Spacesuits could delay NASA’s return to the moon, audit finds

Artemis program will need 16 lunar spacesuits

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.

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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.

NASA space scientist Dr. Kavya Manyapu is part of that team and recently told WKMG the xEMUs will have greater mobility and allow for astronauts to work as geologists on the moon.

“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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