Ongoing delays in developing NASA’s next-generation spacesuit, along with significant delays in other major programs, mean a lunar landing in 2024 is “not feasible,” according to a report from the agency’s Office of Inspector General.
The OIG report came out on August 10, and it reinforces something we’ve suspected for a while: The plan to land an American man and woman on the Moon in late 2024 is wholly unrealistic.
Indeed, NASA still has to fly a rocket needed for the mission; it doesn’t yet possess a lunar lander capable of bringing astronauts to the surface and back; and, as the new audit reveals, its next-generation spacesuit will likely not be flight-ready in time for testing and use in the Artemis III mission. That the spacesuit, known as the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Units (xEMU), won’t be ready until 2025 is discouraging, to say the least. I wrote an article about this spacesuit in October last year, and while xEMU seems super cool, the new audit exposes it for what it really is: vaporware.
Astronauts on the International Space Station are currently using a suit designed 45 years ago for the Space Shuttle Program. NASA has refurbished and modified this suit to make ISS spacewalks possible, but the space agency has spent the past 14 years developing the technologies for its next-gen spacesuit.
In addition to keeping astronauts alive on the lunar surface, xEMU will need to integrate with the Human Landing System (HLS) and the upcoming lunar Gateway (a planned space base placed in orbit around the Moon). As the OIG explained in its new report, the “development of new spacesuits is a critical component of achieving NASA’s goals of returning humans to the Moon, continuing safe operations on the International Space Station, and exploring Mars and other deep space locations.”
An OIG audit from 2017 tracked the progress of the xEMU program, finding that NASA spent $US200 ($271) million during the previous nine years to develop the suit, yet the agency “remained years away” from having a finished product, as the new report points out. Since then, NASA has poured an additional $US220 ($298) million into the project, which now totals $US420 ($570) million in costs.
The OIG auditors took a deep dive into the project, looking at costs, schedules, and performance of the next-generation spacesuit. NASA is supposed to produce a pair of mission-ready xEMUs by November 2024, but the OIG said the agency faces “significant challenges” in achieving this goal.
The project is at least 20 months behind schedule, the result of inadequate funding, disruptions posed by the covid-19 pandemic, and technical challenges, according to the report. This has “left no schedule margin” for the delivery of these two suits. What’s more, NASA still needs to finalise the design (yep, you read that correctly), go through verification, and produce two qualification suits (a close match to the real deal) and an ISS demo suit, in addition to building two flight-ready suits for Artemis III. At the earliest, NASA is expected to cross-out all of these outstanding to-do items by April 2025, as the report points out. The OIG anticipates that, by this time, NASA will have spent $US1 ($1) billion to develop and build the xEMUs, in reference to the $US652.2 ($884) million that NASA still plans to invest in the project from now to 2025.
Needless to say, this late delivery is already impacting the mission; the Artemis astronauts don’t have the required suits for testing, and they won’t have any for the foreseeable future. Sure, they’ll have mockups, but these Design Verification Test suits, as they’re called, are best guesses of what the final suit will look like and how it’ll work.
“Given these anticipated delays in spacesuit development, a lunar landing in late 2024 as NASA currently plans is not feasible,” according to the report.
But as the OIG also points out, the unfinished spacesuit is hardly the only barrier to a 2024 landing, in reference to the still-to-be launched Space Launch System and the Human Landing System, currently being developed by SpaceX. The recent protest filed by Blue Origin, in which the company argued that NASA acted unfairly in choosing SpaceX for the project, contributed to further delays, the report says (Boeing lost the protest, by the way).
The authors of the OIG report offered several recommendations, including adjustments to the schedule to “reduce development risks,” not moving forward until all “technical requirements for the next-generation suits are solidified,” and “developing an acquisition strategy for the next-generation spacesuits that meets the needs of both the ISS and Artemis programs.”
SpaceX could do it if need be— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 10, 2021
Collaboration with commercial partners is not out of the question, and the OIG said as much in the report. In a recent tweet, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said his company “could do it if need be,” but further details weren’t given. Indeed, it’s not immediately clear if NASA is interested in SpaceX’s services for the spacesuit project or if this is something SpaceX can actually handle right now. The company is busy at work with the Starship platform, which is expected to serve as the lunar lander.
As it stands, Artemis III is still scheduled for late 2024. It seems ludicrous, if not tortuous for all the people working on Artemis that a new and more reasonable date has not yet been established. But an announcement of a new target date has to happen soon. Right?