Axiom, Collins Win NASA Spacesuit Awards

Axiom, Collins Win NASA Spacesuit Awards

Axiom Space and Collins Aerospace are the two winners of NASA Public-Private Partnership contracts to build spacesuits to replace those used today on the International Space Station and for Artemis astronauts on the lunar surface. NASA declined to say how much each company would get of the $3.5 billion total through 2034. NASA will purchase services from the companies rather than owning the suits itself so that answer will depend in part on how much they charge and how much NASA buys.

NASA has embraced the PPP procurement module for its human spaceflight program starting with the commercial cargo and commercial crew programs that service the ISS and moving on to commercial space stations to replace the ISS around 2030 and the Artemis lunar program with robotic landers, human landing systems, and now spacesuits.

The Exploration Extravehicular Activity Services (xEVAS) contract is “incredibly flexible,” Lara Kearney told reporters today. “It allows us decision-making going ahead” as the agency monitors how the two companies perform and how much money is available to put NASA “in the best posture for support of both space station and Artemis.” Kearney is the manager for the Extravehicular Activity and Human Surface Mobility Program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, which manages the contract.

NASA JSC Director Vanessa Wyche announced the winners at a JSC news conference this afternoon along with Kearney, other NASA officials, Mike Suffredini, President and CEO of Axiom Space, and Dan Burbank, Senior Technical Fellow for Collins Aerospace, a unit of Raytheon.

Vanessa Wyche (far left), Director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, announces winners of spacesuit contracts, June 1, 2022. Joining her are (L-R): Lindsay Aitchison, program executive for Extravehicular Activity and Human Surface Mobility, NASA HQ; Dina Contrera, ISS Operations Integration Manager, JSC; Lara Kearney, manager, Extravehicular Activity and Human Surface Mobility Program, JSC; Michael Suffredini, President and CEO, Axiom Space; and Dan Burbank, Senior Technical Fellow, Collins Aerospace. Screengrab.

Suffredini is a former NASA ISS program manager. Burbank is a former NASA astronaut who flew on two space shuttle missions and was part of a long-duration ISS crew. He spent 7 hours and 11 minutes on a spacewalk himself.

Today both praised NASA’s internal Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU) program for the work it did over 14 years that is the “foundation” enabling them to move out quickly.

NASA’s xEMU program was heavily criticized in a NASA Inspector General report last year that concluded it was very unlikely NASA would be able to land astronauts back on the Moon in 2024 as planned at that time with Artemis III.

NASA intends to put people on the lunar surface for the first time since 1972 on Artemis III following two test flights this year and in 2024, the first without a crew (Artemis I) and the second with a crew (Artemis II).

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson conceded in November that the Artemis III 2024 landing date would slip to 2025 largely because of delays in the Human Landing System contract when losing bidders protested the award. He continues to use 2025 as the year of the first Artemis landing.

NASA’s Dina Contella, ISS Operations Integration Manager, did not convey that timeline today saying they were looking at the “mid-2020s” to transition to using the new suits on ISS “as soon as possible prior to the Artemis missions.” A NASA spokesperson told this evening, however, that testing on the ISS is not a requirement for lunar operations. The spacesuits must be tested in the environment in which they will be used. An “analog” test is OK and it can be “underwater, using weight relief, using a thermal vacuum chamber, or others as approved by NASA.”

The actual demonstration flight for the lunar surface spacesuits will be Artemis III itself.

Axiom’s spacesuit patch.

NASA’s goal with all of the PPPs is to be just one of many customers in a growing commercial space economy. Axiom is already making a name for itself in that regard, flying the first private astronaut mission to the ISS, Axiom-1, a few weeks ago. Axiom-2 is planned for next year and more are in the pipeline. Suffredini said today his company already has a need for spacesuits because some of those customers want to make spacewalks, so it is a perfect fit to work with NASA.

Asked if Axiom might use its spacesuit for its own customers before gaining NASA certification, an Axiom spokesperson told the company is “committed to working with NASA as our primary customer to ensure a safe and sustainable spacesuit for all customers” and is “currently finalizing details of our certification process…that enables our commercial customers and our exploration goals while meeting NASA’s ISS and exploration needs.”

Axiom’s longer term goal is building a commercial space station that starts by attaching modules to the ISS that later separate to become an independent facility to succeed the ISS.

Illustration of Collins Aerospace’s new spacesuit. Credit: Collins Aerospace.

Burbank pointed to Collins’ long history in building spacesuits.The Apollo lunar spacesuits were built by Hamilton Standard which over the decades became part of Collins Aerospace, a unit of United Technologies, which merged with Raytheon in 2020. ILC Dover has partnered with Collins and its predecessors on spacesuits for use in Earth orbit and on the Moon since the Apollo era and will do again this time. Oceaneering is also part of the Collins team.

Kearney said the contract does not specify whether the companies develop separate spacesuits for the microgravity environment in Earth orbit versus the lunar surface. That’s up to them. NASA only sets the requirements, not how to meet them in these types of contracts.

The life support system for either environment could be the same. What’s different is the pressure suit for microgravity in Earth orbit versus the 1/6 gravity of the Moon. Not to mention there are “trip hazards” on the Moon and the need for astronauts to be able to move and walk as they do on Earth, Burbank pointed out. Suffredini added that dust on the Moon is another challenge.

Most of the details of the contract were glossed over today. Kearney said the Source Selection Statement with more details will be released later this month.  NASA’s Mark Wiese, who chaired the xEVAS selection committee said at the press conference that the two companies are guaranteed a certain amount of funding, but did not say how much. He said the $3.5 billion is a ceiling for development and services through 2034.

Neither Suffredini nor Burbank would say how much of their own capital they are investing. Suffredini said “all of the cost to develop the suit is Axiom investment,” but not indicate how much that is. Burbank said he is on the technical side at Collins and did not know.

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