and timetables, according to lawmakers and witnesses at a House Science, Space and Technology subcommittee hearing.
“Advisory bodies, reviews and audits are sounding warnings,” said Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., chairman of the subcommittee on space and aeronautics. “Taken together, those warnings signal that the issues afflicting Artemis need serious attention by both Congress and the administration.”
Issues raised at the hearing are taking on greater importance as the first of 11 Artemis launches approaches its launch date.
It originally was scheduled for mid-March, then April. Last week, NASA announced the date is now set for May.
“We continue to evaluate the May window, but we’re also recognizing that there’s a lot of work in front of us,” a NASA statement said.
The mission to return people to the moon originally was scheduled for 2024, then 2025 and now looks like it might be 2026. A NASA inspector general’s report estimates the U.S. government will spend $53 billion on Artemis by the time astronauts step onto the lunar soil for the first time since Apollo 17 in 1972.
Getting upgraded space suits delivered from commercial suppliers is one of the holdups, NASA officials said. Supply chain and workforce problems from the COVID-19 pandemic added to the delays.
Other setbacks come from completing development of technology that humans have never used before. They include the heavy-lift Space Launch System, sometimes called “America’s rocket,” the Orion crew vehicle, human landing systems and the lunar orbiting Gateway station.
The ongoing confusion led the House subcommittee to take a closer look at Artemis.
Despite delays and budget overruns, bipartisan support for Artemis is strong.
“The moon is also a logical and achievable near-term goal,” said Rep. Brian Babin, R-Texas, which he said was part of the reason he wanted to clear up any doubts about management, schedules and budgets.
“We’re waiting for the right plan,” Babin said.
William Russell, who oversees government contracting reviews for the Government Accountability Office, said NASA recently reorganized its management team after complaints about a lack of coordination.
“It’s too early to tell the outcome of these efforts,” Russell said. “NASA will need to manage multiple risks seamlessly.”
The program is slated to establish an international expedition team on the moon, a sustainable human presence, extraction of lunar resources for return to Earth, the first female astronaut to set foot on another planet and crewed missions to Mars.
NASA is juggling efforts between multiple commercial contractors, the European Space Agency and several other countries.
Artemis I, scheduled for launch this spring, would be an unmanned flight to test the Space Launch System. Artemis III would be destined for a moon landing. Artemis V through Artemis VII would set up and use some of the infrastructure designed for a permanent habitation.
The same kind of warnings that have dogged space flight since the Mercury program in the late 1950s were repeated Tuesday at the congressional hearing by Dan Dumbacher, director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
“Space activities by their nature are extremely complex,” Dumbacher said. “A piecemeal, uncoordinated approach is doomed to failure.”
Tom can be reached at [email protected]
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