NASA’s return to the Moon’s surface has encountered a significant obstacle. The space agency’s Inspector General has published a report that states that the current development of the next-generation spacesuits will preclude a Moon landing in 2024, the first scheduled in over 52 years. The new suits won’t be ready for flight until April 2025 at the earliest.
The spacesuits currently in use are known as the Extravehicular Mobility Units (EMU) and were designed over 45 years ago for the Space Shuttle Program. NASA and international partners have been relying on these (albeit refurbished and partially redesigned) for extravehicular activities on the International Space Station (ISS).
Work on a new spacesuit began 14 years, ago but the Office of Inspector General reports that what has been produced so far won’t be ready in time for the Artemis Program, NASA's ambitious plan to bring humans back to the surface of the Moon by 2024. The suits were revealed in 2019 but even then there were still many obstacles to overcome for them to be ready in time.
The upgraded spacesuit is known as the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Units (xEMU) and it is designed for multiple missions: for low-Earth orbit with the ISS, in lunar orbit on the upcoming Lunar Gateway space station, on the Moon, and one day even on Mars. For this reason, the suits need to be versatile enough for these different environments.
The report shows that the development of the suit has a 20-month delay. This is partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but also due to funding shortfalls and technical challenges. The development of the new suits is expected to cost around $620 million dollars, and two-thirds of that has already been spent.
“Given these anticipated delays in spacesuit development, a lunar landing in late 2024 as NASA currently plans is not feasible,” the report summary reads.
The suit delay is a big factor but the Office of the Inspector General noted that there are several delays on other vital parts of the mission, too. These delays include the Space Launch System rocket, the Orion capsule, and the recent Moon lander contract bid won by Elon Musk’s SpaceX and contested by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin.
The report suggests adjusting the schedule, solidifying the technical requirements for the suit, and developing an acquisition strategy that meets the need for both orbital activities and lunar exploration. The newly developed suit will have to be extensively tested both on Earth and in space before it is actually employed on a lunar mission.
The first Artemis mission, Artemis I will be uncrewed and is expected to launch in a few months, followed by a crewed mission in lunar orbit in 2023, and then the historic Artemis III to take a crew back down to the surface of our natural satellite.