NASA awards contracts for new space and moon suits
Next-generation spacesuits, needed by astronauts aboard the International Space Station and by moonwalkers in NASA’s Artemis program, will be provided by two companies competing for contracts valued at up to $3.5 billion through 2034, the agency announced Wednesday.
Houston-based Axiom Space and a team led by Collins Aerospace will develop suits that will be tested in a “relative environment” — in thermal vacuum chambers on Earth, in space, or just outside the ISS. The testing will take place in the 2025 timeframe, before the first planned Artemis moon landing.
NASA will assess the performance and choose one or both suits for further development and operational use.
“Theoretically, one company could win all of (the task orders),” said Lara Kearney, manager of the Extravehicular Activity and Human Surface Mobility Program at the Johnson Space Center. “So we will issue task orders, we will compete for them, and we’ll evaluate them. We must also know what our funding availability is. “
She called the contract structure with a maximum value of $3.5 Billion combined, “incredibly flexible.” “
“It is difficult to predict how this contract will be executed today,” Kearney stated. “But that was intentional and by design, because we want the flexibility we need to make these decisions as we watch how these companies perform. “
Officials declined to disclose the initial amount each company will receive under the new contract.
NASA’s current spacesuit, known as an extravehicular mobility unit, or EMU, is a decades-old design that has had problems as recently as March with potentially dangerous cooling water backups into an astronaut’s helmet. Spacewalks are currently being held pending resolution of the latest incident.
NASA managers believe engineers will find the problem and fix it. The suits will continue to be in service aboard the ISS up until a replacement is approved as safe for operation.
The Exploration Extravehicular Activities Services (or xEVAS) contract aims to replace the aging suits from the shuttle era with a suit that can be worn by moonwalkers and would share life support.
Both suits would have state-of the-art communications and computer technology, as well as common life support systems with stronger reserves for emergency situations. The lunar version would have enhanced mobility, allowing for walking and bending down on uneven surfaces.
The engineers will decide if Collins and Axiom will create a single suit design or two completely different designs.
” The requirements for a suit on the lunar surface and a suit on space station are not significantly different, especially for the life support system,” Kearney stated.
” The differences are in the pressure garment. This is the difference between being in zero gravity at space station and walking on the moon. “So, at its core the requirements are the same. We didn’t tell them that they would need one, two, or any other suit. “
Dan Burbank, a former astronaut and veteran spacewalker who now works with Collins Aerospace, said that in microgravity outside the space station, “you can be in the 350-pound suit and it’s not an impediment. It could be a more stable platform, according to some estimates. “
“But in a planetary environment you have trip hazards and a hard surface that doesn’t allow for easy motion,” he said. “So we would like to have a lower torso that allows the crew member to move naturally on Earth. “
Mike Suffredini, former manager of NASA’s space station program and now CEO of Axiom Space, said the goal “is to make sure the suits are as similar as they can be. “
” Dust is another one that hasn’t been mentioned,” he stated. Dust is a major problem on the moon. However, it’s one of the few things that you don’t need to worry about in microgravity. It’s a problem on the surface. “
NASA plans to launch an unpiloted test flight under the Artemis program later in the year. This will send an Orion crew capsule beyond and back to the moon. A piloted test flight is expected in 2024, followed by the first landing near the south pole of the moon in mid to late 2025.
A new spacesuit has long been considered a pacing item in the Artemis timeline, and NASA began work to develop an advanced suit, known as the xEMU, several years ago. The agency ultimately decided to hand the work over to the private sector, and put out a request last year for information that led to Wednesday’s award.
“Having two companies is a good thing,” Kearney stated. “It gives us some redundancy as our company moves forward…It keeps the competition in our system which was also a goal. “
Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He covered 129 space shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2’s flyby of Neptune and scores of commercial and military launches. Harwood, a dedicated amateur astronomer, is based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and co-author of “Comm Check”: The Final Flight Of Shuttle Columbia. “
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.