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NASA has a new challenge to reaching the moon by 2024: Its $1 billion spacesuit program

Despite working on next-generation suits for years, they won’t be ready until 2025 at the earliest, an inspector general determined

NASA Commercial Crew astronaut Suni Williams gets in her spacesuit on Nov. 29 as she prepares to practice for missions involving spacewalks in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory pool. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Ever since the White House directed NASA to return astronauts to the moon by 2024 as part of its Artemis program, there have been all sorts of daunting challenges: The rocket the space agency would use has suffered setbacks and delays; the spacecraft that would land astronauts on the surface is not yet completed and was held up by the losing bidders; and Congress hasn’t come through with the funding NASA says is necessary.

But another reason the 2024 goal may not be met is that the spacesuits needed by the astronauts to walk on the lunar surface won’t be ready in time and the total development program, which ultimately will produce just two flight-ready suits, could cost more than $1 billion.

The NASA Inspector General said in a report Tuesday that the suits have been delayed by almost two years because of funding shortfalls, impacts from the coronavirus pandemic and technical challenges. As a result, the government watchdog concluded that the suits would not be ready until 2025 at the earliest and that “a lunar landing in late 2024 as NASA currently plans is not feasible.”

NASA has been working on next-generation spacesuits, which act as mini spaceships that protect the astronauts from the vacuum of space, for 14 years, the IG said. In 2016, NASA decided to consolidate two spacesuit designs into a single program that it would oversee. By 2017, the agency had spent $200 million and since then has spent an additional $220 million, the IG found. While it took the program in-house, parts for the suits are still supplied by 27 contractors.

Going forward, the space agency plans to spend $625.2 million more, the IG said. That would bring the total for design and testing to more than $1 billion through fiscal year 2025, “when the first two flight-ready spacesuits will be available,” the IG found. In addition to those two suits, the program would produce a demonstration suit that could be used at the space station, two “qualification” suits for testing of the life support system while being worn, and another suit “used to test the design and features of the spacesuit before astronauts wear it.”

The troubles with the suit program are “by no means the only factor impacting the viability of the agency’s return-to-the-moon timetable,” the IG said. It also said “significant delays” in NASA’s Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft were contributing factors. And delays related to the development of the lunar lander spacecraft “will also preclude a 2024 landing,” it said.

In April, NASA awarded Elon Musk’s SpaceX a $3 billion contract to use its Starship spacecraft to land astronauts on the surface of the moon in what’s known as its Human Landing System program. But the losing bidders, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Dynetics, an Alabama-based defense contractor, protested the decision. The protests were not successful, but they did force NASA to delay executing its contract with SpaceX.

The effort marks the first time NASA has led the development of a new spacesuit that can be worn in the vacuum of space in more than 40 years. The IG report noted that the spacesuits currently aboard the International Space Station “have exceeded their design life by more than 25 years, necessitating costly maintenance to ensure astronaut safety.”

They also don’t fit all body types. In 2019, NASA astronaut Anne McClain canceled going on what would have been the first all-female spacewalk outside the space station after deciding that the spacesuit was too large for her. That touched off a wave of criticism that NASA wasn’t accommodating its female astronauts in a program that had long been dominated by men.

The new suits will “feature a new design to accommodate a broader range of sizes and improve fit, comfort and mobility,” the IG said. The suits will have a more mobile lower torso that will allow astronauts to walk or kneel more easily and avoid the “bunny hopping” that the Apollo astronauts did on the moon in the 1960s and early 1970s.

In developing the new suits, the IG said, NASA, which is making them in-house, has run into several technical and design issues. Even the boots have had issues.

If NASA lands on the south pole of the moon as expected, the suit and boots must be able to endure “extreme temperature swings” and transition from the “moderate environment” of where the lander touches down to the “harsh environment” of the permanently shadowed region at the pole.

That creates a challenge, the IG said, because “access to suitable materials is limited and the technology needed to help address this challenge is still being tested.”

On Twitter, Musk offered his company’s services: “SpaceX could do it if need be.”