NASA is years away from developing a new spacesuit for deep space exploration despite having spent nearly $200m trying to develop next-generation suits.
The spacesuits NASA astronauts currently use on spacewalks from the International Space Station (ISS) were developed more than 40 years ago and designed to last only 15 years, said NASA’s Office of Inspector General in a an audit.
Only 11 of the 18 spacesuits NASA currently uses for spacewalks – named Extravehicular Mobility Units (EMU) – are still in service and each unit has been extensively redesigned or refurbished since they were built in 1981. There are no other spacesuits suitable for the work.
The situation has raised fears the supply of suits may not be adequate to last until 2024, when the ISS is due to close.
The situation could be much worse if ISS operations are prolonged until 2028 – an idea that is under consideration, warned the report.
And current EMUs will not meet the needs of the agency’s future deep space exploration plans as they lack the hip flexibility needed to walk on planetary surfaces.
The audit warns that procuring additional EMUs is not a viable option given the prohibitively high cost of the backpack part of the unit, which contains life support systems to enable astronauts to withstand the rigours of space.
Over the past eight years NASA has undertaken three spacesuit development programmes – the Constellation Space Suit System (CSSS), Advanced Space Suit Project, and Orion Crew Survival System (OCSS) – but none have delivered a flight-ready spacesuit.
The audit said the lack of a formal plan and specific destinations for future missions has complicated spacesuit development since different missions require different designs.
In the past NASA linked spacesuit development efforts to specific programmes but recently spacesuits have been developed separately without a specific mission in mind.
“Moreover, the agency has reduced the funding dedicated to spacesuit development in favour of other priorities such as an in-space habitat,” it said.
“Given the current development schedule, there is significant risk a next-generation prototype will not be sufficiently mature in time for testing on the ISS prior to the station’s planned 2024 retirement.”
The audit also questioned NASA’s decision to continue to fund the CSSS despite cancellation of the programme it was designed for and a recommendation to terminate the contract.
It said astronauts had performed 204 spacewalks wearing the EMUs and had experienced 27 “significant incidents,” including glove damage, uncomfortable body temperatures and helmet water intrusions.
While none led to permanent injury of an astronaut or death, in July 2013 a European Space Agency astronaut reported a growing “blob” of water in his helmet, leading to him rapidly returning to the space station.
When the spacesuit was removed, the crew found between one and 1.5 litres of water in the helmet, which could have been fatal if it had obstructed his breathing.
The audit added that EMU maintenance was much harder to carry out on schedule now compared to when NASA was using the Space Shuttle to transport astronauts to and from the ISS.
In the space shuttle era the suits were returned to Earth after every mission for maintenance.
“However, since the Shuttle’s retirement in 2011, NASA has had limited ability to return the EMUs from the ISS because only one of the commercial vehicles that ferry supplies to the station has the capability to return items to Earth,” said the report.
“As a result, astronauts are using the EMUs for much longer periods of time between maintenance and refurbishment than originally intended.”
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