NASA desperately needs new spacesuits. Private companies are struggling to make them

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almost exactly two A year ago, as NASA prepared for the next generation of human spaceflight, it chose two private companies to design and develop new spacesuits. These were 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 in trouble, as one of the spacesuit providers — Collins Aerospace — is expected to back out, Ars has learned. This is a blow to NASA, as the space agency really needs modern spacesuits.

NASA’s Apollo-era suits have long been retired. The current suits used for spacewalks in low Earth orbit are four decades old. “These new capabilities will help us stay on the ISS and advance the Artemis program and move forward to Mars,” Vanessa Wyche, director of the Johnson Space Center, said during a celebratory news 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 rent the use of these suits for a few decades. Since then, NASA has hired Axiom to work primarily on a suit for the Moon and the Artemis program, and Collins to develop a suit for operations in orbit, such as space station servicing.

Collins’ exit

However, this week Collins said it would end its participation in the Exploration Extravehicular Activity Services, or xEVAS, contract. On Tuesday morning, Collins Aerospace General Manager Chris Ayers met with employees to inform them of the company’s exit from the program. A NASA source confirmed the decision.

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

NASA and Collins Aerospace acknowledged requests for comment from Ars on Tuesday morning, but by afternoon had not provided any concrete answers to questions about the action, or any details about further action.

The agency has faced periodic problems maintaining the suit, known as the Extravehicular Mobility Unit, built decades ago, beginning in the 1980s. NASA has acknowledged that the suit has exceeded its planned design lifetime. Just this Monday, the agency had to halt a spacewalk after a water leak into Tracy Dyson’s spacesuit’s Service and Cooling Umbilical Unit caused the airlock to depressurize and the hatch to open.

As a result of the problem, NASA will likely conduct only one spacewalk this summer to complete work outside the International Space Station, instead of the three previously planned.

Pressure mounts on Axiom

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

While evaluating the bids, NASA officials raised some concerns about Collins’ approach, noting that the proposal “depends on rapid acceleration of technology maturation and resolution of key technical trade studies to achieve the proposed program.” However, in its source selection statement, the agency concluded that it had a “high level of confidence” that Collins would be able to work on his spacesuit.

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