Because of anticipated delays in spacesuit development, it is "not feasible" for NASA to land humans on the moon by the agency's hopeful deadline of 2024, a new report from the agency's Office of Inspector General (OIG) has found.
In this new report, which the OIG's Office of Audits released on Tuesday (Aug. 10), NASA's Inspector General has audited the agency's development of next-generation spacesuits, called the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU). NASA is creating the suits to be worn and used as part of the agency's Artemis program, which the agency has said will return humans to the lunar surface by 2024. However, according to this evaluation, that timeline is not only unlikely, but even impossible.
"NASA's current schedule is to produce the first two flight-ready xEMUs by November 2024, but the agency faces significant challenges in meeting this goal," the audit reads. However, it adds, given anticipated delays in spacesuit development, "a lunar landing in late 2024 as NASA currently plans is not feasible."
The OIG conducted the audit because, "The development of new spacesuits is a critical component of achieving NASA's goals of returning humans to the moon, continuing safe operations on the International Space Station (ISS), and exploring Mars and other deep space locations," the report reads. In the audit, inspectors "examined the extent to which NASA is addressing challenges related to cost, schedule, and performance of the next-generation spacesuit system."
Spacesuits currently in rotation among astronauts on the space station were designed 45 years ago for NASA's space shuttle program, and it is critical that NASA develop new suits for the safety and efficiency of future space missions and programs, the audit notes. And so, for the past 14 years NASA has been developing this next-gen replacement.
However, obstacles along the way in developing these suits could put NASA's ambitious moon plans on hold; one main obstacle being budget.
"We reported in 2017 that despite spending nearly $200 million on extravehicular spacesuit development over the previous nine-year period, the agency remained years away from having a flight-ready spacesuit to use on exploration missions. Since our 2017 report, NASA has spent an additional $220 million — for a total of $420 million — on spacesuit development," the audit reads.
However, while NASA aims to invest $625.2 million more into the development of these suits, bringing the grand total to over $1 billion, the OIG still thinks that NASA cannot meet its current hopeful schedule of a 2024 lunar landing.
In addition to a multitude of budgetary concerns, the audit shows that this schedule includes about a 20-month delay in designing, verifying and testing the suits as well as creating two "qualification suits," a demonstration suit for the space station 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 reads. The audit found, in analyzing the suit development at Johnson Space Center in Texas and Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, reviewing NASA finances, program planning and budgeting and more, that "the suits would not be ready for flight until April 2025 at the earliest."
"Moreover," the audit added, "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 added that once the suits are ready it does not mean that a mission to the moon can launch right away. The agency will need to have these suits ready well ahead of any crewed missions so that astronauts can train with them not just for Artemis missions but for astronauts flying to the space station and astronauts that will work with other NASA programs.
As part of this audit, the OIG made four recommendations to NASA's associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, who is currently Kathy Lueders.
These recommendations suggest that NASA adjust its schedule to land humans on the moon "as appropriate to reduce development risks"; develop a master schedule for all of its different programs (like Gateway, Artemis, ISS and more); solidify all technical requirements for the suits before moving forward; and develop an "acquisition strategy" for the suits that satisfies the needs of both the Artemis and ISS programs, according to the report.
According to this audit, even with over $1 billion in total projected spending for these new spacesuits, there are too many delays and obstacles and NASA cannot meet its 2024 moon landing goal.
However, a comment on the OIG audit from SpaceX founder Elon Musk has sparked discussions of a possible spacesuit collaboration between the company and NASA. In response to a social media post by CNBC reporter Michael Sheetz about the OIG audit, Musk tweeted "SpaceX could do it if need be."
SpaceX could do it if need beAugust 10, 2021
What exactly "it" is in this instance is unclear at this point, but it did show Musk's interest in collaborating with NASA in some way with regard to the development of its next-generation spacesuits.
This is not the first inkling of commercial collaboration for NASA's xEMUs. In April, the agency published a request for information (RFI) that revealed that it was looking for feedback from the space sector on a strategy to work with commercial partners on programs including spacesuits.
In the agency's proposed new strategy outlined in the RFI, NASA would be "shifting acquisition of the exploration extravehicular activity (xEVA) system to a model in which NASA will purchase spacesuit services from commercial partners rather than building them in-house with traditional government contracts," the statement reads.
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