NASA rents the runway for its new spacesuits

Collins Aerospace spacesuit

An illustration of the spacesuit that Collins Aerospace plans to develop for NASA Artemis missions under a services contract NASA awarded nearly a month ago. (credit: Collins Aerospace)

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On March 23, NASA astronaut Raja Chari and ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer conducted a spacewalk outside the International Space Station, spending nearly seven hours outside the station to conduct routine maintenance work. The two were able to complete all their major objectives, although some secondary tasks were put off for a future spacewalk.

However, at the end of the spacewalk Maurer reported that a small amount of water had pooled on the visor of his suit. NASA made little mention of the incident, but internally it was a cause for concern. A water leak during a 2013 spacewalk by another ESA astronaut, Luca Parmitano, filled his helmet with one and a half liters of water and made it difficult for him to breathe. He made it back safely inside the station, but that close call magnified the significance of this water leak.

“The current plan is to extend today’s EMU use to 2028; however, it is increasingly apparent that the usable life of the current EVA suits is limited,” NASA’s safety panel concluded.

In May, NASA officials confirmed that they have no plans for additional spacewalks—formally called extravehicular activities, or EVAs—until they determine what caused the water leak and how to fix it. That requires bringing back the faulty suit—itself called an Extravehicular Mobility Unit, or EMU—on the next SpaceX cargo Dragon mission, whose launch has slipped by a month to early July because of problems with the spacecraft’s propulsion system.

“From an EVA standpoint, until we understand better what the causal factors might have been during the last EVA with our EMU, we are no-go for nominal EVAs,” said Dana Weigel, NASA ISS deputy program manager, at a briefing in mid -May. “We won’t do a planned EVA until we’ve had a chance to really address and rule out major system failure modes.”

The pause in spacewalks has little real effect on ISS activities, since none were planned until at least late summer. She added NASA would still consider “contingency” spacewalks for urgent repairs on a case-by-case basis. “We’ll have to look at risk versus risk,” she said, comparing the risk to the astronauts performing the spacewalk versus the risk to the station of not carrying out the repair.

Water leaks have been an issue for the suits, prompting fixes like adding absorbent pads inside the helmet. “There are still continuing issues with evidence of water in the spacesuit helmets after the conclusion of an EVA or even, in some cases, during an EVA,” said Susan Helms, a former astronaut, during a meeting last month of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP).

This latest incident illustrates a problem with the current spacesuits: they’re not particularly current. The suits are decades old and, despite regular maintenance and refurbishment, are showing signs of age. “The current plan is to extend today’s EMU use to 2028; however, it is increasingly apparent that the usable life of the current EVA suits is limited,” ASAP noted in its latest annual report, published in January.

“New suits are needed not only for future space exploration, but also for its current space activities,” the report continued. “NASA cannot maintain the necessary, ongoing low-Earth orbit operations without fully functional EVA suits.”

“We have a number of customers who already would like to do a spacewalk,” Axiom’s Suffredini said.

NASA has been struggling for years to develop new spacesuits, not just to replace the aging suits used on the ISS but also for lunar landing missions, which have special requirements for mobility and for dealing with the abrasive lunar regolith. NASA’s previous effort was the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit, or xEMU, but a report last August by NASA’s Office of Inspector General concluded the xEMU would not be ready for a lunar landing mission in 2024, the target at the time. While NASA had spent $420.1 million on new spacesuit designs since the Constellation program in 2007 through the publication of the report, NASA still needed about $625 million more to complete development of the xEMU.

By the time of that report, though, NASA has changed course. Rather than developing the xEMU internally, or through a conventional contract, it would instead work with industry on services contracts, much like commercial cargo and crew. NASA would not own the suits but instead lease them from companies for ISS and Artemis missions. The companies, in turn, could use the suits for other customers, like the commercial space stations under development.

That effort was called the Exploration Extravehicular Activity Services (xEVAS) program. At the beginning of June, NASA announced it selected two companies, Axiom Space and Collins Aerospace, for contracts to provide those suits. The contracts are worth up to $3.5 billion through 2034, depending on which task orders are exercised.

The companies will be able to leverage the work NASA has done up until now on the xEMU spacesuits, if they so desire. “I really believe that all of that data is helping to reduce the risk and speed that transition process up to the contractor community,” said Lara Kearney, manager of the extravehicular activity and human surface mobility program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, during a briefing about the contract awards.

Axiom is best known for its plans for commercial ISS modules that will later form the basis of a commercial space station, along with precursor missions to the ISS like Ax-1 in April. “We have a number of customers who already would like to do a spacewalk,” Michael Suffredini, president and CEO of Axiom, said at the announcement.

Axiom will work with companies like David Clark Company, KBR, and Paragon Space Development Corporation on its suit design, and will take advantage of the NASA xEMU work. “It’s fantastic to have a partnership where we can benefit from the years of experience that NASA has and all the work they’ve done to advance designs,” Suffredini said.

Collins Aerospace, part of Raytheon, will be working with partners that include ILC Dover and Oceaneering, tapping into experience in spacesuits that goes back to the Apollo program. “The goal is to take the foundations that NASA laid with the xEMU in partnership with industry and evolve that technology, and create a suit that is compatible with the entire spectrum of crew members,” said Dan Burbank, senior technical fellow at Collins and a train NASA astronaut, at the announcement.

Neither Burbank nor Suffredini, though, talked in detail about their proposed spacesuits. Curiously, there were no illustrations, animations, mockups, or anything else of either company’s suit at the announcement. NASA released only concept art of two moonwalking astronautswith no evidence that the design illustrated is representative of either company’s proposal.

After the announcement, Collins did release some details, including a short video showing off the design of its lunar spacesuit. Axiom, nearly a month later, still has not released details of its spacesuit design, releasing only images of people working on the suit and the patch for what it calls the AxEMU.

The announcement was not just short on technical details. NASA declined to discuss financial details, such as individual contract values ​​or the guaranteed minimum amounts for each company. “We guaranteed them an amount to make sure we could get them going and they had skin in the game, and we’re going to be careful to protect that,” said Mark Wiese of NASA, who chaired the source selection board for the xEVAS competition.

In mid-June, NASA released the source selection statement for the xEVAS procurement, which explained why NASA selected Axiom and Collins for the two awards. Most assumed that several companies submitted proposals for the project; some SpaceX advocates were surprised, and even angry, that it was not selected for an award given that the company is already working on a spacesuit for spacewalks through the Polaris program funded by billionaire Jared Isaacman.

NASA warned both companies rely on “rapid acceleration of technology maturation and resolution of key technical trade studies” to meet their development schedules.

It turns out SpaceX didn’t bid on the competition, nor did anyone else. The only complete NASA proposals received were from Axiom and Collins. (A third company, called New Horizons Space, submitted one volume of the proposal regarding past performance but not the rest. There’s little known about the company, which had not previously appeared on an “interested parties” list for xEVAS released by NASA.)

Both companies’ proposals rated well technically. Axiom’s suit can support “an appreciable greater number of ISS and Artemis EVAs per mission,” according to the statement, while the Collins design was praised for reduced mass and volume requirements. Both offered designs with “very high commonality” between ISS and Artemis missions. However, NASA said both companies rely on “rapid acceleration of technology maturation and resolution of key technical trade studies” to meet their development schedules.

A key reason for taking a services approach for xEVAS is to allow the companies to also offer the suits for other customers. Axiom offered “a robust commercialization plan and a detailed private investment strategy,” NASA said, but cautioned that plan “includes assumptions with respect to revenue capture that could impact their ability to finance the xEVAS effort.”

Collins was instead credited for an unspecified payment plan that reduces NASA’s “financial commitments made prior to in-space demonstration.” That company hadn’t talked about its commercialization plans for its suit, but the source selection statement revealed that another member of its team is Blue Origin, which is also planning a commercial space station.

That statement provided only a few additional details on price. Both companies offered prices that came below an independent government estimate: 2% below that estimate for Collins and 23% below it for Axiom. NASA did not disclose a dollar value for that estimate, though.

NASA, though, at least has two spacesuits that the agency expects to be able to be ready in time to support the Artemis 3 mission, now scheduled for no earlier than 2025, and to replace the existing suits on the ISS around the same time. Given that ambitious schedule, and the leak Maurer experienced in his spacewalk, one might think NASA would be in a hurry to start work. As of late June, though, NASA had yet to obligate any funding for either contract.

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