Frank Rubio spacewalk
NASA astronaut Frank Rubio during a Nov. 15 spacewalk outside the International Space Station. NASA awarded a task order to Collins Aerospace Dec. 8 to develop a next-generation spacesuit for ISS spacewalks. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — NASA has selected Collins Aerospace to develop a next-generation spacesuit for the International Space Station, replacing aging suits that have become a safety concern.

NASA awarded a task order valued at $97.2 million to Collins to design, build and demonstrate the suit, which will replace the existing, decades-old Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) suits used for spacewalks outside the ISS. The task order covers development of the suit and testing on Earth in a simulated space environment by January 2024.

An option in the task order, whose value was not disclosed, would involve demonstrating the suit on an ISS spacewalk with NASA astronauts, no later than April 2026.

“Our next-generation spacesuit was built by astronauts for astronauts, continuing Collins’ long-standing legacy as a trusted partner of NASA’s human space exploration,” said Dave McClure, vice president and general manager at Collins, in a company statement. The Collins team includes ILC Dover and Oceaneering.

The company released few details about the design of the suit, other than to say it is lighter and less bulky than the current EMU, improving efficiency, range of motion and comfort. The suit is also designed to fit “nearly” any body type to meet NASA requirements.

NASA had been looking for years at options to replace the EMUs, which are decades old and showing signs of aging. NASA halted spacewalks outside the station for several months earlier this year after noticing water in the helmet of an astronaut, Matthias Maurer, during a March spacewalk. An investigation found no hardware flaw with the suit, and NASA concluded in October that “integrated system performance” involving several variables caused the water to collect in the suit helmet.

NASA said it updated procedures and developed “new mitigation hardware” to minimize water accumulation and to absorb any water that does accumulate in the helmet. With those measures, NASA resumed spacewalks on the ISS in November.

NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel has been closely monitoring the issue. The panel, which provides advice to NASA on safety issues, had long been concerned with the aging spacesuits and the risks they posed to astronauts.

“While we, the panel, continued to be concerned about the long-term sustainability of the ISS spacesuits, given their age, the resolution of the most recent water intrusion issue is reasonable,” said Sandy Magnus, a panel member and former astronaut, during an Oct. 27 public meeting of the panel. “We are very much looking forward to hearing more about the timing and the deployment of the new suits.”

NASA selected Collins and Axiom Space in June for contracts called Exploration Extravehicular Activity Services. The two companies would then compete for task orders to develop spacesuits and provide them to NASA as a service, rather than have the agency own them. That would allow the companies to offer the suits to other customers, such as companies developing commercial space stations.

NASA selected Axiom Space in September for the first task order to develop suits for Artemis missions, an award valued at $228.5 million. Neither NASA nor Axiom have released details about the suit design. NASA said it received proposals from both companies but did not disclose why it selected Axiom.

One member of the Collins team suggests that they are still in the running to provide spacesuits for later lunar missions by adapting the design they will develop for the ISS. “Leveraging our decades of experience engineering the pressure garments for the Apollo missions and the ISS, our latest spacesuits will have the ability to be outfitted for missions from the ISS to the lunar surface and beyond,” said Corey Walker, chief executive of ILC Dover.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...