NASA has ambitious plans to return American astronauts to the moon before 2024 as part of the federal government’s Artemis Program. According a new internal audit, the agency won’t be able to deliver on that timeline because, among other reasons, the astronauts’ spacesuits won’t be ready in time.
In a report by NASA’s inspector general this month, “a lunar landing in late 2024 as NASA currently plans is not feasible” due to “anticipated delays in spacesuit development” as a result of funding shortage, COVID-19 impacts and technical challenges.
NASA has spent $420 million on developing next-generation spacesuits since 2007. The effort led to the creation of the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Units (xEMU) project in 2016 under the leadership of the Trump administration. Despite various departments and programs pouring resources into spacesuit development, NASA is still a long way from producing the first human-grade gear for lunar travel.
The office of inspector general estimates that NASA is going to invest another $625.2 million in spacesuits alone, bringing the total cost of producing two flight-ready suits to over $1 billion. The earliest delivery date based on current progress is April 2025.
The first lunar flight-ready spacesuit was originally expected to be ready by March 2023. The timeline was pushed back to November 2024 in March this year due to reduced funding for spacesuit development for the fiscal year 2021.
Repeated delays and high estimated cost have raised concerns in Congress.
“I almost certainly think we have to schedule a hearing before the end of the year,” U.S. Rep. Don Beyer, a Democrat from Virginia and the chair of the House Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee, told the United Press International on Monday.
“We already spent $420 million, and we don’t know where we’re going. We need to really make sure [Congress] is providing the oversight and the accountability necessary,” Beyer said. “I was pretty disappointed in what the inspector general discovered.”
For fiscal 2021 Congress only approved 77 percent of the funding NASA requested for the Gateway Program (a moon orbital component under the Artemis Program), under which the spacesuit project falls. The funding shortfall is resulting in a three-month delay in the spacesuit development schedule, NASA’s internal report shows.
Other factors at play include intermittent manufacturing closure of NASA contractors due to the coronavirus pandemic and new requests that have complicated the spacesuit design in order to meet the need for future lunar missions.
The Artemis Program overall is facing other hurdles as well that may add to the uncertainty of NASA’s first moon landing since 1972.
Last week, the program was further delayed after Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin sued NASA in a federal court for not choosing the company’s lunar lander proposal. NASA has contracted SpaceX to build the landing vehicle, which is expected to cost $2.9 billion. Blue Origin’s competing proposal would cost nearly $6 billion.