This spacesuit built-in 1974 was reported to cost between 15 million dollars to 22 million dollars. Today that would be about 150 million dollars. It has not delivered any new mission-ready extravehicular suits. Since then NASA is running out of spacesuits. In fact NASA down to just four flights ready suits. Since 2009 NASA has invested more than 200 million dollars in spacesuit development recently unveiling the zemu prototype. But NASA still does not have a new fleet of spacesuits.
So why has it taken so long for new spacesuits to be built and what makes them so expensive?
Spacesuits are so expensive because they are complex human-shaped spacecraft. Think about them in terms of spacecraft, not as work cloth. A spacesuit has to protect an astronaut from the vacuum of space, from radiation coming from the sun. And it has to protect against fast traveling particles that are traveling up to 18000 miles an hour that could penetrate the suit. They provide oxygen, communications, telemetry, and everything else that a human needs to survive all rolled into one tiny human-formed spacecraft.
But the spacesuits NASA currently uses are more than 40 years old. 18 suits were developed for the space shuttle program in 1974 and have vastly overworked their original 15-year life. Design suit number one was only used for certification, while suit 2 was destroyed during ground testing. two suits were lost in the Challenger disaster in 1986 and another two in the Columbia disaster in 2003.
The most recent spacesuit loss was unit 17 during Space X 7’s cargo mission mishap. The exact cost to replace this unit is unknown but estimates range as high as 250 million dollars. For the remaining 11 suits, the damage is mounting with seven in various stages of refurbishment and maintenance. It leaves only four flight-ready spacesuits aboard the international space station.
In fact, NASA’s first all-female walk was postponed because the space station had only one medium-sized suit. This milestone was finally achieved when NASA sent up a medium torso shell to fit the existing larger suit. NASA has invested about a quarter of a billion dollars developing the zemu suit for its Artemis program. It plans to take humans back to the surface of the moon by 2024. With a view to eventually go to mars. With that goal fast approaching and the number of existing spacesuits dwindling NASA engineers face a new kind of space race.
There is absolutely a sense of urgency. Not only because the number of suits itself is relatively small but the individual components that we use to keep the suits healthy.
Design of the Suite
The design that the current suits fly is a heritage design. Some of the components of which are no longer produced. Some of the vendors that made those components no longer even exist. And so today the co2 sensor is a great example of a component where a replacement design will work for both an existing suit and a new suit. Basically would be a drop-in replacement that’s compatible with both suit designs.
The backpack that is worn on the back of the suit is a highly compressed set of technologies. It does everything from maintaining temperature to remove carbon dioxide and continues to provide pressure inside the suit itself. And in the end, several of those components are each more expensive than most of the other garment components like the gloves.
The gloves are an amazing and intricate component but at the end of the day, the pressure garment including the gloves is actually less expensive than the life support system.
Considering that NASA’s Apollo-era space suits allowed 12 humans to walk on the moon 50 years ago. And the space shuttle era suits have been used on over 200 spacewalks is such a large investment in new spacesuits needed.
What else it can do?
Well, that depends on what you’re going to ask the astronauts, to do walking on mars is different from walking on the moon. it’s a different environment. It has different hazards so when you’re picking these assignments for astronauts you have to take them into account.
Do you want the astronaut to be able to walk, bend over, pick up things or will he or she be carrying something? So you have all those considerations that have to fold into that design?
Then Yes, the investment is appropriate and worthwhile. All those dollars get spent here on the ground and their return to us in ways that ultimately yield benefits for all of humanity.
They are also lowering the barriers to entry from a commercial perspective getting more companies involved. Getting more companies competing and innovating, to try to continue to reduce that price in an effort to develop technology at lower costs. NASA often sets design challenges for innovation sometimes partnering with the designers and companies who impress the most.