After a government audit conducted Wednesday, it was determined that NASA’s latest spacesuits featuring the Orion Crew Survival System are overpriced, which could hinder their availability until March 2021.

On the other hand, NASA still follows the government’s lead on launching its first crewed test of the Space Launch System rocket, which will carry the first Orion deep-space capsule. The agency intends on replacing the old equipment aboard the International Space Station, but it seems that the spacesuits won’t be tested effectively before the suits aboard the ISS reach their retirement date on 2024.

Space Walk
Astronaut Peggy Whitson conducts a spacewalk on Jan. 6, 2017, at the International Space Station. Image credit: NASA.

Through the audit, the government discovered that $136.6 million had gone to NASA’s Constellation spacesuit and $51.6 to a different project named Advanced Space Suit Project. The report claims that the agency has spent well over $200 million, and is still “years away from having a flight-ready spacesuit.”

Rockets and spacesuits make an astronaut

The first spacesuits were developed over 40 years ago, and they are nearing their retirement date. The suits have been upgraded with time, getting more cameras, lights, and features for the comfort of the astronaut. Despite being technologically advanced, the Extravehicular Mobility Units (EMU) -those used for spacewalking- still have flaws. In 2013, Luca Parmitano’s suit began filling with water from its cooling system, flooding his helmet, which could have drowned him if he had not ended his spacewalk in time.

Astronauts need better suits for missions into deeper space. They need better sanitation solutions, radiation protection, and more flexible joints to maneuver on space environments. Currently, astronauts are forced to wear a diaper during missions.

Astronaut Piers Sellers participates in a training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Image Credit: NASA/Wikipedia.

The earliest spacesuits were first used during the Mercury project from 1958 through 1963, only worn while the crew remained inside the spacecraft. The suits did not contain life support and a hose which administered oxygen connected the astronaut to the spacecraft.

Later, for the Apollo program, spacesuits were substantially upgraded and modified to perform spacewalks. The Apollo suits were given boots to allow the astronauts to walk on the lunar surface. These suits had a vital support system, allowing the astronaut to go far away from the lander. Shortly after the Apollo program, the suits were used on the Skylab missions, which was the first U.S. space station, orbiting Earth from 1973 to 1979.

NASA Astronaut on the Moon
NASA Astronaut Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. walks on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 11 extravehicular activity. Image credit: NASA Archive.

On a different note, Boeing, one of the major competitors in space affairs, is developing its own spacesuits, which are seen as an upgrade compared to those designed by NASA, although these spacesuits are different from the EMU, as the former are intended as an emergency backup to the spacecraft’s emergency systems while the EMU is for spacewalking. It is the case of the Starliner or “Boeing Blue” suit, which is a lighter and more comfortable spacesuit. It meets NASA’s standards for safety and functionality and it “introduces cutting-edge innovations.”

The new spacesuits are lighter and have improved joint patterns, they also are a single piece when it comes to helmet, visor, and body, the gloves are touch-screen sensitive, and they have vents to help cool the astronaut.

Furthermore, it weighs only 20 pounds with all of its accessories, 10 pounds lighter than the suits worn by space shuttle astronauts.

Better suits mean safer astronauts

Despite all of the suits improvements, astronauts focus on a single fact:

“The most important part is that the suit will keep you alive. It is a lot lighter, more form-fitting and it’s simpler, which is always a good thing. Complicated systems have more ways they can break, so simple better on something like this,” stated astronaut Eric Boe to NASA.

Designing suits for spacewalking is immensely difficult mainly because the suit has to work like if it were a spacecraft on its own, offering life support, protection from debris, radiation, and a plethora of deadly threats that risk an astronaut’s life while in space.

Boe will be one of the four NASA astronauts to travel aboard the Starliner and SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, headed toward the International Space Station. Both vehicles should start working on crewed missions in less than two years. SpaceX is also developing its own type of spacesuit.

NASA Spacesuits
NASA engineers test Orion Spacesuits in Reduced Gravity Environment. Image credit: NASA/ Lauren Harnett.

NASA plans on launching its Orion Multi-Purpose Crew vehicle aboard the Space Launch System rocket. Initially, the launch was scheduled for November 2018, but due to readiness issues, the launch has been rescheduled to 2019. Apparently, it was because there were some “cracking problems” in the core stage of the SLS rocket, which forced NASA to consider delaying the launch of the Exploration Mission-1. The rocket was ordered by Congress in 2010 and demanded its first test flight by the end of 2016. Now, the agency is risking missing the deadline.

Tensions in space affairs have increased mainly due to a request by the Trump administration demanding a crewed flight aboard the SLS rocked by 2020. NASA has consistently refused to rush launch dates due to concerns over the safety of its astronauts.