NASA is facing a fairly bizarre issue in the coming years. They are running out of spacesuits intended for floating around in open space called EMUs (Extravehicular Mobility Units). Those suits are ideal for open space but their use is limited to that one area. Walking on the moon or another planet like Mars may prove to be more trouble than it is worth. The limited flexibility available in the lower extremities is likely going to be too much for any effective exploration.
But even these suits are currently in short supply. Originally NASA commissioned 18 suits, and of those 18, only 11 are usable and there are fears that they might not last until 2024 when the ISS is being decommissioned. Ordering more of the EMUs, on the other hand, makes absolutely zero financial sense.
The Challenger and Columbia missions are responsible for the loss of four of the seven suits. A small price compared to the other losses that occurred in those disasters. Another suit was destroyed during the SpaceX disaster of 2015. One of the last two was destroyed during testing and the last one is a prototype that was never meant to be used in open space situations. Even some of the 11 still in use are not exactly considered safe. Two of them have issues with the internal water systems, and two have been downgraded to ground chamber use. An additional two still need to be certified for use.
Unfortunately, the new suits are not going to be finished for years. First estimates predict that 2023 is the first year we will see the improved suits. Even a minor setback could potentially lead to the suits not being properly tested in time for the decommissioning of the ISS. NASA made a huge 200 million dollar investment in the new suits, but they still do not have anything to show for it. NASA is years away from a new flight-ready space suit.
What Seems to Be the Issue
Previously, NASA had clear plans about where their future flights are taking them. Missions like Mercury and Apollo had specifically designed suits. NASA has yet to plan their future expeditions in enough detail to warrant the design of new suits. You cannot use the same suit for landing on the moon and for landing on Mars’ surface. Different designs have to be created and tested in order to find the ideal combination of flexibility and sturdiness. The differences in temperature, radiation levels, and pressure levels all have to be accounted for if NASA plans to create a suitable spacesuit.
A big issue with this is also the government’s involvement in all space projects. A change in the presidency can lead to a change in the space program structure. Additionally, scientists still cannot agree on the best way to approach the Mars missions.
Another issue is the lack of funds. Due to a request from Congress, in recent years NASA focused much of their funds on items unrelated to spacesuits. A greater focus has been put on the development of deep-space habitats.
NASA also needs to manage their funds much better than they have done recently. Since 2007, they have invested in three different spacesuit development programs. A staggering 200 million dollars was spent on the Constellation Space Suit System (CSSS), Advanced Space Suit Project, and a flight suit for the Orion spacecraft. The CSSS consumed some 135 million, the Advanced Space Suit Project cost another 52 million and the Orion spacecraft suit cost 12 million USD.
In 2010, the Constellation program was canceled by then President Obama in favor of a mission that would take us to Mars. Strangely enough, the NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate continued to develop the CSSS spacesuit despite the cancellation of the mission. Just between 2011 and 2016 alone, NASA wasted some 80 million USD on the CSSS contract.
What Does the Future Hold?
The 11 suits may as well be enough to finish the ongoing missions and hold NASA over until 2024 and the release of the new suits. The suits survived more than a few decades, surely they can withstand a few more years of use.
The biggest issue with the old EMUs is the maintenance. The suits had to be examined and maintained after every Space Shuttle mission. Due to the retiring of the shuttle, the suits have seen much fewer repairs. As it stands right now, the suits are staying up in space for the next five years or exactly 25 spacewalks. Whichever of those two options comes first is going to trigger the return of the suits to Earth. The ISS crews can handle minor checkups and repairs but full maintenance has to be handled on Earth. This is problematic and dangerous since suits go much longer before tune-ups than they were initially intended.
The biggest risk NASA is facing now is that the suits due for release in 2024 may not be ready in time. This means they may not undergo enough testing before the ISS is retired. NASA may have to find an alternative way to test the suits or they might lower the standards for testing entirely. So the plan for NASA now is to prolong the duration of the ISS program all the way until 2028. This gives them enough time to perfect and thoroughly test the new suits. A slower test means less chance for problems down the line. But prolonging the program only enlarges the current problem with the number of usable spacesuits. So basically NASA is currently stuck between a rock and a hard place.
NASA’s HEO has still to come out with a proper plan to handle this. If they do not, additional questions may be raised regarding the unnecessary spending on previous spacesuit projects.
Still, not all hope is lost and there is a chance that the 2024 deadline for the new suits is met. These issues only show a deeper problem with NASA’s space programs and the way they are being planned and carried out.