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NASA's spacesuits are 40 years old. Now it's making a big change

The space agency has announced the two companies it's chosen to build the next-gen spacesuits that will help astronauts work outside the ISS and explore the Moon.
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Written by Stephanie Condon, Senior Staff Writer on
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An artist's illustration of two suited crew members working on the lunar surface. The one in the foreground lifts a rock to examine it while the other photographs the collection site in the background.

NASA

NASA on Wednesday said it has selected two companies, Axiom Space and Collins Aerospace, to build next-generation spacesuits for the agency. 

The new spacesuits will usher NASA's astronauts into a new era of exploration: They'll be the last suits astronauts wear to walk outside the International Space Station, which is retiring in 2030. They'll be the suits that help NASA astronauts walk on the Moon for the first time in half a century. And they'll help NASA prepare for eventual human missions to Mars. 

"History will be made with these suits," Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA's Johnson Space Center, said to reporters on Wednesday. 

Both Axiom and Collins Aerospace said they expect to be able to demonstrate the suits around 2025. While the suits are already in development, there are no available pictures of them yet. 

NASA's new partnerships with Axiom and Collins Aerospace also mark a key milestone in the agency's efforts to promote the burgeoning commercial space economy. The two companies will actually own the spacesuits and provide them along with other spacewalking systems as a service. 

The companies selected were chosen from the Exploration Extravehicular Activity Services (xEVAS) contract solicitation. Under the contract, Axiom and Collins will compete to provide spacewalking needs for different task orders and missions through 2034. The contract has a combined maximum potential value of $3.5 billion for all task order awards.

Meanwhile, NASA is encouraging its private partners to explore other non-NASA commercial applications for data and technologies they co-develop with the agency. NASA will maintain the right to use that data and technology within the agency and on future exploration program procurements. 

Creating these kinds of incentives for the private sector, NASA posits, will encourage innovation and sustained competition -- theoretically bringing down costs and creating critical mission redundancies.

"We've talked for many years about public and private partnerships," said Axiom Space CEO Michael Suffredini, who served as NASA's ISS Program Manager from 2005 to 2015. "I think this is really one of the first cases where it actually benefits both sides."

Axiom was formed in order to build a commercial space station to replace the ISS once it's retired. The company recently took the first-ever fully-private crew to the ISS. 

"Axiom Space has a need for a spacesuit," Suffredini explained. "We have a number of customers already that would like to do a space walk, and we had planned to build a spacesuit as part of our program. 

"It's fantastic to have a partnership where we can benefit from the years of experience that NASA has, and all the work they've done to advance the design to where it is today... so we can both utilize the suit to meet our needs."

NASA's existing spacesuit "has been the workhorse for the agency for 40 years," said Dina Contella, ISS program operations integration manager for the Johnson Space Center. Of the 250 spacewalks NASA and its partners have done on board the space station, 169 were with the existing space suit. 

"The spacesuit technology, of course at 40 years, is ageing," she said. "We'd like to try new, future technologies, and we'd like to do it in an affordable way." 

NASA is still responsible for defining the technical and safety standards by which the spacesuits will be built. The agency also gave certain requirements to the companies seeking to build the spacesuits. For instance, they have to fit a wide range of human bodies, from the fifth percentile of females to the 95th percentile males. 

Axiom and Collins Aerospace are trying to design suits that are modular and require as few parts as possible. However, they also have to interface with all kinds of vehicles and equipment that will be used in space, and they must provide as much mobility as possible. 

"We often call the spacesuit the world's smallest spacecraft... but it shouldn't feel like a spacecraft," said Dan Burbank, senior technical fellow for Collins Aerospace. "We want to create an immersive environment that gives the crew the most amount of mobility, that complements a crew member's ability rather than constrains it." 

Ultimately, he said, they want to build a suit "that feels like a ruggedized set of extreme sport outerwear."

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