NASA took a major hit this year with the coronavirus pandemic forcing the closure of 18 facilities. But an audit by the US space agency’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) has found NASA’s problems run deeper, with the agency “consistently struggling” to address issues raised over the last decade. The report has warned NASA it will be “hard-pressed” to return humans to the Moon by 2024, followed by crewed missions to Mars in the 2030s.
Under the guise of Artemis – the twin sister of Apollo – NASA has pledged to land the first woman and next man on the Moon by the year 2024.
NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine has said Artemis will create a sustained human presence on the Moon’s south pole by 2028, creating a stepping stone for humans to explore Mars.
Part of the programme envisions the creation of the Lunar Gateway – a small space station in lunar orbit that will serve as a science lab and short-term habitation module for future missions.
But the plans are looking increasingly shaky as the OIG report notes NASA is yet to make key decisions about the Gateway and the “Human Landing System”.
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Questions have also been raised about the future of NASA’s funding under President-Elect Joe Biden’s administration.
According to some reports, Mr Biden is expected to put space exploration on the back burner while his administration focuses on addressing climate change.
It has been suggested NASA’s goal of reaching Mars could be achieved but at a later date.
The OIG report has also raised questions about NASA’s ability to cope with the complexity of landing humans on the Moon in such a short timeframe.
The report reads: “Although NASA has made significant progress to further its human exploration efforts, many questions remain about the total cost, schedule, and scope of the Agency’s lunar ambitions.”
Earlier this month NASA said it was preparing for the last critical tests of the SLS’s core booster section.
The 212ft (65m) booster is powered by four RS-25 engines which have been repurposed from the Space Shuttle programme.
Strapped to the rocket’s side will be two solid-fuel boosters that will kick the SLS and its payload on a Moon-bound trajectory.
However, unlike SpaceX’s Starship and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles, for example, the SLS is entirely expendable, making each launch an extremely costly affair.
NASA hopes to launch the first Artemis mission aboard SLS next year on an uncrewed test flight of the Orion capsule.
The space agency boasted on Tuesday: “Under the Artemis program, NASA aims to land the first woman and the next man on the Moon in 2024 and establish sustainable lunar exploration by the end of the decade.”
However, as the OIG report states, NASA is need of “strong, consistent, sustained leadership” to make these dreams come to fruition.
The report states: “For its part, NASA must determine
the true long-term costs of its human exploration programs, set realistic schedules, define system requirements and mission planning, form or firm up international partnerships, and leverage commercial space capabilities.
“Over the past decade, our oversight work has found NASA consistently struggling to address each of these significant issues and the Artemis mission’s accelerated timetable will likely further exacerbate these challenges.”