NASA panel warns moon plan may be too ambitious

NASA panel warns moon plan may be too ambitious


NASA’s Artemis moon mission program regularly faces a wide swath of questions – from legislators, auditors, companies and even just the American public – about goals, timeline, cost and more.

One question I hadn’t seen before was posed recently, directed at the plan to return U.S. astronauts to the moon’s surface for the first time since Apollo: 

Is the Artemis 3 mission too ambitious?

Notable, too: The concern wasn’t raised by known doubters, special interest groups or a competitive party. It was NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel.

ASAP, an independent group that reports both to NASA and Congress and focuses foremost on safety, has existed since the 1967 Apollo 1 tragedy. The group submitted its annual report for 2023, and I took a look (welcome back to another edition of “I read this so you don’t have to!”). 

Most of the report covers familiar recommendations and feedback to NASA, but then I got to ASAP’s emphasis on just how many “firsts” are included in Artemis 3 objectives.

Two items that ASAP highlights repeatedly stand out to me: The HLS (Human Landing System) element, a.k.a. SpaceX’s lunar version of Starship, and the EVA (Extravehicular Activity) spacesuits. Those are two crucial parts of the Artemis 3 plan that won’t be tested during the Artemis 2 mission and therefore make their debut on the most high-profile upcoming mission.

“With all of these and other significant technical firsts occurring during this single mission, the Panel is genuinely concerned that they represent an even greater cumulative risk to an already difficult and complex Artemis III flight,” the report says.

ASAP advised NASA to consider redistributing the Artemis 3 milestones more evenly among other missions, or else face “extraordinary pressure for timely execution of a schedule that in many ways is beyond NASA’s full control.”

I find the broad ambition of Artemis to be admirable, so I think ASAP’s concern actually presents an opportunity for NASA: Expand the “Artemis mission” nomenclature beyond just Orion capsule flights to include other relevant but currently understated efforts. A crew-type vehicle is flying to the moon? Call it an Artemis mission! If Orion flying uncrewed around the moon is an Artemis mission, then the first uncrewed HLS landing should be too, because it’s arguably just as important to the goal of landing humans back on the moon. 

As it stands, Artemis missions are few and years between – and I think NASA should change that to both redistribute the risk ASAP sees, as well as more appropriately highlight the major milestones toward a long-term goal of a continuous presence on the moon.

Bottom line from ASAP’s report: As the current plan stands, Artemis 2 may happen by the (already delayed) target of late 2025, but the long list of accomplishments that must happen in between all but guarantees that Artemis 3 is not launching 12 months later.


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