NASA

NASA Is Running Out of Spacesuits – And Can't Make New Ones Fast Enough

Houston, we have a problem.

DAVID NIELD
29 APR 2017
 

NASA's ageing spacesuits are starting to fall apart and replacements are still several years off, according to a report from the space agency's auditor. If you've got any spare ones in your wardrobe, NASA would love to have them.

Those suits you see on astronauts on board the International Space Station cost millions of dollars and many years to develop, and we're going to need improved suits to get to Mars and beyond – which means the current shortage is very much a serious problem.

 

Any kind of manned mission – whether that's setting up a base on the Moon in the next decade, or heading to the Red Planet – relies heavily on having suits fitted with the right technology, protection, and life-support systems for getting outside spacecraft.

In its report, NASA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) says the current supply of Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) suits may not even last to the retirement date of the ISS, currently scheduled for 2024. Next generation suits are coming, but not fast enough.

"Despite spending nearly $200 million on NASA's next-generation spacesuit technologies, the Agency remains years away from having a flight-ready spacesuit capable of replacing the EMU or suitable for use on future exploration missions," says the report.

nasa suit 2NASA has three suits in development. Credit: OIG

Different missions need different types of suit, and NASA is working on three spacesuit programs to kit out the astronauts of the future: one for ISS missions, one for Moon base missions, and one for a potential Mars mission.

The ISS suits have to work in zero gravity, whereas the Mars versions have to handle a harsh atmosphere and rough terrain. NASA is working hard on developing them, but time is running out, especially if it wants to test them on board the ISS first.

 

While a next-generation Starliner suit was unveiled earlier this year, it's only for use inside spacecraft, and isn't suitable for extravehicular activity.

Some of the money NASA has been spending has been wasted, says the OIG: in particular, a decision was made to continue the development of a suit for Moon exploration even after the mission it was associated with got cancelled.

NASA, for its part, says the ongoing research was still useful in developing spacesuits for whatever future missions lay ahead.

The OIG says NASA is still "years away" from finishing work on a replacement for the current EMUs, and there are only four working spacesuits left on board the ISS, with another seven being repaired or kept back at base.

We may have to make do with those 11 ageing suits for the next decade. That's a big ask with 17 spacewalks planned between now and March 2020, mostly related to maintenance on the space station.

The current suits have a few issues too, which is why replacements are urgently needed: they can cause hand fatigue and injuries, they can't carry enough food and water for long spacewalks, they're not flexible enough, and they don't come in a big enough range of sizes to fit all our astronauts.

 

It's a pretty bleak picture, even if NASA says it's confident the current set of spacesuits can last as long as we need them to on the ISS.

The OIG is on the case though – it wants NASA to put together a more formal plan for developing new suits and maintaining the old ones, something the space agency has promised to do in the next few months.

"The recommendations are resolved and will be closed upon verification and completion of the proposed corrective actions," concludes the OIG.

You can read the full report on the OIG website.

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