NASA awards contracts for next-generation space suits it'll rent
NASA has awarded service contracts worth up to US$3.5 billion through 2034 to Axiom Space and Collins Aerospace to provide new space suits to the agency and private firms, for use on the International Space Station (ISS) and on the Moon.
Despite having poured $200 million dollars into space suit research since 2009, NASA is facing an ongoing problem when it comes to working outside of a spacecraft. The suits used by NASA astronauts on the ISS date back to the 1980s and various bits and pieces have become so worn from decades of use that there are only enough to construct 11 full suits instead of the original 18 – and only four are available for station duty.
Worse, the suits in use are becoming increasingly malfunction-prone, with the cooling system leaking water into the helmet so often that current crews aren't allowed outside the station except in emergencies as there is a real risk of an astronaut drowning.
With NASA committed to establishing a permanent human presence on the Moon in the next few years and an eventual crewed mission to Mars, developing new space suits takes on a new imperative. It isn't just that new suits are needed, but ones suitable for new missions.
Though popular fiction makes a space suit seem as easy to put on as a set of coveralls, it's actually a miniature spacecraft that now even includes propulsion systems and takes as long to don and are as hard to use as mixed-gas deep diving rigs. Worse, the ones made for the ISS are useless for walking on the Moon because they're designed for spacewalking, so the lower units don't even have the flexible joints needed to move the legs.
Add in all of the advances in materials, electronics, life support systems, and many other fields, and a new suit seems an obvious move. However, this time NASA doesn't plan to buy the suits directly, but only rent them from Axiom Space and Collins Aerospace as part of the Exploration Extravehicular Activity Services (xEVAS) contract.
As part of NASA policy to encourage private companies to move into space, the new awards aim to both set up a new industry and to foster competition. In addition, the contract allows the companies to offer the suits and their technology to outside parties.
Under xEVAS, the companies are responsible for the design, development, qualification, certification, and production of the spacesuits and support equipment that will be used in low-Earth orbit and for the Artemis missions to the Moon. NASA will provide the technical and safety standards as well as the results of decades of the space agency's research into space suit engineering. The first demonstration of the suits will be on the ISS and the Artemis III lunar landing.
"Our commercial partnerships will help realize our human exploration goals," said Mark Kirasich, deputy associate administrator of NASA’s Artemis Campaign Development Division. "We look forward to using these services for NASA’s continued presence in low-Earth orbit and our upcoming achievement of returning American astronauts to the Moon’s surface. We are confident our collaboration with industry and leveraging NASA’s expertise gained through over 60 years of space exploration will enable us to achieve these goals together."