NASA’s spacesuit technology is 40 years old. These 2 companies with ties to Houston will change that.

The Johnson Space Center announced Wednesday that Axiom and Collins will compete for missions on the International Space Station, where astronauts use 40 years of space suit technology, and on the moon.

Together, the companies could receive up to $ 3.5 billion by 2034. “The previous suit, for 40 years, was the workhorse,” said Vanessa Witch, director of the Johnson Space Center, at a news conference. “The story will be made with these (new) costumes when we get to the moon. We will have our first color and our first wife to wear and use these costumes. “

NASA officials have long acknowledged that its spacesuits need to be upgraded. Those carried by astronauts who go beyond the International Space Station were originally designed for use with the space shuttle. They do not always fit comfortably on astronauts, can be difficult to enter and a recent malfunction has caused a NASA review.

After completing a spacewalk on March 23, European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer returned to the station to find a thin layer of water – more than normal – in his helmet. The agency will review this issue and possible fixes before resuming normal space operations.

“We would like to test new future technologies,” said Dina Contella, operational integration manager at NASA’s International Space Station program. “We would like to do it in an affordable way. So this agreement is actually a big part of our ISS strategy to maintain and use the space station for years to come. “

NASA has spent the last 15 years researching new spacesuit technology.

His plan was to create a reference design or a prototype that the private sector could use to build costumes, but that plan spun when former President Donald Trump challenged NASA to return to the moon by 2024. At the time, NASA decided to send its reference suit to The moon to fulfill the shortened timeline.

The agency turned again after NASA made significant progress on its prototype and pushed to land on the moon no earlier than 2025. NASA decided that companies could still make the costumes. But unlike previous NASA spacesuits, which were built by contractors and owned by the agency, these spacesuits will be owned by the companies that build them. NASA hopes its astronauts will be one of many customers wearing the costumes.

Axiom Space CEO Michael Suffredini praised the public-private partnership. His Houston-based company is sending private astronauts to the International Space Station. construction of its own commercial space station. These suits will benefit both NASA and Axiom Space.

“We have a number of clients who would already like to take a walk in space, and we planned to build a costume as part of our program,” Sufredini said. “It is fantastic to have a partnership where we can benefit from NASA’s many years of experience, and then (we) as a trading company come in and work with them to build it in a way that is (at) the lowest cost. “

Axiom will begin building the costumes at its current Houston facility and then move that work to the Houston Space Harbor when its new central campus opens. Axiom plans to complete the first phase of construction by April 2023.

The Charlotte, North Carolina-based Collins Aerospace, which helped build Apollo spacesuits, space shuttles and astronauts on the International Space Station, plans to relocate to the Houston Spaceport in the third quarter of this year. Much of the spacecraft’s assembly, maintenance and testing will take place at the new location in Houston.

The spacesuits work like a human-shaped spaceship. However, Dan Burbank, a senior technical assistant at Collins Aerospace and a former NASA astronaut, said they should make compliments, not limit the capabilities of a crew member.

This has been a problem in the past.

Apollo astronauts had custom suits, but they did they were not always easy to move or flexible. The astronauts had to fall to collect stones from the moon.

Current costumes have a “one size fits all” approach, which can be a problem because astronauts’ elbows and shoulders do not fall in the same places. Former NASA astronaut Bonnie J. Dunbar told the Chronicle earlier that the elbows of the suit do not bend where her elbows bend. And the wrong suit can cause astronauts to lose energy. Other astronauts have reported shoulder injuries from inappropriate costumes.

In addition, many women (plus some men) became inadmissible for space travel after NASA changed the available size. There were originally five sizes for the rigid upper torso of the suit – extremely small, small, medium, large and extremely large – but the budget cut reduced the to medium, large and extremely large.

These three sizes are still in use today on the International Space Station. In 2019, NASA had to reschedule its first space trip entirely for women, after discovering that only one medium-hard upper torso that both women required was on the International Space Station.

Axiom Space and Collins Aerospace plan to solve these problems in their projects. Burbank said he took part in a test on Wednesday in which a suit was resized to about 30 minutes from his taller height to fit someone shorter.

“To get the price where it needs to be, the challenge is to have a modular approach that really allows for this full indexability and full adaptability,” he said. “It’s actually very promising.”

NASA has done a lot of work for those companies that are upgrading the agency’s reference suits, but there is a short deadline.

However, NASA wants to return to the moon in 2025. However, NASA Inspector General Paul Martin said in January that the time needed to develop and test these costumes – as well as the landing system that will land astronauts to the moon – may to help keep astronauts from returning to the moon before 2026.

NASA officials hope that sharing data on the agency’s suit will accelerate the development of companies, said Lara Kearney, manager of the program for extracurricular activities and mobility of the human surface at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

“I think it’s better to get it in their hands sooner,” she said, “because they take ownership of it sooner. And so they start on that path to reaching the deadline. “

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