NASA awards contracts to build new spacesuits

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NASA commercial crew astronaut Sunita Williams gets in her spacesuit as she prepares for spacewalk practice in NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory pool in Houston on Nov. 29, 2018. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jonathan Newton.

NASA wants new spacesuits to replace the old bulky ones that its astronauts have been wearing for more than 40 years whenever they venture outside into the vacuum of space – suits that not only protect the astronauts but also provide more mobility and can be used for spacewalks and on the surface of the moon.

On Wednesday, June 1, 2022, NASA reached a key milestone in a sometimes tortured journey to produce such a suit, announcing contracts for design and production with two companies, Axiom Space and a team led by Collins Aerospace. In total, the contracts could be worth a total of $3.5 billion through 2034, NASA said. The suits should be ready for testing on the space station within a few years.

“History will be made with these suits,” Vanessa Wyche, the director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, said during a news conference Wednesday. “When we get to the moon, we will have our first person of color and our first woman that will be wearers and users of these suits in space.”

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Last year, NASA’s Office of Inspector General issued a withering report on NASA’s problems in its efforts to design new spacesuits, saying they would delay its return to the lunar surface. The space agency had spent 14 years working on next-generation suits, the report found. In 2016, NASA consolidated two suit designs into a single program but had already spent $200 million.

The report noted that the spacesuits aboard the International Space Station “have exceeded their design life by more than 25 years, necessitating costly maintenance to ensure astronaut safety.” NASA last designed a new spacesuit 40 years ago.

On Wednesday, Dina Contella, NASA’s space station operations integration manager, said the existing suits have “been the workhorse for the agency for 40 years” and have been worn on 169 spacewalks. She added that “the spacesuit technology, though, of course, at 40 years is now aging, and so we’d like to try new future technologies.”

The current suits also don’t fit all body types. In 2019, NASA astronaut Anne McClain canceled going on what would have been the first all-female spacewalk outside the space station after deciding that the spacesuit was too large for her. That touched off a wave of criticism that NASA wasn’t accommodating its female astronauts in a program that had long been dominated by men.

The new suits should be able to fit a broad array of body types, from women in the fifth percentile for size as well as men in the 95th percentile, NASA said.

By choosing a pair of private companies to build the suits, NASA is again relying on a growing commercial space sector that has played an increasingly significant role in human exploration. Private companies such as SpaceX now fly cargo and crews to the space station. Axiom Space, which is based in Houston, is also working to build a commercial space station that would eventually replace the International Space Station.

“We have a number of customers that already would like to do a spacewalk, and we had planned to build a suit as part of our program,” said Mike Suffredini, Axiom’s president and CEO. “And so it’s fantastic to have a partnership where we can benefit from the years of experience that NASA has.”

Collins said it, too, wants its next-generation suit to be more modern than its predecessors.

The suits should not “feel like a spacecraft but feel like a rugged-ized set of extreme sport outerwear,” said Dan Burbank, a senior technical fellow at Collins Aerospace and a former NASA astronaut. “That should be the goal.”

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