NASA contracts the development of the Moon spacesuit to two private companies

Today, NASA announced that two private companies – Axiom Space and Collins Aerospace – will develop the next-generation spacesuits that future astronauts will wear to perform spacewalks and eventually traverse the surface of the Moon. It’s a bold new direction for spacesuit development at NASA, with the agency handing the job over to the private sector after years of struggling to develop its own suit.

These new spacesuits will play a vital role in NASA’s Artemis program, the agency’s flagship initiative to return humans to the lunar surface. Currently, NASA is aiming to land the first Artemis astronauts on the Moon by 2025 – a year behind the 2024 deadline originally set by the Trump administration. When the astronauts land, NASA wants them to be outfitted with appropriate spacesuits that they can use to explore the Moon’s terrain.

There are, however, many doubts that NASA can meet the 2025 deadline, as there is still a lot of work to be done on the hardware and vehicles needed to achieve the first landing. But one of the main delays turned out to be the development of spacesuits. Multiple audits have revealed that NASA’s quest to create next-generation suits has been ineffective, faced numerous technical challenges, and is many years behind schedule. Today, after 15 years of struggling to make these new costumes, the agency is handing over to the commercial industry. Collins Aerospace has a history with building spacesuits, as it helped create the current suits used by NASA, while Axiom Space is a relatively new company aiming to create private space stations.

NASA said the total value of the contracts is $3.5 billion, though the space agency wouldn’t say each company’s individual contract values. The $3.5 billion is a cap that covers the duration of the contracts, encompassing both partial development costs and future purchases of the suits for use by NASA. Once the suits are completed, companies will own them and have the ability to use them for other purposes unrelated to NASA.

The suits are designed to fit a wide range of body types, from the 5th percentile female to the 95th percentile male. The goal is to have the spacesuits ready to be worn by astronauts on Artemis III, the third launch of NASA’s new rocket, the Space Launch System, and the current first landing target. Artemis also strives to land the first woman and first person of color on the Moon. “For her to have a suit that’s appropriately sized and tailored for her – that doesn’t look like a spaceship that looks like a rugged set of extreme sports clothing – that should be the goal,” said Dan Burbank, former astronaut and senior. tech fellow at Collins Aerospace, said at a press conference.

However, the new suits that these companies are developing are not just for lunar exploration. NASA wants a new line of suits that are much more versatile than their predecessors to be used both by Artemis astronauts while exploring the Moon and to replace aging suits on the International Space Station.

For the past four decades, NASA astronauts have relied on the same basic spacesuit design to perform spacewalks on the ISS. Called EMU, for Extravehicular Mobility Unit, the suit got its start in the Space Shuttle era, and an “upgraded” version is used by ISS astronauts to leave the lab and perform upgrades and repairs at outside the station. EMUs haven’t been upgraded in decades, however, and they’re not meant to be used for lunar spacewalks. In addition, their size is limited.

A prototype of NASA’s xEMU suit, shown in white, red and blue in the middle, was unveiled in 2019.
Photo by Joel Kowsky/NASA via Getty Images

But the transition to a new spacesuit has proven difficult for NASA. The agency began work on new spacesuits in 2007 and has spent a total of $420 million on spacesuit development since then. These efforts ultimately resulted in a new suit called xEMU, a prototype of which was unveiled in 2019. At the time of the unveiling, NASA hoped to have two suits ready to be tested on the space station before sending them to the lunar surface for the landing of 2024.

But, in August, an audit by NASA’s Office of Inspector General found that development of NASA’s new suits had been significantly delayed due to a lack of money, technical issues, and problems associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Ultimately, the report claimed that the xEMU would not be ready by the Trump administration’s 2024 deadline. (A few months later, NASA moved the deadline to 2025.) The audit also noted that NASA would likely spend $1 billion in total on spacesuit development by the time the first flight suits were ready. , which would be “April 2025 at the earliest”. ”

Meanwhile, in April 2021, NASA launched a request for information from private companies for the design of new spacesuits that could be used for the Artemis missions. At the time, NASA said it would continue to develop the xEMU in-house, but the move signaled the agency might rely on commercial suits instead. “NASA has a responsibility to taxpayers and future explorers to re-examine its infrastructure as needed to reduce costs and improve performance,” the agency wrote when the news broke.

Now, NASA is placing all its expectations on Collins Aerospace and Axiom Space. The space agency said its engineers will continue testing the xEMU until the end of the year, but it will eventually change focus and provide information to commercial companies as they move forward. Additionally, the data and research that NASA has collected throughout the development of xEMU will be made available to both companies.

As for companies’ ability to meet the 2025 deadline, that will be played out over the next few years. Collins Aerospace unveiled a prototype moonsuit in 2019, and today Burbank said the company had already spent years developing a suit. As for Axiom Space, the company’s CEO, Mike Suffredini, also said that the development of suits started a few years ago, as the company had long considered manufacturing suits for its future space stations. “We have a number of customers who would like to do a spacewalk already,” Suffredini said. “And we planned to build a costume as part of our program.”

Yet 2025 is just a few years away. NASA says it’s confident about transitioning spacesuit functions at this point, saying existing xEMU research will help “reduce risk” and speed things up. “We were in a great place to transition, just because of how mature xEMU was at the time,” said Lara Kearney, program manager for Extravehicular Activity and Human Surface Mobility at NASA, during the interview. the conference. “And I think getting it to these guys sooner allows them to race.”

Plus, there’s a whole host of milestones that NASA and its business partners need to get through to make 2025 work, including launching the agency’s new space rocket for the first time and finishing human lunar landers for take people to the moon. surface. Spacesuits are just one piece of the very complex puzzle that NASA must solve to get back to the Moon.

Correction June 1, 7:53 PM ET: An earlier version of this story stated that individual contract values ​​would be revealed at the end of the month, based on information received at a NASA press conference. NASA later clarified that this information was inaccurate and the information was removed.


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