NASA has been aiming to get humans back to the moon by 2024, but an audit of the spacesuits needed for that venture warns that development issues are likely to delay the mission.
The audit by NASA’s Office of the Inspector General released Tuesday said flight-ready suits needed for the Artemis III mission, which aims to put the first woman on the lunar surface as part of a two-person team, would not allow for a flight before April 2025.
To date, NASA has spent $420 million on development of the suit, and by the time it’s used on Artemis III, will have spent more than $1 billion, according to the audit.
The new suits are meant to replace the existing spacesuits, which has been modified over time, but are based on a 45-year-old design from the space shuttle era. The new suits, called Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Units (xEMU), would be for use on the International Space Station, lunar missions in the Artemis program and the small Gateway space station, plus future missions to Mars.
The November 2024 goal to launch Artemis III that was put in place by NASA under the Trump administration and is still the goal under Biden. It faces several hurdles, including the successful launch planned for November this year of Artemis I to prove the Space Launch System and Orion capsule work as planned, and the creation of the Human Landing System that will be needed to ferry astronauts to the lunar surface for Artemis III.
The audit focuses on issues with the spacesuit, including a 20-month delay in the design and verification along with creation of a test suit, two qualification suits, a demonstration suit for the ISS and two suits for lunar flight to be used on Artemis II in 2023.
Original schedules had the lunar landing suits for Artemis not needed until 2028, but that schedule was accelerated by NASA in 2019 aiming for the landing just over three years from now. Efforts have since faced hurdles from a variety of sources.
“These delays — attributable to funding shortfalls, COVID-19 impacts, and technical challenges — have left no schedule margin for delivery of the two flight-ready xEMUs,” reads the audit.
The audit serves as a warning of a likely delay, citing as a primary concern the need for actual training hardware for use across multiple platforms.
“As spacesuit development continues, evolving and competing requirements from key program stakeholders such as the HLS, ISS, and Gateway increases the risk of future cost, schedule, and performance issues,” the audit reads. “Additionally, prior to their use on ISS and Artemis missions, astronauts will require suits for training. However, training needs across the stakeholders — particularly the ISS and HLS programs — do not align with projections of when suit hardware will be available.”
The audit also warns that NASA’s updated approach for developing and integrating the spacesuits through a contract issued in April could potentially mean contractors developing their own designs and potentially moving forward with different ones for low-Earth-orbit missions and Artemis missions.
The audit made four recommendations to NASA management: adjust the schedule to reduce development risks; mating the spacesuit design in a master calendar to all of the other moon mission parts such as the HLS; nailing down technical requirements on the suit design before moving forward with a acquisition strategy; and ensuring only one design is needed for both the ISS and Artemis programs.
“Given the importance of xEMUs for the ISS, a lunar landing, and other activities beyond low Earth orbit, failure to overcome these challenges will hinder NASA’s ability to meet its human exploration goals,” the audit concludes.
In a recent press briefing, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson warned that technology development for its deep-space initiatives are likely to face delays, even though NASA has not veered yet from the 2024 goal for Artemis III.
“This whole thing is important because what we are going to do in and around and on the moon is in preparation to go to Mars,” he said. “It’s a three-day trip to the moon but it’s many months to get to Mars and once you get there because of the alignment of the planets, you’re likely going to have to stay on the surface for a while. So we’ve got to develop all these new systems and this new equipment and the new procedures to sustain human life all that time so far away … So we’re going when it’s safe.”
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