NASA Lunar Programs: Opportunities Exist to Strengthen Analyses and Plans for Moon Landing
In March 2019, the White House directed NASA to accelerate its plans to return humans to the moon by 2024—4 years earlier than NASA had planned.
To meet this new goal, NASA made some changes to its approach. But it is still pursuing an array of complex efforts, including a small platform in lunar orbit called the Gateway, where crew could transit to and from the moon. Some have questioned the path NASA is taking and NASA has not fully explained how it arrived at its plans. So we recommended that NASA document its rationale for these decisions.
We also recommended that NASA develop an official cost estimate for the 2024 lunar landing mission.
A Potential Configuration of the Systems Needed for 2024 Moon Landing
Illustration of components of potential moon landing system and the moon
What GAO Found
To support accelerated plans to land astronauts on the moon by 2024—four years earlier than planned—the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) quickly refocused its acquisition plans. In particular, NASA separated its lunar plans into two phases, with the first phase focused on the systems NASA identified to support the new timeline (see figure). One system, Gateway, includes three components—power and propulsion, habitation, and logistics—to form a small platform in lunar orbit.
Systems NASA Identified for the 2024 Moon Landing
NASA has begun making decisions related to requirements, cost, and schedule for programs, but is behind in taking these steps for the whole lunar mission:
NASA risks the discovery of integration challenges and needed changes late in the development process because it established some requirements for individual lunar programs before finalizing requirements for the overall lunar mission. NASA plans to take steps to mitigate this risk, such as by holding reviews to ensure that requirements align across programs, but has not yet defined these reviews or determined when they would occur.
NASA has made some decisions that will increase visibility into the costs and schedules for individual lunar programs, but does not plan to develop a cost estimate for the first mission. Cost estimates provide management with critical cost-risk information to improve control of resources. Without a cost estimate for this mission, Congress will not have insight into affordability and NASA will not have insight into monitoring total mission costs.
NASA conducted studies to inform its lunar plans, but did not fully assess a range of alternatives to these plans. GAO best practices state that analyzing alternatives provides a framework to help ensure that entities consistently and reliably select the alternative that best meets the mission need and justify agency decisions. Given NASA's schedule, conducting this analysis is no longer viable. Instead, NASA intends to create a summary of the studies that informed its lunar plans. However, it has not committed to a completion date. Without a documented rationale, NASA is ill-positioned to effectively communicate its decisions to stakeholders and facilitate a better understanding of its plans.
Why GAO Did This Study
In March 2019, the White House directed NASA to accelerate its plans to return humans to the moon by 4 years, to 2024. To accomplish a lunar landing, NASA is developing programs including a small platform in lunar orbit, known as Gateway, and a lunar lander. NASA plans to use the Space Launch System and Orion crew capsule—two programs with a history of cost growth and schedule delays—to launch and transport crew to Gateway.
The House Committee on Appropriations included a provision in its 2018 report for GAO to review NASA's proposed lunar-focused programs, including the Gateway program. GAO's report assesses (1) how NASA updated its lunar plans to support the accelerated 2024 landing timeline; (2) the extent to which NASA has made initial decisions about requirements, cost, and schedule for its lunar mission and programs; and (3) the extent to which NASA analyzed alternatives for its lunar plans, including the Gateway program. GAO analyzed NASA lunar mission and program documents, assessed NASA studies that informed NASA's lunar plans, and interviewed NASA officials.
GAO is making a total of 6 recommendations to NASA, including to define and schedule reviews that align requirements across lunar programs; create a cost estimate for the first lunar mission; and commit to a completion date and finalize a cohesive document outlining the rationale for selecting its current lunar plans. NASA concurred with the recommendations made in this report.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|National Aeronautics and Space Administration||The NASA Administrator should ensure that the NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations directs the Advanced Exploration Systems division to define and determine a schedule for synchronization reviews, including the role of the proposed Lunar Exploration Control Board, to help ensure that requirements between mission and program levels are reconciled. (Recommendation 1)||
NASA agreed with this recommendation and in September 2021, the Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) division held its first integrated synchronization review and defined a schedule for future reviews. The division plans to hold integrated synchronization reviews annually to help to ensure requirements between mission and program levels are reconciled. The chair of the AES control board-which defines and manages cost, schedule, technical, and risk baselines for the programs and Artemis missions the division manages-also chairs the integrated synchronization review, and other members of the board serve as review panel members.
|National Aeronautics and Space Administration||The NASA Administrator should ensure that the NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations directs the Gateway program to conduct a joint cost and schedule confidence level at the program level for the Artemis III mission. (Recommendation 2)||
NASA agreed with this recommendation and stated it would conduct a joint cost and schedule confidence level analysis or equivalent. The Gateway program is planning to conduct a series of project- and program-level reviews and assessments aligned with key decision point reviews. This includes conducting a joint cost and schedule confidence level analysis or equivalent of the Gateway initial configuration to support a program key decision point planned to be held in December 2022 .
|National Aeronautics and Space Administration||The NASA Administrator should ensure that the NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations directs the Gateway program to update its overall schedule for 2024 to add a KDP II to occur before system integration. (Recommendation 3)||
NASA agreed with this recommendation, but has not yet taken action on it. NASA stated that it would provide a schedule for future reviews, including whether there will be a Key Decision Point (KDP) II, at the KDP-I review currently scheduled to be held in December 2022.
|National Aeronautics and Space Administration||
Priority Rec.The NASA Administrator should ensure that the NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations creates a life-cycle cost estimate for the Artemis III mission. (Recommendation 4)
NASA agreed with the recommendation and stated that the agency will provide a preliminary cost estimate for the Artemis III mission by the end of calendar year 2020. However, NASA has not yet created this cost estimate. NASA officials told us that a 5-year funding plan provided to Congress in September 2020 serves as the agency's cost estimate through the Artemis III mission in 2024. The officials stated that the agency would establish cost and schedule commitments for projects but not the overall mission. However, to fully implement this recommendation, NASA needs to develop a life-cycle cost estimate for the lunar landing mission as a whole-Artemis III. This is because the 5-year funding plan includes costs outside of this mission, such as costs for the Artemis I and II missions. Similarly, project baseline commitments do not necessarily include the scope of work required for the Artemis III mission. For example, the SLS baseline commitment only includes a cost estimate for the first mission. As a result, there is still no comprehensive Artemis III life-cycle cost estimate. NASA officials say they are on track to address this recommendation by Fall 2022.
|National Aeronautics and Space Administration||The NASA Administrator should ensure that the NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations directs the Advanced Exploration Systems division to commit to a completion date and finalize a cohesive document outlining the rationale for selecting its current lunar architecture and lunar programs. (Recommendation 5)||
NASA agreed with this recommendation and stated that it planned to take action to document its current strategy and rationale. In August 2021, NASA issued a document that describes how NASA human spaceflight directorate strategic plan and policy connect with division and program-level activities and implementation plans. In addition, NASA officials said that the directorate's Associate Administrator requested that directorate's system engineering and integration office lead an update to the Artemis Plan that captures the current strategy and rationale. NASA has not yet completed the update to the Artemis Plan.
|National Aeronautics and Space Administration||The NASA Administrator should ensure that the Office of the Chief Engineer determines under what conditions it is appropriate to complete an analysis of alternatives, particularly when there are multiple pathways—including architectures or programs—that NASA could pursue in the future, and document the justification for not completing an analysis. (Recommendation 6)||
NASA agreed with this recommendation, but has not yet taken any action on it. NASA officials said that they planned to update the existing NASA Systems Engineering handbook with the additional language to help highlight analyses of alternatives as examples of performing the decision analysis process and are evaluating changes to NASA policy documentation to strengthen the language for analyses of alternatives.