SpaceX might make new astronaut spacesuits for NASA

Kristine Davis, a spacesuit engineer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, wears a ground prototype of the new Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU) during a demonstration on October 15, 2019.

Joel Kowsky / NASA

Elon Musk offered SpaceX’s services to help NASA manufacture their next-generation spacesuits after a watchdog report on Tuesday said the agency’s current program is falling behind schedule and more than $ 1 billion will cost.

“SpaceX could do it if necessary,” Musk wrote in a tweet.

Musk’s company has designed and manufactured flight suits for astronauts launching into orbit on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft. The flight suits are primarily used to protect the astronauts in the event of a fire inside the spacecraft or if the cabin becomes depressurized. Building spacesuits would be a more complex and demanding undertaking, as one has to survive in the harsh environment of space outside of a spacecraft.

In a statement to CNBC on Musk’s offer, NASA spokeswoman Monica Witt referred to the agency’s request last month to aerospace companies for feedback on “buying commercial spacesuits, hardware and services.”

From left: Mission Specialist Thomas Pesquet from ESA, Pilot Megan McArthur from NASA, Commander Shane Kimbrough from NASA and Mission Specialist Akihiko Hoshide from JAXA.

SpaceX

Musk’s suggestion came in response to a report from NASA’s Inspector General – the bureau of investigation that the agency audits for fraud and mismanagement – on work being done to develop a new line of extravehicular mobility units, informally called spacesuits.

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station use spacesuits that were “designed 45 years ago for the space shuttle program,” the report said. The IG also highlighted that these spacesuits have been “renovated and partially redesigned” over the past few decades in order to continue to function.

The space agency has launched three different spacesuit programs since 2007, the Inspector General noted, and has since spent $ 420.1 million on development. In addition, the report said that NASA plans to invest “an additional approximately 625.2 million US dollars” in development, testing and qualification to complete a suit for a demonstration on the ISS and two suits for the manned mission to the moon – at a total cost of “over $ 1”. Billion “by 2025.

Aside from rising costs, the inspector general said delays “due to funding shortfalls, COVID-19 impacts and engineering challenges” have eliminated the chance that the spacesuits will be ready on time. The space suits will be “ready to fly in April 2025 at the earliest,” the report said. NASA originally said the spacesuits would be ready by March 2023.

NASA needs new spacesuits for its Artemis program, announced by the administration of former President Donald Trump and continued under President Joe Biden. Artemis is expected to consist of multiple missions to the moon’s orbit and surface over the coming years, with NASA aiming to land astronauts on the lunar body by 2024. Although NASA is sticking to the 2024 target, the Inspector General has repeatedly warned that the schedule is threatened by several major programs that are key to Artemis’ success.

Musk called the 2024 timeline “actually doable” earlier this year after SpaceX became one of the critical parts of Artemis by signing a $ 2.9 billion contract to use its Starship rocket to transport astronauts to the lunar surface had won.

The spacesuits have a large number of different components, which, according to the general inspector, are supplied by 27 different companies. That’s a point Musk also highlighted, saying in a tweet that “there seem to be too many cooks in the kitchen”.

SpaceX did not respond to CNBC’s request to comment on whether the company had started work on its own spacesuits. Although the company has not released spacesuit plans, it is one of nearly 50 companies that have expressed an interest in NASA’s program to purchase privately developed spacesuits and space walks.

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