NASA IG: Lunar Spacesuit Delays Make 2024 Moon Return “Not Feasible”

NASA IG: Lunar Spacesuit Delays Make 2024 Moon Return “Not Feasible”

NASA’s Inspector General added another obstacle to NASA achieving its goal of returning astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024 — lunar spacesuits. In a report released today, the IG concluded that a human lunar landing in 2024 is “not feasible” if for no other reason than that the spacesuits, or Extravehicular Mobility Units, will not be ready at least until April 2025.

NASA has been developing next-generation spacesuit technology for 14 years and 5 years ago created the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU) program led by Johnson Space Center. NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) concluded that after spending $420 million, NASA still “faces significant challenges” in producing two flight-ready units due to “funding shortfalls, COVID-19 impacts, and technical challenges.”

Consequently, April 2025 is the earliest the spacesuits will be available.

NASA is working towards 2024 to return astronauts to the lunar surface — the Artemis program —  a goal first proclaimed by the Trump Administration in 2019. Despite widespread skepticism that the deadline is achieveable budgetarily or technically, it has been embraced by the Biden Administration.

The Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion crew spacecraft have been in development for many years and NASA hopes that the first uncrewed flight test of that system will take place before the end of 2021, though that is far from certain. But NASA has only just had its selection of SpaceX to develop the Human Landing System (HLS) to take astronauts from lunar orbit down to and back from the Moon’s surface upheld by the Government Accountability Office, allowing the contract to proceed. NASA is also planning to build a small space station, the Gateway, in lunar orbit to serve as a transfer point between Orion and HLS, though it remains unclear as to whether that is essential for the 2024 goal.

The strongest doubts that the 2024 deadline can be met have focused so far on whether SpaceX’s Starship HLS can be built and adequately tested in just three-and-a-half years.  Until now, little attention has focused on the spacesuits astronauts will need to step out onto the surface.

Today’s OIG report highlights the importance of the spacesuits along with everything else.

Given these anticipated delays in spacesuit development, a lunar landing in late 2024 as NASA currently plans is not feasible. That said, NASA’s inability to complete development of xEMUs for a 2024 Moon landing is by no means the only factor impacting the viability of the Agency’s current return-to-the-Moon timetable. For example, our previous audit work identified significant delays in other major programs essential to a lunar landing, including the Space Launch System rocket and Orion capsule. Moreover, delays related to lunar lander development and the recently decided lander contract award bid protests will also preclude a 2024 landing.

The new spacesuits not only will support lunar landings as part of Artemis, but the existing International Space Station (ISS).  The spacesuits now used by ISS astronauts were designed 45 years ago.

The xEMU program is for a NASA-developed spacesuit, but in April 2021 the agency took the first step towards procuring spacesuit services, not spacesuits themselves, through a Public-Private Partnership (PPP). The Exploration Extravehicular Activity Services (xEVAS) Request for Information (RFI) allows industry to choose whether or not to use NASA’s design and “the extent to which NASA’s investments will be utilized is unclear.”  The RFI also does not require that the suits meet both ISS and Artemis needs.

The OIG recommended that NASA ensure technical requirements are solidified before selecting an acquisition strategy and that whatever strategy it chooses does in fact meet both ISS and Artemis needs.  It also called on NASA to adjust the  schedule.

In a response published in the OIG report, Kathy Lueders, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, concurred with the recommendation that the acqusition strategy meet the needs of both programs, and with the “intent” of the other recommendations. She alluded to a revised agency expectation of when the first crewed Artemis mission will take place, but was not specific.

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