There’s a lot of ideas out there about how to make spacesuits better. There’s the MIT-led plan to create shrink-wrapped spacesuits based on the concept of negative pressure. Or a South Dakota School of Mines & Technology contraption that creates a wearable body monitoring system for astronauts. Not to mention a slew of nearly 50 companies that have shown interest in developing a spacesuit for NASA to purchase.
However, I think NASA would be happy just to finish the designs it’s currently working on, the first new suits it’s developed in decades—like the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit. The xEMU is part of the next generation of the spacesuits already worn on the International Space Station, with upgrades that allow astronauts to not just survive on the Moon, but also live and work on it. The xEMUs and a set of new suits for onboard usage are a key part of the Artemis program, which was started by the Trump administration and aims to return humans to the moon by 2024.
Except it doesn’t seem like we’re going to the moon in 2024 after all—and the spacesuits are a big part of that delay.
Sure, the new xEMU suit solves a lot of the problems of previous suits. First, it significantly expands the range of people it can fit. That was a massive issue when NASA planned (and was later forced to scrub) its first all-female spacewalk in 2019 as the ISS did not have enough medium-sized torso suit components for the two astronauts. According to Kristine Davis, an engineer at NASA, the xEMU can be fitted to anyone from “first percentile female to the 99th percentile male.” The new suits will also be ready to handle extremely fine lunar dust and massive scales of temperature variation (-250 to +250 degrees Fahrenheit), while also improving suits’ ability to scrub carbon dioxide—extending the time an astronaut can spend in them. And in possibly the most helpful move for life on the Moon and eventually Mars, the xEMU should actually allow spacefarers to bend, squat, and walk—no more Apollo bunny hops.
The new line of spacesuits just falls short in one minorly important way: hitting deadlines. Originally, these spacesuits were supposed to be tested on the ISS in 2023 with a target date for the Artemis missions in 2028. After Trump’s acceleration, NASA required xEMU suits to be delivered for mission integration by March 31, 2023. Well, that’s not going to happen—with over 20 months of delays currently on the books. NASA’s Office of Inspector General released a report on Aug. 10 detailing the issues that have faced developers of next-generation spacesuits. Schedule pressure has led to mistakes, including at one point using the wrong specifications to construct part of the test next-gen suits’ interface components. Schedule constriction has also resulted in a timeline where spacesuit development and testing are occurring concurrently with other parts of Artemis, which has led to a “design maturity mismatch” and the possibility of future design mismatches as technical requirements are further defined. Misaligned schedules between various NASA offices have compounded issues in intra-agency coordination. Coordination is extra complicated because NASA is “assembling the spacesuit from components supplied by 27 different contractors and vendors.”
And that’s all without mentioning budgetary shortfalls, like that NASA only received 77 percent of its requested funding for the Gateway (an orbiting lunar outpost that is part of the Artemis program)—resulting in $69 million in budget cuts for spacesuit development this year alone. That’s “resulting in at least a 3-month delay to xEMU development schedule,” according to the report. Which makes sense given the massive costs of this project. In total, development of next-gen spacesuits is projected to cost more than $1 billion by the time of completion in Fiscal Year 2025. While there was no exact figure for what they should cost, that’s a ton of money to spend on suit development alone.
(Never fear, there’s someone who thinks they can solve NASA’s spacesuit woes. Elon Musk, has taken to Twitter to let us all know he’s ready to step in.)
Spacesuits are just some of the many reasons the U.S. likely won’t be landing astronauts on the Moon in 2024. Like it did to everything else, the coronavirus wreaked havoc on the timeline for the Artemis program—including temporarily shuttering space facilities and delaying work on mission infrastructure. Setbacks to the construction of the rocket to carry the mission also didn’t help. Plus, there was a legal battle between Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and NASA after the agency selected SpaceX to build its human landing system for the lunar mission; Bezos was so incensed he offered NASA administrator Bill Nelson to pay $2 billion worth of costs if NASA changed course and selected Blue Origin instead. This protest process had more than contractual ramifications: The NASA IG report said that “delays related to lunar lander development and the recently decided lander contract award bid protests will also preclude a 2024 landing.” Billionaires just can’t play nice.
The delays regarding spacesuit construction and contract processes reveal some important insights about the space industry, especially in the context of government missions. First, politicians like Trump and former Vice President Pence seem to massively underestimate the complexity of designing a mission to the Moon. Just because we have done it before doesn’t mean there aren’t massive engineering hurdles to overcome, large amounts of money to spend, and complex interagency and cross-company collaborations required to make it happen. Second, while it is in vogue to deride private attempts at spaceflight, many of the issues faced by NASA in their push to land on the Moon are seemingly unique to public spaceflight in a rapidly privatizing industry. Unlike private companies, NASA is subject to changing political priorities, unsure and unstable funding dependent on the whims of Congressional negotiation, and the need to contract out to a slew of various private companies while maintaining strict oversight.
Beyond that, the troubles facing Artemis—both in spacesuit development and other sectors—highlight just how difficult crewed spaceflight is, and how expensive. The need for extra safety measures and the complexity of supporting life in the rugged environment of space is, well, hard. This isn’t a new or particularly earth-shattering point, but it’s always valuable to remember how much easier it is to send a robot beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
Have no doubt, the Artemis program will eventually reach the lunar surface. But rushing it probably wasn’t the best idea.