In March of 2019, NASA was directed to develop all the necessary equipment and planning to send astronauts back to the Moon by 2024. This plan, officially named Project Artemis, was part of an agency-wide shakeup designed to ensure that the long-awaited return to the Moon takes place sooner than NASA had originally planned. In accordance with their “Moon to Mars” framework, NASA hoped to assemble the Lunar Gateway first, then land astronauts on the surface by 2028.
Unfortunately, this ambitious proposal has led to all sorts of complications and forced NASA to shift certain priorities. Most recently, NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) submitted a report that indicated that their new Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Units (xEMU) spacesuits will not be ready in time. The resulting delay has prompted Elon Musk to offer the services of SpaceX to expedite the spacesuit’s development and get Artemis back on schedule.
Development of the xEMU spacesuits began in earnest back in 2007 as part of the Constellation Program, the first step in NASA’s ongoing drive to return to the Moon. These efforts came together in 2017 with the birth of the xEMU project, which aimed to create a next-generation spacesuit that could be used in multiple programs. The xEMU spacesuit is similar in design to the Extravehicular Mobility Units (EMUs) that have been in use for 45 years.
Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU). Credit: NASA
These spacesuits are currently used by astronauts aboard the ISS to conduct spacewalks. However, the xEMU design incorporates multiple technological advances that have been made since the Apollo Era that will allow it to accomplish more complex tasks than its predecessors. The new designs emphasize safety, incorporating what the Apollo missions taught us about Moon dust – like how it’s sharp, abrasive, and sticks to everything!
The suits also have a greater range of motion for performing scientific tasks, made possible by a system of bearings on the waist, arms, and legs. The helmets also come with an updated communications system, which replaces the old “snoopy caps” that are known to become sweaty, uncomfortable, and have a single microphone. The new system relies on multiple, embedded microphones inside the upper torso that are voice-activated and much more ergonomic.
They are also extendable and one-size-fits-all, which allows astronauts to avoid complications; like what occurred in 2019 when the first all-female ISS spacewalk was aborted because not enough medium-sized spacesuits were available. But most important of all, the xEMU suits are modular in design so they can be adapted to different destinations – such as the ISS, the Moon, Mars, and beyond.
The suit was presented in 2019 at NASA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., where spacesuit engineer Kristine Davis wore a prototype to demonstrate its range of motion (see below). This, they explained, sets the new xEMU suits apart from the bulky and restrictive spacesuits used by the Apollo astronauts, which forced them to “bunny hop” from one place to another (and often fall down in the process).
According to NASA’s schedule, two flight-ready xEMU suits were to be produced by November 2024, in preparation for the Artemis III mission. This mission would be the first astronauts (and the “first woman and first person of color“) to walk on the lunar surface since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. Given their importance to the Artemis Program, the OIG has been keeping a close eye on their development, which has stalled in recent years. As they indicate in their report:
“We reported in 2017 that despite spending nearly $200 million on extravehicular spacesuit development over the previous 9-year period, the Agency remained years away from having a flight-ready spacesuit to use on exploration missions. Since our 2017 report, NASA has spent an additional $220 million—for a total of $420 million—on spacesuit development.”
However, after conducting their audit, the OIG determined that the suits will not be ready in time, which they attribute to three factors: funding shortfalls, COVID-19 impacts, and technical challenges. As a result, according to the report, there is “no schedule margin for delivery of the two flight-ready xEMUs.” Given the integration requirements, they conclude that the first suits will not be ready for flight until April 2025 at the earliest.
The OIG also estimates that by the time two flight-ready xEMU suits are available, NASA will have spent over a billion dollars on their development. This effectively means that no lunar landing can take place by November of 2024. However, the report stresses that the delay in spacesuit development is by no means the only delay affecting the timetable of NASA’s long-awaited “return to the Moon.”
Illustration of SpaceX Starship human lander design that will carry the first NASA astronauts to the surface of the Moon under the Artemis program. Credits: SpaceX
For instance, there are delays related to the development of a Human Landing System (HLS). In April of 2020, NASA selected SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Dynetics to developed concepts for a lunar lander, and ultimately awarded the contract to SpaceX. This resulted in a legal challenge from Blue Origin and Dynetics, followed by Bezos’ offer of $2 billion as compensation for any delays incurred. Just yesterday, it was announced that Blue Origin has filed a lawsuit against NASA to have the decision overturned.
In a previous report issued on April 19th, 2021, titled “Artemis Status Update,” the OIG outlined the other issues that are keeping NASA from reaching its goal of sending astronauts to the Moon by 2024. These include delays in the development of the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion capsule. Despite progress with the SLS Core Stage and the expendable rocket boosters, NASA is still facing the time-consuming process of integration and final systems testing. As they summarized in the report:
“Given all of these factors, a planned 2021 Artemis I launch is in jeopardy of slipping to 2022, a delay that would cascade and push back the launch of Artemis II into at least the third quarter of 2023, ultimately impacting the launch date for Artemis III.
“The Artemis program also faces challenges integrating and launching the PPE and HALO, the first Gateway components. With respect to development of the critical human landing system, NASA received only about 25 percent of its budget request for the HLS Program, putting new pressure on the Agency to meet the 2024 timeline.”
Orion is NASA’s deep space exploration spaceship that will carry astronauts from Earth to the Moon and bring them safely home. Credit: Lockheed Martin
The OIG report also goes on to make four major recommendations to address the delays with the xEMU program. They include:
- Adjusting the schedule as appropriate to reduce development risks
- Developing an integrated master schedule to incorporate and align the hardware deliveries and training needs of the dependent Programs—Gateway, ISS, and HLS—and the Flight Operations Directorate;
- Ensuring technical requirements for the next-generation suits are solidified before selecting the acquisition strategy to procure suits for the ISS and Artemis programs; and
- Developing an acquisition strategy for the next-generation spacesuits that meets the needs of both the ISS and Artemis programs.
In response to this news, CNBC space reporter Michael Sheetz directed attention to the OIG’s report that addressed the contractors and vendors the provide components for the xEMU spacesuit. As he indicated via Twitter, “There are 27 different companies supplying the components for NASA’s next-generation spacesuits.” This prompted Elon Musk to respond (also via Twitter) “Seems like too many cooks in the kitchen.”
He later tweeted, in the same discussion thread, that “SpaceX could do it if need be.” To date, astronauts that have flown aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule have worn the company’s own flight suit, but these are designed for short-term missions, not long-duration flights, and definitely not EVAs. However, given its manufacturing capacity, SpaceX could create its own proprietary suits that would be cleared for use in a vacuum.
Illustration of the power and propulsion element (PPE) and the habitation and logistics outpost (HALO).. Credits: NASA
Kathy Lueders, the Associate Administrator of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate issued a letter in response to the report. In it, she acknowledged the OIG’s recommendations and indicated that the NASA intends to “rebaseline the xEVA schedule,” which will entail a test of the xEMU suit aboard the ISS to completed by June 2022 (shortly before Artemis II, the first crewed mission of the program). NASA also released a statement shortly after the report was released, saying:
“Sending the first woman and first person of color to the lunar surface and establishing a long-term presence at the Moon under Artemis is a priority for NASA. The agency is evaluating the current budget and schedule for Artemis missions and will provide an update later this year.”
Another salient issue with the Artemis Program involves the deployment of the Lunar Gateway. Originally, NASA planned to use the SLS to deploy the four modules that would make up the station. This included the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE), the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO), the European System Providing Refueling, Infrastructure and Telecommunications (ESPRIT), and the International Habitation Module (I-HAB).
In March of 2019, roughly a year after being issued their expedited timetable, NASA indicated that the Lunar Gateway was no longer a priority and would not be deployed using the Artemis Program’s infrastructure. Less than a year later, NASA officially announced that they had selected SpaceX to launch the Gateway’s foundational elements (the PPE and HALO) as early as May of 2024 (using the Falcon Heavy).
Clearly, in addition to budgetary issues, shifting priorities, and various other factors, it appears that setting a hard deadline of 2024 for the long-awaited return to the Moon has also contributed to the current situation. And as target dates slip, NASA is forced to reach out to commercial space companies (mainly SpaceX) to pick up the slack. It will be interesting to see how the current NASA and Presidential administration chooses to resolve the situation.