July 13, 2024

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NASA’s commercial spacesuit program has hit a major hurdle

NASA’s commercial spacesuit program has hit a major hurdle
Zoom in / NASA astronaut Christina Koch (right) poses for a photo with fellow Expedition 61 flight engineer Jessica Meir, who was inside a US spacesuit for a proper inspection.

NASA

Almost exactly two years ago, as NASA prepared for the next generation of human spaceflight, NASA selected two private companies to design and develop new spacesuits. These were to be new spacesuits that would allow astronauts to perform spacewalks outside the International Space Station as well as walk on the Moon as part of the Artemis program.

Now, that plan appears to be running into trouble, as one of the spacesuit providers – Collins Aerospace – is expected to back out, Ars has learned. It’s a blow to NASA, because the space agency really needs modern spacesuits.

NASA’s Apollo-era suits have long been retired. Current suits used for spacewalks in low Earth orbit are four decades old. “These new capabilities will allow us to continue on the International Space Station and allow us to do the Artemis program and continue to get to Mars,” Johnson Space Center Director Vanessa Wyche said during a celebratory news conference in Houston two years ago.

The winning teams were led by Collins Aerospace and Axiom Space, respectively. They were eligible for mission orders worth up to $3.5 billion — essentially NASA would lease the use of these suits for two decades. Since then, NASA has assigned Axiom to work primarily on a suit for the Moon and the Artemis program, and has tasked Collins with developing a suit for on-orbit operations, such as space station servicing.

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Collins comes out

However, Collins said this week that it would likely end its participation in the Extravehicular Exploration Services, or xEVAS, contract. On Tuesday morning, Collins Aerospace general manager Chris Ayers met with employees to tell them about the company’s exit from the program. A NASA source confirmed the decision.

“Unfortunately, Collins is significantly behind schedule,” a person familiar with the situation told Ars. “Collins has admitted that they have significantly underperformed and overspent on their xEVAS work, resulting in a request to cancel the contract or renegotiate the scope and budget.”

NASA and Collins Aerospace acknowledged a request for comment sent by Ars early Tuesday morning, but as of the afternoon had provided no substantive responses to questions about the action, nor steps forward.

The agency faces periodic problems with maintenance of the decades-old suits, known as the Extravehicular Mobility Unit, which first appeared in the 1980s. NASA He confessed The suit has outlived its planned design life. Only this Monday the agency I had to stop the spacewalk After the airlock was depressurized and the hatch opened due to a water leak in the secret service and cooling module of Tracy Dyson’s spacesuit.

As a result of this problem, NASA will likely only be able to conduct one spacewalk this summer Initially planning threeTo complete work outside the International Space Station.

Increased pressure on Axiom

During the bidding process for the commercial spacesuit program, which took place in 2021 and 2022, only two bidders ultimately emerged. Collins, a unit of Raytheon Technologies, was the bidder with the most spacesuit experience, having designed the original Apollo suits and partnering with experienced providers ILC Dover and Oceaneering. Axiom is a newer company that, until the spacesuit competition, was largely focused on developing a private space station.

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While evaluating the proposals, NASA officials raised some concerns about Collins’ approach, noting that the proposal relied on “rapidly accelerating technology maturity and resolving key technical commercial studies to achieve the proposed timeline.” However, in Source selection statementThe agency concluded that it had a “high level of confidence” in Collins’ ability to deliver its spacesuits.

It’s not clear what NASA will do now. One person suggested that NASA would not seek to immediately re-compete with xEVAS because it might signal to private investors that Axiom is unable to fulfill its spacesuit contracts. (Like many other companies in this capital-constrained era, Axiom Space, according to sources, has been struggling to raise a steady stream of private investment.)

However, another source indicated that NASA would likely seek to bring in a new partner to compete with Axiom. The space agency did something similar in 2007 with its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program to provide cargo to the space station. When Rocketplane Kistler was unable to fulfill its obligations, the agency re-executed the contract and ultimately selected Orbital Sciences. If NASA reopens the competition, one of the bidders could be SpaceX, which has already designed a basic spacesuit to support its own Polaris Dawn mission.

Since receiving the awards two years ago, Axiom has made comparatively better technical progress in its spacesuit, which is based on an extravehicular mobility module design that NASA has used for decades. However, the Houston-based company has not yet completed the crucial design review process, which could be difficult. Axiom also faces a challenging supply chain environment, which is especially problematic given that NASA hasn’t been building new suits for a long time.

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