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NASA "70% Confidence" Starship Ready by February 2028, 1.5 Year Delay From September 2026 Target In New GAO Report

A key review revealed a nearly one-in-three chance that the mission's lander might be delayed by up to a year and a half.

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Zac Aubert

Zac Aubert

Wed Jul 03 2024Written by Zac Aubert

As NASA advances towards a crewed lunar landing with the Artemis 3 mission scheduled for September 2026, recent internal analyses highlight potential delays.

A key review revealed a nearly one-in-three chance that the mission's lander might be delayed by up to a year and a half.

This assessment emerged from a confirmation review for the Human Landing System (HLS) Initial Capability project, which supports the development of SpaceX’s Starship lunar lander for Artemis 3. Known as Key Decision Point (KDP) C, this review establishes cost and schedule commitments for NASA projects.

Conducted in December 2023, the review set a schedule baseline of February 2028 for the project at a 70% joint confidence level. This indicates a 70% chance that the Starship will be ready for a lunar landing—officially termed lunar orbit checkout review—by February 2028.

“The joint cost and schedule confidence level is an integrated analysis of a project’s cost, schedule, risk, and uncertainty, which indicates a project’s likelihood of meeting a given set of cost and schedule targets,” - Government Accountability Office (GAO)

The 2028 date stands nearly a year and a half beyond NASA’s target of September 2026 for Artemis 3. The 70% confidence level also suggests a 30% chance that the Starship lander won't be ready until after February 2028.

“NASA continues to have confidence in SpaceX as a provider to help achieve the Artemis III mission,” - NASA Statement

While the confirmation review wasn't widely publicized when completed, it was mentioned in the GAO report. The report clarified that this schedule assessment is independent of the readiness of other mission components, such as the Space Launch System, Orion spacecraft, and new lunar spacesuits.

NASA has confirmed the dates in the GAO report but also reaffirmed the September 2026 target for Artemis 3.

“The GAO report’s cost and schedule baseline figures are accurate, risk-informed estimates at the 70% joint confidence level (JCL). The agency use of a 70% JCL to inform baseline estimates is a conservative approach that assumes broad risk realization,” - NASA Statement

The KDP-C also established a cost of $4.9 billion for the HLS Initial Capability at the 70% confidence level. This sum includes the $2.9 billion fixed-price contract to SpaceX, earlier phase awards to SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Dynetics, and NASA project office costs.

Cathy Koerner, NASA associate administrator for exploration systems development, reiterated the 2026 date for Artemis 3 at a June 7 meeting of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board, held a day after the fourth integrated test flight of Starship and its Super Heavy booster.

“From a Human Landing System project status, SpaceX continues to make great progress,” - Cathy Koerner, NASA associate administrator for exploration systems development

She acknowledged, however, that the HLS effort faces “a lot of technical challenges.” The next major milestone, she noted, is an in-space cryogenic propellant transfer test, planned for early 2025.

The GAO report also underscored the significance of this test. During the confirmation review, a standing review board “recommended that SpaceX’s in-space propellant transfer tests inform the program’s critical design review, currently planned for 2025.”

NASA routinely conducts next-worse failure assessments, examining scenarios where one mission element might be unavailable such as considering an alternative plan to test Starship and Orion in low Earth orbit, similar to the Apollo 9 mission

“We’re always doing those kinds of backup plans...We have not made any changes to the current plan as I outlined it here today, but we have lots of people looking at lots of backup plans so that we are doing due diligence.” - Cathy Koerner, NASA associate administrator for exploration systems development