After years of futility, NASA turns to non-public sector for spacesuit assist

ex-xEMU? —

“A flight-ready go well with stays years away from completion.”

Eric Berger

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine high-fives Kristine Davis, a spacesuit engineer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, wearing a ground prototype of NASA’s new Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU) in 2019.

Enlarge / NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine high-fives Kristine Davis, a spacesuit engineer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, carrying a floor prototype of NASA’s new Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU) in 2019.


This week NASA’s Johnson Space Center issued a name to business for brand spanking new spacesuits. The area company’s present fits are a long time outdated, and new ones are wanted each for the International Space Station in addition to Artemis missions to the lunar floor later this decade.

“Our undertakings in low-Earth orbit, on the Moon and past have advanced and are calling for revolutionary know-how,” mentioned NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy. “The subsequent astronauts on the Moon—together with the primary lady—will likely be saved secure in revolutionary spacesuits that match higher and allow better human exploration than ever earlier than.”

The announcement didn’t garner a complete lot of consideration, however it’s vital for 2 causes. First of all, with this “request for proposals,” NASA could lastly remedy the issue of discovering its next-generation spacesuits, which has vexed the company for the final 14 years and value a whole lot of hundreds of thousands of {dollars}. Additionally, with this new method to purchasing spacesuits, NASA is additional signaling its intent in a extra industrial procurement course of. It will likely be basically renting the fits from business, not constructing them in-house at a far better expense.

A short historical past of futility

In August NASA Inspector General Paul Martin revealed an exhaustive evaluate of NASA ‘s efforts to develop a substitute for its Extravehicular Mobility Units, or EMUs. This is each the spacesuit and {hardware} that connects the go well with to a spacecraft. The EMUs presently getting used on orbit had been designed 45 years in the past for the area shuttle program, and they’re in a continuing state of restore.

NASA has undertaken a number of totally different applications over the earlier 14 years, usually led by a NASA subject heart, to develop a brand new technology of spacesuits. NASA has spent a complete of $420 million throughout that point on numerous spacesuit efforts, however this has yielded restricted outcomes. After all of this work, any new spacesuits is not going to be prepared for a Moon touchdown in 2024.

“A flight-ready go well with stays years away from completion,” Martin wrote in his August report. “NASA officers anticipate to spend over $1 billion on design, testing, qualification, and improvement efforts earlier than two flight-ready fits can be found to be used.”

Until earlier this yr, NASA’s present plan was to construct six “xEMU” fits with contractor and vendor assist after which situation a contract for the manufacturing of further fits. (These had been the “Artemis fits” that appeared at a gaudy NASA headquarters occasion in 2019, which, in hindsight, was extra fashion than substance.) But all of that modified in April, when NASA introduced that it was contemplating merely shopping for spacesuits from personal business.

A extra industrial method

Following the April assertion, NASA issued a draft request for proposals in July, which provided a stronger sign that it could not construct its personal spacesuits.

In an interview with Ars after this draft request got here out, one of many potential bidders mentioned it was clear that NASA was searching for to buy fits slightly than make them. “Like we have now seen with spacecraft and rockets, I believe the place we’re going is a extra industrial method to spacesuits,” mentioned Patty Stoll, president of area methods at ILC Dover. “There will likely be one turnkey answer from business.”

And now, with the brand new business request, NASA has executed that. Bidders can use the know-how NASA developed for xEMU in its proposals, or they will use their very own designs, the doc states. The fits should be capable to meet quite a lot of necessities, together with as much as six spacewalks on the lunar floor throughout preliminary Artemis Moon missions. They should even be product of supplies such that lower than 100 grams of lunar regolith is introduced again into the “cabin surroundings” after every spacewalk on the Moon. NASA plans to award a contract by subsequent April.

This represents a reasonably daring guess on business. Previously, NASA has used fixed-price contracting to buy cargo and crew providers to the International Space Station. It additionally intends to purchase lunar touchdown providers in an analogous method and now seeks to increase this extra purely industrial method to spacesuits as nicely.

The company actually appears to be leaning into this method. “NASA’s funding in industrial spacesuits is one other manner that we’re fostering a brand new lunar economic system with personal companions,” Melroy mentioned. “Similar to our partnerships in low-Earth orbit, this endeavor will create jobs and assist gasoline an lively economic system on the Moon.”

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