On April 19, 2021, the NASA Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released an Artemis Status Update. The report brings a touch of reality to the hype that naturally comes with daring space missions.
At the start, the report describes the Artemis mission using a timeline to highlight its various stages. The timeline begins with an uncrewed orbit of the Moon in 2021, followed by a crewed orbital mission in 2023, before landing astronauts on the Moon by 2024. The timeline was always ambitious with President Trump accelerating the program in 2019 by four years, the original goal being 2028. The OIG points out key areas that are critical to mission success, such as transparent reporting and calculation of program costs and realistic schedules. The report then went on to mention “NASA consistently struggles to address these significant issues, each of which will likely be further exacerbated by the current timetable for Artemis missions.”
The NASA OIG then provides status updates on the six programs that comprise the Artemis mission: the Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion capsule, Exploration Ground System (EGS), Gateway, the Human Landing System (HLS), and exploration of the Moon and cislunar space. The SLS is the rocket being developed to launch missions to the Moon. Orion is the capsule that will be capable of carrying both cargo and crew, while the EGS is comprised of all the earth-bound infrastructure including mobile launch and integration facilities. These programs have received the bulk of the funding so far, and while delays have occurred, the programs appear to be nearing readiness.
The OIG gave faint praise for the accomplishments in the programs thus far, citing the difficulties with COVID-19 and a 75% budget shortfall. Considering those hurdles, the OIG still finds it unlikely NASA can achieve the goal of landing crew on the Moon by 2024. This news will likely not surprise anyone. The consistent tracking of progress should give the optimists hope, though, and alert the space law community that any gaps in the law surrounding the Moon and other celestial bodies are closer than they appear. Solidifying the international obligations regarding registration, due regard, and non-appropriation are no longer the distant future of science-fiction but the near future of humankind. Budget shortfalls and overly-optimistic timelines will not prevent the inevitable – only delay it.
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