In 2021, NASA plans on sending a crew of four beyond Earth’s low orbit on a new spacecraft called the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion MPCV). The mission will facilitate manned deep space exploration such as landing human boots on an asteroid or Mars. It would be the first time humans have travel this far in space since the Apollo moon landing. A new internal audit of the mission, however, found the mission might get sidetracked because NASA’s new astronaut suits aren’t ready despite they burning $200 million and a decade of research.
This problem was outlined by NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) in an internal audit. The auditors found the space agency risks running out of time to test its three new space suits, currently still in research, before the International Space Station is decommissioned in 2024.
Right now, NASA astronauts traveling to the ISS use more or less the same spacesuits designed during the Apollo era called Extravehicular Mobility Units (EMU). And not only does NASA have nothing functional to show after all this time, it risks running out of the suits it currently has. The audit found many of the space suits destined for the ISS are unfunctional. By the time the ISS gets retired seven years from now, NASA might not have enough functioning suits to spare. Specifically, there are only 11 suites with fully functioning life-support systems, 4 of which are on the station itself. But that sounds like a problem NASA can solve. The biggest grievance the OIG had was with how NASA advanced its new spacesuit program.
NASA has funded three different programs for new spacesuits, each designed to serve a different purpose. For instance, NASA’s outlined long-term plan involves sending astronauts into deep space, on a new base orbiting the moon, and ultimately on Mars. Each environment has its own characteristic properties such as temperature or radiation exposure and the suits need to be designed accordingly.
Two of the suits are classed for extravehicular activity (EVA). One of them is the Constellation Space Suit System which is designed for activities on and around the moon. It was canceled in 2010 but “NASA paid the contractor $80.8 million between 2011 and 2016 for spacesuit technology development, despite parallel development activities being conducted within NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems Division,” NASA Inspector General Paul Martin said.
In total NASA spent $135.6 million on the Constellation spacesuit and another $51.6 million on a follow-up program known as the Advanced Space Suit Project.
The third suit currently in development by NASA is the Orion Crew Survival System (OCSS). It’s the cheapest program yet, costing only $12 million between 2010 and 2016 but like its predecessors, it’s not ready.
OCSS is meant to be worn during launch and landing of the Orion capsule from what’s to become the biggest rocket in history, the upcoming Space Launch System. The suit is supposed to offer protection against fire, smoke, and toxic chemicals. It also has its own pressurized environment in case something goes wrong with the Orion capsule — it’s basically a spaceship inside a spaceship. The internal audit, however, found OCSS won’t be ready before March 2021, which means out of all the tight schedules involving the Orion capsule and the Space Launch System, this space suit might be the last thing ready.
“The lives of NASA’s astronauts depend on spacesuits that enable them to operate safely in extreme environments. As the EMU ages, NASA must deal with a dwindling number of flight-ready spacesuits and with mitigating risks related to their design and maintenance. Given these issues, NASA will be challenged to continue to support the EVA needs of the ISS with its current fleet of EMUs through 2024 – a challenge that will only increase if Station operations are extended to 2028. Moreover, NASA is developing a new spacesuit for future exploration missions, and project officials say testing the new design on the ISS is critical. However, a flight-ready spacesuit will not be available for testing for several years, leaving little margin for delays in the production schedule if NASA retires the ISS in 2024 as currently planned,” the Inspector General wrote.
In its final note, the Inspector General urged NASA to develop a formal plan for the production and testing of its new space suits. It also instructed the agency to determine whether it’s more financially feasible to work on the current EVA spacesuits than starting from scratch. In response, NASA called the audit a “fair assessment,” though the agency said it had good reasons to continue paying the contractor for the canceled suits. Changes and new developments are expected by September 2017.