To explore brave new worlds, astronauts need smart new suits

When NASA awarded a $278 million contract with an upstart rocket company in 2006, it may not have realized it was about to revolutionize spaceflight. But it was that deal that helped Elon Musk’s SpaceX develop the reusable Falcon rocket that cut launch costs. As a result, the new space economy was born.

Is it possible that NASA’s recent decision to contract the development of a next-generation space suit to the private sector could now herald an equally drastic change in the cost of living and working in space? Last week, the US space agency chose Collins Aerospace, which helped develop Neil Armstrong’s iconic moonsuit, and Axiom Space, a start-up aiming to operate the world’s first commercial space station, to redesign the suit. spatial.

Nasa wants the spacesuit “to work outside the International Space Station, [to] explore the lunar surface. . . and [to] prepare human missions to Mars”. Additionally, it must be ready in time for the Project Artemis mission which is expected to return astronauts to the Moon in 2025. But in a first for NASA, the agency will not own the kit. Instead, it will rely on the private sector to supply and maintain the spacesuits.

It’s a big gamble, especially when NASA has agreed to pay up to $3.5 billion over the next 12 years in a contract that specifies “indefinite delivery and indefinite quantity.” This is the type of vague disclosure about public-private partnerships that has been critical by the agency’s own auditor last fall. But relying on the commercial sector for critical services is nothing new for NASA. SpaceX’s 2006 contract was part of a larger program to encourage companies to develop low-cost cargo and crew transportation services at a time when NASA’s budget was tightly squeezed. It did not specify detailed requirements for transport vehicles, but simply identified broad capabilities. How they were delivered depended on the bidders.

It was a success and since 2012 the agency has relied on SpaceX and the American aerospace and military group Orbital ATK to resupply the ISS. A study by Atif Ansar and Bent Flyvbjerg of Saïd Business School found that SpaceX’s iterative approach was “10 times cheaper and twice as fast as NASA’s bespoke strategy”.

Now the hope is that Nasa can repeat that success with the spacesuit. Certainly, the agency’s traditional methods have failed. Last August, NASA auditors found that after 14 years, the agency was on track to spend a total of $1 billion on just two new suits. And these would be too late for the planned launch date of the Artemis project anyway.

NASA’s ambition may have been its mistake. He wanted a unique suit that could do both spacewalks and lunar surface exploration. But the environmental requirements are very different, and Collins and Axiom could choose to make different combinations for different missions.

Meanwhile, existing spacesuits, designed for the space shuttle program more than 40 years ago, urgently need to be replaced. In 2013, astronaut Luca Parmitano nearly drowned during a spacewalk after up to 1.5 liters of water leaked from the cooling system in his helmet. Last March, astronaut Matthias Maurer reported similar leaks. The agency’s temporary solution, the astronauts say, was to put “diapers,” or absorbent pads, on the head inside the helmets.

Businesses hope to do better, and each has good reason to succeed. Project Artemis is already accelerating the development of a lunar economy. NSR Space Research Society estimates that some 250 commercial lunar missions and projects are planned over the next decade, representing more than $100 billion in potential revenue.

Axiom was already working on a spacesuit for its own planned commercial space station. He will now not only have government money, but also years of NASA research to help him on his way. “We have a long-term vision for a city in space. What will we need? Spacesuits,” says Mary Lynne Dittmar, government operations manager at Axiom.

Not all of NASA’s needs can be met by the private sector, of course. “The deepest space destinations and the toughest missions might not fit this model,” admits Dan Burbank, the former astronaut working on Collins’ prototype. But life support systems that allow humans to live and work away from this planet will one day become a requirement of the space economy. Although it is many years away, delivering such systems in a cost effective manner will be as important as transportation in unlocking the potential of space.

peggy.hollinger@ft.com

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