NASA’s development of new astronaut space suits will be nearly two years late and nix its effort to land humans on the Moon by 2024, an inspector general report released on Tuesday found. Those delays compound a daunting set of schedule challenges NASA already faces — from the development of its new human-rated lunar lander to getting its massive Space Launch System rocket off the ground.
An audit from the agency’s Office of Inspector General said NASA is on track to spend more than $1 billion on space suit development by the time its first two suits are ready, which would be “April 2025 at the earliest,” the report said. “Given these anticipated delays in spacesuit development, a lunar landing in late 2024 as NASA currently plans is not feasible.”
NASA is trying to return astronauts to the surface of the Moon for the first time since 1972 under its Artemis program that was spawned by the Trump administration in 2019. The program, as set by former Vice President Mike Pence, called for a crewed lunar landing in 2024 — a deadline that President Biden’s transition team deemed unrealistic. But NASA continues to embrace the date, with administrator Bill Nelson insinuating delays are likely because “space is hard.”
NASA’s space suit design has changed with shifting space priorities, driving up costs and delays
NASA has already spent $420 million on space suit development since 2007, before the advent of its Artemis program, and it plans to “invest approximately $625.2 million more” through 2025, the report said. The space suit’s design and purpose have changed repeatedly over the years as NASA’s priorities in space teeter between new administrations. A new Artemis-tailored space suit design, called xEMU, was unveiled in 2019. Current suits worn by astronauts on the International Space Station are restrictive, haven’t been upgraded in decades, and aren’t designed for long walks on the Moon.
The xEMU program anticipated development delays by allotting 12 months of wiggle room on its path to meet the 2024 Artemis deadline. But that schedule margin has already disappeared after NASA ran into funding shortfalls, closures to NASA centers during the COVID-19 pandemic, and more technical challenges, the report found. NASA slashed the space suit program’s planned $209 million budget by $59 million after Congress gave the agency 77 percent of what it requested for its Gateway Program in 2021, under which space suits are developed. That set the program back three months, the report said.
Intermittent closures to NASA’s Johnson Space Center during the pandemic caused at least three more months of delays, the report said. Then there were the hardware problems. Design upgrades and other changes caused production issues with the suit’s Display and Control Unit — the screen astronauts will use to control the suit’s critical functions. Circuit boards within a key part of the suits’ life support system, needed “rework” to ensure communications between the suit and the astronaut — and other astronauts — worked right.
The program was hit with another delay when NASA halted testing for the suit’s assembly process. The team caused an unspecified “component failure” after “staff used the wrong specifications to build a complicated” life support system interface. When auditors interviewed NASA personnel about this flub, they blamed schedule pressure, among other issues. Additional factors included “a communication breakdown among the team” and the team’s rapid growth, “including the addition of inexperienced personnel.” An “unreleased drawing” and old hardware used during tests were also to blame, personnel told auditors.
Currently, 27 different entities are pitching in to build different parts of the space suit, the report notes. NASA previously contracted with just two companies, Hamilton Standard and ILC Dover, to build the space suits it currently uses on the ISS.
“Seems like too many cooks in the kitchen,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk opined on Twitter in response to the news, adding in another tweet: “SpaceX could do it if need be.” It’s unclear whether SpaceX has an active space suit development program; government astronauts who have flown the company’s Crew Dragon capsule wear SpaceX-designed flight suits, not long-duration space suits. Some private companies are already planning to design their own space suits, including Axiom Space, which, this month, posted new jobs for space suit engineers.
NASA’s space suit woes aren’t the only threat to its 2024 goal. The agency’s inspector general, Government Accountability Office, and NASA’s aerospace safety panel have all expressed concern that development delays in NASA’s human lunar lander and Space Launch System programs — the core organs of the Artemis program — will make a 2024 landing nearly impossible, with the safety panel raising fears that the hastened landing date could lead to schedule pressure among engineers.
In response to the report, NASA’s human exploration chief Kathy Lueders said the agency plans to rejig its space suit development schedule and carry out a space suit test on the ISS by June 2022, before the first crewed Artemis mission poised for sometime in 2023. For that mission, astronauts will fly around the Moon in NASA’s Orion capsule without a lunar landing. The next mission, Artemis III, will have the Moon landing.
“Demonstration and testing of [the space suits] on ISS are a priority,” Lueders said.