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NASA Says No Moon Landing Without Orion And SLS

Credit: Tonya Gray and Kevin OConnell

Fifty years after NASA’s 1969-72 sprints to the Moon, the U.S. is preparing for deep-space human travel for the long haul, parlaying the international and commercial partnerships forged in the post-Apollo space shuttle and International Space Station (ISS) programs into an exploration blueprint that includes a lunar surface sortie as early as 2024, full-time global lunar access for crewed and robotic missions, followed by future expeditions to Mars.

The Trump administration has proffered tepid support for a 2024 lunar landing, supplementing its $21 billion fiscal 2020 budget request with an extra $1.6 billion to kick-start a plan to return U.S. astronauts to the Moon’s surface four years sooner than previously scheduled. 

Vice President Mike Pence, who chairs the U.S. National Space Council, has championed the 2024 date, timed to take place before the end of a possible second Trump administration. But President Donald Trump himself has yet to pick up the mantle and in June seemed to even undercut Pence’s efforts. “For all of the money we are spending, NASA should NOT be talking about going to the Moon,” Trump wrote in a June 7 Twitter post. “We did that 50 years ago. They should be focused on the much bigger things we are doing, including Mars.” 

Landing on the Moon in 2024 was announced as a presidential initiative, but every indication is that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has not signed on, says John Logsdon, professor emeritus of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and founder of the school’s Space Policy Institute.

“If they don’t, and you try to move on with OMB resisting presidential direction, that’s not a recipe for success,” he adds. “The program NASA was proposing, aiming at a 2028 landing, probably was not politically sustainable. It was moving too slowly, so the willingness of the administration to say, ‘We want to do it faster,’ and the implication that it would provide the resources to make that possible was very promising. What has happened since then is very puzzling. This rollout doesn’t seem to be something that can be translated into sustainability.”


Lockheed Martin began working on NASA’s Orion capsule in 2006. It remains in development. On July 2, a test spacecraft with a fully functional launch abort system lifted off from Cape Canaveral AFS aboard a Northrop Grumman booster rocket to demonstrate the emergency escape system. Credit: Tonya Gray/Kevin OConnell

Accelerating the schedule for a crewed Moon landing, under a program newly named Artemis, will require $20-30 billion over the next five years, on top of the agency’s baseline annual budget of $20-21 billion, says NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. Depending on commercial and international participation and how much redundancy the agency decides to buy for key services and hardware, “it could actually be less than $20 billion,” he tells Aviation Week

Without the plus-up, NASA could accomplish a lunar landing in 2028 under current, inflation-adjusted budgets, provided the space agency continues to win political support, which is not guaranteed, says Bridenstine, citing previous failed exploration initiatives such as the George W. Bush administration’s 2005-10 Constellation program.

“We’ve tried to do this activity before, and it hasn’t worked. The time­scales are so long that administrations change; Congress, budgets and priorities change. By accelerating the timeline [for Artemis] we are reducing the political risks,” he says.

But navigating shifting political winds actually has become one of NASA’s fortes. With bipartisan support, the agency has managed to keep key programs and contractors funded, despite redirection in its human spaceflight initiatives. For example, work on the Orion capsule, a key part of the Artemis program, began during Constellation. The successor Obama administration replaced Constellation with a human and robotic asteroid exploration program that included the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). 

Orion, designed for active support of a four-person crew in deep space for 21 days, survived, though Constellation’s Ares heavy-lift rocket program did not. Under ARM, NASA also began planning for a high-power, solar-electric spacecraft bus to host scientific and technology payloads, including a robot arm to grapple and relocate a piece of an asteroid into high lunar orbit. The agency also began work on the Space Launch System (SLS) family of expendable rockets to replace Ares. 


The Orion crew module, slated to launch on the debut Space Launch System mission in late 2020 or 2021, undergoes acoustic testing at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: NASA

Under Trump, ARM gave way to Artemis, but NASA kept Orion, the SLS and the ARM spacecraft bus, now repurposed into the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) for a planned lunar-orbiting assembly node and science outpost called the Gateway. 

In May, NASA awarded a $375 million contract to Maxar Technologies (formerly SSL) to develop, launch and operate the 50-kW PPE. Launch aboard a commercially procured rocket is expected before the end of 2022.

The space agency is developing additional partnering arrangements for other elements needed for the Gateway and Artemis, including a small habitation/docking node and a human-class lunar landing system. Of the Trump administration’s $1.6 billion Artemis plus-up for fiscal 2020, $1 billion is earmarked to accelerate development of human lunar transportation. 

The bulk of the rest of the funds goes to Orion and the SLS, which combined already have consumed about $25 billion, not including $4.7 billion spent on the capsule during the Bush-era Constellation program.

In June, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) flagged the Orion and SLS programs for projected cost growth that nearly doubles the $1 billion overrun NASA already acknowledges. GAO auditors also criticized the payment of tens of millions of dollars in award fees to Orion prime contractor Lockheed Martin and SLS prime Boeing despite continued budget overruns and schedule delays. 


NASA in May selected Maxar Technologies to design, build, launch and operate a high-power, 50-kW solar-electric Power and Propulsion Element, which will serve as the base block for its planned lunar-orbiting Gateway. The module will be based on Maxar’s 1300-series satellite bus. Credit: NASA

Over the course of their current contracts, Lockheed Martin and Boeing have earned about $294 million and $271 million, respectively, in award fees, the GAO said.

NASA has paid the majority of available award fees to both contractors—Lockheed Martin about 93%, or $88 million, and Boeing about 81%, or $146 million—since their respective program-confirmation reviews, when the program cost and schedule baselines are established, according to the GAO.

NASA established baseline costs and schedules for the SLS in 2014, with the rocket then slated for a November 2018 debut. Officially, the newly renamed Artemis-1 mission remains targeted for launch between December 2019 and June 2020, but NASA says it will not be ready by then.

The agency now aims to launch Artemis-1, an uncrewed trial run of an Orion spacecraft around the Moon, in late 2020 or early 2021. But with several key ground tests still to come, the GAO says the first SLS-Orion flight actually may not occur until June 2021 due to possible technical issues that NASA has not yet allocated time to resolve.

Chief among pending tests is the planned full-duration firing of the SLS core stage, a shuttle-heritage booster powered by four refurbished, shuttle-era Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-25 engines. NASA considered skipping the so-called “green-run” test at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi as a way to recoup lost time but so far has left the test on the schedule. 

During the green run, NASA will fuel the completed core stage with liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen and fire the integrated four main engines for about 500 sec. “The test carries risks because it is the first time that several things are being done beyond just the initial fueling,” the GAO said. “For example, it is also the first time NASA will fire the four main engines together, test the integrated engine and core-stage auxiliary power units in flight-like conditions and use the SLS software in an integrated flight vehicle.”

In addition, because flight hardware for Artemis-1 will be used for the test, any damage  would need to be repaired prior to launch, the GAO added. 

NASA has no schedule margin between the end of core-stage production and the start of the green-run test, no margin to address any issues that may arise during testing and no margin between the test and delivery of the stage to Kennedy Space Center, Florida, for integration. Nevertheless, NASA’s safety oversight and advisory boards urge the agency to keep the test.

“I cannot emphasize more strongly that we advise NASA to retain this test content in the program of work,” Patricia Sanders, chair of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, said in April. An alternative plan for shorter-duration engine firings at the launchpad “will not achieve an understanding of the operational margin and could result in severe consequences conducted in a much less controlled environment than Stennis,” she added. 

While Orion’s schedule is less challenged, it also is over budget and delayed. The baseline cost and schedule for Orion is tied to the first crewed mission, Artemis-2, officially slated for April 2023, though NASA says it is working toward a September 2022 date and has budgeted accordingly, a practice the GAO criticized.

“GAO considers the cost estimate incomplete because it does not account for Orion costs in those intervening seven months,” the report said. “According to scheduling best practices, performance is measured against the program’s baseline even if a program is working to an earlier date.”

NASA insists that Orion is the only spacecraft capable of carrying and sustaining astronauts on missions to deep space and safely plunging though Earth’s atmosphere at lunar-return velocities. The agency also says the SLS is the only rocket with the power and capability required to carry astronauts to deep space on Orion capsules. But the strength of Orion and the SLS may be measured by another metric: Combined with development of launchpad and ground-support systems at the Kennedy Space Center, NASA estimates that 3,800 suppliers and more than 60,000 workers, across 50 states, are working on the program. 

“We’ve been down the SLS path since 2010, and here we are coming up on 2020 maybe being able to launch it after 10 years,” says Logsdon. “We launched Saturn V after five years of development, so why is it that we’re not able to move with anywhere near the speed that we were in the past?

“One of the problems has been providing just enough resources to keep the program going without enough resources to make it successful,” he adds. “The intent of Pence’s initiative is that doing business as usual is no longer acceptable. But there is no willingness to spend the political capital to change things.”


Irene Klotz

Irene Klotz is Space Editor for Aviation Week, based in Cape Canaveral. Before joining Aviation Week in 2017, Irene spent 25 years as a wire service reporter covering human and robotic spaceflight, commercial space, astronomy, science and technology for Reuters and United Press International.


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