WASHINGTON — The first crewed landing of NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration effort is unlikely to happen before 2027, a report by the Government Accountability Office concluded.
The GAO report, released Nov. 30, found that slow progress on both the Human Landing System (HLS) lunar lander being developed by SpaceX and new lunar spacesuits from Axiom Space would prevent NASA from achieving its currently goal of a late 2025 landing on the Artemis 3 mission.
Much of the report’s emphasis was on HLS development. SpaceX, the GAO concluded, “is facing multiple issues that limit this progress and jeopardize its ability to support an Artemis III mission in 2025.” Those issues include an “ambitious” schedule, delayed progress on its development to date, and significant technical work.
The GAO effectively argued that it was unlikely from the beginning of the HLS program that a Starship lunar lander would be ready by late 2025 given the time typically needed to complete any major project at NASA.
“We found that if the HLS development takes as many months as NASA major projects do, on average, the Artemis III mission would likely occur in early 2027,” the report stated. “The complexity of human spaceflight suggests that it is unrealistic to expect the HLS program to complete development more than a year faster than the average for NASA major projects, the majority of which are not human spaceflight projects.”
The report also noted that SpaceX’s work on HLS was going at a slower pace than projected, taking more than half the overall schedule to reach the preliminary design review milestone, versus an average of 35% for major NASA projects. SpaceX has delayed “multiple key events,” not specified in the report, from 2023 to 2024, compressing the remaining schedule.
The GAO report also flagged the “incomplete” first integrated test flight of Starship/Super Heavy in April. (The report noted, but did not assess, the second launch on Nov. 18, which fell outside the scope of the study.) Key technical milestones that remain outstanding are confirmation of the performance of the Raptor engine that powers Starship/Super Heavy and demonstration of in-space cryogenic propellant transfer. NASA officials told the GAO that the latter must be completed before the critical design review of the Starship lander.
NASA officials said in August that they received an updated schedule for Starship HLS development from SpaceX but the agency has not disclosed details about that schedule.
“Our overall schedule with them continues to be worked as they work off their technical milestones,” Jim Free, NASA associate administrator for exploration systems development, said of SpaceX’s HLS development at a Nov. 17 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s human exploration and operations committee. “We look at how the lander integrates with the rest of the program.”
At that meeting, he noted that the Starship lander was not the only new item being developed for Artemis 3. “Yes, the lander is absolutely important. We can’t go anywhere without it. But, we also can’t go anywhere without the suits.”
The GAO report also suggested potential delays in development of those suits by Axiom. The company is still in early stages of suit development, with a preliminary design review scheduled for November. As of Nov. 30, neither NASA nor Axiom had reported the completion of that review.
The report stated that Axiom planned to redesign portions of the suit, based on a design previously developed by NASA, to meet agency requirements that the suit provide 60 minutes of emergency life support capabilities. That could delay overall development of the spacesuit, it warned.
“Axiom’s remaining work to develop and procure suit components risks potential delays,” the GAO stated. That includes supply chain challenges, such as critical components from suppliers that have lead times of 12 to 18 months.