Following a report issued by NASA’s inspector general saying that NASA is not likely to have a spacesuit that’s suitable for operations on the lunar surface before April 2025, Elon Musk says that SpaceX could make a spacesuit that’s suitable for use on the Moon completely in-house.
NASA had been working to return crews to the Moon by 2024, but several elements needed for the job have slipped, including the SLS rocket and (now) the spacesuit. The SLS has long been criticized as yet another Congressional boondoggle that has only had one uncrewed test flight so far.
“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” that includes “funding shortfalls, COVID-19 impacts, and technical challenges,” according to the inspector general’s report.
NASA had expected to receive the first two flight-ready xEMUs by November 2024. By the time NASA’s spacesuits are ready, they will have cost $1 billion. Elon Musk blamed it on the entire process being overly complex and especially having too many contractors involved in making elements for the spacesuit:
Musk suggested that the process could be improved by just letting one aerospace contractor handle the job – SpaceX, naturally. It would be a question of whether SpaceX could design a lunar spacesuit, or xEMU as NASA officially calls it, in time to meet the inspector general’s recommendation of “developing an acquisition strategy for the next-generation spacesuits that meets the needs of both the ISS and Artemis programs.” SpaceX does have its own spacesuit, which it uses in conjunction with the Crew Dragon, but it may take a little work to upgrade it for use on the Moon.
SpaceX has, of course, faced delays of its own in developing its hardware, most recently in the form of a challenge of NASA’s award of the lunar lander development contract to SpaceX. Competitors Blue Origin and Dynetics claimed that NASA made errors in the process of selecting a company to continue development of its lunar lander proposal. The Government Accountability Office has since ruled in favor of SpaceX, allowing it to resume work on the lunar lander.
It’s likely that the losses of four Starship prototypes in a row during high-altitude tests and the usual wrangling with regulators like the FAA has also slowed SpaceX down from its original, ambitious schedule. It had hoped to launch the orbital test of a Starship prototype in July, but is now ramping things up for a likely attempt in August if the FAA doesn’t slow it down with regulatory red tape and the failure of an FAA inspector to show up for the test again.
Even so, that hasn’t stopped NASA from making SpaceX its go-to launch provider recently, with recent contracts including deals to launch components of the Lunar Gateway, the Europa Clipper, and a new lunar rover that will scout for signs of water on the lunar south pole ahead of crewed landings on the Moon.
It remains to be seen whether NASA might take Elon Musk up on his offer to make spacesuits for use on the lunar surface, too, considering that it has already awarded contracts to 27 different companies to work on components for the xEMU.