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NASA’s goal of returning humans to the Moon by 2024 sounded ambitious from the start, and now it appears as though the program — while still on track — is facing the first tech challenge that could bump the launch schedule farther down the calendar.
In a new report made public this week, the U.S. Office of Inspector General (OIG) forecast that the complexities of developing the new Artemis xEMU lunar suit means that “a lunar landing in late 2024 as NASA currently plans is not feasible,” and projected April of 2025 as the earliest date when the first pair of finished suits should be ready.
“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,” OIG stated in its report. “This schedule includes approximately a 20-month delay in delivery for the planned design, verification, and testing suit, two qualification suits, an ISS Demo suit, 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 same report anticipates new suit development, which already has required more than $400 million in funding (via The Verge), will end up costing more than $1 billion by the spring of 2025, which OIG described as the most optimistic new goal for their completion. “Given the integration requirements, the suits would not be ready for flight until April 2025 at the earliest,” the report states.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk responded to the report by offering his company’s expertise in bridging the technical challenges. “SpaceX could do it if need be,” Musk tweeted on Tuesday. A NASA spokesperson told CNBC that the agency already has reached out to its growing network of private space partners (including SpaceX) for input on “purchasing commercial spacesuits, hardware, and services.” SpaceX already outfits ISS astronauts who board its Crew Dragon capsule with its new “suit-seat system,” a high-tech suit worn during Crew Dragon missions — though their design scope doesn’t include lunar landings.
NASA first showed off an early prototype of its xEMU suit — the Extravehicular Mobility Unit that astronauts will wear while exploring the lunar surface on foot — in 2019. But the OIG report doesn’t lay all the blame for its forecasted Artemis delay entirely on the suit’s costly development.
“NASA’s inability to complete development of xEMUs for a 2024 Moon landing is by no means the only factor impacting the viability of the Agency’s current return-to-the-Moon timetable,” the report states. “For example, our previous audit work identified significant delays in other major programs essential to a lunar landing, including the Space Launch System rocket and Orion capsule. Moreover, delays related to lunar lander development and the recently decided lander contract award bid protests will also preclude a 2024 landing.”
Under the administration of former President Donald Trump, NASA formally unveiled the Artemis program in May of 2019, announcing a goal of putting the first female astronaut on the lunar surface by 2024. The administration of current President Joe Biden remains committed to the Artemis program — though, as acting NASA Chief of Staff Bhavya Lal explained to The Verge earlier this year — budgeting concerns present “a question mark” in meeting the original 2024 launch target.