NASA contracts to build new moon and space 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 evaluates the suit’s performance to determine which design will be used for future development.

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An artist’s impression of astronauts on the moon’s surface. NASA has awarded contracts to two companies for the development of new spacesuits. The value of these contracts is up to $3.5 Billion.

NASA


“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, compete for them and then evaluate them. It is important to understand how much funding we have. “

She called the structure of the contract, which has a combined maximum value of $3.5 Billion, “incredibly flexible.” “

“It is difficult to predict how the contract will be executed today,” Kearney stated. We wanted to have the ability to adjust our decisions as we observe how companies do. “

Officials have declined to disclose the initial amount each company will receive under this 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. The most recent incident has put spacewalks on hold.

NASA management are optimistic that engineers will find the issue and fix it. The suits will continue to be in use aboard the ISS up until a new suit is approved 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 used by moonwalkers and would also share life support.

Both suits will feature the latest in communications and computer technology, as well as common life support systems that have more resilient reserves to deal with emergencies. Also, the lunar version will have enhanced mobility to allow for walking and tilting in gravity fields on uneven surfaces.

The engineers will decide if Collins and Axiom develop one suit or two completely different designs.

” The requirements for suiting on the moon and on the space station in low Earth orbit are not that different.

” The differences are in the pressure suit, which is the difference between being on the space station in zero gravity and walking on the moon. The requirements are the same at the core. We didn’t tell them it would be 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 planet environment you have trip hazards, and the surface is difficult to move on. We would like to see a lower body assembly so that crew members can walk as naturally on Earth. “

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An engineer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center shows off an in-house engineering prototype of a next-generation spacesuit known as the xEMU during a briefing in August 2021. On Wednesday, the agency awarded Collins Aerospace and Axiom Space contracts to create new spacesuits that can be used onboard the International Space Station as well as on the lunar surface.

NASA


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 not mentioned,” he stated. Dust is an important issue on the moon. However, it’s not something you have to worry about when living in microgravity. It’s still a problem at the surface. “

NASA has plans for an unpiloted piloted test flight to be launched later in the year under the Artemis program. It will send an Orion capsule into orbit beyond 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. After putting out an information request last year, the agency decided to hand over the work to the private sector. This led to Wednesday’s award.

“Having two companies is a good thing,” Kearney stated. It gives us redundancy and keeps our system competitive, which is also the goal. “

William Harwood


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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 Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. He co-authored “Comm Check: Columbia’s Final Flight”. “

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