The moon

Return to the Moon will have to wait

The pandemic, technical difficulties, and a lack of cash means planned return missions to the Moon will be delayed.

NASA has revealed “significant challenges” leading to a delay in the development of the spacesuits needed for the journey. Australian companies are vying for the chance to play a role in the Moon to Mars missions. Adelaide’s Human Aerospace, for example, has been working on next-generation spacesuits.

According to the audit report from NASA’s Office of Inspector General, NASA has been working on Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Units (xEMU) for 14 years. The spacesuits are being designed for use on the International Space Station as well as the Artemis mission.

The Artemis mission aims to return astronauts – including the first woman and the first person of colour – to the Moon by 2024. It’s the first part of a larger mission to establish a lunar gateway in orbit as a base from which to send people to Mars.

According to the latest report, the suits will not be ready for flight until at least 2025.

“This schedule includes approximately a 20-month delay in delivery for the planned design, verification and testing suit, two qualification suits, an ISS demo suit and two lunar flight suits,” the OIG reported.

“These delays – attributable to funding shortfalls, COVID-19 impacts, and technical challenges – have left no schedule margin for delivery of the two flight-ready xEMUs.

“Given the integration requirements, the suits would not be ready for flight until April 2025 at the earliest. Moreover, by the time two flight-ready xEMUs are available, NASA will have spent over a billion dollars on the development and assembly of its next-generation spacesuits.”

That delay – and other delays outlined in the report – means a 2024 lunar landing is no longer feasible.

NASA has known for some time that the 45-year-old suits in use on the ISS needed updating. The new design will accommodate a broader range of sizes, and a more mobile lower torso for walking, which it says will eliminate the “bunny hopping” famously seen during the Apollo missions.

Along with improved mobility, they will have a more advanced life support system to remove carbon dioxide, odours and humidity, and to maintain body temperature.

They will have a new pressure subsystem to keep astronauts alive in the vacuum of space and protect them from micrometeoroids and space debris, as well as liquid cooling and ventilation garments.

The informatics subsystem will have high-definition video, data recording, and other technical advantages over the current suits. The new suits will also need to interface with the new vehicles that will be used.

The US Congress has only approved three-quarters of the $209 million budget for the suits. Meanwhile, facility closures and work restrictions due to the pandemic added to delays.

On top of those delays, various component failures and a lack of contingency plans mean the lunar landing will not happen on time.