Will space suits delay NASA’s return to the moon until 2026?
The news that NASA has contracted two companies, Axiom Space and Collins Aerospace, to provide spacesuit services was quite welcome. The planned Artemis Program return to the moon would be pointless unless astronauts are able to get outside their spacecraft and walk around, doing useful work. Even if America were not leading much of the world to go back to the moon, new extra-vehicular activity (EVA) suits are long overdue.
Recently, according to Space.com, NASA had to suspend spacewalks on the International Space Station (ISS) when water started leaking into the helmet of European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Matthias Maurer. The incident was the second time a helmet started leaking water. The first time occurred in 2013 when ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano came close to drowning when he was working outside the ISS.
In 2019, NASA had to postpone an all-woman spacewalk when the space agency discovered that it did not have any space suits on the ISS that fit the smaller-framed woman astronauts.
The EVA suits that NASA has been using for about 40 years are long overdue for a replacement. The current suits cost a great deal of money and effort to properly maintain.
The Apollo moon suits were a marvel of technology for their time. They afforded the moonwalkers excellent protection during their sojourns on the lunar surface. But the suits were bulky and allowed very limited mobility.
Lunar dust provided an even greater problem for the first men who walked on the moon, according to Space.com. The dust was abrasive and got into everything. It smelled like “burnt charcoal” and posed a health hazard to the Apollo astronauts once they returned to the lunar module with their soiled moon suits.
NASA has been attempting to develop a new EVA suit for the past 15 years without success. However, with the need for a new suit becoming critical, the space agency is turning to the commercial sector for the next generation of EVA suit.
According to Ars Technica, NASA is using the same model of fixed-price contracting that has proven successful for the Commercial Crew and is being used for the Human Landing System programs. Collins Aerospace, a legacy company that was involved in developing the Apollo moon suits, and Axiom Space, a young, entrepreneurial upstart, have been granted $3.5 billion to develop the new EVA suits and then lease them to NASA for both ISS and Artemis astronauts.
Both companies will also offer the same service to commercial customers. Axiom is already developing a private space station where such suits would be of great use.
Axiom and Collins have a great task ahead of them, despite using the data NASA garnered with its own space suit effort. They believe that they will have a space suit ready to field test, likely on an ISS spacewalk, by 2025.
NASA plans to launch the Artemis III mission, the one that will land astronauts on the moon, by 2025 also. One cannot escape the impression that things are being cut a little close. If the spacesuit development process slips, then it may delay the next moon landing by another year, to 2026, even if the Space Launch System and the SpaceX Starship Human Landing System are ready, timing that has been called “aspirational.”
For those who have been waiting for humans to walk on the moon since the last time it happened 50 years ago, another delay would be maddening. On the other hand, at least this time the delay would be due to the challenges of developing new technology and not the capricious decisions of politicians.
On the other hand, 2026 will be the semi-quincentennial or 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the event that started the United States of America as an independent nation. Imagine the Space Launch System blasting off with an Orion spaceship bearing the first astronauts to the moon and the Starship Human Landing System launching — it would be the ultimate fireworks display, heralding the United States’ return as a deep-space power. What a way to mark the anniversary and to demonstrate America’s eternal ability to renew itself.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.