A plan by the U.S. National Space and Aeronautics Administration (NASA) to put humans back on the moon by 2024 could face delays after an audit review found numerous financial discrepancies in the budgeting of the project.
The audit report released on Tuesday for a congressional committee and compiled by the United States Government Accountability Office identified $1.8 billion in cost overruns and persistent delays in manufacturing as concerns which could push back the lunar mission.
The report comes just a month after NASA asked Congress an additional $1.6 billion as a down payment to boost the troubled project. Since the request, the space agency has revealed that a private Indian start-up will be developing the lander for the planned return to the moon.
SLS, the Most Powerful NASA Rocket Ever, Is Nowhere Near Completion
According to the recently released assessment, the cost overruns include $800 million that NASA obscured in previous reports to the government on the Space Launch System (SLS)—the flagship space vehicle and capsule supposed to ferry humans to the moon.
SLS was conceived by NASA as the most powerful rocket ever built, tasked with taking astronauts farther into space than they have ever gone before. American aerospace manufacturer and defense contractor Boeing was awarded the contract to design and build the SLS in 2012.
Since the approval, SLS has been beset with numerous delays and cost overruns. The audit review states that the cost of the project has gone up by almost 30 percent or $2 billion. Despite this, NASA has pledged $146 million to Boeing to keep the development on schedule.
The U.S. government review states that the program has not achieved desired outcomes despite fresh allocations. Reuters reports that NASA muddled facts about the project by shifting $800 million to future SLS missions in order to underreport the actual cost of the initial development.
A secondary contractor, the defense firm Lockheed Martin—which has been tasked with developing the Orion capsule to be launched aboard the SLS—was also given $87 million in an incentive scheme to keep the project on track for a 2020 test launch.
However, the report identifies several management concerns related to the project, in addition to the financial troubles, and comes to the conclusion that the test launch would have to be postponed to June 2021. Previously, NASA had announced that the SLS would be ready for a test launch in late 2017, which was later postponed.
Boeing reportedly shuffled the SLS team in 2018 and 2019 to address some of the concerns surrounding the project. Last year, the U.S. government agency pinned the blame of ballooning costs on Boeing, a claim rejected by NASA.
How Far Along Is the U.S. Mission to Put Boots Back on the Lunar Surface?
Although the initial plan to return to the moon was 2028, U.S. President Donald Trump in March announced that the date would be brought forward to 2024. Named Project Artemis, the project envisions a base on the moon to facilitate missions to other bodies in the solar system.
According to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, the space agency would need somewhere between $20-30 billion in order to accelerate progress on the mission. NASA has already asked the U.S. Congress for a $1.6 billion payment in this regard earlier this year.
As part of a strategy to bring down costs and improve time management, NASA has started building partnerships with private aerospace firms to help the lunar mission take off on time. Earlier in May, an Indian startup was revealed as the sole manufacturer of the moon lander.
Geopolitical Concerns Central to New U.S. Lunar Mission
The decision to speed up the lunar mission by the Trump administration comes as the U.S. tries to cope with deepening Chinese ambitions in space. In 2019, China landed a rover on the far side of the moon with resource extraction equipment onboard.
Emerging space powers like India and Israel have also planned unmanned probes to land on the lunar surface. Although the Israelis have failed, the Indian mission is expected to be launched in early July.
The race to mine and explore bodies of the solar system for resources rapidly diminishing on earth will likely bring considerable economic benefit to the country that manages to do it first, and the U.S. and China have even started deploying weapons to protect their space assets in order to prepare for a potential fight in this regard.