NASA's Office of Inspector General has stuck another knife in the agency's dreams of a 2024 Moon landing by pointing out [PDF] that, er, the astronauts will have to be good at holding their breath because the space suits are unlikely to be ready before 2025.
The report makes for grim reading for Artemis enthusiasts still clinging to dreams of a crewed 2024 Moon landing even after Blue Origin and Dynetics lobbed a protest over the awarding of a contract to build a Human Landing System to SpaceX.
The design for the current Extravehicular Mobility Units (EMU) and their associated hardware dates back 45 years. The suits used on the International Space Station (ISS) have had a few design tweaks and been refurbished over the years, but NASA has long known that a redesign was needed.
In its report, the OIG highlights that development has been underway for 14 years, and a project to create Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Units (xEMU) was kicked off five years ago. A total of $420m has been spent by NASA "and a flight-ready xEMU remains about 4 years away."
NASA took the approach in 2017 to design, test and produce the suits in-house. The result is to be a pair of flight suits, a test suit, a pair of qualification suits and an ISS demonstration suit. All very prudent, except that the OIG reckons that another $625.2m will be needed before the first suits are ready for flight, making the investment more than $1bn.
And, worse, astronauts won't be suiting up in 2024. Meaning that boots on the Moon will, in a scheduling sense, slip.
To be fair to NASA, the development schedule has been hit by COVID-19 as well as budgetary and technical challenges. In 2019, NASA was expecting human-rated suits by the end of March 2023. That date shifted to November 2024 earlier this year, pretty much eliminating any schedule margin if a 2024 landing was to be attempted.
The xEMU problem is only one of several challenges faced by NASA. Delays in its monster SLS rocket, which has just had its flight software installed, are also a factor. And then there is the issue of actually landing on the Moon in the first place.
For its part, NASA concurred with the OIG's recommendations (or intent) and promised a "rebaseline" of the schedule, a solidifying of the requirements and the development of an acquisition strategy for both Artemis and ISS programs.
NASA told The Register: "Sending the first woman and first person of color to the lunar surface and establishing a long-term presence at the Moon under Artemis is a priority for NASA.
"The agency is evaluating the current budget and schedule for Artemis missions and will provide an update later this year." ®