The proper attire for an outdoor adventure matters, and perhaps no dress code counts more than what you wear to the surface of the moon.
A spacesuit must be carefully sewn and assembled. The gold-coated helmet should shield your eyes from the sun’s unfiltered glare. The fabrics closest to the body should be laced with tubes of chilled water to keep you cool. The more exterior layers should keep some things from coming out (breathable air) and other things from coming in (dangerous micrometeoroids). It’s a head-to-toe look for a life-and-death occasion.
NASA is currently working on a fresh spacesuit design, the agency’s first effort to develop a brand-new outfit for moonwalkers since the Apollo era. The new suits will be more flexible, so that astronauts can twist at the waist and walk with more ease, instead of hopping around like rabbits as the Apollo astronauts did. And the design will have fewer seams and zippers so that sticky lunar dust, which clung to just about everything during the Apollo missions, doesn’t slip in. NASA has already poured $420 million into development since 2007, and plans to drop another $625 million to make two spacesuits—yes, just two—flight-ready.
But the garments won’t be done in time for NASA’s next moon landing, according to a recent report from the agency’s inspector general, because of “funding shortfalls, COVID-19 impacts, and technical challenges.” And it’s not just the suits, either. NASA is also behind on the rocket that’s supposed to launch the astronauts and the capsule that will carry them, and only recently picked a contractor to build the landing system that would set them on the surface. There’s so much left to do, and the deadline for this mission—part of NASA’s Artemis program—is coming up. The agency’s current target for landing Americans on the moon for the first time in nearly 50 years is late 2024.
“It’s a stretch, it’s a challenge, but the schedule is 2024,” Bill Nelson, the NASA administrator, said in late May.
That’s … soon.
In leave-the-Earth-and-go-to-space time, it’s really soon. Sure, NASA has landed astronauts on the moon before, six times in fact, and it got them there using technology with less raw computational power than a smartphone. The agency isn’t starting from scratch. But NASA’s current budget for moon missions is meager compared with the amount the U.S. government spent on the Apollo program, and the government isn’t rushing to beat a rival superpower to a momentous first in human history. According to the inspector general’s latest report—which concluded that those spacesuits won’t be ready until at least April 2025—NASA’s vision for a moon landing in 2024, as it stands now, is not just difficult or unlikely, but simply “not feasible.” Other government reports have said the same for months, even before President Joe Biden took office and appointed Nelson as administrator.
So why is NASA leadership acting as if it’s still going to happen?
When I reached out to the agency yesterday, I received a careful but telling response that seemed to suggest that its act could soon change: “The agency is evaluating the current budget and schedule for Artemis missions and will provide an update later this year,” a NASA spokesperson told me via email. “Astronaut safety is a priority, and NASA will put humans on the moon when it is safe to do so.”
Nearly every president since John F. Kennedy has spoken of a triumphant return to the moon, but the 2024 objective is not Biden’s invention. The directive came down in the spring of 2019, to be carried out “by any means necessary.” The program was dubbed Artemis, for Apollo’s sister in mythology, and was championed by former Vice President Mike Pence, who was quite enamored of spaceflight, and former President Donald Trump, who knew little about space activities but understood well that a mention of the American space effort always led to applause. NASA had been targeting 2028 for a moon landing, and many saw the calendar revision as politically motivated. Trump had claimed that NASA was “closed and dead until I got it going again,” and what better way to prove it than by presiding over a moon landing during his final term?
As Trump left the White House and Biden moved in, the slew of government reports casting doubt on the plan’s feasibility, combined with the perceived politics of its inception, suggested that the new administration could slough off the 2024 goal easily enough. In February, an acting NASA administrator said that the timeline “may no longer be a realistic target.” But remarkably the date stuck, and so did the Artemis branding, with the new administration shifting the Trump administration’s promise to take “the next man and the first woman” to the moon to “the first woman and the first person of color.”
The Artemis program, the NASA spokesperson told me, is a priority. The average American probably hasn’t heard much about it, because the administration is a little busy dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, a legacy-defining infrastructure deal, and other Earth-bound matters. Vice President Kamala Harris announced in May that she would take over Pence’s spot as chair of the National Space Council, but Biden hasn’t spoken in any detail about America’s future among the stars. The American public hardly supported the Apollo program in the 1960s, even though the passage of time and savvy NASA marketing have cast it as a moment of national unity. In this particular moment—with the Delta variant spreading, warnings about the climate crisis worsening, and the aftermath of the Capitol riots rattling American democracy—a moon mission that verges on make-believe is probably not good optics. (If you’re wondering about NASA’s plan for a future Mars mission, I have some bad news there too: A 2019 report found that an orbital mission—a precursor to a landing—in the agency’s set date of 2033 is “infeasible under all budget scenarios and technology development and testing schedules.”)
At some point, NASA will have to publicly revise its goal to bring the plan closer in line with reality. It’s possible that officials were waiting until they finalized a crucial aspect of the Artemis landing mission—the vehicle that will take astronauts from the moon’s orbit down to the surface. The whole situation was in limbo until just a couple of weeks ago. Elon Musk’s SpaceX had won the contract to provide the landing technology, beating out Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin (which had partnered with some longtime aerospace contractors). Blue Origin formally protested the agency’s decision, but its petition was overruled by a federal audit agency. That final call, NASA said in a statement in late July, “will allow NASA and SpaceX to establish a timeline” for the first Artemis landing. NASA is already known for a culture of excessive optimism and unrealistic deadlines, which feeds its culture of schedule slips. (So is SpaceX, which says it will use the Starship rocket that the company is currently developing in South Texas for the moon gig.) Perhaps NASA will push the landing out just slightly to 2025, to preserve what it has described as the “urgency” of the effort, or it could return to the 2028 plan, or, borrowing from Kennedy, leave it at “before the end of this decade.”
Whatever the target, it would behoove NASA officials to decide sooner rather than later. Deadlines are good—a clear finish line, coupled with a buoyant atmosphere, is a better motivator than a nebulous future of somedays and soons. “You have to be optimistic to beat gravity and to do the amazing things that NASA does,” Lori Garver, who served as NASA’s deputy administrator from 2009 to 2013, told me a few years ago, in an interview about a NASA telescope that is many years overdue. “On the other hand, that has caused us to overpromise and make mistakes.” In March, the spacesuit team put some operations on hold after workers used the wrong specifications to build part of the life-support system and it failed. Workers interviewed by the NASA inspector general’s office blamed the issue on, among other factors, “schedule pressure” and “rapid growth of the project team, including the addition of inexperienced personnel.”
The next crew of American astronauts on the moon will differ from the first visitors, and not only because of their outfits. The astronauts that NASA has selected to train for future moon missions come from a mix of backgrounds; half of them are women, and about as many are nonwhite. When they go, they will have put their trust in NASA and its contractors, just as their predecessors did, to get them there and back. What’s the rush?