In March of 2019, NASA was directed to develop all the necessary equipment and planning to send astronauts back to the Moon by 2024. This plan, officially named Project Artemis, was part of an agency-wide shakeup designed to ensure that the long-awaited return to the Moon takes place sooner than NASA had originally planned. In accordance with their “Moon to Mars” framework, NASA hoped to assemble the Lunar Gateway first, then land astronauts on the surface by 2028.

Unfortunately, this ambitious proposal has led to all sorts of complications and forced NASA to shift certain priorities. Most recently, NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) submitted a report that indicated that their new Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Units (xEMU) spacesuits will not be ready in time. The resulting delay has prompted Elon Musk to offer the services of SpaceX to expedite the spacesuit’s development and get Artemis back on schedule.

Development of the xEMU spacesuits began in earnest back in 2007 as part of the Constellation Program, the first step in NASA’s ongoing drive to return to the Moon. These efforts came together in 2017 with the birth of the xEMU project, which aimed to create a next-generation spacesuit that could be used in multiple programs. The xEMU spacesuit is similar in design to the Extravehicular Mobility Units (EMUs) that have been in use for 45 years.

Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU). Credit: NASA

These spacesuits are currently used by astronauts aboard the ISS to conduct spacewalks. However, the xEMU design incorporates multiple technological advances that have been made since the Apollo Era that will allow it to accomplish more complex tasks than its predecessors. The new designs emphasize safety, incorporating what the Apollo missions taught us about Moon dust – like how it’s sharp, abrasive, and sticks to everything!

The suits also have a greater range of motion for performing scientific tasks, made possible by a system of bearings on the waist, arms, and legs. The helmets also come with an updated communications system, which replaces the old “snoopy caps” that are known to become sweaty, uncomfortable, and have a single microphone. The new system relies on multiple, embedded microphones inside the upper torso that are voice-activated and much more ergonomic.

They are also extendable and one-size-fits-all, which allows astronauts to avoid complications; like what occurred in 2019 when the first all-female ISS spacewalk was aborted because not enough medium-sized spacesuits were available. But most important of all, the xEMU suits are modular in design so they can be adapted to different destinations – such as the ISS, the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

The suit was presented in 2019 at NASA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., where spacesuit engineer Kristine Davis wore a prototype to demonstrate its range of motion (see below). This, they explained, sets the new xEMU suits apart from the bulky and restrictive spacesuits used by the Apollo astronauts, which forced them to “bunny hop” from one place to another (and often fall down in the process).

According to NASA’s schedule, two flight-ready xEMU suits were to be produced by November 2024, in preparation for the Artemis III mission. This mission would be the first astronauts (and the “first woman and first person of color“) to walk on the lunar surface since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. Given their importance to the Artemis Program, the OIG has been keeping a close eye on their development, which has stalled in recent years. As they indicate in their report:

“We reported in 2017 that despite spending nearly $200 million on extravehicular spacesuit development over the previous 9-year period, the Agency remained years away from having a flight-ready spacesuit to use on exploration missions. Since our 2017 report, NASA has spent an additional $220 million—for a total of $420 million—on spacesuit development.”

However, after conducting their audit, the OIG determined that the suits will not be ready