UNITED STATES: A recent audit conducted by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has called for increased transparency from NASA regarding the costs and schedules associated with its Space Launch System (SLS) moon rocket.
The audit raises concerns about the affordability of the SLS program, NASA’s chosen rocket for the ambitious Artemis program, which aims to establish a permanent lunar presence by the end of the 2020s.
According to the GAO report, senior NASA officials have indicated that the current cost levels of the SLS program are deemed unsustainable. The report highlights that the program’s expenses exceed what NASA anticipates being available for the Artemis missions.
Since its initiation in 2011, NASA has invested $11.8 billion in the development of the SLS. After facing multiple delays, the rocket made its debut on November 16, 2022, successfully launching the uncrewed Artemis 1 mission to the moon.
In addition to the initial investment, the White House’s 2024 federal budget request allocates an additional $11.2 billion for future work on the SLS from 2024 through 2028. These funds are earmarked for enhancing the vehicle’s efficiency and increasing cargo capacity for lunar missions.
However, the audit reveals that baseline costs and schedules for this future work have not been established despite nearly a decade of concerns raised by the GAO. The report emphasizes that NASA does not plan to measure production costs, which is critical for monitoring the program’s affordability.
The audit also points out that NASA has not updated its estimates to account for increasing costs, particularly due to the delay of the Artemis 4 mission from 2026 to 2028. The report underscores the importance of establishing official cost baselines for accurate measurement of cost performance over time.
This latest scrutiny follows years of concerns regarding SLS costs, dating back to as early as 2014. While steps have been taken by NASA to implement strategies aimed at cost reduction, the GAO emphasizes that it is too early to assess their impact.
As the Artemis program moves forward, transparency and accurate cost assessments will be essential to ensure its success within budget constraints.