NASA announces US$3.5 billion deal for new spacesuits for ISS, lunar landing

  • 02/06/2022
An illustration of NASA spacesuits
Ongoing issues with spacesuits have halted all non-emergency spacewalks. Photo credit: Supplied / NASA

NASA has revealed the companies it has tasked with making the spacesuits necessary for exploring the lunar surface on its Artemis missions.

Axiom Space and Collins Aerospace were selected through the agency's Exploration Extravehicular Activity Services (xEVAS) contract search.

The contract enables the two companies to compete for task orders for missions that "will provide a full suite of capabilities for NASA's spacewalking needs during the period of performance through 2034".

The maximum potential value is US$3.5 billion (NZ$5.4 billion), NASA said.

"Spacesuits have been a critical part of every part of our human spaceflight programs," Lindsay Aitchison told a press briefing.

The program executive for Extravehicular Activity and Human Surface Mobility Program said they continue to be at the forefront and will be when the agency takes its first steps back on the lunar south pole.

"This contract is a critical milestone to getting us to that point," she said.

Ongoing issues with the spacesuits have currently halted all planned spacewalks from the International Space Station (ISS), with the exception of urgent repairs.

That decision came after water was found in the helmet worn by European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Matthias Maurer in late March.

"Until we understand better what the causal factors might have been during the last EVA with our EMU, we are no-go for nominal EVA," Dana Weigel, deputy station program manager at NASA's Johnson Space Centre in Houston, said at the time.

A similar incident occurred in 2013 when ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano had a severe water leak that ended up covering most of his face. 

That caused his spacewalk to be cut short and NASA to suspend all spacewalks while it investigated.

According to website only 11 of the 18 spacesuits are available for use, with five destroyed during space missions, one lost in a ground test and one supplied as a certification unit.

That had led the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) to conclude "the inventory may not be adequate to last through the planned retirement of the ISS", currently scheduled for 2024.

That would be "a challenge that will escalate significantly if station operations are extended", the OIG said, which NASA hopes to do, having announced its plans to keep the ISS in operation until 2030.

However to do so it requires agreements from all partners, including Russia's Roscosmos agency which appears unlikely given the ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

Developing new spacesuits, alongside issues with COVID-19 pandemic supply chain delays, was previously blamed for the first Artemis mission being delayed until at least 2025.

"Our commercial partnerships will help realise our human exploration goals," said Mark Kirasich, deputy associate administrator of NASA's Artemis Campaign Development Division.

"We look forward to using these services for NASA's continued presence in low-Earth orbit and our upcoming achievement of returning American astronauts to the Moon's surface.

"We are confident our collaboration with industry and leveraging NASA's expertise gained through over 60 years of space exploration will enable us to achieve these goals together."