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NASA is running out of space suits — and it’s years away from having new ones ready

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A recent audit paints a grim picture of the agency’s space suit decisions

Photo: NASA

The state of NASA’s space suit supply looks bleak in a new report from the space agency’s auditor. NASA is still “years away” from having a new space suit ready for future deep-space missions, the report claims, even though the agency has invested close to $200 million on space suit development since 2007.

Meanwhile, NASA seems to be running out of the space suits it does have for the astronauts on the ISS. Only a fraction of the original space suit supply for the station is fully functional right now, and NASA may risk not having enough space suits to last through the end of the ISS program, currently scheduled for 2024.

These problems, outlined by NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG), could turn into major roadblocks for NASA as it tries to pull off its long-term human exploration plans. Right now, NASA’s goal is to start building a human outpost in the space near the Moon throughout the 2020s, where astronauts can live and train for future deep-space missions. Then in the 2030s, the first Mars astronauts will leave from this outpost and make the journey to the Red Planet.

Space suits will be a critical part of turning those plans into reality. Suits allow crew members to venture from their vehicles and do outside work or repairs, and they’ll certainly be needed to keep astronauts alive on the surface of Mars. However, different types of space suits are needed depending on the destination. The Martian environment, for instance, has different temperatures, gravity, and radiation levels than the space around the Moon. And various types of suits must be made to accommodate these different conditions.

A rendering of what NASA’s outpost near the Moon could look like.
Photo: NASA

To prepare for these deep-space environments, NASA has funded three different programs geared toward developing new space suits. However, the OIG report argues that these development efforts have been slow and complicated, since NASA has lacked a clear plan up until now on exactly where it wanted people to go in space. It was only recently that NASA outlined its plans to build a station near the Moon before heading to Mars. And though NASA has poured millions into these projects over the last decade, the agency has also taken funding away from space suit development and redistributed it toward other development projects.

Meanwhile, the report argues that NASA may have misspent some of the money it has put into these development programs. The OIG report highlights the fact that from 2011 to 2016, NASA has put more than $80 million into a space suit development initiative established under the now-defunct Constellation program. That was NASA’s old plan to return to the surface of the Moon that was ultimately canceled in 2010. “We question NASA’s decision to continue funding a contract associated with the Constellation Program after cancellation of that program and a recommendation made by... officials in 2011 to cancel the contract,” the OIG report states.

All of this means that NASA probably won’t have a new space suit for many years, and that could be a problem for doing any future testing. NASA hopes to try out these new designs on the ISS first before they’re actually used in deep-space environments. However, the suits likely won’t be ready before the station’s planned retirement in 2024.

And the current cache of space suits that NASA has may dwindle before that deadline. The space agency started off with 18 space suits suited to the ISS environment. They were made to last 15 years, but have survived for up to decades longer. However, a few of these suits have since been destroyed, either during missions or tests. So now, NASA is down to 11 suits with fully functioning life-support systems. Meanwhile, only four of those spacesuits are on the station; the rest are maintained on the ground and used for testing. “NASA will be challenged to continue to support ISS needs with the current fleet of [spacesuits[ through 2024, a challenge that will escalate significantly if Station operations are extended to 2028,” the report states.

NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren doing maintenance on the ISS space suits.
Photo: NASA

If things weren’t bad enough, there’s a chance that NASA’s first crewed mission to deep space in decades won’t have the space suits it needs in time, either. Currently NASA is building a giant rocket called the Space Launch System, which is meant to launch a crew capsule called Orion beyond lower Earth orbit. The first crewed mission of those two vehicles is tentatively scheduled for 2021, and it’s meant to take four people around the Moon. The crew won’t be getting out of the capsule during the trip, so they won’t need any suits for spacewalking. However, they will need a different kind of suit for the trip, in case something goes wrong and the vehicle depressurizes or loses air at some point. Those special suits, which are being modified from old Space Shuttle suits, are slated to be complete just months before the planned launch. That means there’s very little room for the development schedule to slip.

Given all these findings, the OIG recommends that NASA come up with a more formal plan for the development and testing of new space suits, as well a study to figure out the true costs of making these suits and maintaining the ones the agency already has. In response, NASA argued the report was overly critical in some parts but agreed to implement all of the OIG recommendations. The changes should take place sometime in September.