NASA’s present fleet of spacesuits was built in 1974, each was reported to price between $15 million and $22 million, and today, that would be approximately $150 million.
Having not built any new mission-ready extravehicular suits since then, NASA is running out of spacesuits. Rather, NASA is down to just four flight-ready EVA suits. Since 2009, NASA has invested above $200 million in spacesuit development, recently uncovering the Xemu prototype for its Artemis program, which intends to take humans back to the surface of the moon by 2024, with an objective to eventually go to Mars.
We all are familiar with the scenario. Somebody has to go outside the space vehicle to do something heroic. Quite dangerous to imagine. Also need a suit, a spacesuit, and there’s always a room full of racks of outer space-specific fashion and gear, just waiting. On it goes, out they go, mission usually accomplished heroically.
Lo and behold, and perhaps to no one’s surprise, entertainment doesn’t actually portray reality. Nearly everything involved presently with space travel features lots of money. Spacesuits are no exception. Business Insider reports that NASA’s present stock of space suits was created back in the 1970s, at a value of between $15 million to $22 million each, almost $150 million in 2020. You all may remember the 2019 kerfuffle when the first all-female spacewalk outside the International Space Station had to be altered as the suits on hand weren’t, well, female-friendly. Despite the availability of two suits onboard sized medium, only one was actually ready for use. As NPR tells us, astronaut Anne McClain had to sit that one out, substituted by Nick Hague, working with Christina Koch on the walk.
It would appear that NASA has a real deficiency of usable, space-worthy suits on hand. The agency is down to four. Even those are past their expiry date. They were initially designed to last only 15 years. Lumpsum money has been invested in suit design in the years since, but new suits are yet to appear.
Partially it is due to budget constraints. Spacesuits, for whatever size human being, aren’t inexpensive. Ideally, spacesuits are human-sized spacecraft, not clothes. As Business Insider observes, the suits provide oxygen, communications, telemetry, and everything else that a human needs to persevere, all rolled into one tiny, human-formed spacecraft.
There were only 18, to start with. The gloves alone are unbelievably complicated, allowing astronauts to execute comparatively delicate manual work outside the spacecraft. The life support system, along with backpack is considerably more than just an air tank. The system controls air pressure, monitors carbon dioxide, runs the temperature, so many aspects of keeping an individual survive in an environment where the smallest system malfunction can cause death. The design competition is out there. Different companies are working to bring together a product that will be cost-effective, but also dependable. Presumably, it will fit explorers like Anne McClain.