05/05/2017

Despite Investment, A Shortage Of Spacesuits

4:49 minutes

Spacesuits, like the ones seen here in use during ISS missions, are the kind NASA could run out of. Credit: NASA

NASA’s spacesuit closet is looking a little bare these days, according to an audit released last month by the agency’s Office of Inspector General.

 Since 2007, NASA has invested roughly $200 million for developing new spacesuits but auditors say the technology is still years away from being ready to use for space exploration. At the same time, the suits currently used by NASA astronauts on the International Space Station were developed more than 40 years ago, and are in waning supply. Of 18 original suits, just 11 still have working life-support systems.Science reporter Loren Grush, who covered the story for The Verge, sees a small bright spot: “The good news is that NASA is thinking ahead and they are putting money into developing new spacesuits, which they’re definitely going to need because they have very ambitious goals — like going into deep space and onto Mars.”

[Space, as seen through a window.]

But in its report, the OIG suggests the development projects aren’t going smoothly. “As different missions require different designs, the lack of a formal plan and specific destinations for future missions has complicated spacesuit development,” the auditors state in the report. “Moreover, the Agency has reduced the funding dedicated to spacesuit development in favor of other priorities such as an in-space habitat.”

As Grush explains, NASA expects to need spacesuits for a number of missions in the near future. The different needs of those missions pose a conundrum for the agency. “NASA’s hoping to go to lunar space or near-lunar space, and so you’re going to need a spacesuit for that,” she says.

“Also, we have some new flights coming up of this new rocket [the Space Launch System] that NASA is launching, and they’re going to need not spacesuits for spacewalking, but suits just for the astronauts to wear when they’re on those flights.” Then there’s Mars, she adds: “You’re going to need a special spacesuit for the Mars surface because it’s going to be a very different environment than other places that we’ve been to in space before.”

As a result, NASA has spearheaded three different spacesuit development projects in the past decade. In one initiative, the agency poured more than $80 million into continuing spacesuit development for a return to the moon through the Constellation Program — after the initiative had been canceled.

“The audit was very critical of them doing that because there were a lot of recommendations to stop putting money into that program,” Grush says. “And they just now recently stopped — and basically, the audit made it seem like they were squandering that money.”

In a response, NASA called the audit’s take on the Constellation Program spacesuits “overly critical,” arguing that information and hardware gained from the program have helped other spacesuit development efforts.

Two spacesuit projects are still in progress: a suit for astronauts on the upcoming Orion mission, using the Space Launch System; and an advanced suit for astronauts to use for outside exploration. According to the audit, both projects face significant timing risks.

Suits for the Orion mission will be adapted from old space shuttle launch suits, but the schedule is tight: They’re expected to arrive in March 2021, and the Orion could launch as early as August 2021. “So, it could be kind of close for when those spacesuits will be done,” Grush says. “However, if the launch [date] slips, they might have a little more time to make those suits ready.”

Meanwhile, the best place to test new advanced suits is the International Space Station. “However, the International Space Station is set to end in 2024,” Grush says. “And if those spacesuits aren’t ready in time, it’s possible we might not have the ISS to test those spacesuits out on.”

The audit concludes by suggesting that NASA develop a formal plan to develop and test new advanced spacesuits, and compare the costs of making them against the costs of maintaining old ones. The space agency has agreed to follow the OIG’s recommendations — and plans to do so by the end of September.

—Julia Franz (originally published on PRI.org)

Segment Guests

Loren Grush

Loren Grush is a science writer at The Verge, in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

FLORA LICHTMAN: Now it’s time to play Good Thing Bad Thing.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Because every story has a flip side. Consider the spacesuit. These expertly-engineered mini environments have been protecting astronauts from cold, heat, radiation, space dust, airlessness since the dawn of NASA. So it’s a good thing that NASA has invested more than $200 million in developing new spacesuits over the last decade.

But a new audit of this investment suggests not all is well. Here to explain the good and the bad is my guest, Loren Grush, a science reporter for the Verge

LOREN GRUSH: Hi, thanks for having me.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Thanks for coming on.

LOREN GRUSH: Yeah, of course.

FLORA LICHTMAN: So what’s the good news?

LOREN GRUSH: Well, the good news is that NASA is thinking ahead. And they are putting money into developing new spacesuits, which they’re definitely going to need. Because they have very ambitious goals, like going into deep space, and onto Mars.

FLORA LICHTMAN: OK, so they’re investing money. And what’s the most pressing spacesuit need that we have?

LOREN GRUSH: Well, there are a couple. So NASA’s hoping to go to lunar space, or near lunar space. And so you’re going to need a space for that. Also we have some new flights coming up of this new rocket that NASA is launching.

And they’re going to need, not spacesuits for spacewalking, but suits just for the astronauts to wear when they’re on those flights. And then of course, like I said, want to go to Mars. You’re going to need a special spacesuit for the Mars surface. Because it’s going to be a very different environment than other places that we’ve been to in space before.

FLORA LICHTMAN: That makes sense. So that all sounds good. We have a need. We’re responding with money. What’s the bad news?

LOREN GRUSH: Well, the bad news is there was a recent audit of these investments. And it looks like we are still many years away from getting new spacesuits ready for these deep space missions. And that’s not good.

Because NASA likes to do testing. And the best place to test these new spacesuits would be on the International Space Station. However, the International Space Station is set to end in 2024. And if those spacesuits aren’t ready in time, it’s possible we might not have the ISS to test those spacesuits out on.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Ooh. I assume there are probably ways to test here on Earth?

FLORA LICHTMAN: Yeah, but to really get a good test ground, you want to go where you’re going to be–

FLORA LICHTMAN: It makes sense.

LOREN GRUSH: –where zero gravity is. You can’t really get that anywhere else but in space.

FLORA LICHTMAN: And I read that the Orion mission could happen as early as 2018. And the spacesuits would be ready months before or something?

LOREN GRUSH: Well, so what NASA wants to do is two initial test flights of their new rocket, the Space Launch System. And the first one, for now, is going to be uncrewed. That just slipped to 2019. So it was going to be 2018. And now it’s 2018.

But the next one, which is scheduled for as early as 2021, that one will have crew on it. And that’s the one where they’re going to need suits. They’re suits that you use to ride in the Orion with. It’s not like they’re going out spacewalking.

But just in case the Orion depressurizes or there’s some problem, you want to have a spacesuit on that can save your life in a pinch. And those are supposed to be ready just a few months before the earliest date for that flight. So it could be kind of close for when those spacesuits will be done. However, if the launch slips, they might have a little more time to make those suits ready.

FLORA LICHTMAN: NASA also got flak for investing $80 million in a project that had been canceled. What’s the deal with that?

LOREN GRUSH: So back before 2010, NASA was working on a return to the moon called the Constellation Program. And they had all of these flights planned. And they were developing suits for that specifically.

And then in 2010 or 2011, the program was canceled. Yet NASA still continued to fund the development program developed for the Constellation Program for those spacesuits. And the audit was very critical of them doing that. Because there were a lot of recommendations to stop putting money into that program.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Oh, to consolidate or something.

LOREN GRUSH: Right, right. And so they ended up spending $8 million from 2011 to 2016. And they just now recently stopped. And basically, the audit made it seem like they were squandering that money.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Thank you, Loren.

LOREN GRUSH: Yeah, thank you.

FLORA LICHTMAN: I appreciate you taking the time. Loren Grush is a science reporter for the Verge.

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