NASA Extends Two Spacesuit Design Contracts in Preparation for Upcoming Artemis Moon Missions

NASA’s spacesuits are trustworthy but also severely out of date. Now, the agency has contracted with two companies to design next-generation spacesuits to support ISS astronauts and its upcoming Artemis moon missions.

Just about everything but the logo looks different in NASA’s plans for the future. From the agency using SpaceX rockets to send astronauts into orbit to reimagined spacesuits, NASA is modernizing its approach to space exploration. Much of this is taking place thanks to third-party companies who are being paid well for their research and development work.

Two of these firms are Axiom Space and Collins Aerospace. Last year, NASA contracted the two companies for $5 million each to design next-generation spacesuits—partially in preparation for its upcoming Artemis missions. Now, NASA has extended those contracts, pressing each firm to deliver multiple designs in an effort to increase redundancy for its future space gear.  

Time for an Upgrade

NASA’s 10-year roadmap is a busy one. The Artemis program, which will return humanity to the moon for the first time since 1972 and put the first woman and person of color on its surface, is the headline act. However, NASA is still deeply invested in space research—both manned aboard the International Space Station (ISS) and in the form of probes and robotic vessels.  

But the spacesuits astronauts wear today are outdated. The Russian-designed Sokol suit is worn by astronauts in transit to the ISS. While the Extravehicular Mobility Unit, designed in 1979, is still worn by astronauts participating in spacewalks outside the orbiting lab.

Companies like SpaceX and Boeing have both taken a stab at redesigning spacesuits to be worn in flight. Now, despite decades of trustworthy performance, NASA’s heavy-duty suits are due for an upgrade.  

Role Reversal for Redundancy

The agency originally contracted Collins Aerospace to design a new spacewalk suit for use in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) outside the ISS. Meanwhile, Axiom was tasked with designing a suit for astronauts aboard the Artemis III mission to wear while exploring the lunar surface.  

Now, the roles have been reversed. While extending both contracts, NASA has now asked each company to modify its original design and deliver a spacesuit for the opposite purpose. Axiom is now making a LEO suit while Collins Aerospace is making a lunar landing suit.  

This sounds strange at first. But there’s a method to the madness. Redundancy is a crucial part of designing new technology and materials for space. Developing a spacesuit takes an incredibly long time. If something goes awry, NASA can’t afford to put its entire timeline aside. Having multiple companies working on the same projects means that if something goes wrong with one, there’s a reliable, safe backup to pivot toward.  

As Lara Kearney, manager of the Extravehicular Activity and Human Surface Mobility Program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, explains, “These task orders position NASA for success should additional capabilities become necessary or advantageous to NASA’s missions as the agency paves the way for deep space exploration and commercialization of Low Earth Orbit.”  

“Using this competitive approach we will enhance redundancy, expand future capabilities, and further invest in the space economy,” she adds.  

Notably, each of the $5 million original contracts and the latest extensions entail only the initial designs and “design modification work.” Should NASA pursue a full spacesuit development contract with both firms, the final bill would reach $142 million. However, given the age of the agency’s current spacewalk suits and the fact that humans haven’t been to the moon in over 40 years, an upgrade is sorely needed.  

Keep an eye out for these new suits as the agency and its astronauts prepare for a historic return to the moon in the coming years. The second Artemis flight, which will send humans beyond the moon and the furthest ever from Earth, is scheduled to take place in November 2024.

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