It’s incredible that NASA can send a spacecraft on a 1.7-billion mile journey and strike an area of space a couple dozen miles wide with only a second to spare. The display of technology — we’re talking about Juno blazing into Jupiter’s orbit last summer — is nothing short of inspiring. So when news broke that NASA has a spacesuit shortage at the International Space Station, and is nowhere near remedying it, the questions had to be asked: How does NASA — a $19.6 billion dollar institution — have a spacesuit crisis?
Here’s the background: On April 26, NASA’s Office of Inspector General released this damning audit of the agency’s spacesuit program. The agency is nowhere near completion of a design fit for deep space travel, the report declared:
Despite spending nearly $200 million on NASA’s next-generation spacesuit technologies, the Agency remains years away from having a flight-ready spacesuit capable of replacing the [Extravehicular Mobility Units] or suitable for use on future exploration missions.
Additionally, the original stock of 18 spacesuits for the ISS has shrunk to 11. That’s sort of normal; after 15 years of operations, a spacesuit will exhibit wear and tear. (How’s your work uniform from 2002 holding up?)
But only four of these suits are on the ISS. The other seven are on Earth for use in tests. NASA risks a possibility of running out of spacesuits for the ISS by 2024, and that expiration date will likely be pushed back a few years.
So what the hell is going on here? How are we supposed to plan for a bigger human presence in space and other worlds when we don’t have the proper gear? If the goal is to establish a permanent presence from Earth to the moon, and use that to facilitate travel to Mars, astronauts are going to need to wear something that protects them from the lack of oxygen and pressure, high doses of radiation, temperature fluctuations, and other elements like cosmic particles zipping through.
Spacesuits Are Complicated
The Office of Inspector General’s report isn’t great, but there are concrete reasons for the situation. The complex nature of designing, constructing, and deploying a spacesuit to meet specific needs takes time. They’re not just a sleek-looking piece of bulky apparel.
“Spacesuits are form-fitting spacecraft for astronauts,” Cathleen Lewis, the curator of International Space Programs and Spacesuits at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, tells Inverse.
There are two major types of suits: what pilots refer to as “get-me-down” suits that astronauts wear on during launch and reentry to and from space. The report, however, is focused around what are known as Extravehicular Mobility Units (the suit you see below). They’re the suits astronauts zip up in when it’s time to leave the ship and venture out for a spacewalk or a jaunt on another planet or moon.
“Although we think of space travel as an incredibly futuristic thing, the development of EMUs has always been remarkably conservative,” Lewis says.
Spacesuit designers and engineers will not implement radical changes in order to safeguard life-support systems that already work.
“They know what has worked and what has kept humans alive, and they don’t want to deviate too much from that unless they’re absolutely certain the next step forward will increase the comfort of the astronaut and improve the ability to do meaningful work in the harsh vacuum of space.”
The two most important considerations for spacesuit design are protection and comfort. And that’s a difficult balance to navigate. Astronauts can’t do any work if they’re dead, but they also can’t do very much if they feel discombobulated inside their pressurized suits. Lewis points to the EMU glove as a notorious example of this delicate balance.
“Gloves are the most difficult part of a suit to design,” she says. Humans need their hands to do meaningful work as well as communicate and learn about the environment. Doing that inside a spacesuit pressured to 4.7 PSI is not easy.
Improvements have been made for over 50 years to create more flexibility and comfort, and ISS EMUs are fitted with the sixth version of the glove, with design competitions underway for a seventh and eighth version.
“Astronauts [in EMUs] have complained that they’ve lost fingernails, experienced cramps — complaints that go all the way back to the Apollo program.”
As humans start to explore other worlds, we’ll be limited to two different spacesuit designs — an EMU for spacewalks and similar activities and another for living, breathing, and walking on another world like the moon or Mars.
The prototype Z2 suit is the suit made for walking. Revealed in the fall of 2015, the Z2 — in addition to looking fashionable — was designed for walking on alien ground. “The special features on the Z2 are boots specifically designed for walking and keeping your foot integrated into the boot well, like a hiking boot,” said Amy Ross, Advanced Pressure Garment Technology Development Lead at NASA, in a NASA video.
There’s also the PXS suit, which NASA envisions as being able to be used for spacewalks and for terrestrial research. The suit is “a technology demonstrator focused on improving suit fit and performance while minimizing the amount of equipment required for long-duration missions to low-Earth orbit and beyond.”
Moving forward, NASA will need to make spacesuits more personal, for both individuals and for the mission at hand. “There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ spacesuit,” says Lewis. “It couldn’t do everything.”
The ISS EMU shortage is problematic, and it sounds like something NASA needs to remedy soon enough. Meanwhile, the lack of tangible public developments on the deep space suits looms, but it makes sense when you consider a spacesuit’s complexity.
NASA’s solved tougher problems before, though.
“These are questions NASA has been dealing with for over 40 years,” Lewis says. It would be wise to again bet they will find a solution to the spacesuit dilemma as well.