NASA has commissioned two commercial companies to design new spacesuits. Axiom Space and Collins Aerospace are allowed to make suits that are used for spacewalks from space stations as well as on the moon and later even on Mars.
The two companies get a contract under the Exploration Extravehicular Activity Services program. That’s comparable to programs like the Commercial Cargo and the Commercial Crew Program where NASA gives money to companies like SpaceX, Boeing or Sierra Nevada Corp. to build manned and unmanned capsules to the ISS. Under the xEVAS contract, the companies can earn up to $3.5 billion. NASA will not disclose the exact amount the companies will receive for the first step in the process until later. For that first step, the companies must demonstrate technology that can be used for a spacewalk outside the ISS.
The companies can use technical data that NASA has already collected with its own spacesuit: the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit, a concept spacesuit that NASA has been working on for years, but that is not used on the ISS or on other missions. NASA gives Axiom and Collins the technical specifications and qualifications for the spacesuits, but the companies retain ownership of them. According to the contract, they can also use it for commercial missions. With this, NASA hopes that “an emerging commercial market for a new group of customers” will emerge.
NASA’s current spacesuits need to be replaced. The Extravehicular Mobility Units that are now used in the ISS are old and regularly have problems. In 2014, water leaked into a spacesuit during a spacewalk, which nearly “drowned” astronaut Luca Parmitano. That problem persisted. Last month, NASA decided the spacesuits can no longer be used at all for unnecessary spacewalks. In addition, there is a need to develop new spacesuits for future missions. The suits that astronauts wore on the moon are no longer in use, but because NASA has plans to return to the moon in the future, the new spacesuits must meet the requirements to be able to walk around there. NASA also wants the suits to be used on Mars in the future.