NASA is in dire need for new spacesuits for the much anticipated Mars expeditions, according to the latest audit carried out by the agency's Office of the Inspector General and made public on Wednesday, April 26.
The audit report points out NASA is "years away from having a flight-ready spacesuit" for future deep-space missions, despite having invested close to $200 million on next-generation spacesuit technologies since 2007.
To make matters worse, the spacesuits — Extravehicular Mobility Units or EMU — currently used by astronauts on the International Space Station are also in bad shape, the audit found.
Of the 18 original EMUs aboard the ISS, only 11 are still functional, primarily because these suits "were developed more than 40 years ago and have far outlasted their original 15-year design life," auditors wrote in their 52-page report.
In view of this, "the inventory may not be adequate to last through the planned retirement of the ISS" scheduled for 2024, specifies the report.
This puts a strain on NASA's effort to support the space station's needs with the current supply of spacesuits until that time, and even more so if the agency decides to extend ISS operations with an additional four years.
Spacesuit Development And Setbacks
The EMUs are critical to the upcoming deep space missions NASA has in store. These backpack-like units allow astronauts to venture from their vehicles and do outside work or repairs.
The EMUs perform "a variety of functions required to keep an astronaut alive during a spacewalk" and will certainly be needed to provide life support once the crew of the EM-2 mission reach the surface of Mars.
Different types of spacesuits are needed depending on every mission's destination, notes The Verge. The suits required for the human outpost NASA plans to build near the moon have significantly distinct features from the spacesuit prototypes that will tackle the Martian environment and its different temperatures, gravity, and radiation levels.
"As different missions require different designs, the lack of a formal plan and specific destinations for future missions has complicated spacesuit development," shows the audit report.
Although NASA has funded three spacesuit development programs, the OIG report argues the agency may have misspent some of the money poured into these projects.
NASA has spent $135.6 million on suits designed for the Constellation Program, so that astronauts could wear them on the moon. However, even though the program was canceled during the Barack Obama administration, the agency continued to fund it.
"Rather than terminate the contract, NASA paid the contractor $80.8 million between 2011 and 2016 for spacesuit technology development, despite parallel development activities being conducted within NASA's Advanced Exploration Systems Division," underlines the report.
Another $51 million went into the Advanced Space Suit Project, while the investment in the Orion Crew Survival System, for suits that could be worn into deep space, totaled $12 million. However, these suits still need to be tested aboard the ISS before the station's scheduled retirement in 2024.
The white, bulky spacesuits worn by NASA astronauts are not only outdated, but have experienced their fair share of technical malfunctions.
In 2013, Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano almost drowned in his spacesuit, after his helmet filled with nearly 2 quarts of water 45 minutes into a spacewalk.
A similar incident occurred in 2015, when a water leakage inside the helmet of astronaut Terry Virts — after nearly seven hours of spacewalking outside the ISS — re-opened the case of possible risks associated with the NASA spacesuits.
Technical mishaps even caused the agency to delay spacewalks due to suit problems during Expedition 42.
These unfortunate incidents aside, NASA's current gear still need further development to be suitable for deep space exploration.
Next-generation spacesuits need to have better dust shields and more flexible hip sections so astronauts can wear them while walking on the ground, whether inside a spaceship or on alien terrain, emphasizes Space Daily.
The spacesuits also need to be better equipped to handle the radiation problem, and require adjustments for going to the toilet on long-duration missions. To this effect, last year NASA devised a campaign, called the "space poop challenge," through which the agency solicited inventors to come up with new ideas on waste disposal.
However, the new audit report mentions NASA has cut the funds destined for spacesuit development, redistributing the money to other top-priority investments, "such as an in-space habitat."
The auditors recommend that the agency develop and implement "a formal plan for design, production, and testing of the next-generation extravehicular activity (EVA) spacesuits" according to the current mission goals.
Another OIG recommendation involves a trade study to compare the costs of EMU maintenance with developing and testing a next-generation spacesuit.
"The lives of NASA's astronauts depend on spacesuits that enable them to operate safely in extreme environments," the report concludes.