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NASA is in dire need of new spacesuits, fast

NASA's spacesuit design still dates back to the agency's Space Shuttle Program of the 1980s, and hasn't been updated yet despite the rising frequency of space trips.
Last Updated : 01 July 2024, 06:34 IST

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Last week, what was supposed to be routine spacewalk for NASA astronauts Tracy Dyson and Mark Barratt turned out to be an alarming wake-up call after Dyson discovered her suit was leaking water.

Luckily, however, the astronauts had not ventured outside and the spacewalk was called off, thereby avoiding what could have been a calamitous incident.

This leak, however, appears to underscore a larger problem that NASA is facing—the space agency is in dire need of a spacesuit refresh.

According to a report by Futurism, NASA's spacesuit design still dates back to the agency's Space Shuttle Program of the 1980s, and hasn't been updated yet despite the rising frequency of space trips.

While the agency is in talks to develop a new space suit with the help of the commercial space sector, these efforts, Futurism reports, appear to be on thin ice as well.

NASA, in June 2022, had selected Collins Aerospace and Axiom Space to develop spacesuits—one for ISS missions and the other for the agency's Artemis missions to the Moon—and by all accounts, development was going fine.

In February this year, Collins had also announced that it had successfully tested a prototype spacesuit. However, last week, Collins pulled out of the deal with NASA, with the company telling Space News, "After a thorough evaluation, Collins Aerospace and NASA mutually agreed to descope Exploration Extravehicular Activity Services (xEVAS) task orders. Collins remains committed to supporting NASA and human spaceflight programs."

"No further work will be performed on the task orders. This action was agreed upon after Collins recognized its development timeline would not support the space station’s schedule and NASA’s mission objectives," NASA announced as well, putting an end to any speculation about the continued development of the spacesuit.

While it's unclear why exactly Collins pulled out of the deal, Futurism reported, citing industry leaders, that the suit development programme had already suffered delayes and exceeded budget, rendering Collins incapable of covering costs for the fixed-price contract it had with NASA.

That in itself pushes back NASA's plans for a spacesuit refresh, but Axiom Space could still be a potential saviour.

Last summer, Axiom had signed a "crossover" task order with NASA, permitting it to explore how to adapt its lunar suit for use onboard the ISS. While it's unclear which stage of development the spacesuit is in, Elon Musk's SpaceX is also working on its own extra-vehicular activity (EVA) suit, slated to be tested during an upcoming, as yet unscheduled mission.

Although Axiom and SpaceX could yet offer a solution to NASA's spacesuit woes, the question remains, will it be in time?

NASA, over the past several years, has experienced several issues with spacesuits, with some of them potentially calamitous.

Prior to Dyson's recent harrowing experience, NASA in 2022 had announced a seven-month hiatus on spacewalks after an astronaut noticed excess water accumulating in his helmet, something that could've led to him drowing while floating in the void of space. Dyson's latest brush with a spacesuit leak seems to suggest that the risk remains, and it would be in NASA's (and astronauts') best interests to solve the spacesuit conundrum at the earliest.

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Published 01 July 2024, 06:34 IST

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