NASA has named the two commercial companies to which it’s outsourcing its future space duds.
Teams led by Axiom Space and Collins Aerospace were awarded the contracts worth up to $3.5 billion to develop and deliver the next-generation spacesuit for NASA’s continued presence not only in orbit close to home but also for the first astronauts to return to the moon in more than 50 years.
The companies would own the spacesuits, and NASA would become a customer, handing over the reins for what has already been a costly, years-long development for a new spacesuit design to be used on the Artemis program.
“There’s a benefit to having two companies,” said Lara Kearney, NASA’s manager for the Extravehicular Activity and Human Surface Mobility program. “I think between the competition to help drive costs down and also the redundancy, those were a couple of the major goals.”
The new suits are meant to replace the existing ones, which have been modified over time but are based on a 45-year-old design from the space shuttle era. NASA will continue to work on the design for what it had been calling the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Units (xEMU) through the end of the fiscal year, sharing information with the two companies, but will then shift to a supervisory role after September.
The end result will be two unique spacesuit offerings competing for the right to be used by NASA on the International Space Station, lunar missions in the Artemis program and the small Gateway space station, plus future missions to Mars.
For the companies, first up are demonstration versions.
“We did require that the industry demonstrate in what we call a relevant environment, so we are leaving it up to them as to what that is. Very well could be on the space station. Could also be in some kind of combination of, say, lunar simulating environments here on the ground. So that is a major milestone to demonstrate that capability before we execute what we’re calling services under this contract.”Laura Kearny
Company representatives said they’re both on target to perform that demonstration by 2025, which is the same year the suits would be needed for the Artemis III lunar landing, under NASA’s current schedule.
What prompted NASA's outsourcing?
The shift to commercial providers follows an audit by NASA’s Office of the Inspector General released in 2021 that raised a red flag about the agency’s timetable, which had at the time targeted a moon landing in 2024. Since the audit, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson announced a shift in the flight plans delaying the lunar landing another year.
At the time, NASA had already spent $420 million on development of the suit, and the audit said that the costs would rise to $1 billion before the Artemis III mission. Ahead of the audit, NASA had already decided to shift gears and outsource further development to commercial providers.
The solicitation for the Exploration Extravehicular Activity Services (xEVAS) Contract won by Axiom and Collins was issued in April 2021, and looks to satisfy NASA needs through 2034. The milestone-based contract has a combined potential maximum value of $3.5 billion, but that includes delivery and supply of all suits needed across all missions for a decade. NASA did not reveal how much of that total was being carved out for this initial development for each company.
“The $3.5 billion is a total contract ceiling over the life of the contract,” said Mark Wiese, board chair for xEVAS procurement selection committee. “That is not the awarded amount we guaranteed them, and amount to make sure we could get them going and they had skin in the game. And we’re gonna be careful to protect that. These are commercial companies working on commercial systems for other users.”
Axiom Space is already working with NASA to build out its own habitable extension on the ISS with the first module slated to attach in 2024. The eventual plan is for its modules to separate from the ISS and become an independent commercial space station. Company President and CEO Michael Suffredini said the spacesuit contract is a win-win.
“Axiom Space has a need for a spacesuit. We have a number of customers that already would like to do a spacewalk. And we have plans to build that suit as part of our program,” he said. “So it’s fantastic to have a partnership where we can benefit from the years of experience that NASA has and all the work they’ve done to advance the design to where it is today as a commercial company, come in and work with them to build it in a way that’s lowest cost so that we can both utilize the suit to meet our needs.”
Collins Aerospace is partnering with companies Oceaneering and ILC Dover for their bid. ILC Dover worked on all the Apollo era spacesuits as well as those during the shuttle era. Former astronaut Dan Burbank, now a senior tech fellow with Collins, said all its partners work close with former astronauts to help inform the design.
“We try our very best to have the end-user deeply embedded in the design aspect because we want the spacesuit — although we’ll often call the spacesuit the world’s smallest spacecraft — it’s human-shaped, human-sized,” he said. “It shouldn’t feel like a spacecraft. We want to be able to create an immersive environment that for the crew member gives them the most amount of mobility ... that complements the crew member’s capability rather than constrains it.”
The company had already had a hand in NASA’s xEMU development before NASA’s decision to shift to commercial providers.
He described his company’s goal is a suit that works across all platforms to "create a suit that is compatible with the entire spectrum of crew members.
“So that commander of Artemis III — she may weigh 120 pounds on Earth — and so that she has got a suit that’s appropriately sized and tailored for her that doesn’t feel like a spacecraft but feels like a ruggedized set of extreme sport outerwear. That should be the goal.”Dan Burbank
While two companies are competing, just like when Boeing and SpaceX competed for the Commercial Crew Program, just who will provide spacesuits for which missions is up for grabs.
“Theoretically one company could win all of them,” Kearney said. “So we will put the task orders out. We will compete them. We’ll evaluate them. We have to also understand what our funding availability looks like. ... We can actually make decisions to put NASA in the best posture for supporting both Space Station and Artemis. So it’s difficult to say today exactly how this contract is going to execute, but that was on purpose and by design, because we want the flexibility to be able to make those decisions as we see how these companies perform.”