STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS AND USED WITH PERMISSION
Next-generation spacesuits, needed by astronauts aboard the International Space Station and moonwalkers in the agency’s Artemis program, will be supplied by two companies vying for contracts worth up to $3.5 billions of dollars until 2034, NASA officials announced on Wednesday.
Houston-based Axiom Space and a team led by Collins Aerospace will both develop suits that will be tested in a “relative environment” – in thermal vacuum chambers on Earth or in space on board or just outside. from the International Space Station – in the 2025 calendar, before the first scheduled moon landing of Artemis.
NASA will evaluate performance and select one or both suit designs for continued development and operational use.
“Theoretically, one company could win all (the task orders),” said Lara Kearney, program manager for extravehicular activity and human surface mobility at Johnson Space Center. “So we will publish the mission orders, we will put them in competition, we will evaluate them. We also need to understand what our funding availability looks like.
She described the structure of the contract, with a combined maximum value of $3.5 billion, as “incredibly flexible.”
“It’s hard to say today exactly how this contract will perform,” she said. “But that was on purpose and by design, because we want the flexibility to be able to make those decisions by seeing the performance of those companies.”
Officials declined to say how much each company will initially receive under the new contract.
NASA’s current spacesuit, known as the Extravehicular Mobility Unit, or EMU, is a decades-old design that had problems as recently as March with potentially dangerous cooling water backups. in an astronaut’s helmet. Spacewalks are currently on hold pending resolution of the most recent incident.
NASA officials are confident engineers will identify the problem and implement a fix, and the suits should remain in service aboard the space station until a replacement is certified safe for operational use.
The goal of the Exploration Extravehicular Activity Services, or xEVAS, contract is to replace aging shuttle-era suits with one that would share life support and other systems with a version that could be worn by walkers. lunar.
Both suits would feature advanced communications and computer technology and common life support systems with more robust reserves for emergencies. The lunar version would also offer increased mobility to move, lean and back in a gravity field on uneven surfaces.
Whether Axiom and Collins develop a common suit design for both uses or two significantly different designs is up to the engineers.
“The requirements set for a suit in low Earth orbit on the space station and a suit on the lunar surface (are) not significantly different, particularly for life support,” Kearney said.
“The differences really come from the compression garment, the difference between being weightless on the space station and having to walk on the moon, where you need all the mobility. So really, basically, the requirements defined are generally the same But we didn’t dictate to them that it would be one suit, two suits or anything.
Dan Burbank, a former astronaut and spacewalking veteran who now works with Collins Aerospace, said that in microgravity outside the space station, “you can be in the 350-pound suit and that’s not is not an obstacle. In fact, perhaps by some estimates, it might actually be a more stable platform. »
“But on a planetary environment, you have tripping hazards and a surface that doesn’t lend itself to ease of movement anyway,” he said. “So we would like to have a lower torso assembly that would have enough mobility for the crew member to walk naturally as they would on planet Earth.”
Mike Suffredini, former NASA space station program director and now CEO of Axiom Space, said the goal “is to make sure the suits are as similar as possible.”
“The other that hasn’t been mentioned is dust,” he said. “Dust is a big problem on the moon, and it’s one of the things you don’t have to worry about in a microgravity environment. But it’s a big, big problem on the surface.
As part of the Artemis program, NASA plans to launch a first unmanned test flight later this year, sending an Orion crew capsule beyond the moon and back. A piloted test flight is planned for 2024, followed by the first landing near the moon’s south pole in mid to late 2025.
A new spacesuit has long been considered a pacing item in the Artemis timeline, and NASA began working to develop an advanced suit, known as xEMU, several years ago. The agency ultimately opted to contract out the work to private industry, issuing a request for information last year that led to the contract award on Wednesday.
“There’s an advantage to having two companies,” Kearney said. “It gives us some redundancy as we move forward. … It keeps competition in our system, which was also a goal.