NASA is running out of spacesuits– and new ones might be a decade away

Houston, we have a problem: NASA is running low on functional space suits, and while the US space agency has reportedly invested approximately $200 million to develop next-gen ones to be used on deep-space missions, they are still said to be several years away from being ready.

The problems are highlighted in a new report released this week by NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG), which reveals that the space suits or Extravehicular Mobility Units (EMU) now in use by US astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) were originally developed more than four decades ago, but were only intended to be used for a maximum of 15 years.

Furthermore, the report said, only 11 of the 18 EMU Primary Life Support System units (units similar to backpacks that are essential to keeping astronauts alive during spacewalks) are still in use, leading to concerns that there may not be enough to last through the end of the ISS program – which, according to The Verge, is currently scheduled to last at least another seven years.

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The next generation of spacesuits might be behind schedule (Credit: NASA)

NASA has been working on new spacesuits since 2007, but the OIG warned that those suits are “years away” from being ready for use. Complicating matters, said Engadget, is the fact that the agency recently reduced funding for the development of those new EMUs. As a result, the OIG is calling for a new study comparing the cost of maintaining its current spacesuits to the cost of developing and testing the next-gen ones, the website added.

“As the EMU ages, NASA must deal with a dwindling number of flight-ready spacesuits and with mitigating risks related to their design and maintenance,” the report said, adding that while experts insist that it is “critical” that the new suits be tested on the ISS, that will not be possible for “several years, leaving little margin for delays in the production schedule.”

Inspectors call for formalized plans for development of new suits

With NASA currently planning to establish a human outpost near the Moon in the near future, then travel to Mars sometime in the 2030s, functional spacesuits will be essential to ensure that astronauts remain safe during their time in space, the AP and The Verge pointed out.

Yet the current crop of spacesuits faces a number of issues, according to the AP. Along with the potential shortage of life support systems, there have been a reported 3,400 mostly minor issues, including 27 “significant incidents,” with the EMUs since they were first used in the 1970s. The most serious problem involved an Italian astronaut who was nearly drowned in 2013 after water from his cooling system found its way into his helmet, causing it to become flooded.

Ten years ago, NASA launched three different programs – the Constellation Space Suit System ($135.6 million), the Advanced Space Suit Project ($51.6 million), and the Orion Crew Survival System ($12 million) – to develop a replacement for the 40-plus-year-old EMUs. However, the OIG report said that work on those replacements has been slow and complicated, in part because NASA did not have a clear plan as to exactly where it wanted to send astronauts next.

Furthermore, as The Verge noted, NASA has also taken some of the funding away from those projects and redistributed it to other initiatives – and some of the money that the agency did use towards the creation of new spacesuits may have been misspent. For example, the OIF said that more than $80 million was funneled into the now-defunct Constellation program – the cancelled mission to return NASA astronauts to the moon – between 2011 and 2016.

As a result, not only is there concern that there won’t be enough spacesuits to last through the next seven years of the ISS’s planned lifespan (never mind the possibility that the space station could be extended an additional four years, to 2028), but there is a possibility that the new suits won’t be completed in time for a planned crewed mission in 2021.

In their report, the OIG recommended that NASA develop a formal plan for the development and testing of its new spacesuits, and called for a study to determine the actual costs of both making the new suits and maintaining the current EMUs. While agency officials said that the report was overly critical in some areas, they have agreed to implement all of the OIG’s recommendations and plan to make those changes starting in September, according to The Verge.


Image credit: NASA