Donald Trump badly wanted to be the president who sent Americans back to the moon. Instead, his administration has presided over Artemis, a lunar-landing program plagued by “uncertain plans, unproven cost assumptions, and limited oversight,” according to a new watchdog report. Pieces of the program, including the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft, are billions of dollars over budget, years past deadline and poised to eat into NASA’s more promising projects. As a result, the U.S. space agency will almost certainly miss its goal of landing Americans on the moon again by 2024.
President-elect Joe Biden inherits the task of deciding what to do next. He should focus on what has made the U.S. space program distinctive in recent years: the power of private competition.
As far back as 1989, presidents have been advocating for a return to Earth’s closest neighbor, partly on the theory that it could be a testing ground for the equipment and processes needed for any deeper-space mission, such as a Mars visit, and partly to spur the development of a private space industry. The most ambitious effort, known as Constellation, began under George W. Bush in 2005, with the goal of putting Americans on the moon around 2020. It was a complex initiative that required the development of new hardware, including rockets and a space capsule now known as Orion.
By 2010, however, Constellation was so far behind schedule and over budget — with no realistic prospect for success before the 2030s — that President Barack Obama asked Congress to end funding for the program. In its place, Obama proposed a new initiative that retained the Orion capsule but aimed to take humans beyond the moon. It also added a new rocket, the Space Launch System (or SLS), partly based on hardware and designs dating back to the space shuttle.
In theory, building on existing designs should’ve accelerated the process. In reality, the precise opposite has happened. The 14-year-old Orion capsule has flown exactly once (on a crewless 2014 test flight), while burning through a whopping $24 billion. The SLS hasn’t fared much better: It has received more than $20 billion since 2011, cost estimates have risen by 33% in the past three years, and the rocket’s first scheduled launch — originally set for 2017 — has slipped to at least the end of next year.
Why these programs keep running into trouble isn’t exactly a mystery. For one thing, Congress has chronically underfunded approved NASA programs, thereby stretching out deadlines and creating new expenses. Just as important is cost-plus accounting, a risk-averse way to pay for hardware development in which NASA reimburses a company — Boeing Co. in the case of the SLS, Lockheed Martin Corp. in the case of Orion — for all costs incurred, then layers a profit margin on top. That’s arguably a good way to encourage companies to take on risky new technologies. But it also means that the government bears all the risk of missed deadlines and rising costs.
A more efficient alternative is fixed-price contracts, in which a company keeps as profit whatever’s left over after it completes its assigned task. Beginning in 2006, NASA has used such contracts to boost the development of private space companies capable of reaching the International Space Station. The initiative has worked far better than anyone could’ve expected. In a 2011 report, NASA expressed bewilderment that SpaceX, then a young upstart, managed to develop its workhorse Falcon 9 rocket for just $390 million — as opposed to a likely cost of $1.7 billion to $4 billion under traditional cost-plus assumptions. Today, the rocket delivers hardware and astronauts for companies and space agencies around the world.
Come January, the Biden administration should take a similar approach to the troubled Artemis system. Step one should be eliminating SLS and Orion altogether in favor of cheaper private-sector alternatives. Advocates will argue that the costs sunk into those programs are simply too great to cut them now. But that mindset has been a loser for NASA for more than a decade (Artemis is not the agency’s only wildly over-budget and behind-schedule program). So long as NASA and its contractors don’t fear the budget axe, they’ll have few incentives to speed up the rate of innovation and project completion.
That doesn’t mean the agency should suspend its lunar ambitions; if the U.S. wants to defend its traditional lead in space, getting back to the moon should be a priority. But it does need to change its approach. Currently, there are a number of Artemis elements being developed under fixed-price contracts, including future lunar landers. The new administration should use a similar approach with as many aspects of the project as possible, thereby harnessing the efficiency and inventiveness of private competition.
The delays are unlikely to be much greater than the ones already inhibiting Artemis. But the payoff for enduring them will be far richer, ensuring that American companies can start leading the way to distant frontiers.