When it comes to spacesuits, NASA only has so many. In fact, NASA just might be running out of them. The high cost that comes with manufacturing them, as well as the difficulty of repairing them when they break, has backed NASA into a corner of relying on the current inventory. On the other hand, that may have been a mistake.
Out of a grand total of 18 spacesuits that were originally made for space exploration in 1981, just 11 of those remain today, despite their supposed 15-year shelf life. The other seven were destroyed or lost in some way; five of them were lost in first stage explosions from rocket and shuttle launches and were never replaced.
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For the 11 spacesuits that remain, there are problems in a couple pertaining to their internal systems and they still need to be repaired. These problems have caused water to leak into the helmets of various astronauts over the years while performing spacewalks.
Unfortunately, the spacesuit’s complexity means repairs are not only costly, but they’re difficult to diagnose and to repair. Additionally, because an astronaut’s life depends on the repair, this isn’t exactly something you want to just slap a ‘bandaid’ on and then hope it works; it needs to be done right.
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Four of the spacesuits are on the International Space Station right now, while the rest are back on Earth either being repaired or preserved. Unfortunately, with at least 17 spacewalk missions planned before 2020, the few remaining spacesuits have quite a few missions to complete, and NASA is worried that they might not last.
Developing new spacesuits is very expensive, unfortunately that’s where NASA really needs to invest their time and money. The current spacesuits aren’t optimal for deep space exploration, as their incredible weight and inflexibility makes them ideal for external International Space Station exploration on spacewalks, but not for other planets where there’s going to be gravity.
NASA’s International Space Station program is expected to last through to 2024, but if that’s going to be the case, then the existing spacesuits really have to last the extent of the mission. If they don’t, then NASA may have to retire the International Space Station sooner than expected due to budget and time restraints that are keeping them from producing new spacesuits.
Another problem is that NASA has at least three different designs for spacesuits: one for lunar travel, one for extravehicular travel, and one for Martian travel. Splitting their funding into three separate departments certainly isn’t helping the situation any, and as Mars becomes the main focus for future missions, NASA might have to nix lunar suit development going forward.
More than $200 million has been invested in the development of new spacesuits over the last decade thus far, but there’s still far more work to be done to make it possible. Until then, NASA will have to ‘limp’ forward on the remaining spacesuits.