When NASA astronauts on the International Space Station have to fly out of orbit for maintenance or repair, they wear a spacesuit known as the Extravascular Mobility Unit (EMU). Originally a small self-contained spacecraft, the giant costume was launched in 1981 to allow the space shuttle crew to exit the orbiter and work on the crafty cargo bay of the craft. Although the suits received a minor upgrade in the late ’90s, they remained largely a product of the’ 1970s technology.
Not only are the existing EMUs old, but they were only designed for use in space – not on the surface. With NASA keeping an eye on the moon and eventually Mars, the agency will have to upgrade their astronauts and wear modern suits before crossing the ISS. As such, the development of what would eventually be the Exploration Extravascular Mobility Unit (xEMU) took place at least in 2005 when it was part of the finally canceled constellation program.
Unfortunately, after more than a decade of development and $ 420 million in development costs, xEMU is still not ready. With crew landings on the moon still scheduled for 2025, NASA has decided to let their business partners deal with the problem, and recently contracted two companies for a spacesuit that could work on the moon and replace old age. EMU for orbital use in ISS.
As part of the Exploration Extravascular Activity Services (xEVAS) agreement, both companies will be provided with data collected during the development of xEMU, although they are expected to create new designs without a copy of what NASA is already doing. Inspired by the success of the commercial crew program that gave birth to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, the agreement further states that the companies will retain full ownership and control over the spacesuits created during the program. In fact, NASA is even encouraging companies to find additional commercial customers for the finished suite in the hope that a competitive market will help reduce costs.
There is no denying that NASA’s partnerships with commercial suppliers have paid for cargo and crew, so it makes sense that they would return to the coupe for their next-generation spacesuit needs. There is also a lot of incentive for companies to deliver an effective product, as the potential maximum value of communication is $ 3.5 billion. But with 2025 fast approaching, and an orbital shakedown test required for communication before the suits can be sent to the moon, the big question is whether any company still has enough time to build it across the finish line.
In a June 1 announcement, NASA announced that it had awarded Axiom Space and Collins Aerospace contracts for a next-generation spacesuit that could serve crews through its temporary leisure on the International Space Station in 2030, as well as help explore the moon as part. Of the Artemis program. Although the announcement mentions an ambitious goal of eventually using some variant of the suite on a crude mission to Mars, it is not a specific requirement of the agreement.
Those who have been following recent space developments will probably recognize the name Axiom. The company wants to create its own personal successor to the ISS, which will be created as an extension of the orbital laboratory until it is disconnected and ready to operate as a free-flying station. As part of their preparations, Axiom recently conducted a privately funded mission at ISS, during which time several experiments were carried out on the design and development of future space station hardware.
During a press briefing on the announcement, Axiom President and CEO Michael T. Safredini has revealed that his company has been working on their own spacesuit design since before being selected for the xEVAS contract, which ultimately reflects the goal of operating their space station for free from the NASA bureaucracy. Axiom will be able to keep the design of the suite although its development will be funded by the space agency. This is also a huge blessing for the company, and perhaps one of the reasons they agreed to this arrangement in the first place.
Although Axiom Space is the definition of a “new space” company, Collins Aerospace is something else. A subsidiary of Raytheon Technologies, they designed the Apollo Moon spacesuit and are currently the main contractor for EMU. To say they have some experience in a spacesuit game would be an understatement.
The book on NASA’s spacesuits is literally written against an aerospace company, a fast-paced commercial space startup, not a rivalry between SpaceX and Boeing that any entity could design and build their own crew-rated spacecraft. The “new space” contestant came off with a great win in that round, but it was too early to make any predictions at this point.
Some may be surprised that SpaceX has not been awarded a contract for the xEVAS program, as the company has already designed their own superhero-inspired suite for use in their Crew Dragon spacecraft. In 2021, Elon Musk even tweeted that his company would take up the challenge of creating a spacesuit compatible with the moon if NASA would take it to ensure that its 2025 lunar landing was stuck.
But in reality, NASA has already placed most of the Artemis program on the shoulders of SpaceX. It would not be an exaggeration to say that America’s lunar ambitions depend almost entirely on California’s Hawthorne, from giving the company a key role in the construction and re-supply of the Lunar Gateway Station to selecting the starship as the lander that will bring the crew to the lunar surface. . In order for NASA to establish a long-term presence on the moon, the Artemis program must maintain certain levels of diversity. Having literally every step of the program in the hands of a company is very risky, even if the company has a track record of advancing in the competition.
That said, SpaceX doesn’t have to wait for NASA’s invitation to create a new spacesuit. In February, the company announced that they would be showcasing a modified version of the Crew Dragon Pressure Suite that would allow them to conduct an outdoor activity (EVA) from the capsule on a personal Inspiration4 mission currently scheduled for the end of 2022. Officially tasked with coming up with a backup plan to keep the boots on the moon, it looks like they are working on it.