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Elon Musk offers for SpaceX to make NASA spacesuits, after watchdog says program to cost $1 billion

Kristine Davis, a spacesuit engineer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, wears a ground prototype of the new Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU), during a demonstration on Oct. 15, 2019.

Joel Kowsky / NASA

Elon Musk offered SpaceX’s services to help NASA make its next-generation spacesuits, after a watchdog report on Tuesday said the agency’s current program is behind schedule and will cost over $1 billion.

“SpaceX could do it if need be,” Musk wrote in a tweet.

Musk’s company has developed and made flight suits for astronauts that launch into orbit in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft. The flight suits are primarily designed to protect the astronauts in the case of a fire inside of the spacecraft, or if the cabin depressurizes. Building spacesuits would be a more complex and challenging endeavor, given the need to survive outside of a spacecraft in the harsh environment of space.

NASA spokesperson Monica Witt, in a statement to CNBC on Musk’s offer, pointed to the agency’s request last month to companies in the space industry for feedback on “purchasing commercial spacesuits, hardware, and services.”

From left: Mission specialist Thomas Pesquet of the ESA, pilot Megan McArthur of NASA, commander Shane Kimbrough of NASA, and mission specialist Akihiko Hoshide of JAXA.

SpaceX

Musk’s proposal came in response to a report by NASA’s Inspector General – which is the investigative office which audits the agency for fraud and mismanagement – on the work being done to develop a new line of Extravehicular Mobility Units (EMU), which are informally called spacesuits.

Astronauts on board the International Space Station use spacesuits “designed 45 years ago for the Space Shuttle” program, the report noted. IG also highlighted that those spacesuits have been “refurbished and partially redesigned” over the past decades to continue working.

The space agency has started three different spacesuit programs since 2007, the Inspector General found, and has spent $420.1 million on development since then. Additionally, the report said NASA “plans to invest approximately $625.2 million more” on development, testing, and qualification to complete a suit for a demonstration on the ISS and two suits for the crewed mission to the moon – for a total cost of “over $1 billion” through 2025.

NASA Inspector General

Beyond the soaring cost, the Inspector General said delays “attributable to funding shortfalls, COVID-19 impacts, and technical challenges” has eliminated the chance the spacesuits are ready in time. The spacesuits will “not be ready for flight until April 2025 at the earliest,” the report said. NASA originally said the spacesuits would be ready by March 2023.

NASA needs new spacesuits for its Artemis program, which was announced by President Donald Trump’s administration and has continued under President Joe Biden. Artemis is expected to consist of multiple missions to the moon’s orbit and surface in the years ahead, with NASA aiming to land astronauts on the lunar body by 2024. Although NASA has stuck to the 2024 goal, the Inspector General has warned repeatedly that the schedule is threatened by several major programs that are key to Artemis’ success.

Musk earlier this year called the 2024 timeline “actually doable,” after SpaceX became one of the critical pieces of Artemis by winning a $2.9 billion contract to use its Starship rocket to deliver astronauts to the moon’s surface.

The spacesuits have a multitude of different components, which the Inspector General noted are supplied by 27 different companies. That’s a point Musk also highlighted, saying in a tweet that it “seems like too many cooks in the kitchen.”

SpaceX did not respond to CNBC’s request for comment on whether the company has begun work on its own spacesuits. While the company hasn’t publicly disclosed spacesuit plans, it is one of nearly 50 companies that expressed interest in NASA’s program to purchase privately-developed spacesuits and spacewalk services.

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