When NASA astronauts aboard the International Space Station have to clamber around on the outside of the orbiting facility for maintenance or repairs, they don a spacesuit known as the Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU). Essentially a small self-contained spacecraft in its own right, the bulky garment was introduced in 1981 to allow Space Shuttle crews to exit the Orbiter and work in the craft’s cavernous cargo bay. While the suits did get a minor upgrade in the late 90s, they remain largely the product of 1970s technology.
Not only are the existing EMUs outdated, but they were only designed to be use in space — not on the surface. With NASA’s eyes on the Moon, and eventually Mars, it was no secret that the agency would need to outfit their astronauts with upgraded and modernized suits before moving beyond the ISS. As such, development of what would eventually be the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU) dates back to at least 2005 when it was part of the ultimately canceled Constellation program.
Unfortunately, after more than a decade of development and reportedly $420 million in development costs, the xEMU still isn’t ready. With a crewed landing on the Moon still tentatively scheduled for 2025, NASA has decided to let their commercial partners take a swing at the problem, and has recently awarded contracts to two companies for a spacesuit that can both work on the Moon and replace the aging EMU for orbital use on the ISS.
As part of the Exploration Extravehicular Activity Services (xEVAS) contract, both companies will be given the data collected during the development of the xEMU, though they are expected to create new designs rather than a copy of what NASA’s already been working on. Inspired by the success of the Commercial Crew program that gave birth to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, the contract also stipulates that the companies will retain complete ownership and control over the spacesuits developed during the program. In fact, NASA is even encouraging the companies to seek out additional commercial customers for the finished suits in hopes a competitive market will help drive down costs.
There’s no denying that NASA’s partnerships with commercial providers has paid off for cargo and crew, so it stands to reason that they’d go back to the well for their next-generation spacesuit needs. There’s also plenty of incentive for the companies to deliver a viable product, as the contact has a potential maximum value of $3.5 billion. But with 2025 quickly approaching, and the contact requiring a orbital shakedown test before the suits are sent to the Moon, the big question is whether or not there’s still enough time for either company to make it across the finish line.
In the June 1st announcement, NASA revealed it had awarded contracts to Axiom Space and Collins Aerospace for a next-generation spacesuit that can serve crews on the International Space Station through to its tentative retirement in 2030 as well as support exploration of the Moon as part of the Artemis program. While the announcement mentioned an aspirational goal of eventually using some variant of the suit on a crewed mission to Mars, it’s not a specific requirement of the contract.
Those following recent space developments will likely recognize the name Axiom. The company seeks to develop their own private successor to the ISS that will be built as an extension of the orbiting laboratory until such time that it’s ready to be disconnected and operate as a free-flying station. As part of their preparations, Axiom recently conducted a privately funded mission to the ISS, during which several experiments relating to the design and development of future space station hardware were conducted.
During a press briefing about the announcement, Axiom President & CEO Michael T. Suffredini revealed his company had already been working on their own spacesuit design before they were selected for the xEVAS contract, which makes sense given their goal of eventually operating their space station free from NASA’s bureaucracy. The fact that Axiom will be able to keep the design of the suit even though its development will be funded by the space agency is also a huge boon for the company, and likely one of the reasons they agreed to the arrangement in the first place.
While Axiom Space is the definition of a “New Space” company, Collins Aerospace is anything but. A subsidiary of Raytheon Technologies, they designed the Apollo lunar spacesuits and are the prime contractor of the current EMUs. To say they have some experience in the spacesuit game would be something of an understatement.
Pitting an agile commercial space startup against an entrenched aerospace company that literally wrote the book on NASA’s spacesuits isn’t unlike the rivalry between SpaceX and Boeing to see which entity could be the first to design and build their own crew-rated spacecraft. The “New Space” competitor came away with a resounding win in that round, but it’s far too early to predict anything this time around.
The SpaceX Contingency
Some might be surprised that SpaceX wasn’t awarded a contract for the xEVAS program, given that the company already designed their own superhero-inspired suits for use aboard their Crew Dragon spacecraft. In 2021, Elon Musk even Tweeted that his company would take on the challenge of building a Moon-compatible spacesuit if that’s what it would take to make sure NASA stuck to its 2025 lunar landing deadline.
But realistically, NASA has already put most of the Artemis program on SpaceX’s shoulders. From awarding the company key roles in the construction and resupply of the Lunar Gateway Station to selecting Starship as the lander that will bring crews to the lunar surface, it’s no exaggeration to say that America’s lunar ambitions are almost entirely reliant on the Hawthorne, California company. For NASA to establish a long-term presence on the Moon, the Artemis program needs to maintain some level of diversity. Putting literally every step of the program into the hands of one company is simply too risky, even if the company has a track record of outperforming the competition.
That said, SpaceX doesn’t have to wait on an invitation from NASA to develop a new spacesuit. In February, the company announced they would demonstrate a modified version of the Crew Dragon pressure suit that would allow conducting an extravehicular activity (EVA) from the capsule on the private Polaris Dawn mission currently scheduled for the end of 2022. So whether or not the company was officially tasked with coming up with a backup plan for putting boots on the Moon, it looks like there’s a good chance they’re working on it.