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GAO Highlights Shortcomings for Artemis III

An artists render of the Starship HLS system on the lunar surface, as it would appear during the notional Artemis III campaign.
Credit: NASA/SpaceX

On November 30th, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report detailing the various challenges remaining for SpaceX, Axiom, and NASA as they work towards the goal of landing the first woman and person of color on the lunar surface as part of the Artemis III mission. This report reveals the apparent lapses in both communication and technical readiness across the program – highlighting the Starship Human Landing System (HLS) and Axiom’s lunar spacesuits as major areas of concern. The report goes on to stress that if these issues are not tackled, the Artemis program may not meet the agency’s current landing targets of 2025 – an outcome that now seems all too likely.   

NASA has been hard at work with industry partners since the announcement of the Artemis program, coupling private and public entities to mature technologies required for a sustainable lunar program. Under Artemis, in contrast  to other programs, commercial organizations were leveraged for their skill sets to mature technologies such as cryogenic propellant management, suit development, and delivery of systems to the lunar surface. While programs such as Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, which fed into the routine resupply missions now sent to the International Space Station, were successful, many of the programs leveraged for Artemis are immensely high risk with relatively low technological readiness. This introduces great technical risk for the program, with multiple possible opportunities for delays and risk to emerge. 

Notably, the Human Landing System, currently in work by SpaceX, has been the subject of criticism, even after two flight tests. According to the GAO:

“As of September 2023, the Human Landing System program had delayed eight of 13 key events by at least 6 months. Two of these events have been delayed to 2025—the year the lander is planned to launch. The delays were caused in part by the Orbital Flight Test, which was intended to demonstrate certain features of the launch vehicle and lander configuration in flight. The test was delayed by 7 months to April 2023. It was then terminated early when the vehicle deviated from its expected trajectory and began to tumble. Subsequent tests rely on successful completion of a second Orbital Flight Test.”

Starship launches on its second Integrated Flight Test, which saw the booster and ship exploding in flight.
Credit: David Diebold

SpaceX flew their second Integrated Flight Test on November 18, 2023 – with both the booster and upper stage meeting a destructive end. Both elements, and their ability to be reused, are quintessential to the Starship architecture of low cost reuse, as they represent a fundamental shift away from expendability that has driven up cost in other vehicles. The failure to reach this milestone represents a slip of nearly 2 year shift from when SpaceX estimated their orbital flight tests would be completed. This, coupled with aggressive schedule compression, presents considerable risk for delivering the program on time and safely as the agency and SpaceX look to target 2025. The continued delays to completion of Starship’s orbital flight tests present a problem for NASA, which fears growing gaps in between flights may whittle away opinions in Congress.

In terms of scheduling, the GAO identified consistent slips in the HLS milestones, including failures to stay on track with expected design reviews. Events like Key Decision Points and Preliminary Design Review have not been met on a timetable that is concurrent with other NASA or commercial-partnered missions: 

“The HLS program is taking longer to reach KDP (Key Decision Point) C—the next key review after PDR (Preliminary Design Review)—than average for the NASA major projects we assessed. As a result, the HLS program is proceeding with development without formal approval of a cost and schedule baseline. Specifically, the HLS program plans to use nearly 14 percent more of its total schedule to proceed from PDR to KDP C while on average NASA major projects used just 4.2 percent more of their schedule to achieve KDP C…. SpaceX has also delayed several future program events that further compress the schedule. Since July 2022, the HLS program office and SpaceX delayed multiple key events from 2023 to 2024, meaning that many critical demonstrations and reviews will need to occur in the next 2 years to support an Artemis III mission as planned in 2025.”

This schedule slip generates a large degree of risk for the Artemis III timeframe and beyond, as the agency looks to ready their hardware and clear it for flight. Compression of schedules, notably on SpaceX’s end, could result in failures to identify programmatic issues that may arise, or technical gremlins that could compromise mission safety. This schedule crunch, compounded with a lack of baseline, paints an incomplete picture for when the program may achieve flight readiness.  

Notable within SpaceX’s HLS program is the need for multiple tanking flights to support a single launch campaign, described as being in the “high teens” at the most recent meeting of the NASA Advisory Council for Human Exploration and Operations. Achieving this number, when the system has yet to meet its Integrated Flight Test goals, is troublesome for the agency as they look towards preparing for the start of lunar sorties. One key aspect of Starship’s architecture is cryogenic fluid management, the careful maintenance and control of super-chilled fluids in space. The GAO highlights that:

“A critical aspect of SpaceX’s plan for landing astronauts on the moon for Artemis III is launching multiple tankers that will transfer propellant to a depot in space before transferring that propellant to the human landing system. NASA documentation states that SpaceX has made limited progress maturing the technologies needed to support this aspect of its plan.

A simplified concept of operations for SpaceX’s Starship HLS in conjunction with NASA’s Orion spacecraft.
Credit: GAO/SpaceX

Cryogenic fluid management, has not been demonstrated in space – and represents a fundamental hurdle to overcome. Before refueling can even take place, SpaceX must demonstrate the ability to launch multiple vehicles at once, proximity operations, and develop precision flight control software. Work on these kinds of systems within NASA has been ongoing for well over a decade with programs such as Robotic Refueling Mission 1 and 2, lessons from which SpaceX must now rapidly incorporate into their architecture if they are to demonstrate this capability in support of the Artemis Program. It is worth noting that Blue Origin, the second company contracted to build human rated landers as part of the Artemis Program, must also pass through all of these milestones and demonstrate these technologies as part of NASA’s campaign to leverage tech development for future Mars architectures. These milestones, while extreme in complexity, ensure high level work is completed on a variety of systems to reinforce the technological development aspect of the program as a whole. 

Another key milestone for HLS development work is the design and testing of Starship’s flight control software, which will have to link up with the NASA built Orion and Gateway spacecraft during crew sorties. This synergy across systems produced by a variety of contractors is crucial, and must be verified before flight. According to the GAO: 

“NASA officials said the Orion and HLS programs have made agreements to share four sets of emulator and simulator hardware and software and agreed to the details and exchange dates for each. However, in July 2023, NASA documentation stated that the HLS development pace does not align with Orion program integration milestones and could hinder the planned December 2025 launch readiness date.” 

This out of sync development poses a significant risk to the program in a number of ways. The failure to meet milestones in sync increases the likelihood of issues creeping into the system without being checked. The GAO report points to events such as Starliner OFT-1, which suffered major cascade failures across its flight software, and highlights similarities between the two program’s schedule for development. Such an event, if left unchecked, could result in a Loss of Mission or even Loss of Crew.  

SpaceX was not the only organization to fall under scrutiny within the November 30th report. NASA’s baseline designs for their space suit, which was handed off to commercial vendors as part of the xEVAS contract, was found to not meet certain requirements as part of operations on the lunar surface. 

“Axiom is leveraging many aspects of NASA’s prior work to develop modernized space suits, but significant work remains to resolve design challenges. For example, NASA’s original design did not provide the minimum amount of emergency life support needed for the Artemis III mission. As a result, Axiom representatives said they may redesign certain aspects of the space suit, which could delay its delivery for the mission.”

Axiom’s space suit for Artemis, AxEMU, has faced a redesign process due to miscommunication from NASA in design requirements.
Credit: NASA/Axiom

This redesign, at Axiom’s expense, represents a crucial misstep in communication on NASA’s part. This risk is present in all baseline designs, and adds extensive complexity as components are handed off to commercial entities. Axiom must now face the task of altering the suit to add safety margins, and doing additional work to prepare the suits for their expected debut on Artemis III.

There remains significant risk to the early days of NASA’s new lunar ambitions. The Artemis program, which has lofty ambitions of becoming a Moon to Mars program, is heavily contingent on laying down the framework early, and readying technologies that can be applied to a wide range of missions in the future. The Artemis Program is incredibly reliant on this system, and failures to deliver key elements of the program such as orbital refueling and flight control systems will ultimately result in extensive delays – and increases the potential risk for other powers to reach the Moon first. The GAO found that if development took as long as the average for NASA major projects, the Artemis III mission would likely occur in early 2027 – an early blow to the program’s cadence that could threaten to derail it. While Jim Free, the Associate Administrator of NASA and Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate head, has stressed that missions will fly with what hardware is ready, the lack of aforementioned equipment may delay the agency’s return to the Lunar surface until the very end of the decade. A failure to meet these goals could ultimately spell the end of the program and repeat several of the same mistakes of the long-defunct Constellation Program. The Artemis Program is ambitious, and represents a possibility for massive technological development, if every player is on the same page. It is crucial now more than ever to arrest these issues, and make difficult choices about the future of the Artemis Program.

Edited by Beverly Casillas and Emily B

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