NASA’s commercial spacesuit program just hit a major problem

NASA’s commercial spacesuit program just hit a major problem
Enlarge / NASA astronaut Christina Koch (right) poses for a portrait with fellow Expedition 61 flight engineer Jessica Meir, who is inside a U.S. spacesuit for a fit check.


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

Now that plan appears to be in trouble, with one of the spacesuit suppliers, Collins Aerospace, expected to pull out, Ars has learned. This is a big blow for NASA, because the space agency really needs modern spacesuits.

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

The two winning teams were led by Collins Aerospace and Axiom Space respectively. They were eligible for task orders worth up to $3.5 billion – in essence, NASA would lease the use of these suits for around twenty years. Since then, NASA has designated Axiom to work primarily on a suit for the Moon and the Artemis program, and Collins to develop a suit for on-orbit operations, such as space station servicing.

Collins leaves

This week, however, Collins said he would likely end his participation in the Extravehicular Exploration Services, or xEVAS, contract. On Tuesday morning, Chris Ayers, chief executive of Collins Aerospace, met with employees to announce the company’s exit from the program. A NASA source confirmed the decision.

“Unfortunately, Collins is way behind schedule,” a person familiar with the matter told Ars. “Collins admitted to significantly underperforming and overspending on his xEVAS work, which resulted in a request to terminate the contract or renegotiate the scope and its budget.”

NASA and Collins Aerospace acknowledged receipt of a request for comment sent by Ars early Tuesday morning but, by the afternoon, had not provided substantive answers to questions about this action, nor taken any steps forward.

The agency has experienced periodic problems with maintenance of the suits built decades ago, known as the Extravehicular Mobility Unit, which debuted in the 1980s. NASA has acknowledged that the suit has exceeded its expected lifespan. Again this Monday, the agency had to abort a spacewalk after the airlock was depressurized and the hatch opened due to a water leak in the umbilical service and cooling unit of Tracy Dyson’s spacesuit.

Because of this problem, NASA will likely only be able to conduct one spacewalk this summer, after initially planning three, to complete its 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. A unit of Raytheon Technologies, Collins was the bidder with the most spacesuit experience, having designed the original Apollo suits, and partnered with experienced suppliers ILC Dover and Oceaneering. Axiom is a newer company that, until the spacesuit competition, was largely focused on developing a private space station.

As they evaluated the bids, NASA officials expressed some concerns about Collins’ approach, noting that the proposal relied on “rapidly accelerating technology maturation and resolving key commercial technical studies to meet the proposed timetable. However, in its source selection statement, the agency concluded that it had a “high level of confidence” in Collins’ ability to deliver its spacesuits.

It is not yet clear what NASA will do now. One person suggested that NASA would not seek to immediately restart the xEVAS competition because it could signal to private investors that Axiom is not capable of fulfilling its spacesuit contracts. (Like many other companies in this time of financial constraints, Axiom Space, according to some sources, is struggling to raise a steady stream of private investment.)

Another source, however, suggested that NASA would likely look to recruit 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 meet its commitments, the agency resubmitted the contract and ultimately selected Orbital Sciences. If NASA were to reopen the competition, one of the bidders could be SpaceX, which has already designed a basic spacesuit to support the private Polaris Dawn mission.

Since receiving the award two years ago, Axiom has made relatively significant technical progress on its spacesuit, which is based on the Extravehicular Mobility Unit design that NASA has used for decades. However, the Houston-based company has not yet completed the critical design review process, which can be demanding. Axiom also faces a challenging supply chain environment, which is particularly problematic given that NASA hasn’t built new suits in so long.

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