When Nasa placed a $278mn contract with an upstart rocket company in 2006, it may not have realised that it was about to revolutionise space flight. But this was the contract that helped Elon Musk’s SpaceX to develop the Falcon reusable rocket that slashed launch costs. As a result, the new space economy was born.
Is it possible that Nasa’s recent decision to hand the development of a next-generation spacesuit to the private sector could now herald an equally radical change in the costs of living and working in space? Last week, the US space agency chose Collins Aerospace, which helped to develop Neil Armstrong’s iconic lunar suit, and Axiom Space, a start-up aiming to run the world’s first commercial space station, to redesign the spacesuit.
Nasa wants the space suit “to work outside the International Space Station, [to] explore the lunar surface . . . and [to] prepare for human missions to Mars”. Moreover, it has to be ready in time for the Project Artemis mission that is expected to return astronauts to the Moon in 2025. But in a first for Nasa, the agency will not own the kit. Instead, it will rely on the private sector to supply and maintain the spacesuits.
It is a big gamble, especially when Nasa has agreed to pay up to $3.5bn over the next 12 years in a contract that specifies “indefinite delivery and indefinite quantity”. This is the type of vague disclosure on public private partnerships that was criticised by the agency’s own auditor last autumn. But relying on the commercial sector for critical services is not new to Nasa. SpaceX’s 2006 contract was part of a wider programme to encourage companies to develop low-cost cargo and crew transport services at a time when Nasa’s budget was sorely squeezed. It did not specify detailed requirements for the transport vehicles but merely identified broad capabilities. How they were delivered was up to the bidders.
It was a success and since 2012, the agency has relied on SpaceX and the US aerospace and military group Orbital ATK to resupply the ISS. A study by Saïd Business School’s Atif Ansar and Bent Flyvbjerg found that SpaceX’s iterative approach had proved “10 times cheaper and two times faster than Nasa’s bespoke strategy”.
Now the hope is that Nasa can repeat that success with the spacesuit. Certainly, the agency’s traditional methods have failed. Last August, Nasa auditors found that after 14 years the agency was on track to spend a total of $1bn for just two new suits. And these would in any case be too late for the planned launch date of Project Artemis.
Nasa’s ambition may have been its mistake. It wanted a single suit that could do both spacewalks and lunar surface exploration. But the environmental requirements are vastly different and Collins and Axiom could opt to do different suits for different missions.
Meanwhile, the existing spacesuits, designed for the Space Shuttle programme more than 40 years ago, are in urgent need of replacement. In 2013, astronaut Luca Parmitano nearly drowned while on a spacewalk after up to 1.5 litres of water leaked from the cooling system into his helmet. Last March, astronaut Matthias Maurer reported similar leaks. The agency’s temporary fix, say astronauts, has been to put “diapers”, or absorbent pads, on their heads inside the helmets.
The companies are hoping to do better, and each has good reason to succeed. Project Artemis is already accelerating the development of a lunar economy. Space research company NSR estimates that some 250 commercial moon missions and projects are planned over the next decade, accounting for more than $100bn in potential revenue.
Axiom was already working on a spacesuit for its own planned commercial space station. It will now have not just government money but Nasa’s years of research to help it on its way. “We have a vision eventually for a city in space. What will we need? Spacesuits,” says Mary Lynne Dittmar, head of government operations at Axiom.
Not all of Nasa’s needs can be met by the private sector, of course. “The deepest space destinations, and the hardest missions might not be amenable to this model,” admits Dan Burbank, the former astronaut working on Collins’ prototype. But life-support systems to enable humans to live and work away from this planet will one day be a requirement of a space economy. While this is many years away, delivering such systems cost effectively will be as important as transport in opening up the potential of space.