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A NASA Space Launch System, or SLS, rocket is on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on November 3, 2022, ahead of the launch of the Artemis I mission, a successful unmanned test mission completed last year.
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Top NASA officials say the agency’s Space Launch System — the massive rocket designed to propel the ambitious Artemis program to establish a moon base — is “unsustainable,” according to a report released Thursday by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
The report, which details SLS program expenses, makes an eye-catching case Acceptance Senior NASA officials consider the rocket unsustainable “at current cost levels,” and criticize what the Government Accountability Office described as a lack of transparency regarding the program’s ongoing costs. The report did not mention the names – or number – of NASA officials who made such allegations.
A spokesman for NASA headquarters did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
However, the GAO report notes that NASA “recognizes the need to improve affordability.”
“With input from NASA management, the SLS program developed a roadmap outlining short-term and long-term strategies that it hopes will lead to future cost savings,” the report said.
This plan includes efforts to “stabilize flight schedules,” increase efficiency, “encourage innovation,” and “adjust acquisition strategies to reduce cost risks,” according to the GAO.
The SLS rocket is at the heart of NASA’s Artemis program, the agency’s main effort to return humans to the lunar surface later this decade that also includes several exploratory and scientific missions aimed at establishing a permanent lunar settlement.
The first test launch of the SLS, on a mission called Artemis I, It took off on 16 November After years of delay. The mission, although behind schedule, was considered a stunning success, leaving NASA preparing to launch the first crewed test mission around the Moon in late 2024. This is expected to be followed by the Artemis 3 mission, the first attempt to return American astronauts to the Moon. Since the Apollo program.
But the success of the Artemis 1 program did not insulate NASA from the program’s critics.
Government watchdogs, including the Government Accountability Office and NASA’s Inspector General, have repeatedly criticized the space agency’s SLS program in reports dating back to 2014, the GAO explained in its most recent documents. The Government Accountability Office is an investigative branch of the US government charged with overseeing public spending.
Much of the criticism of these watchdogs has focused on contracting issues, such as cost overruns with prime contractors for the SLS program. Regulators also reported transparency issues, saying NASA did not provide comprehensive cost estimates for scheduled Artemis launches or do enough to try to break down the program’s ongoing expenses.
The GAO report also noted that it suggested to NASA in 2014 that the agency “develop a cost baseline that captures production costs” for missions using SLS Block I — or the first version of the rocket that is expected to pave the way for larger vehicles. More powerful versions are in development. But while NASA “partially agreed,” the agency “has not yet implemented this recommendation,” the GAO report said.
The space agency “does not plan to measure production costs to monitor the affordability of its most powerful rockets,” the report found.
In addition to the nearly $12 billion already spent developing the SLS rocket, NASA requested more than $11 billion in its latest budget request to fund the program over the next four years, according to the report.
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