NASA announced today that it has partnered with two private U.S. companies, Axiom Space and Collins Aerospace, to develop its next spacesuits, which will be ready no earlier than 2025.
American astronauts are getting brand-new suits to wear on the International Space Station, as well as during future journeys to the Moon and possibly Mars. The space agency announced today that it is awarding contracts to Axiom Space and Collins Aerospace to build the suits, worth a potential combined value of $US3.5 ($5) billion.
The contracts allow the two companies to compete for NASA’s task orders through 2034. The first orders are for suits to be worn by astronauts on the ISS and for astronauts taking part in the planned Artemis missions to the Moon, with the ISS being used as a sort of testbed for the lunar missions. The agency also has the option to add more vendors to the contract as the private space engineering market evolves.
“Spacesuits have been a critical part of every part of our human spaceflight programs,” Lindsay Aitchison, program executive for Extravehicular Activity and Human Surface Mobility Program at NASA, said during a press briefing held earlier today. “They continue to be at the forefront, and when we take those first steps back on the lunar south pole,” she said, adding that “this contract is a critical milestone to getting us to that point.”
NASA has been running into issues with its current model of spacesuits. The space agency has put spacewalks outside the space station on hold after a series of potentially life-threatening incidents of water leaking into astronauts’ helmets during their spacewalks. The spacesuits currently being used on the ISS are more than 40 years old, and only 18 usable units are currently available on the ISS, according to a 2017 report. NASA is investigating the faulty spacesuits and devising mitigation techniques to alleviate the issue until the new spacesuits are available for use, according to Aitchison.
NASA will provide data from previous spacewalks, as well as data collected from ground-based testing of the spacesuits, to assist the companies during the development of the new models. Importantly, these commercial partners will use the upcoming spacesuits for their own private ventures. Axiom Space is also planning to build its own commercial space station, which will be designed to house space tourists and host scientific research.
“Normally, as the agency is trying to pull commercial to start doing things, it’s been about helping commercial develop, so that they can provide a product that the agency can buy,” Axiom CEO Michael Suffredini said at the press briefing. “But in this case, we we are building a space station, Axiom Space has a need for a spacesuit…we can both utilise the suit to meet our needs.”
NASA’s commercial partners are aiming for 2025 as the deadline to provide the spacesuits for the Artemis 3 mission to the lunar surface, which is currently slated to take place during the same year. In the meantime, the current spacesuits on the ISS have an extended life warranty that will last to 2028, but the new suits should — fingers crossed — make their way to the station sooner than that. The timeline for the new spacesuits also suggests that the crew of the Artemis 2 mission, currently scheduled for launch in 2024, won’t be wearing the new suits on their journey to lunar orbit.
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