Supersonic transportation has proven a difficult technology to commercialize. Unsplash
NASA has ambitious plans to return American astronauts to the moon before 2024 as part of the federal government’s Artemis Program. According a new internal audit, the agency won’t be able to deliver on that timeline because, among other reasons, the astronauts’ spacesuits won’t be ready in time.
In a report by NASA’s inspector general this month, “a lunar landing in late 2024 as NASA currently plans is not feasible” due to “anticipated delays in spacesuit development” as a result of funding shortage, COVID-19 impacts and technical challenges.
NASA has spent $420 million on developing next-generation spacesuits since 2007. The effort led to the creation of the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Units (xEMU) project in 2016 under the leadership of the Trump administration. Despite various departments and programs pouring resources into spacesuit development, NASA is still a long way from producing the first human-grade gear for lunar travel.
The office of inspector general estimates that NASA is going to invest another $625.2 million in spacesuits alone, bringing the total cost of producing two flight-ready suits to over $1 billion. The earliest delivery date based on current progress is April 2025.
The first lunar flight-ready spacesuit was originally expected to be ready by March 2023. The timeline was pushed back to November 2024 in March this year due to reduced funding for spacesuit development for the fiscal year 2021.
Repeated delays and high estimated cost have raised concerns in Congress.
“I almost certainly think we have to schedule a hearing before the end of the year,” U.S. Rep. Don Beyer, a Democrat from Virginia and the chair of the House Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee, told the United Press International on Monday.
“We already spent $420 million, and we don’t know where we’re going. We need to really make sure [Congress] is providing the oversight and the accountability necessary,” Beyer said. “I was pretty disappointed in what the inspector general discovered.”
For fiscal 2021 Congress only approved 77 percent of the funding NASA requested for the Gateway Program (a moon orbital component under the Artemis Program), under which the spacesuit project falls. The funding shortfall is resulting in a three-month delay in the spacesuit development schedule, NASA’s internal report shows.
Other factors at play include intermittent manufacturing closure of NASA contractors due to the coronavirus pandemic and new requests that have complicated the spacesuit design in order to meet the need for future lunar missions.
The Artemis Program overall is facing other hurdles as well that may add to the uncertainty of NASA’s first moon landing since 1972.
Last week, the program was further delayed after Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin sued NASA in a federal court for not choosing the company’s lunar lander proposal. NASA has contracted SpaceX to build the landing vehicle, which is expected to cost $2.9 billion. Blue Origin’s competing proposal would cost nearly $6 billion.
Jeff Bezos laughs as he speaks about his flight on Blue Origin’s New Shepard into space during a press conference on July 20, 2021 in Van Horn, Texas. Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Blue Origin on Thursday scored a small win in its relentless fight for NASA’s Human Landing System (HLS) contract. Although the Jeff Bezos-led company hasn’t officially got the job yet, its lawsuit against NASA in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims has put the agency’s work with SpaceX on hold.
Last Friday, Blue Origin filed a complaint with the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, challenging NASA’s decision in April to select SpaceX as the sole contractor of HLS. The lawsuit came after Blue Origin lost an appeal before the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
On Thursday, the court issued the schedule for the suit, which included a “NASA Voluntary Stay of Performance” clause that would result in a roughly three-month pause in NASA’s ongoing work with SpaceX.
“NASA has voluntarily paused work with SpaceX for the human landing system (HLS) Option A contract effective Aug. 19 through Nov. 1,” NASA said in a statement on Thursday. “In exchange for this temporary stay of work, all parties agreed to an expedited litigation schedule that concludes on Nov. 1.”
In an interview with SpaceNews on Thursday, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said the case is handled by the Justice Department.
“This is a matter that is out of our hands,” he told the publication. “The judge could require, in essence, very laborious discovery.”
As a result, the dispute will delay NASA’s plan to return American astronauts to the moon by 2024 through the Artemis Program, under which the HLS contract falls.
“NASA officials are continuing to work with the Department of Justice to review the details of the case and look forward to a timely resolution of this matter,” the agency said in Thursday’s statement.
Blue Origin, SpaceX, and a third firm called Dynetics submitted bids for NASA’s HLS contract in March 2020. Although in the past NASA has awarded multiple contracts for a single project, such as the Commercial Crew Program, this time the agency selected only one contractor, SpaceX, citing budgeting reasons.
According to a report released by the GAO on July 30 responding to Blue Origin’s complaint, NASA had received only $850 million from Congress in fiscal year 2021 for the HLS program, with an additional $96 million from other programs that could fund HLS. Nearly $400 million of that funding was already spent on the “base period” awards NASA gave to Blue Origin, SpaceX and Dynetics in 2020. About $200 million has been reserved for internal costs for the program. That left the agency only $355 million available for new HLS awards in 2021.
NASA has already paid SpaceX $300 million as part of its $2.9 billion sole contract. Nelson said he didn’t know if it was possible to find funding for a second HLS contract to Blue Origin.
Jeff Bezos introduces Blue Origin’s lunar lander “Blue Moon” at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post via Getty Images
Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin has escalated its dispute with NASA over the agency’s Human Landing System (HLS) contract to a federal court after losing a case before the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Blue Origin was one of the three private firms competing for a NASA contract to build a human landing vehicle on the moon. In April, NASA awarded a $2.9 billion contract to SpaceX and selected the Elon Musk-led company as the sole partner for the HLS project. Blue Origin’s proposal, estimated to cost $5.9 billion, along with a similarly expensive bid by Dynetics, were rejected.
On Friday, Blue Origin filed a complaint with the U.S. Court of Federal Claims to challenge “NASA’s unlawful and improper evaluation of proposals” submitted during the bidding process, said lawyers for Blue Origin, The Verge first reported.
The lawsuit came after Blue Origin and Dynetics failed to challenge NASA’s decision before the federal watchdog, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which ruled earlier this month that NASA had run a fair competition.
“Blue Origin filed suit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in an attempt to remedy the flaws in the acquisition process found in NASA’s Human Landing System,” a company spokesperson said in an email to Observer. “We firmly believe that the issues identified in this procurement and its outcomes must be addressed to restore fairness, create competition, and ensure a safe return to the moon for America.”
Still, it’s an ironic contrast to what Bezos said about bidding wars for NASA contracts just three years ago.
At a talk during the JFK Space Summit in 2019, Bezos openly criticized bid protests as a barrier slowing down NASA’s space exploration efforts. Comparing today’s contracting process with the more streamlined system in the 1960s, he said, “Today, there would be three protests, and the losers would sue the federal government because they didn’t win.”
A NASA spokesperson said the agency is “currently reviewing details of the case.”
Also on Friday, Blue Origin lost a top engineer on its moon lander team to its worst enemy. The company’s HLS Mission Architecture and Integration Lead, Nitin Arora, announced on his LinkedIn page on Monday that he had left Blue Origin to join SpaceX. His last day was Friday.
Arora was a former engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). He joined Blue Origin in 2018 to work on the company’s “Blue Moon” lunar lander. “It was one hell of a ride working on the lunar program. Really honored that I got a chance to work with and lead incredibly smart, passionate people over [the] last three years,” Arora wrote in a LinkedIn post on Monday.