A new government audit reveals that NASA is running low on spacesuits and new ones might not be available in time.
Astronauts have been using the same suits since 1981. The suit were only designed to last 15 years, but NASA was able to extend the lifetime during Shuttle era by returning the suits to Earth for regular repairs.
Without the Shuttles, NASA has no way or returning the suits so they are kept on the space station. And recent incidents show that these suits are well past their due date.
The biggest problem is the primary life support systems, which are the large backpacks that astronauts wear during spacewalks. In 2013, one of the units malfunctioned while an astronaut was in space.
First Italian astronaut, Luca Parmitano, had a leak in one of the units that supplied water water to the suit. The water spilled over into his ventilation, which caused his helmet to start filling with water.
By the time he reached safety back on the station, over a liter of water had filled his helmet, entering his mouth, ears, nose, and eyes. Ultimately, he was unharmed.
In recent years, NASA has had 2 other water-related incidents, though not as severe as Parmitano’s. Today, only 11 of the 18 life support systems are considered safe to use. But those units may not even last long enough.
NASA plans to continue sending astronauts to the ISS to at least 2024. These astronaut will need safe, functioning spacesuits to perform spacewalks that are critical for maintaining the space station. The main concern is that the remaining 11 life support systems will not last to 2024.
Over the last decade, NASA has invested nearly $200 million toward developing new and better spacesuits. However, because NASA's budget and missions mainly rely on government funding, its focus has changed numerous times over the years from Moon-focused to Mars-focused.
And since different environments in space require different types of spacesuit protection, it was impossible for the space agency to stick to just one spacesuit design.
As a result, NASA divided its funding across three companies: $135.6 million toward the Constellation Space Suit System, $51.6 million to Advanced Space Suit Project, and $12 million for the Orion Crew Survival System.
None of the three companies have had enough funding to complete and develop a new spacesuit, yet. The report recommends that NASA develop a formal plan that fits their immediate needs. It also suggests that NASA determine if current spacesuit designs can meet the agency’s needs, or if next-generation suits are necessary.
The clock is ticking. NASA has already scheduled 17 spacewalks between now and 2020.
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