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A NASA Space Launch System, or SLS, rocket sits 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 uncrewed 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 base on the moon — is “unsustainable,” according to a report Thursday from the US Government Accountability Office.
The report, which details SLS program expenditures, makes for an eye-opener Acceptance Senior NASA officials consider the rocket unsustainable at “current cost levels,” and criticize what the Government Accountability Office has called a lack of transparency regarding the program’s ongoing costs. The report did not name the officials – or how many – at NASA who made such claims.
A NASA headquarters spokesperson 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 has developed a roadmap that identifies short-term and long-term strategies that it hopes will lead to cost savings in the future,” the report said.
That plan includes efforts to “stabilize the flight schedule,” increase efficiency, “encourage innovation,” and “modify acquisition strategies to reduce cost risks,” according to the Government Accountability Office.
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 exploration and science missions aimed at establishing a permanent lunar settlement.
First test launch of the SLS, on a mission codenamed Artemis I, It took off on 16 November After years of delay. The mission, while behind schedule, was deemed a stunning success, prompting NASA to prepare to launch its first manned test mission around the Moon in late 2024. This is expected to be followed by Artemis 3, the first attempt to return American astronauts to the moon. Since the Apollo program.
But the success of the Artemis 1 program has not isolated NASA from critics of the program.
Government oversight bodies, 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, GAO outlines 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 from these regulators has focused on contracting issues, such as cost overruns with prime contractors for the SLS programme. Regulators have also reported transparency issues, saying NASA has not provided comprehensive cost estimates for scheduled Artemis launches or done enough to try to apportion the program’s ongoing expenses.
The GAO report also noted that it proposed to NASA in 2014 that the agency “develop a cost baseline that captures production costs” for missions using the 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 report found that the space agency “does not plan to measure production costs to monitor the affordability of its most powerful rockets.”
In addition to the nearly $12 billion already spent on SLS rocket development, NASA requested more than $11 billion in its most recent budget request to fund the program over the next four years, according to the report.
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