The NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel met in Huntsville, Alabama 25 April 2019. The panel’s regular meetings address operational safety in NASA activities. While the panel is investigating the recent mishap with the SpaceX Crew Dragon test, most notably the experts took a stand on NASA’s aging spacesuit fleet.
Retired Air Force Lieutenant-General and former astronaut Susan Helms delivered the panel’s blunt assessment: “The view of this panel is that in spite of the heroic effort, the current suit is now outside of its design life, and we are growing increasingly concerned about the risk posture that NASA has adopted with the current suit.”
The practical limits of using a small number of forty year old spacesuits came to a head with the recent soft-abort of a widely-anticipated spacewalk including both Anne McClain and Christina Koch. McClain volunteered to sit the mission out after determining that the assigned large-size spacesuit from the previous spacewalk was too large for effective work.
The present US spacesuits were built starting in 1978 for the Space Shuttle. As a result, many of the original parts were made by companies that no longer exist. Refurbishing the suits as they rotate off of the International Space Station is increasingly complicated and costly. And though the suit does get the job done, it is an intricate piece of machinery that poses logistical challenges even when spacewalks are planned weeks in advance.
The suit’s countless detachable pieces are intended to provide a custom fit to the astronaut, but this also means that extra effort is needed to reassemble if the mission or crew changes. And despite the Hollywood vision of jumping into a spacesuit in an emergency, it’s not possible for an astronaut to put the US suit on alone and in a rush (the Russian Orlan-MKS suit is closer to this ideal).
NASA’s official plans had been to continue use of the suits through 2028 – though this was before efforts to accelerate lunar exploration changed the entire outlook at the agency. The present suits are bulky and heavy, suitable mainly for use in orbit, and would not last long on the dusty surface of the Moon or Mars.