NASA audit: New spacesuit years from ready despite $200M investment

CAPE CANAVERAL — NASA is years from having a new spacesuit ready for deep space exploration missions despite spending nearly $200 million on the project over the past decade, space agency auditors reported Wednesday.

The total includes nearly $81 million of unclear value to future spacesuit designs, spent since 2011 on a contract that NASA continued against Johnson Space Center’s recommendation, NASA’s Office of Inspector General found.

“We question the agency’s decision to continue to fund the contract after Johnson leadership recommended its termination,” auditors wrote in the 52-page report.


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There is a “significant risk,” they concluded, that a next-generation suit prototype won’t be available to test on the International Space Station before its potential retirement in 2024.

While working on future suits, the report noted, NASA faces a challenge simply maintaining its inventory of existing suits used for ISS spacewalks through 2024. That challenge will “escalate significantly” if the station’s life is extended to 2028.

Separately, NASA also is modifying shuttle astronauts’ orange “pumpkin suits” for flights on the agency’s new Orion crew capsule, to be launched from Kennedy Space Center by the new Space Launch System rocket.

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Auditors said the schedule is tight to have the pressurized launch-and-entry suit ready for an Orion crew to fly by August 2021, an internal NASA goal that other audits have found is unlikely to be met anyway.

That suit’s availability will be one of the considerations as NASA studies whether a crew can be launched sooner, a study expected to be completed soon.

NASA agreed with audit’s recommendations, including to produce a plan outlining how spacesuit technologies will be tested on the ISS or elsewhere.

But Bill Gerstenmaier, head of NASA’s human spaceflight programs, said the Inspector General was “overly critical” of the nearly $81 million spent to continue a contract awarded under the Constellation Program, a return-to-the-moon program the Obama administration canceled in 2010.

Johnson Space Center in 2011 recommended canceling the spacesuit contract with Oceaneering International Inc., Saying NASA could save $5 million that year.

The audit determined the contract delivered many systems redundant to and less technically advanced than another program NASA funded at the same time.

Gerstenmaier said the work had benefited existing and future spacesuit designs.

“We respectfully disagree that the facts presented to the OIG support that portion of the report,” he wrote.

The development of a next-generation spacesuit aims to replace Extravehicular Mobility Units, or EMUs, that were developed in the 1970s for the shuttle program and remain in use on the ISS.

NASA has 11 of the suits’ original 18 backpack-like life support units, “raising concerns that the inventory may not be adequate to last through the planned retirement of the ISS,” according to the audit.

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Because the technology is so old, the cost to build a new unit is unknown, but estimates range as high as $250 million.

The bulky white suits were not designed for work in deep space or another planetary surface like a moon of Mars or eventually Mars, which NASA’s human exploration program aspires to reach in the 2030s.

Exactly what missions astronauts will perform between now and then are not yet defined.

“The lack of a formal plan and specific destinations for future missions has complicated spacesuit development since different missions require different designs,” the audit states.

NASA now has a three-phased approach to upgrade spacesuits for use on the ISS, around the moon, and years later, Mars.

Agency officials believe it is critical to test new suit technologies first on the station orbiting 250 miles up, but a prototype isn’t expected to be delivered there before 2023.

Without tests on the ISS, the audit says, “there is an increased risk that astronauts will experience technical issues during exploration operations that could impact mission success and endanger their health.”.

“The lives of NASA’s astronauts depend on spacesuits that enable them to operate safely in extreme environments,” the report concludes.

Follow James Dean on Twitter: @flatoday_jdean.

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