Is Musk making empty promises? It wouldn’t be the first time. But, as the audit shows, NASA is still struggling to meet its own ambitious deadlines — and it’s possible that it will have to leverage the help of the private space industry whether it likes to or not.
NASA is already leveraging private industry players to design a suit that could be ready by 2024. In July, the agency published a draft request for proposal (RFP), asking companies to come up with “commercially built spacesuits and support services for spacewalks on the International Space Station,” according to a recent statement.
But why is NASA’s spacesuit so behind schedule? According to the audit, the cost of developing and testing the suit is soaring and is expected to rise to a total of over $1 billion by 2025. The Office of Inspector General also blamed the COVID-19 pandemic for delays.
SpaceX is already deeply involved in NASA’s efforts to return to the Moon. The company was recently awarded a $2.9 billion contract to design a lunar lander variant of its Starship spacecraft to ferry NASA astronauts to the lunar surface.
Whether they will be wearing suits designed by SpaceX remains unclear. After all, designing such a suit is an extremely complex task, as NASA has demonstrated.
Spacesuits for Artemis moonwalkers will not be ready before 2025
/ CBS News
The next-generation spacesuits needed by the first moonwalkers in NASA’s Artemis program will not be available until 2025 at the earliest and will have cost more than $1 billion to develop, the agency’s Office of Inspector General reported Tuesday.
While November 2024 remains NASA’s goal for obtaining two flight-ready spacesuits, known as xEMUs, “the agency faces significant challenges,” the OIG said, including a 20-month delay in development and delivery of test suits, a space station demonstration version and two lunar flight suits.
“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,” the report concluded. “Given the integration requirements, the suits would not be ready for flight until April 2025 at the earliest.”
“Moreover, by the time two flight-ready xEMUs are available, NASA will have spent over a billion dollars on the development and assembly of its next-generation spacesuits,” the report said.
The inspector general said the spacesuit delays alone mean a lunar landing in 2024, a deadline imposed by the Trump administration, “is not feasible.”
The conclusion comes after earlier reports that identified “significant delays” in other Artemis programs, including development of the Space Launch System rocket and Orion crew capsules needed to launch astronauts to the moon.
“Moreover, delays related to lunar lander development … will also preclude a 2024 landing,” the OIG said.
Under the Artemis program, NASA’s Boeing-managed SLS rocket will boost Lockheed Martin-built Orion capsules to the moon where crews will either rendezvous with a small lunar space station, known as Gateway, or descend directly to the surface in a new lander being built by SpaceX.
The first SLS is being assembled, or “stacked,” at the Kennedy Space Center and is expected to blast off on a maiden flight by the end of the year, sending an unpiloted Orion capsule on an automated trip around the moon and back.
The second Artemis flight, tentatively targeted for 2023, will send four astronauts on an around-the-moon shakedown flight before the first landing attempt in the Artemis 3 mission, presumably in the 2025 timeframe or later.
NASA’s current spacesuits, or extravehicular mobility units — EMUs — were originally designed in 1974 for use during the space shuttle program. The suits were modified in the early 1990s for use outside the International Space Station.
The current xEMU spacesuit design effort is intended to replace the current suits with next-generation models that could be used on the space station, on and around the moon and, eventually, on Mars.
The new suits feature improved mobility, flexibility and communications. They will fit a broader population and will allow astronauts to work in vacuum for up to nine hours. The xEMUs feature 92 components being supplied by 27 different vendors.
Since 2007, the OIG reported, NASA has spent just over $420 million on spacesuit development. To finish development, NASA must obtain suits for testing and certification as well as a demonstration model that can be evaluated aboard the International Space Station.
“Going forward, the agency plans to invest approximately $625.2 million more, bringing the total spent on design, testing, qualification, an ISS Demo suit, two flight-ready suits and related support to over $1 billion through fiscal year (FY) 2025,” the report said.
The OIG made four recommendations to streamline remaining development, reduce technical risks and keep the project in synch with other elements of the Artemis program as well as the International Space Station.
Spacesuits could delay NASA’s return to the moon, audit finds
NASA’s goal of landing astronauts back on the moon by 2024 is unlikely and could face further delay because astronauts won’t have spacesuits ready to wear, according to a new audit by the NASA Office of Inspector General.
The current spacesuits, known as EMUs, used for spacewalks outside the International Space Station were first developed over 45 years ago for the space shuttle program and have undergone minor technical changes since. These suits are also not up to the job of moonwalking, which requires more mobility to conduct research.
The NASA OIG last reviewed NASA’s spacesuit development in 2017 and released its latest findings Tuesday in a 41-page report. In 2017, the U.S. space program had already invested $200 million over nine years to develop the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Units (xEMUs), the next-generation spacesuit. The new audit found that the price tag has more than doubled, with more than $420 million spent by NASA in spacesuit development, however, the agency is nowhere near a final product ready for flight.
The OIG estimates NASA will spend over $1 billion on design, testing and qualification before it has two flight-ready suits. The Artemis program will require 16 flight-ready lunar spacesuits, according to auditors.
The independent office notes that the spacesuits under development, known as xEMUs, are “by no means the only factor” which could delay NASA’s timeline. Delays with developing the human lunar landing system, a global pandemic and other factors are also likely to delay the return to the moon.
Similar to the Commercial Crew Program where NASA purchases rides for its astronauts from private companies, SpaceX and Boeing, the American space program will rely on this method for spacesuits but the agency still plans to develop its own first.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk responded to the NASA OIG report Tuesday, saying “SpaceX could do it if need be.” The private company already has its own flight suits for Crew Dragon spaceflights, which do not provide the level of life support of an EMU, which is essentially a mini spacecraft.
NASA plans to provide its testing and technical data for the xEMU to the space industry and would allow potential contractors to utilize that information or not use any of that information and propose their own design. This makes it “unclear to what extent NASA’s $420 million investment to date will be utilized” should a contract not use the design, the OIG found.
According to the OIG, NASA is working with 27 contractors for various parts of the xEMU, including the hard upper torso, boots and the life-support system.
“The thing that we’re most encouraged by is NASA’s enthusiasm and interest in allowing an enabling industry to innovate and to use the best of what industry has and then augment that with some of the great work that NASA has done with the xEMU and other systems and essentially allow the industry partners to work with NASA to create a solution … for spacesuits that serve all these multiple customers,” Collins Aerospace technical fellow and former NASA astronaut Dan Burbank told WKMG in July.
Collins Aerospace, which used to be Hamilton Standard, is the company that manufactured NASA’s last moon suits.
Burbank said NASA has yet to put out the request for proposals on spacesuit development but expects that to happen later this year. But Burbank said the private space industry hasn’t been waiting for NASA to act.
“We’re not waiting for it. We’ve been working actually for a couple of years … in a very high tempo, I would say for the last year and a half. So, I think we’ve got some great ideas,” Burbank said.
The OIG recommends NASA develop a strategy to purchase commercial suits and ensure technical requirements are solidified before putting out a call for bids.
In response to the OIG audit, the head of NASA’s human spaceflight program Kathy Lueders responded in a letter to the OIG, agreeing with the recommendations.
Despite the spacesuit development delays, teams at NASA are already working to plan the first moonwalks in 50 years. A Johnson Space Center team is picking up where the last moon program left off and planning for the challenges of walking on the moon again — but this time with plans to stay.
“We’ve improved the mobility of the suits, we’ve changed how … our shoulders are placed, how the lower part of the spacesuits are, they’re much more capable in terms of providing that mobility to the astronauts,” Manyapu said.
NASA’s current timeline is to have two xEMUs ready by November 2024 but the OIG estimates those suits will not be ready until April 2025 at the earliest putting the moon landing more than a year behind schedule.
WKMG reached out to NASA headquarters and Johnson Space Center for further comment. This report will be updated if they respond.
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Elon Musk offers to make moon spacesuits as report calls out NASA lunar delays
NASA’s proposed 2024 date to land humans on the moon has always felt extremely ambitious. A new report from the NASA Office of Inspector General (PDF link) released on Tuesday says the spacesuits NASA astronauts would need won’t be ready until April 2025 at the earliest. SpaceX founder Elon Musk suggested his company could step in to help.
The report points out delays in the development of the Artemis moon spacesuits due to funding shortfalls, COVID impacts and technical challenges. NASA had previously hyped up the suits — known as Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU) — in 2019.
NASA OIG is tasked with oversight of NASA programs and operations. “Given these anticipated delays in spacesuit development, a lunar landing in late 2024 as NASA currently plans is not feasible,” the report says.
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Sheetz pointed out there are 27 different companies supplying components for the suits. “Seems like too many cooks in the kitchen,” Musk said.
NASA has been willing to work with commercial providers on big space projects, from delivering astronauts and cargo to the ISS to delivering hardware to the moon. In July, NASA said it would embrace commercial partnerships “to optimize spacesuit technology and inspire pioneering in the space market,” so Musk’s SpaceX offer is within the realm of possibility.
NASA said it would continue to develop xEMU in-house in parallel with any procurement activity. The agency expects to release a formal request for spacesuit and spacewalk support services proposals later this year with the goal of making awards in early 2022.
The OIG report details some big numbers for xEMU development costs. NASA has already spent $420 million on the project with the initial goal of producing two flight-ready spacesuits by November 2024. The Inspector General suggests the price tag will balloon to over $1 billion by the time those suits are developed and assembled.
The Artemis program is a layered endeavor. NASA has been working on its SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft to carry astronauts back to our lunar neighbor. The rocket system has also seen its share of delays, though NASA officially hopes to launch an uncrewed around-the-moon Artemis I mission later this year.
It’s one thing to send a spacecraft to the moon, and another to safely deliver astronauts to the moon’s surface and then bring them back home. The new spacesuits, which are meant to greatly enhance astronaut mobility and comfort compared to Apollo-era suits, are a key component for human lunar exploration. No spacesuits, no moonwalks.
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