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Lunar spacesuits won’t be ready in time for 2024 landing

WASHINGTON — Spacesuits that NASA astronauts will need to walk on the moon won’t be ready in time to meet a 2024 lunar landing goal, NASA’s inspector general concluded.

In an Aug. 10 report, NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) said the next-generation spacesuit the agency is developing for the Artemis program, known as the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU), won’t be ready for flight until at least April 2025, and may be subject to further delays.

“Given these anticipated delays in spacesuit development, a lunar landing in late 2024 as NASA currently plans is not feasible,” OIG stated in its report. It added, though, that other factors, such as delays in the development of the Space Launch System, Orion and Human Landing System (HLS), “will also preclude a 2024 landing.”

The report identified several factors for the delay, such as technical issues, funding shortfalls and impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. While NASA has spent $420.1 million on new spacesuit designs since the Constellation program in 2007, and about $625 million more to complete development of the xEMU, funding for xEMU development in fiscal year 2021 was cut by 28% because of reduced funding for the lunar Gateway program, which hosts that work.

Those factors wiped out the 12-month schedule reserve for xEMU development. NASA now estimates the first two xEMU suits needed for the Artemis 3 mission won’t be completed until November 2024 and, given time needed for final launch preparations, would not be ready for flight until at least April 2025, even if the lunar lander and other components of the mission are complete. “As of June 2021, NASA had no contingency plans if the suits are not ready,” the report stated.

Schedule pressure created by moving up the lunar landing date in 2019 from 2028 to 2024 may have exacerbated problems. The report noted that, in March, work on a prototype suit was halted because of a component failure. Personnel blamed the problem on factors that included schedule pressure as well as faulty communications among team members and rapid growth of the project team.

Despite its problems, work on the xEMU suit is still far ahead of HLS, which creates its own difficulties. The report noted that project officials worry that design assumptions the suit project makes about the lander may turn out to be wrong. The mass budget for the suit was cut last year from 186.6 to 177.1 kilograms, which is forcing the project to redesign elements of the suit to meet that reduced mass.

The OIG report also raised concerns about NASA’s procurement strategy for the new suit. NASA previously planned a “hybrid contract approach” where it would have a single prime contractor for integration of the suit and multiple contracts for development and sustainment. NASA, though, announced earlier this year it would follow a commercial services approach for spacesuits, paying to use suits developed by companies, who will be encouraged but not required to use technologies developed for the xEMU.

That approach, the report added, also makes it unclear if the suits will also be designed for use on the International Space Station. The xEMU project had planned to make versions of the suit compatible for use on the station, replacing aging suits that have become a safety issue, as well as for activities at the lunar Gateway.

“However, with the evolving and competing requirements of the xEMU’s stakeholder programs and the Agency’s uncertainties about mission priorities, NASA is at risk of awarding a contract without clearly defining key technical requirements,” the report concluded.

The report made four recommendations for NASA, from extending the schedule of suit development and making sure xEMU suits can also be used on the ISS to finalizing an acquisition strategy for the suits. NASA, in a response included in the report, said it accepted the recommendations, although implementing them won’t be completed in some cases until next June.

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