The suits will also be worn by crew members living and working on the International Space Station. The orbiting laboratory is not just a testing ground for space exploration, but new technology as well.
The contracts were awarded by NASA as part of its strategy of growing commercial partnerships.
Both companies have been selected to move forward in developing the next generation of spacesuits. Depending on how the two companies deliver on the suits and their spacewalking capabilities, one company could prevail over the other. That flexibility has been built into the task awards as the two companies progress in product development.
“With these awards, NASA and our partners will develop advanced, reliable spacesuits that allow humans to explore the cosmos unlike ever before,” said Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, in a statement.
“By partnering with industry, we are efficiently advancing the necessary technology to keep Americans on a path of successful discovery on the International Space Station and as we set our sights on exploring the lunar surface.”
Experts from NASA have developed the required safety and technical standards for the spacesuits. Axiom Space and Collins Aerospace will design, develop and potentially produce the suits and any necessary equipment for space station crew and Artemis astronauts.
“The existing spacesuit has been the workhorse for the agency for 40 years and helped to maintain and utilize the International Space Station as well as construct it,” said Dina Contella, operations integration manager for the International Space Station program at NASA.
“We’ll be conducting an orderly transition away from our existing spacesuit and over to the new spacesuit. We’re looking forward to working with the providers as partners and bringing ISS and their spacesuits into the modern age, and then helping the agency on its way to the moon.”
The suits are expected to be ready by the mid-2020s. The new suits and their capabilities will “help us explore more of the moon than we ever have before,” said Lindsay Aitchison, program executive for NASA’s Extravehicular Activity and Human Surface Mobility program.
“We will be able to have these capabilities tested, and they’ll be tested before our astronauts are being used on orbit or either on the surface of the moon,” Wyche said.
The first steps involve the two companies delivering suits for demonstration outside of the space station as well as for the Artemis III moon landing.
“Our commercial partnerships will help realize our human exploration goals,” said Mark Kirasich, deputy associate administrator of NASA’s Artemis Campaign Development Division, in a statement.
“We look forward to using these services for NASA’s continued presence in low-Earth orbit and our upcoming achievement of returning American astronauts to the Moon’s surface.”
The contracts support everything necessary for spacewalking through 2034. The agency is sharing flight and ground-based test data from previous spacewalks and NASA’s Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit development project with Axiom Space and Collins Aerospace.
Previously, the development project was going to design the suits.
A report released in 2021 by NASA Inspector General Paul K. Martin said the agency’s goal of returning American astronauts to the moon by 2024 wasn’t feasible because of significant delays in developing spacesuits.
Even though NASA will have spent more than a billion dollars on the next-generation spacesuits, Martin concluded that the “suits would not be ready for flight until April 2025 at the earliest” and are “years away from completion.”
“I really believe all of that data is helping to reduce the risk and to speed that transition process up to the contractor community,” said Lara Kearney, manager, Extravehicular Activity and Human Surface Mobility program at NASA.
The contract has a combined maximum potential value of $3.5 billion for all task order awards, according to officials.
“We’re not only meeting NASA’s objectives, but also helping to support and encourage an emerging space economy so that in the future, it’s not just NASA Extravehicular Activity services, but there’ll be a range of customers that can purchase that in the future,” Aitchison said.
The two companies have also invested their own money in developing the suits and will own the spacesuits.
“The public private partnership is really a benefit to NASA and it will allow us to have the capability to use, and then as well, they will have it so that they can provide it for non-NASA customers,” Wyche said.
“So it’s a shared investment where we’re both getting something out of it.”