In March 2019, NASA was instructed to develop all of the necessary equipment and send astronauts to the moon by 2024, with the return to the moon coming earlier than NASA originally planned. Under its “Moon to Mars” framework, NASA hoped to first assemble the Lunar Gateway by 2028 and then land astronauts on the surface.
Unfortunately, this ambitious proposal has created all sorts of complications, forcing NASA to shift certain priorities. Recently, NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) submitted a report indicating that their new Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Units (xEMU) spacesuits are not ready on time. The resulting delay has led Elon Musk to offer the services of SpaceX to expedite the development of the spacesuit 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 mission to return to the moon. These efforts coincided with the birth of the xEMU project in 2017, which aimed to create a next-generation spacesuit that can 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). Photo credit: NASA
These spacesuits are currently used by astronauts aboard the ISS to conduct space walks. However, the xEMU design incorporates several technological advances made since the Apollo era that allow it to perform more complex tasks than its predecessors. The new designs emphasize safety and incorporate what the Apollo missions taught us about moondust – how sharp, abrasive, and sticky to everything!
The suits also have greater freedom of movement for scientific tasks, which is made possible by a storage system on the waist, arms and legs. The helmets also come with an updated communication system that replaces the old “Snoopy caps” that are known to get sweaty and uncomfortable and have a single microphone. The new system is based on multiple, embedded microphones in the upper body, which are voice activated and much more ergonomic.
They’re also expandable and one-size-fits-all, which helps astronauts avoid complications. like in 2019, when the first all-female ISS spacewalk was canceled because there weren’t enough medium-sized spacesuits available. Most importantly, the xEMU suits have a modular structure so that they can be adapted to different destinations – such as the ISS, the moon, Mars and beyond.
The suit was unveiled in 2019 at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC, where spacesuit engineer Kristine Davis wore a prototype to demonstrate its freedom of movement (see below). This, they explained, differentiates the new xEMU suits from the bulky and restrictive spacesuits used by the Apollo astronauts, which forced them to hop from one place to another (and often fall over).
According to NASA’s plan, two ready-to-fly xEMU suits should be produced by November 2024 in preparation for the Artemis III mission. This mission would be the first female astronaut (and the “first woman and first person of color”) to walk on the lunar surface since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. Due to their importance for the Artemis program, the OIG paid close attention to their development, which has stalled in recent years. As they state in their report:
“We reported in 2017 that despite spending nearly $ 200 million on off-vehicle space suit development over the past 9 years, the agency was years away from having a ready-to-fly space suit for exploration missions. Since our 2017 report, NASA has spent an additional $ 220 million – a total of $ 420 million – on space suit development. “
However, following the review, the OIG determined that the lawsuits will not be ready on time, which is attributed to three factors: funding bottlenecks, the impact of COVID-19, and technical challenges. As a result, according to the report, there is “no schedule margin for the delivery of the two ready-to-fly xEMUs”. Due to the integration requirements, they come to the conclusion that the first suits will be ready to fly in April 2025 at the earliest.
The OIG also estimates that by the time two xEMU suits are ready to fly, NASA will have spent over $ 1 billion developing them. This effectively means that a moon landing cannot take place until November 2024. The report stresses, however, that the delay in space suit development is by no means the only delay affecting the schedule of the long-awaited “NASA return to the moon”.
Illustration of the SpaceX Starship human spaceship design that will bring the first NASA astronauts to the surface of the moon as part of the Artemis program. Credits: SpaceX
For example, there are delays in the development of a Human Landing System (HLS). In April 2020, NASA selected SpaceX, Blue Origin and Dynetics to develop concepts for a lunar lander, and ultimately awarded the contract to SpaceX. This led to a legal challenge from Blue Origin and Dynetics, followed by Bezos’ offer of $ 2 billion in compensation for delays incurred. Just yesterday it was revealed that Blue Origin has filed a lawsuit against NASA to overturn the decision.
In an earlier report dated April 19, 2021, titled “Artemis Status Update,” the OIG outlined the other issues preventing NASA from achieving 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 advances in the SLS core tier and consumable rocket boosters, NASA is still facing the time-consuming process of integration and final system testing. As they summarized in the report:
“Given all of these factors, there is a risk that a scheduled launch of Artemis I in 2021 could slide to 2022, a delay that would postpone the launch of Artemis II to at least the third quarter of 2023, which ultimately would be the launch date of Artemis effects III.
“The Artemis program also faces challenges with the integration and introduction of the PSA and HALO, the first gateway components. Regarding the development of the Critical Human Landing System, NASA only received about 25 percent of its budget request for the HLS program, which is putting new pressure on the agency to meet the 2024 schedule. “
Orion is NASA’s space exploration spaceship that will bring astronauts from Earth to the Moon and home safely. Photo credit: Lockheed Martin
The OIG report also makes four key recommendations to address the delays in the xWWU program. They include:
- Adjust the schedule as needed to reduce development risks
- Development of an integrated master plan to integrate and coordinate the hardware deliveries and training needs of the dependent programs – Gateway, ISS and HLS – and the flight operations directorate;
- Ensure the technical requirements for the next generation suits are consolidated before selecting the acquisition strategy to source suits for the ISS and Artemis programs; and
- Develop an acquisition strategy for the next generation spacesuits that meets the requirements of both the ISS and Artemis programs.
In response to this news, CNBC space reporter Michael Sheetz drew attention to the OIG’s report, which was addressed to the contractors and suppliers supplying components for the xEMU spacesuit. As he shared on Twitter, “There are 27 different companies that supply the components for NASA’s next-generation spacesuits.” This prompted Elon Musk to reply (also on Twitter), “Seems like too many cooks in the kitchen.”
He later tweeted on the same discussion thread that “SpaceX could do it if necessary”. Previously, astronauts who flew aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule wore the company’s flight suit, but it is designed for short-term missions, not long-term flights and definitely not EVAs. However, given its manufacturing capacity, SpaceX could make its own proprietary suits that would be cleared for use in a vacuum.
Illustration of the drive and drive element (PPE) and the housing and logistics outpost (HALO). Credits: NASA
Kathy Lueders, Assistant Administrator of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Directorate of Mission, issued a letter in response to the report. In it, she confirmed the recommendations of the OIG, noting that NASA intends to “redefine the xEVA schedule,” which will require a test of the xEMU suit aboard the ISS by June 2022 (shortly before Artemis II, the first manned Mission of the program). NASA also released a statement shortly after the report was released stating:
“For NASA, it is a priority to send the first woman and the first colored person to the surface of the moon and to establish a long-term presence on the moon under Artemis. The agency is evaluating the current budget and schedule for Artemis missions and will provide an update later this year. “
Another important topic of the Artemis program is the deployment of the Lunar Gateway. NASA originally planned to use the SLS to deploy the four modules that would make up the station. These 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 2019, about a year after its accelerated schedule was published, NASA announced that the Lunar Gateway was no longer a priority and would not be deployed over the Artemis program infrastructure. Less than a year later, NASA officially announced that it had selected SpaceX to launch the gateway’s basic elements (the PPE and HALO) as early as May 2024 (with the Falcon Heavy).
Along with budget issues, changing priorities, and various other factors, it seems obvious that setting a tough deadline by 2024 for the long-awaited return to the moon has also contributed to the current situation. And as the target dates shift, NASA is forced to turn to commercial space companies (mostly SpaceX) to fill the void. It will be interesting to see how current NASA and the presidential administration resolve the situation.
Further reading: NASA